River on the Rebound
T-shirt weather in early spring is always rare and precious in Maine, but there's no better way to enjoy it than floating down a beautiful river. The trees are bare, but the sunshine warms everything it touches, including the clear waters of the Androscoggin River.
That's right. The Androscoggin. The river once famous for its dirty, smelly, polluted water now looks, smells, and fishes like an L.L. Bean commercial — and has become a media darling to boot.
For the past decade, the upper Androscoggin has been the secret fishing hole of a small but growing number of anglers.Now the secret is out, judging by the number of folks who turned out last April to watch trout being stocked. That's a non-event on hundreds of waters across Maine each spring and fall, but on the Androscoggin, a float-stocking excursion developed into the Maine equivalent of a media frenzy. Reporters and photo-graphers for all three local television stations, plus newspapers, magazines, cable shows, and outdoors bloggers showed up for the event, along with scores of local anglers, guides, and river enthusiasts.
Rocky Freda, a Bethel fishing guide, looked around at all the enthusiastic people and couldn't help grinning. "Thank you, Ed Muskie, George Mitchell, and the Clean Water Act," Freda said. "Thirty years ago, no one wanted to even stick a toe in this water."
The Androscoggin was once one of the most polluted rivers in North America. Locals swore the river's fumes could peel paint and that floatplanes had to dodge "sofa-sized" chunks of sludge to land. Buildings unfortunate enough to stand on its banks literally turned their backs on the water, hoping if they ignored the river they could also ignore the stench. Even today the lower Androscoggin, below the paper mills in Rumford, does not meet Clean Water Act standards and is the focus of an aggressive clean-up campaign [Down East, September 2005].
But these days there's a how-can-this-be-true quality to the formerly foul river's upper reaches. Those who knew the Androscoggin in the bad old days find it hard to believe that fishing guides now take paying clients out on the 13.6 miles of cold water between Bethel and the New Hampshire border, or that Bethel hosts an annual Family Fishing Festival the first weekend in June centered on its waters. Outdoor writers across the country have discovered the upper river's trout fishery, while the stretch from Rumford to Brunswick boasts some of the best smallmouth bass fishing in Maine.
Even more amazing to some, new regu-lations have just gone into effect to prevent overfishing and to allow trout to grow larger. The section from the New Hampshire border to the first bridge downstream in Gilead is now a catch-and-release area, where only artificial lures are allowed.
And the number one sign that the apocalypse is upon us — Maine anglers are complaining that the Androscoggin is getting too crowded.
"If you're an angler who likes to fish streams or rivers, it's comparable in scenic beauty and angling success to the places I've fished out west," says John Boland, head of fisheries at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IF&W). "I can float down through there with somebody else in a canoe, and we'll catch fifteen, twenty, or even twenty-five trout in a day."
Neither brown trout nor rainbows are native to Maine, but they're not new to the Androscoggin. New Hampshire has stocked rainbows for decades, and the species has moved down into Maine. The upper Andro also boasts one of the few wild rainbow populations in the state, probably the result of stocking decades ago. Those trout managed to hang on even during the polluted years by taking refuge in cleaner tributaries.
Last spring IF&W stocked the upper Androscoggin with 1,700 rainbow trout and an equal number of brown trout and added 750 more browns and 750 brook trout in the fall. Stocking increased this spring by two hundred more rainbows and another two hundred browns, and the rainbows will be larger — fourteen to sixteen inches, compared to ten to twelve inches in previous years.
While the Androscoggin has come a long way, it still "has room to grow, too, not just the fishery but the water quality," Boland says. It's not safe to eat too many fish from the Androscoggin — or any inland waters in Maine, for that matter. Because of mercury pregnant women and children eight or younger shouldn't eat them at all and others should eat only six to twelve fish meals per year from the Androscoggin. On the New Hampshire side of the border, where pollution was even more severe, the state advises no consumption at all of Androscoggin fish.
Still, Boland sees "huge potential" in the river. "The Berlin [New Hampshire] mill is shut down now, and that certainly won't hurt," he says. "And there are a lot of folks who just have a real sincere interest in enhancing the water quality and the fishery."
Ten years ago, a boater could float from the New Hampshire border to Bethel without seeing another soul. Then anglers, kayakers, and canoeists started to discover the river and tell their friends. Bethel Chamber of Commerce publicist Wende Gray remembers the day the promotional effort got rolling, at a lunch for community leaders and fishing enthusiasts hosted by Bill Pierce, IF&W's marketing expert. "Bill did his song and dance — a PowerPoint show — and said, 'You don't know what a resource you have here,' " Gray recalled. So she got a list of members of the Outdoor Writers Association of America from a friend and sent out a press release that proved irresistible to influential people and publications, including ESPN's Jimmy Houston, Gray's Sporting Journal, and the Boston Globe. The revived upper Androscoggin was a fishing spot that could be called "secret," "invisible," and "undiscovered."
After last spring's floating press conference, though, those words are hard to use with a straight face. In fact, when Bill Green of WCSH-TV in Portland and his videographer, Steve Sherburne, arrived a little late, Rocky Freda had to kick his eight-year-old grandson, Justin, out of his drift boat to make room for them. A very disappointed Justin ended up hiking the riverbank with Terry Karkos, the Lewiston Sun Journal outdoor writer.
On the river, however, it was a media madhouse with a relaxing twist. Sunny day, free bag lunch, cheerful company, gorgeous scenery, and glimpses of wildlife, including the possibility of an eagle sighting. (Thirteen pairs of eagles nest in the Androscoggin watershed.)
Float stocking of fish is labor intensive and a little controversial. IF&W stocks about 750 waters each year with roughly 1.2 million trout, salmon, splake, and togue. Otherwise, fisheries biologists say, there simply wouldn't be enough fish to satisfy Maine's 250,000 anglers. Many waters, especially in southern Maine, don't have the habitat to support natural reproduction of finicky cold-water species such as trout. Remote waters are stocked by plane or even by backpack, but about 85 percent of the fish arrive via hatchery truck. The trucks roll from April to late June, stopping when it's too hot to move fish, and then go again from September into November.
On the Kennebec and Androscoggin in recent years, anglers' groups have pushed hard for float stocking. That means that instead of going directly from the truck to river, trout are loaded into silk nets suspended from inner tubes. The tubes are pulled downriver by boats, so the trout can be released in different spots rather than all being dumped in one place.
If there's a benefit to float stocking — and some argue there isn't — it's to spread the trout out, so they're not so vulnerable to predators. Some insist trout spread themselves out and that float stocking is just a public relations tool. But a good PR tool is nothing to be scorned in the effort to bring the Androscoggin back to its former glory. While no one can say for sure that float stocking benefits the fish, it doesn't hurt, Boland says. He believes it's helpful on the Androscoggin and Kennebec, where truck access often is limited.
"It does a great job dispersing the fish up and down the river," Boland says. "And float stocking is something the anglers and local folks can get their hands around and take part in." In fact, it was the Mollyockett Chapter of Trout Unlimited that first proposed float stocking on the upper Andro.
As long as the trout hold out, float stocking also makes a great — but surreal — photo op. "These are the most photographed fish on the planet," IF&W's Pierce jokes. "But it goes a long way to improving the image of the region as a destination fishery and that's what we need to do."
For anyone with a memory that stretches back more than a decade, it's still amazing to hear the Androscoggin referred to as a "destination fishery" or "economic engine." People are talking about the Androscoggin with a level of enthusiasm that's been missing for at least two hundred years.
"Now they say, 'Wow, the fishing is great!' 'Wow, I can't believe I've had this in my backyard and haven't known it!' " Boland says. "When you talk to the folks who have grown up there, they can't believe the difference."
For the Androscoggin, the image is finally catching up with the reality.