If the Kennebec River was an artery in a body called Maine, the state would have died a long time ago. This blockage is overdue for a stent, but I’m afraid no one is noticing the chest pains. We turned our backs on the river long ago.
Perhaps Saturday’s Kennebec River Conference at the Hathaway Creative Center on the banks of the river in Waterville will be the first step to opening up this major artery and letting the blood flow again through our economy and life.
The conference brings together “a wide variety of people to learn, listen, share, collaborate and participate,” said Landis Hudson, executive director of Maine Rivers. You can register online at www.mainerivers.org, or by calling 847-9277.
I have fished on some amazing rivers in Canada, Alaska and Montana. The Kennebec is just as amazing — except it doesn’t have the fishery. A recent conversation in a New York fly fishing shop, relayed to me by a friend, is very telling.
“While in New York fishing with a guide recently, a gentleman at a fly shop took note of my hat and referred to the Kennebec as one of the most â€˜overrated’ rivers he had ever fished. While stunned and disappointed, I was not surprised — it is exactly that.
“As it turned out, the guy was a regular guide customer of the shop and a well-traveled, well-heeled, fly fisher,” my friend continued. “That he said this to me — a stranger — makes you wonder how many other people he has said it to, and by default, how much money this has cost the state, DIFW and businesses that count on the river.”
Saturday’s river conference focuses on sea-run fish. You perhaps remember when the river in Augusta was lined with anglers catching striped bass. I used to spend my lunch hour there, almost under the railroad bridge, hauling in stripers. It was so exciting!
After the Edwards Dam was removed, we could catch stripers all the way to Waterville. I have anchored my canoe just downriver from the Hathaway Center and caught huge stripers.
Both the stripers and the anglers are gone — along with the money we spent in Augusta and Waterville during our fishing expeditions. Guides gave up their Kennebec River trips when the stripers disappeared.
I still fish the river between Waterville and Augusta. Usually I see no other anglers there. And I’m catching smallmouth bass, an introduced nonnative species, rather than my beloved brook trout — another species that has largely disappeared in the river.
There’s a lot of blame to divvy up for the demise of the river’s fishery. Hatchery mistakes and problems. Inattention to obvious concerns. Habitat problems. A lack of support for strong regulations and research programs. Little understanding of or appreciation for the economic benefits of a great fishery.
As this paper’s reporter Rachel Ohm wrote a couple months ago, “Biologists are not sure what has caused a decline in the growth of brown trout near the Shawmut Dam, but local anglers, guides and others say it is hurting the local economy.
“When the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife recently launched a two-year study looking at the reasons for the Kennebec River’s decline, it was the first time in almost 15 years that the fishery has been studied. In the meantime, an area that was once a nationally known brown trout fishery has declined sharply.”
What Olms didn’t report is that the browns largely disappeared 10 years ago in this stretch of the river.
I have fished on many of Maine’s best rivers, a personal favorite being the Kennebago River in the Rangeley region. Because it is one of the few rivers with an excellent population of large brook trout and landlocked salmon, this river is crowded with anglers. I see more of them in a day on the relatively short Kennebago than I do in a year on the lengthy Kennebec. That is astonishing.
Bob Mallard, owner of Kennebec River Outfitters, in his article in Fly Fisherman magazine’s March 17 edition, put it this way: “The middle Kennebec was once a working river. It is now unemployed. It is time to put the river back to work again. Only this time, let’s do it with fishing and recreation, rather than log driving and power generation.”
One of my favorite hymns is “Down by the river to pray.” The lyrics, written by Alison Kraus, include this final line, “Good Lord, show me the way.”
That is certainly my prayer for our mighty Kennebec River.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.