For 20 years Lisa Garside wanted to learn to fish. When Garside started working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, she had more free time without the commute from her home in Readfield in central Maine to Portland. So she began pursuing new outdoor activities, including fishing.

Lisa Garside of Readfield holds up her first catch ever – a 17-inch landlocked salmon she caught last June on a pond near Farmington where she learned to fish. Anthony Feldpausch photo

She hired a Registered Maine Guide, and on her first trip out on a windy day last June she landed a 17-inch landlocked salmon. Now Garside has outfitted her kayak with a rod holder, and plans to fish all summer.

“I was elated. I made a proper Maine meal that evening – grilled it with garlic and fiddleheads. I sent a photo to (the guide),” Garside said. “Working from home motivated me to be curious about what more I can do.”

Anthony Feldpausch, who guided Garside, said last year more Maine residents than usual contacted him out of the blue for guided trips – and some were new to fishing. He was one of many. Across the state fishing guides reported that the pandemic turned 2020 into an unexpected boon, given that they had feared a sharp loss of income. As it turns out, more novice anglers got out on Maine’s waters. 

With April bringing the traditional start of the open-water season, fishing guides across Maine are gearing up for what they expect to be another banner year.

“The season is looking good, if everything stays on track,” said Don Kleiner, executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association. “The thing that is totally positive to me is that we brought some new folks into the sport because they could go safely outside. The trick for us, as an industry, is to keep that going.”

While the state does not have final numbers for 2020 fishing license sales – and won’t until May or June, according to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife – other New England states reported a spike in fishing license sales last year.

Vermont saw resident fishing license sales jump 20 percent, New Hampshire had a 25 percent spike in sales, and Massachusetts was up 27 percent – an unprecedented jump, said Marion Larson, the chief information officer at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Registered Maine Guide Anthony Feldpausch of Rome with his son, Eli, in 2020 – when Eli, then 4, got hooked on fishing after 25 trips with his dad during the pandemic. Courtesy of Anthony Feldpausch

“We had a noticeable bump this past year, which we believe is due to COVID. Other fish and wildlife agencies across the U.S. report the same thing,” Larson noted.

Maine fishing guides lead trips on freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers and off the coast for saltwater species, such as striped bass and sharks. Experienced and novice anglers book trips that typically include all the fishing gear and bait needed for one to four people. Some guides even provide a Maine fishing license for each client, which is required by the state.

Trips are popular among vacationers because guides know where to find the fish and provide expert instruction on landing them. The cost of guided fishing trips in Maine varies widely, but generally runs about $300 to $400 for a half day and $500 to $700 for a full day, although charter trips in the ocean can run a bit more.

Registered Maine Guide Dan Hillier said the dozen or so fishing guides who guide on Sebago Lake were slammed last summer. He had his best season ever, giving away 25 trips he didn’t have time to guide.

Down East in the Grand Lake Stream region, Bob Gagner, a guide of 25 years, saw a spike in fishing traffic during COVID, as well.

Lisa Garside with her new fishing kayak at her home in Readfield on Saturday. Garside, who began fishing last June, said after she caught her first fish, a 17-inch-landlocked salmon, she was hooked. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

And in the Moosehead region, Wayne Plummer guided more resident fishermen than nonresidents for the first time in 21 years. Some were new to the sport.

“When the state shut everything down, I had to cancel 23 days because all the nonresidents were not allowed to stay with us. In the end, I only lost a few days, because the rest filled up with resident fishermen,” said Plummer, owner of Northern Pride Lodge and Campground.  

Registered Maine Guide Bob Tiner in Poland said one boat launch in the area last year was packed with “more vehicles parked on both sides of the road than I’ve seen in 35 years.” Tiner believes within those crowds were many new to fishing, looking for food during a hard economic time.

“As long as the pandemic affects the normal working people, I expect the freshwater anglers to continue to increase,” Tiner said.

Lure maker and fish taxidermist Christian Carlson of Thorndike believes a surge among Maine’s fishing ranks occurred when Gov. Janet Mills lifted the requirement to purchase a fishing license briefly in the spring of 2020. 

“I definitely saw a lot of – call them newbies. And I wholesale to 32 different bait shops in Maine and New Hampshire, and everyone had the same report,” said Carlson, owner of Northeast Troller.

Kleiner, a saltwater and freshwater fishing guide, said the crowds in the Camden region were obvious. Four of the boat ramps along the coast that he typically has to himself were full every time he drove by them last year.

“And there were a lot of Maine plates,” Kleiner noted.

As for whether many of those fishermen were novices, Kleiner said he and four other guides suspect some were – based on the number of dings they all had on their trucks at one particular boat-trailer parking lot.

“That’s not very scientific, but it’s an interesting observation. It was very busy,” he said.

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