CASCO — Bait dealers didn’t know, small fishing supply shops didn’t know and, more importantly, most fishermen didn’t know that open-water fishing season started Thursday – a week before the traditional opening day.

But none of them should feel bad. State fisheries biologists didn’t know, either.

“I found out yesterday,” Francis Brautigam said Friday.

Brautigam, the state’s head fisheries biologist in southern Maine, said, “For the most part, it was a surprise to most of the department that this would go through. You can’t imagine the calls.”

When emergency legislation was signed by Gov. John Baldacci on Thursday, the state’s waterways were declared open as the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bruce Bryant, D-Dixfield, cheered.

But while Bryant was celebrating in Augusta, few fishermen in southern Maine were out fishing.

Stephen Sparaco, a Maine Guide from Standish, stood at the Songo Locks on Friday morning, reading a news release that had been forwarded to him by a warden.

Sparaco was one of few at a spot on the Songo River that is typically lined with fishermen on the first morning of the open-water season.

Given that, Sparaco half wondered if it was legal as he began casting. He was like a lot of fishermen Friday.

The news release from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife said they should refer to the 2009 fishing law book – which said open-water fishing isn’t legal until April 1.

“That’s the confusing point that we need to wade through when we get calls,” Brautigam said. “I tell folks it is the size and bag limit set in place in 2009. Season dates are not in effect, I guess. That is my take on the new law change.”

midmorning Friday, only three trailers were at the public boat launch at Sebago Lake State Park.

Pete Ivers of Westbrook said he and his brother, Roy, usually come off the lake about 10 a.m. on the first day of the open-water season. On Friday, they were heading out at that time, after getting the news.

“Usually, this parking lot would be half full. Now, it’s like nothing,” Pete Ivers said.

Warden Sgt. Tim Place didn’t see a single fisherman Friday during his patrol through northern Cumberland County. “There is nobody out fishing that we could find,” he said.

Meanwhile, bait dealers around Sebago Lake were either rushing to get ready or simply were not prepared.

“A few customers came in this morning and, unfortunately for them, we were not able to help them,” said Justin Barron, manager of Sebago Bait and Tackle on Route 302 in Casco. “We’ll be ready for this weekend. We were in the process of getting ready for April 1. They sprung it on us last-minute.”

Because nobody was told until Thursday, gates to some fishing spots were not opened by state or town officials, Brautigam said.

“At the Auburn Water District, they had people screaming to open the gates,” he said. “Some points of access that may have been open and available in the past may not have been, because folks were not aware of the legislation until it was signed by the governor. It has created a little bit of a stir.”

The emergency law, according to the news release, is intended to let fishermen whose ice-fishing season was cut short by a mild winter get out on open water earlier.

Bryant said it was done in a hurry, with a lot of other lawmaking going on.

“There wasn’t enough time to say, ‘OK, we’ll give you a week’s notice,’ because the idea developed. And we said, ‘Well, if we’re going to do it, we’ve got to do it now,”‘ Bryant said.

“We talked with the department’s lead biologists and they said there was no biological reason why we could not, although they weren’t sure whether it was worth the effort to confuse people. But people can take advantage of it if they want to.”

Certainly, fishermen are expected to be out en masse this weekend.

At Jordan’s Store beside Sebago Lake, Barbara Cutting is looking forward to fishing business – and the supplies she hopes to get in the general store early next week.

“It’s kind of nutty, because it’s a surprise. You can’t just drop everything like that and go fishing. You have to plan, and we haven’t had enough time yet,” said Cutting, whose family has served fishermen for 50 years.

“We were excited when we heard it was open early,” she said. “It surprised us, but I think it’s a good idea.”

 

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

[email protected]