Here’s another fascinating lesson from the past, as related by Richard Judd in his book Common Lands, Common People, published by Harvard University Press in 1997. This one is about a debate over inland fishing.
Typical was a dispute over Maine’s Rangeley Lakes. For generations local inhabitants had come down to the shores during the late summer to take fish, which provided an important food supplement during the busy harvest season. When branch railroads reached the lakes in the 1880s, city anglers began crowding these locals at the good fishing spots.
In 1891 the Bangor “Industrial Journal” noted a “warm discussion” taking place regarding the respective virtues of bait-fishing and fly-casting around the lakes. “Some pretty rough titles are given to the (local) bait fishermen,” the editor noted, by those who had recourse only to the fly. Anglers followed an elaborate sporting ritual that emphasized practiced skills; locals tolled the waters with chum and, using a “jib-boom,” as an unsympathetic observer described it, “derricked” the trout to land.
The journalist recorded the following exchange: “Play him! Play him!” screamed the excited sportsmen from the city.
“Play your grandmother!” bellowed back the (local) cook. “I ain’t here to play, I’m here to fish.” And as he spoke he boosted over his head a fifteen pound laker. Any man in the Boston crowd would have given ten dollars to have played him an hour at the end of an eight-ounce rod. ‘Twas too much for their nerves. They came away.’
As commissioners warmed to these “Boston men,” locals grew disaffected with fishing codes. A Bangor newspaper correspondent complained that entire lakes were being “monopolized by the wealthy,” and farm leaders launched a campaign to limit funds for restocking programs.
In 1905 the exclusive Oquossic Angling Association petitioned for a ban on plug fishing – using a lure as opposed to a fly – as a means of saving the Rangeley Lakes from abuse by locals. Locals complained that the ban discriminated against “scores of men, women, and children who enjoy fishing, but had no idea of handling a fly.”
The legislature compromised by lowering the twenty-five-pound day limit on trout and salmon to four fish per day, acknowledging the multiple uses of these inland water resources. Sensitivity to local fishing traditions helped ease tensions over new conservation regulations, while public familiarity with stocking programs encouraged a stronger commitment to preserving fish resources.
Commissioners preached the economic benefits of tourism at Grange meetings and lauded the spiritual rewards of angling before city audiences. Maine’s common waters, they urged, offered something for everyone.