Former President George H.W. Bush first fished in Maine at age 6. And he was quickly hooked.

As someone who served as the nation’s commander in chief, Bush could fish anywhere in the world. Yet after 85 years of fishing off the coast of Kennebunkport, he said these waters are dearer to him than any other.

“Everyone thinks their corner of Maine is special. And they should,” Bush told the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. “For me, I am going to say (what is special) is the people. We love our friends and neighbors here.”

Several U.S. presidents are known to have hunted or fished in Maine. For three of them – Bush, Dwight Eisenhower and Teddy Roosevelt – the state’s rugged coastline and remote forestland left an indelible impression.

There may have been others.

The folks at the Rangeley Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum say Herbert Hoover fished in Maine. And Passamaquoddy historian Donald Soctomah says Calvin Coolidge fished at Sysladobsis Lake in Washington County.

Certainly, a young Franklin D. Roosevelt spent time canoeing off Campobello Island, where he had a summer home. A photo of FDR paddling a birch bark canoe etched with Passamaquoddy art is at the Campobello museum, now an international park between Lubec and New Brunswick. And John F. Kennedy came to Boothbay Harbor and cruised the Maine coast on a U.S. Coast Guard yacht in August 1962, although it’s not known if he went fishing.

What is clear is that for at least three presidents, Maine’s outdoors charmed them.

When Eisenhower came to Rangeley in 1955 for a fly-fishing trip, residents presented him with a fawn for the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. He told them in a Main Street speech just before leaving town:

“I hope the deer likes its new home. But it may be like a lot of other folks that go to Washington, and found they left a lot behind.

“Now I assure you, if I was going away from these woods along these lovely lakes and rivers and had to go live in Washington, I’d think twice, wouldn’t you?”

In George H.W. Bush’s office in Houston hang five photos taken in sequence. In them, he stands on the rocks along his Kennebunkport home as an enormous wave crashes over him, envelops him and knocks him off balance.

But as Bush’s chief of staff Jean Becker proudly points out: “When the wave goes down, he’s still standing.”

“He loves the water and he loves boating,” said Ken Raynor, the golf pro at Cape Arundel Golf Club, who has fished with Bush.

“When you get to be a president you’ve got to be a fierce competitor, and he loves the challenge that fishing provides. But to him it’s about sharing it with people you love to be with. He once wrote to me, ‘Who needs fish when you have good friends?’ That says it all.”

Bush has fished in some famous waters, from Newfoundland to the Florida Keys. But he said he prefers Maine’s cold coastal waters. And his favorite fish?

Maine’s fishing always gets a thumbs-up from George H.W. Bush, shown reeling in a bluefish with help from George W., in the summer of 1991, when the waters off Walker’s Point provided a necessary respite from the turmoil of the era.

Maine’s fishing always gets a thumbs-up from George H.W. Bush, shown reeling in a bluefish with help from George W., in the summer of 1991, when the waters off Walker’s Point provided a necessary respite from the turmoil of the era.

“The striped bass, hands down,” he said. “At age 91, I have no idea (what my biggest fish was). I could make up a story, which we fishermen tend to do. But I won’t do that to you. I’ve caught some big ones, though.”

He has taken fishing trips with Raynor to Canada and beyond. But Raynor said Bush’s attachment to the waters off Kennebunkport is legendary. And Bush’s gratitude to the man who taught him how to fly fish is well known.

“Even during his presidency, I received a trout fishing calendar from him one time,” said Raynor, 63. “We were right in the middle of the Gulf War and I get a calendar with a note, ‘Thought you’d enjoy this.’ Why is he sending me that with what’s going on at his desk? But his heart is in the outdoors and the joys he’s had with a fly rod in his hand.”

Bush also has fished off the Kennebunkport coast with men such as Gen. Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who Bush said was “pretty good.” He also has fished many times with his son, President George W. Bush, Becker said.

But to George H.W. Bush’s friends in Kennebunkport, he’s just another fisherman.

“What most don’t understand is that not everything is politics,” said Tom Bradbury, the director of the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust.

“Being a friend and neighbor is a great place to start. We too often forget what we have in common as opposed to what sets us apart.”

In another photo at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Texas, Bush is sitting alone on his boat, Fidelity. Taken during the second year of his presidency in August 1990, he is intently reading a document while holding a fishing rod in his left hand. The photo speaks volumes of the place Bush calls “my anchor to windward.”

“It’s home,” Bush said. “It’s where all our kids and grandkids come home. It’s where even when I was president, I could find peace. The sea air restores my soul.”

In June 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower came to the Rangeley region to fly fish. He stayed for three days and caught a landlocked salmon with the help of Maine guide Don Cameron.

Eisenhower stayed at the Parmachenee Club on Lake Parmachenee from June 25-27. He and Cameron fished for two days on the Magalloway River. Eisenhower, an accomplished fly fisherman, landed his first landlocked salmon.

He was accompanied by a press corps of 30 reporters watching and snapping photographs that ran in sporting magazines at the time. Today a bronze plaque marks the quiet fishing spot where Ike fished.

Six decades later, the Rangeley Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum features a portrait of Cameron painted by Eisenhower, the fishing knife he later sent Cameron as a thank you, and letters exchanged between the two men.

People in the area still talk of the fondness Eisenhower had for their remote mountain region.

“Here was the leader of the free world and a simple Maine guide,” said Bill Pierce, the museum director. “And as a Maine guide myself, I know that when you take a person out and they relax and start to catch fish, they often talk of things they wouldn’t normally talk about with someone they just met. Eisenhower wrote Cameron eight letters. And here is a guy who is a little busy.”

Locals recall when Eisenhower spoke to them on his way out of town.

Anne Ladd said her mother’s sporting camp emptied for the chance to see the president.

“My mother ran True’s Camps and changed the dinner hours so the 35 guests and the workers could go into town to see him,” Ladd said. “We had guests from New York and New Jersey. And mother said to the crew, ‘Just leave everything and go.'”

Candace Cottrell was the local girl chosen to present Eisenhower with the fawn that was the town’s gift for the National Zoo. But after Eisenhower stepped out of his car to greet Cottrell, the 11-year-old froze.

To this day, many who were there never knew.

“I said my speech over and over in my head for two hours before he arrived,” said Cottrell, now 72. “By the time I saw his little bald head, everything went out of my head. I was paralyzed.

“He was the kindest man in the world. He just looked at me and whispered in my ear exactly what I was supposed to say. He knew every word. I don’t know how he knew. That’s all I remember. It was wonderful.”

Then Eisenhower thanked Cottrell, and in an instant he was gone.

A video showing President Dwight Eisenhower holding a fish he caught in the Rangeley area with guide Don Cameron plays as part of an exhibit dedicated to Ike’s 1950s trip to the area at the Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum in Oquossoc.

A video showing President Dwight Eisenhower holding a fish he caught in the Rangeley area with guide Don Cameron plays as part of an exhibit dedicated to Ike’s 1950s trip to the area at the Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum in Oquossoc.

“He probably wasn’t on the ground 10 minutes,” said Gary Priest, 78, who watched the ceremony in 1955.

In 1878, 19-year-old Theodore Roosevelt came to the woods south of Houlton to hunt with two Maine guides. The experience meant so much to him that Roosevelt hired the men years later to run his North Dakota cattle ranch. And the spit of land in the West Branch of the Mattawamkeag River that Roosevelt paddled to alone while hunting here was later placed on the State Register of Historic Places and named “Bible Point.”

While the exact nature of what Roosevelt did during his solitary visits to this point of land is unknown, what is clear is that during this hunting trip he forged a lifelong friendship with Maine guides William Sewall and Wilmot Dow.

The man who became the 26th president of the United States wrote to and about Sewall and Dow for the rest of his life. In 1918, the year before his death, Roosevelt wrote: “Wilmot was from every standpoint one of the best men I ever knew. … Never were there more welcome guests at the White House.”

Roosevelt first came to the hunting grounds near Island Falls in 1878, traveling with three friends by train to Mattawamkeag Station and another 36 miles by buckboard, according to the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. There they were led to their camping site beside Mattawamkeag Lake by guides Sewall and Dow. And the two Maine guides made a lasting impression.

“They were tough, hardy, resolute fellows, quick as cats, strong as bears, and able to travel like bull moose,” wrote Roosevelt, according to the National Park Service.

The trip came seven months after the death of Roosevelt’s father. According to the National Park Service, the loss devastated Roosevelt, and after his trip to Maine he entered his junior year at Harvard University and promptly switched majors from natural history to history and government, “to honor his father’s memory by pursuing a career in public service.”

The change in his life’s direction came after time spent alone on the West Branch of the Mattawamkeag River.

This spit of land is difficult to find even today. In fact, the Bureau of Parks and Lands doesn’t encourage people to go there.

The logging roads that lead to the river lack signs, and the ATV trail the last few miles can be muddy.

“It’s not that we discourage looking for it, but we don’t encourage it. It’s hard to find,” said Mike Leighton, the Bureau’s regional land manager.

Whether Roosevelt actually read the Bible at Bible Point, as Sewall is reported to have told his family, is unclear, Leighton said. And whether Roosevelt’s time hunting in Maine influenced his policies as president is unknown.

But during his presidency from 1901-09, Roosevelt did establish 230 million acres of preserved public lands and what are today’s National Wildlife Refuges.

Fittingly, the 27 acres in northern Maine named in Roosevelt’s honor today remains virtually untamed.

“Bible Point is a beautiful site and is worth the time and effort to see it. But unless you know where you’re going, it’s hard to find,” Leighton said. “Every once in a while someone calls inquiring about it. So far nobody has ever called back, so they must have found it.”

Correction: This story was updated on Monday, March 14 to correct a caption in the photograph of George H. W. Bush. 

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