Master Maine Guide Don Kleiner celebrates the striper caught with Cameron Pinchbeck in July 2018 in the waters off the Midcoast. Photo courtesy of Maine Outdoors guide service

April marks the traditional start of the open-water fishing season in Maine. Gov. Janet Mills even waived the state’s fishing license requirement through the rest of the month to encourage Mainers to recreate outside, now more than ever, during the coronavirus outbreak.

But for the ambassadors of Maine’s fishing waters – Registered Maine Guides – there may not be any spring season, or even a summer season, because of the pandemic and the downturn in the economy. Some think the fall guiding season also may drop out, just as the economy and stock market have.

“Having been through a few of these, I know it’s slow to come back,” said Master Maine Guide Don Kleiner, a licensed guide since 1983. “It’s two years to where people are spending money and three to four before it’s viable. It is not a flip of the switch.”

There are nearly 5,000 Registered Maine Guides in Maine, and about half of them serve fishing guides, said Kleiner, director of the Maine Professional Guides Association. He estimates about a fifth of all Maine guides rely on guiding as a significant part of their annual income.

Master Maine Guide Don Kleiner helps Elsie Pinchbeck of Hope get a lure on her rod during a guided fishing trip with the Pinchbeck family in August 2016. Photo courtesy of Maine Outdoors guide service

There has not been a study on the economic impact of fishing and hunting guides (or on saltwater fishing) in Maine in at least 30 years. However, according to a 2013 study of freshwater fishing commissioned by the state – the sport at that time supported 3,330 jobs, provided more than $104 million in income, and had a total economic output of $319 million.

“Even though the number of guides is small, it’s amplified because the populations in the places they live are small, places like (Grand Lake) Matagamon and Grand Lake Stream,” Kleiner said. “Their jobs matter more in these places, because they can’t all get a job in the grocery store there.”

Right now Kleiner expects half of his trips this year – about 130 trips guiding 300 to 400 clients – will be canceled. Most of those are fishing trips on his 20-foot boat in the Midcoast, where he guides for saltwater fish like striped bass, as well as freshwater fish, such as brook trout and smallmouth bass. Another 50 trips are guided bird-hunting adventures up north in the fall with expert hunters who return every year. Most of the fishing trips, however, are with people who seldom fish and only want a special Maine memory on the water.

“It’s funny, last fall, I was sitting somewhere with guides and we agreed the last year we had where we were in demand like last year was in 2008,” Kleiner said. “I remember that fall (before the recession). Then it took until 2019 to get it back. Everyone was planning on a big year this year.”

Maine Guide Dan Legere has led trips on the East Outlet of the Kennebec River – like the one with this veteran from Project Healing Waters – for 45 years. Photo courtesy of Dan Legere

Dan Legere from Greenville is the granddaddy of fishing guides on the famous East Outlet of the Kennebec River, where the landlocked salmon grow fat. He’s guided fishing trips in Maine for 45 years – and in Florida during the winter for the past 10 years in the legendary tarpon waters off the coast of Naples. Every year starting in mid-May, Legere is out straight guiding fishermen in Maine – and booking trips for three other guides in the Moosehead region.

But not this year. Legere said fishing trips will slow after clients lose retirement funds, savings and paychecks. And yet, he worries more about his neighbors around rural Maine.

“This will bankrupt a lot of people. I’m talking everyone – the mom-and-pop stores; people in Maine living paycheck to paycheck,” Legere said. “How many months can they go?”

Registered Maine Guide Dan Hillier considers himself lucky that he only guides part-time. He also works as an Auburn firefighter and EMT, although he needs both jobs to support his wife and two small children. Hiller guides for an exclusive lodge on Sebago Lake – as many as 70 trips annually that make up almost half of his income.

Hillier is proud to be part of the Maine’s guiding community – assisting wealthy fishermen from New York City who return year after year, and have become his friends. Hillier hopes Maine’s guiding tradition will withstand another economic downturn.

“We are an integral part of the state when it comes to tourism,” Hillier said. “Maine was the first state to have a licensed guide. The trips are very personable. A lot of people come here to fish for that experience.

“This (pandemic) is hard to wrap your mind around. There are so many unknowns. My guess is we will still be in limbo through May. Nobody really knows.”

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