A look back - and ahead - on fishing issues and challenges

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They follow state hatchery trucks, eager to catch those fat brook trout stocked this month all over the state. They crowd roadsides, casting from bridges. They troll the shores of lakes and ponds, hoping to catch a landlocked salmon.

Some seek a feed of tasty perch; others dream of a huge northern pike. Many focus on bass, Maine’s most popular fish. Twice as many bass are caught every year than brook trout.

An angler army is out this week on the brooks, streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes. But the troops are depleted and we’re losing our recreational fishing economy.

Maine falls far short of its potential when it comes to inland and coastal recreational fishing. We lack investment, management, infrastructure including water access, and marketing.

Between 1995 and 2003, we lost 30,000 nonresident anglers, a 28 percent loss, representing an economic hit of $20 million or more. Sales of fishing licenses to nonresidents peaked in 1989 at 108,698. But this problem is not limited to nonresidents. Mainers have given up fishing here as well. Sales of fishing licenses to residents peaked in 1991 at 203,245.

Total fishing license sales peaked in 1990 at 310,278. Last year we were down more than 50,000 licenses since that peak year.

Ironically, to address our current budget problems, the Governor proposed that the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife eliminate its only marketing position, stop attending out-of-state sportsmen’s shows, postpone publications of important fishing brochures and other information, and, unbelievably, stop providing fishing rule books. The legislature’s Fish and Wildlife and Appropriations Committees have reversed most of those decisions.

Recreational fishing currently contributes significantly to our economy. The 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation reported that $257,124,000 was spent in Maine by anglers. Nonresidents spent $124,812,000. This includes both fresh and saltwater angling.

But we could be doing so much better. The federal survey reported 10,000 more nonresidents fished freshwater in New Hampshire than Maine in 2006! And 25,000 more nonresidents fished in Montana than Maine.

With more investment, better management, and strong marketing, recreational fishing can deliver a lot more to our economy. This matters to many Mainers, from the two guys at Kennebec Lures who make fishing lures in their Sanford garage, to the locally owned fly shop, to the retired warden who ties and sells flies in the north country, to the guides and sporting camps all over the state.

Let’s examine one part of this equation: stocked fish.

In 2008, DIF&W stocked 1.3 million fish totaling 360,000 pounds. In 1996, Colorado’s Division of Wildlife stocked more than 65 million warm water fish and 14.6 million cold-water fish, including 4.8 million catchable-sized rainbow trout. Guess where people go to fish these days?

A Hatchery Commission was established in 1999 to assess and evaluate Maine’s recreational fish production facilities and set production goals at state-owned facilities.

The Hatchery Commission recommended fish production goals of 1,958,063 fish weighing 865,077 pounds by 2012. In 2008 we fell 658,000 fish and 505,000 pounds short of our goal. And 2012 is fast approaching.

Then there is the problem of access.

Maine is blessed with a lot of public water, about a million acres in nearly 2,000 lakes and ponds, 32,000 miles of rivers, brooks and streams, and over 3,000 miles of coastline. While the state ranks only 39th among states in land area, it ranks 9th in total water area, not counting small water bodies. It places 4th in miles of tidal shoreline, 4th in lake acreage, and 11th in river miles.

The value of this resource goes well beyond these statistics: few states have water resources of the quality found in Maine. I’ve often said that Maine’s rivers are the arteries in our economic body.

Yet our legal access to this abundance of water is very limited. There are hundreds of lakes and ponds without any legal public access, and the places where we do have access are not always well known.

And Mainers have no legal access to moving water. We have walk-in access rights to Great Ponds, and that’s it. We have no legal access to brooks, streams, and rivers. Adjacent landowners own the land under our rivers, brooks, and streams and can prevent us from even standing in those waters.

The Maine legislature has addressed some of these problems and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Maine Audubon, Trout Unlimited and other groups are working to improve fishing in our state. You can help. Go fish.

Photo: former state legislator Mike Shaw with landlocked salmon.

This column was written years ago and is included in a book of my favorite hunting and fishing stories to be published soon by North Country Press. But very little has changed since I wrote this. The issues are certainly the same. DIF&W did get rid of its marketing position and I have made two unsuccessful efforts at the legislature to restore it. And once again they’re hoping to eliminate the printed fishing rules book.

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