CASCO – The traditional Opening Day of the open-water fishing season Wednesday was unlike any Maine fishermen had seen at Sebago Lake – with empty boat launches and widespread confusion about the new “stay at home” order issued by Gov. Janet Mills to combat the spread of coronavirus.

Because spring came early this year with a relatively mild March, the word around Sebago was that the togue and salmon were biting. But even good fishing didn’t draw the crowds that are a typical of April 1 each spring.

“Usually on this morning there are boats being hauled up and down Route 302. There were none,” said David Bruce, a Sebago fisherman of 40 years.

Most of the dozen fishermen unloading boats at Sebago Lake State Park knew of Mills’ executive order taking effect Thursday, ordering residents to stay home unless absolutely necessary. What several of them did not understand, however, is that fishing will continue to be allowed as an essential recreational activity. Nearly two weeks ago, Mills waived the fishing license fee for anglers through April as a way to encourage more Mainers to get outside – albeit at a healthy distance from one another.

Avid fisherman Erik Christiansen of Wells said of the coronvirus pandemic: “Being on my boat on Sebago is a lot safer than getting a gallon of milk at Shaw’s.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I wasn’t sure if the stay-at-home order meant fishing – if this is legal. I’m not sure this is essential – but I feel it is justified,” said Brunswick fisherman Dan Robey. “And I wasn’t sure if (Sebago Lake State Park) would be open today. I know all the state parks on the (southern) coast are closed. I tried to find some clarification but couldn’t. I thought this might be my last chance here today.”

When fishing laws changed in 2010, it allowed year-round fishing in southern and central Maine, and ended the legal start to the open-water season beginning April 1 statewide. Still, to many fishermen, April 1 remains the symbolic start of the season.

Yet on Wednesday, the Standish boat launch on Sebago’s south shore and the Raymond boat launch on the west shore were empty of trailers. Although the state park and boat ramp in Casco are open, the popular Songo Locks were closed until April 8 to anglers who normally line the river bank. A sign read: “All public access is prohibited. Closure could be extended depending on the spread of the potentially deadly virus.”

Meanwhile, fishermen who launched from the state park said that for those lucky enough to have a boat, Sebago was a haven.

“Usually Opening Day is not worth it – it’s too cold. But I’ve been shut indoors,” said Erik Christiansen of Wells. “Being on my boat on Sebago is a lot safer than getting a gallon of milk at Shaw’s.”

A Massachusetts man who came to fish Sebago with his son and friend knew nothing about the Opening Day tradition – or the governor’s executive order. Mike Connors had been laid off from work in construction in Boston because of the pandemic – so he came to Maine to escape it. And figured he might as well fish.

Casco fishermen Bob Symonds, left, and Russell Day said fishing from a boat is safer during the coronavirus pandemic than walking or hiking or going to work. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

As they got ready to launch a 20-foot boat, Casco fishermen Bob Symonds and Russell Day agreed fishing from a boat – because boats do not touch – would make fishing safer than hiking or walking, or even going to work.

“My daughter works at Wells Fargo, and her chances of getting the virus in the office are worse than my chances of getting it out here on the lake,” Day said.

Day then drew quiet, and the longtime fisherman added that everyone should heed the restrictions to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

“Nobody wants to die,” said Day, 78.

As he waited about 50 feet behind the Casco fishermen to load his boat, Robey said if Wednesday was the last day he could fish legally, he wanted to get on the water. But he also came alone – so he would be in compliance.

“I usually don’t fish alone,” Robey said. “But I am today because I couldn’t keep a minimum distance of 6 feet on my boat. I want to do my part.”

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