Fish farming & fishing in Fort Fairfield

The fish are biting. A 20-acre pond in Fort Fairfield is 'home' to nearly 100,000 fish, both rainbow and brook trout, and you don't need a license to catch them. In fact, you may not even know you 'caught' them when you bring them home, fresh, form your local County supermarket!

Bryant Pond Fisheries is also known throughout Northern Maine for pond stocking in addition to commercial, wholesale and regular fishing action. And this December, when the numbers hit 100,000 on the nose for the hatchery, it will have proved for the second time around that fish farming in Aroostook County is a viable occupation.

Five generations of farmers had tilled the land here, and up until 1978 potatoes were the leading harvest.

"A guy I knew from college had a fish hatchery and he had come up to visit," recalls Rommy Haines Jr. Their conversation grew to the 'why not' stage, for what seemed a suitable use for the private lake that had been enlarged back in 1964.

So, Rommy bought fish stock, grew a test cage of 500 fish in '78 with his first license and eventually leased out his 80 acres of tillable farm land while he grew the fishery. He was the lead pond stocking fish farmer in all of New England when an oil spill, stemming from the Searsport Pipeline to Loring, wiped out his growing business in 1987.

Rommy by that time had grown his commercial markets into Boston and had just started on a bit of fee fishing. The cleanup lasted for years; he made national TV, but the publicity did nothing to help him get back in business. There was no way to replace the fish overnight. But, he knew that fish farming was where his heart was, and set about getting his business going again. In 1991 the hatchery facilities were constructed to expand the commercial market, and soon after fee fishing for County residents and tourists became part of the business.

While the pond stocking is now fairly competitive, thanks to the many aquaculture programs colleges offer, Rommy is working at marketing the commercial end and growing the personable fishing experience.

An eagle wheels overhead, likely inspecting dinner from the pond, and Rommy points to another asset of his land: a wildlife preserve of sorts where a fishing license isn't necessary.

"There's lots of eagles in the area now," he comments. "Just go over to the river along Main Street in Fort there's a resource (river recreation) just waiting to be developed."

Recreational fishing by rod and reel has been bringing in visitors while co-owner Martha St. Pierre has been working at marketing the trout in filets as well as whole fish.

Martha explains the hatchery process, which includes raising the trout from eggs, and then raising them in wire holding tanks in the pond. She also keeps an eye on the number of fish caught, to keep the pond full of attraction for fishermen.

This past summer, the pair hosted the Fort Fairfield Fish & Game Club for a fund raiser. The proceeds will send kids to conservation camp. Rommy's father, with a strong background in directorships of agricultural districts, ran the first conservation camp for kids dozens of years ago. Rommy sees the fish farming, which comes under the jurisdiction of the department of agriculture, as an opportunity to manage the land to its best use.

"The land here was a 1,000-acre grant from the Governor of Massachusetts, provided folks moved up and built a sawmill," noted Rommy, whose family was of Quaker origin. There was a gristmill established at Bryant Pond, a sawmill (pieces of it are still out back) and a carding mill on the brook.

"The whole community was built around the pond. My uncle was in dairy farming. He worked in Houlton and commuted by train every day, working for the County commissioners.

"This was not a place out in the woods...the main road was across the dam from Easton. You can still dig up old machinery on the grounds around here," he adds.

Eventually, Fort Fairfield's center moved to the river, and Rommy recalls some areas of development to the area that he finds as less as than conservation-minded.

Now, in fish farming, he says the couple 'sells who they are.'

"The 80 acres rented to a local farmer helps him be larger without having to buy the land...a forester is hired to manage the woodlot (he knows when to cut and is more efficient than we could be), and we're managing the lake," he says.

Fish. They're no good unless you can sell them, he reflects. So along with rebuilding the stock, marketing is the prime force for survival.

Martha has been concentrating on small business networking. In contact with other area businesses both in the County and northern Maine, she checks out ideas on ways to create and tap into new markets. Smoked trout fillets are in the works; the fresh fish are in local supermarkets, too.

Rommy, over decades in potato farming, watched the price of potatoes drop to where it got harder and harder to market profitably. Now, he looks at balance in his business in not having more fish than he can market. It's time, too, for him to grow the fee fishing.

"We don't have catch and release here," he chuckles. "A fisherman can catch to his heart's content."

Caught fish are paid for by the pound, and are properly tagged so that they're legal to transport by the individual fisherman. No regulations are in place for Rainbows because they aren't native, only the brook trout.

And, the season is year-round at Bryant Pond. Ice fishing starts in December. About 15,000 fish are maintained in the pond at all times.

The pond is perfect for those coming from out of state, as no license is needed. To date, the fishermen come from one-third central Aroostook, one-third out of County (but many who used to live in area) and another one-third in tourism from out-of-state.

"We recommend a lot of lodging, and send them to local businesses to get what they need," he says.

Locally, Keddy's has reserved the pond for a whole day as a company picnic; the Lions club and Scouts have also had groups here. The one-third membership fishing club could be started up again. The pond is also a short distance from the snowmobile trail, so that an ice-fishing stop for visitors could make a unique vacation.

"We seem to be a real secret in the County," he comments. Now it's up to the marketing efforts of Rommy and Martha to make the hatchery work in the new economic climate.

Things that need to happen are such as a processing plant, part of the essential infrastructure that would help an overall market.

"There's been lots of effort to promote coastal aquaculture, but none inland," Rommy continues. "While the fishing grounds are being depleted, we can grow our own fish and saltwater varieties as well in tanks."

Because the waters in Aroostook are too cold for Rainbow trout to spawn, there's no problem in them 'getting out' and reproducing and changing the balance in the County streams. That's why the fish are not naturally in the local waters. They grow fairly large in the hatchery and even now, in the fall, one to on-and-a-half pounders are the norm.

"There was a hatchery in Caribou back in the '40s and a 20-pound Rainbow was caught," he says. "We've had as large as 12 pounds caught here, but they get pretty smart at that size and are probably good at avoiding anyone but the best fisherman."

By buying the eggs, the co-owners can have the fish just when they need them. Bought in June and August, the eggs hatch in 10 days. They strip their own eggs only in March and April. As fingerlings, they're moved to the pond pens and fed fish food bought from P. L. Willey Agway in Caribou.

"Feed's down by one-third since the first time around, and we no longer have to pay freight to truck it in. Willey's supplies a lot of farmers and those with ponds as well," Rommy says.

While the cost of raising the fish has evened out and even decreased in some areas, the marketing cost is higher. Martha is disappointed that much of the trout coming into Maine is frozen and comes from Idaho. (Mmmm...don't they give our potatoes trouble, too?) Restaurants and supermarkets often feature this 'imported' trout - why not, she asks, can't we market our own in Maine?

Both are in touch with other small fish farmers in northern Maine to increase options in growing markets. They acknowledge that getting loans to grow the business has a strange drawback - bankers come to see the assets and they can only point to the water and name the quantity.

But the fishermen who find their way here won't be disappointed. There's space for 30 or so to locate their own private spot on the pond, and to fish and catch until they wish to fish no more. It's got to be heaven for an angler, and it's just one more way that Aroostook County stays a leader in agriculture.

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