The fishermen who gather at the Western Maine Fly Fishing Expo in Bethel in two weeks will come together for more than a fishing festival.

This year they will be looking toward a fishing future full of fat rainbow trout, happy drift boats and maybe a repositioning of Bethel on the fishing road map of anglers everywhere.

Once touted as a prized rainbow trout fishery, the Upper Androscoggin River around Bethel has waned in recent years. It’s still a good place to hook the colorful rainbows, and it draws fishermen who travel beside its remote banks in drift boats. But anglers who once caught 18-to-20-inch rainbow trout are now landing fish in the 12-to-14-inch range.

However, a group of locals plan to change that. An advisory group made up partly of fishermen from the Upper Andro Anglers Alliance and the western Maine chapter of Trout Unlimited teamed up with regional state fishery biologist Francis Brautigam to put together a plan to turn the Upper Androscoggin into a destination fishery.

And given the passion and interest among so many locals here, Brautigam said he can see it happen.

“It wouldn’t be nearly worth the time I’ve taken to pull together all the interested parties if I didn’t think we had a strong future. I’m pretty encouraged and excited about the partnership,” Brautigam said.

Scott Stone, the president of the Upper Andro Anglers Alliance, is one advocate. An avid fly fishermen, he’s one of the rare Andro fans who fishes in the winter, among the tiny icebergs that travel along its banks.

There is the potential and room along the mighty river for more fishing traffic, Stone said.

“It was fishing guide Rocky Freda’s idea. When he passed (away) a few years ago, I sort of took up the mantle, this idea to bring people to Bethel in the fishing season, which is the offseason for Bethel. Rocky founded the Upper Andro Alliance to create a unique product that people would come to enjoy,” Stone said.

Since last fall, the group of 10 active members has met a few times, and in the coming months, Brautigam said a plan will be laid to bring the river back. First the group will decide how best to do that, whether with more fish or many more bigger fish. Data first must be collected to see what the habitat will allow for today. Brautigam will guide the group, but he said the members will decide how best to create a fishing destination.

“The river currently provides good fishing for rainbow trout. Historically, there were many more larger fish,” Brautigam said. “But the body of water can only grow and support so much fish flesh. It’s too early to say (what’s possible).”

Local angler Joanne Hicks of Hanover isn’t on the committee, but having caught 20-inch rainbows in the river before, she’s excited about the effort.

“The big fish are definitely not as plentiful as they were, they’re definitely in the 12-to-14-inch category,” Hicks said.

And fly fisherman Brian Reader of Cornish, a member of the advisory group, is confident if the river again produced rainbows 20 inches in size, fishermen from outside Maine would travel there.

But Reader would like the Upper Andro to become like the steelhead trout rivers of upstate New York, where giant rainbows thrive, and Brautigam said that can’t happen.

“What this river system has going for it can’t compare to upstate New York, where there is Lake Ontario, which is basically a landlocked ocean capable of growing very, very large fish,” Brautigam said. “Our system is not set up like that, we don’t have a large lake that is part of the Upper Andro. These systems (here) have limited production potential.”

But with the views of the White Mountains, Stone believes Bethel could offer an impressive rainbow fishery, and maybe become a “Montana of the East.”

“Maybe we will be able to do something special. It was Rocky’s idea, I’m just trying to see it continue,” Stone said.

The Western Maine Fly Fishing Expo will be March 23. Go to www.westernmaineflyfishingexpo.com for more information. 

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

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: Flemingpph