Down East 2013 ©
Once a prime destination for the nation’s sportsmen who flocked here for huge whitetail deer and wild native brook trout, Maine has lost its reputation as a sportsman’s paradise.
We still have world-class black bear hunting, a quality (but limited) moose hunt, and great coastal duck hunting, along with most of the nation’s remaining wild native brook trout, but that’s apparently not enough to turn around a declining outdoor industry or attract the notice of one of the nation’s top sporting publications.
Outdoor Life magazine published its third annual ranking of the best towns in America for hunters and fishermen in June. The results for Maine were discouraging.
Three Maine towns made the list of the top 200, but not because they’re at the top of the list for traveling sportsmen.
Outdoor Life’s rankings are based on socio-economic and outdoor-related factors. Socio-economic categories include population growth since 2000, median household income and home value, cost of living, population density, commute time, and amenities.
Outdoor-related factors include the gun-friendliness of each town’s home state, huntable and fishable species nearby, proximity to public land and waters, and the potential for taking a trophy-caliber animal or fish nearby.
A quick read of Outdoor Life’s rankings is all you need to understand Maine’s decline.
While we pride ourselves on our outdoor heritage and lifestyle, today’s sportsmen go elsewhere for the best hunting and fishing, including yours truly. Maine has lost tens of thousands of nonresident hunters and anglers in the last two decades.
Most of those sportsmen have not stopped hunting and fishing. They’ve stopped hunting and fishing in Maine. And now we’re suffering a steep decline in nonresident deer hunters after losing our deer herd in the fabled north woods.
Outdoor Life’s rankings confirm that the nation’s best deer hunting is no longer in Maine, once a top destination for deer hunters. The top twenty “Whitetail Wondertowns” list includes nowhere closer to Maine than Easton, Maryland.
And it’s all about habitat and access. The “wondertowns” have great wildlife habitat and lots of public land, both state and federal.
Consider this description for Phillips, Wisconsin:
“Located in the heart of Wisconsin’s Northwoods, Phillips offers whitetail hunters easy access to the 90,000 acre Flambeau River State Forest and the 857,000-acre Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forests… Those piney clusters and stands of hardwoods, which lured tree men and provided the area with an economic boost more than a hundred years ago, today draw hunters to some of the finest whitetail hunting anywhere in the upper Midwest.”
The top twenty-one “Big-Game Heavens” are all mid-western and western states. And there is little doubt why.
“The forests (of Vernal, Utah) are home to a veritable zoo of big-game species, including bighorn sheep, moose, elk, antelope, mule deer, bears, mountain goats and mountain lions.”
Maine can’t match that line-up.
The most distressing thing about the rankings is the failure to recognize our state’s most unique resources: native brook trout and landlocked salmon.
My heart sank as I perused the “Top Trout Towns” list, offering the “best opportunities for trout, salmon and steelhead.” Of the top twenty, Oswego, New York is the closest to Maine. There’s no mention of Maine, home to 97 percent of the nation’s wild native brook trout.
And it is true the huge trout once caught here and whose mounts still grace the walls of many fish and game clubs are few and far between today. You can still catch a lot of wild trout, but even a single trout of trophy size is the catch of a Maine lifetime.
Well, we did slip one town onto the “Bass Capitals” list, but not the town you’d expect. In fact, this pick only emphasizes what we’ve lost.
Once in the heart of the nation’s best brook trout angling, Presque Isle is apparently now known primarily for bass fishing, a mixed blessing.
You might have reason to hope that Maine would make the “For the Birds” list, with our good coastal duck and upland bird hunting. Nope.
But I was pleased to see I’m pheasant hunting in the right place: North Dakota. My fall trip with Jim Robbins of Searsmont to Bismark, one of two North Dakota towns on the best bird hunting list, is a highlight of my hunting year.
Well, where does Maine excel?
Perhaps you’ll guess we might be one of the best places to retire and “live like a king?” Sorry. We may have the oldest population in the country but apparently our retirees could do better elsewhere.
Camden and Cumberland made the “Best towns for kids” list for great schools, determined by performance on standardized tests. Camden also made the coastal fishing list, a bit of a mystery, while Presque Isle made the “Remote Possibilities” list of towns with few people, adding to its placement on the best bassing list.
Maybe the town will launch a new marketing campaign: Presque Isle, few people, lots of bass.
Having been to 33 of the top 200 towns in these rankings, I can’t find fault with most of the magazine’s lists.
What are the lessons for Maine?
Even though we have great bear and moose hunting, the loss of our deer herd in the top half of the state and the lack of other big game species will keep us off these lists in the future. That’s very bad news for our outdoor industry.
Some of our failure to be noticed is the result of inadequate – some would say pathetic – marketing. The legislature cut the heart out of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s marketing budget and we lack any kind of coordinated statewide marketing program.
I get more information about hunting and fishing from South Dakota than I get from Maine. And don’t even start me on the fantastic amount of information we receive from Quebec, Labrador, and New Brunswick.
And here’s a lesson from one of Outdoor Life’s 10 best towns overall — Saratoga, Wyoming:
“The motto for this charming little town… in south-central Wyoming’s lush Platte River Valley is ‘Where the Trout Leap in Main Street.’ Indeed, the North Platte River runs right through town…”
That’s something many Maine cities and towns should note. Auburn and Lewiston, Augusta and Waterville, Bangor, and more.
Maine’s rivers could be ribbons of economic opportunity, with better fisheries and marketing. It’s there for the taking.
For now, sportsmen will be taking their hunting and fishing opportunities – and the money they spend on those trips - elsewhere.