Fisheries activist Gary Corson proves one person can make a difference

Bradford Camps Gary CorsonFor his dedicated work on behalf of Maine’s wild brook trout and the anglers who pursue them, Gary Corson of New Sharon is recognized as one of Maine’s leading conservationists and fishing activists.

If you think one person cannot make a difference, Gary proves you wrong. Even if you don’t fish, his story has a lesson for you.

A now-retired Maine guide who specialized in fly fishing for brookies in the fabled waters of northern Maine, Gary can rightly be called the father of fall fishing in Maine. He started advocating to establish fall fishing opportunities in 1990. At that time, the open water fishing season ended on September 30, everywhere.

Resistance to fall fishing was strong, particularly in the fisheries division of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. One of the department’s regional biologists said Maine would have fall fishing in his region “over my dead body.”

With Gary’s leadership we got it, and the biologist is still alive.

With dogged determination and an excellent marshalling of the facts supporting his cause, Gary picked up support, most importantly in 1994 from the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, where I was working as executive director. And in 1995, thanks to DIF&W’s new commissioner Bucky Owen, the department jumped on board.

From collecting signatures to testifying at the legislature, Gary led SAM’s successful effort that opened all of Maine’s stocked lakes and ponds and some of its moving water to fishing in October and November. He was focused and effective. Perhaps most importantly, he was always better prepared than his opponents to argue his case.

It was 1996 when Gary won his first victory with the opening of some lakes in southern Maine to fishing in October and November. Since then, many more waters have been opened in those two months, through fits and starts. In 2010 all of southern and central Maine’s waters were opened for open water fishing year-round.

Gary is quick to share the credit for this achievement with SAM’s Fisheries Initiative Committee, DIF&W Commissioners, guides, outfitters, and legislators. But probably the biggest change of heart came within DIF&W’s Fisheries Division.

To their credit, fisheries biologists – including the one who made the “My dead body” comment – came to embrace expanding fishing opportunities in the fall and, later, year-round. They even offered their own initiatives, and John Boland, when he served as the Fisheries Division Director, really pushed to advance these opportunities.

At the same time he was working to expand fall fishing, Gary was a leader in the effort to recognize and protect our native and wild brook trout. While many others also contributed to this successful effort, Gary stands out for the time and energy he put into it, all as a volunteer.

In 2005 the Maine legislature enacted SAM’s bill, sponsored by then-Senator now-Commissioner Chandler Woodcock, that recognized our native brook trout as the state’s Heritage Fish and protected those fish in 284 waters where their populations remain unchanged by stocked or illegally introduced species. Gary was front and center on that bill, undoubtedly SAM’s greatest conservation achievement. Last year, DIF&W added a couple hundred more waters to that protected list.

Gary is a true citizen lobbyist, who proves that one person can make a difference. When he was not guiding anglers, Gary voluntarily devoted a significant portion of his time to these causes, attending nearly every hearing and work session of the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, serving on various working groups at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and leading a number of SAM’s fisheries initiatives and projects.

A long list of fisheries projects and initiatives have drawn Gary’s attention, from a many-years effort to convince DIF&W to adopt a comprehensive policy for wild salmonids, to a De he’s still at it. Not long ago he sent me a lengthy memo with background information on stocking programs, something we’re very concerned about, particularly in waters that would allow the stocked fish to get into the protected brook trout waters. Perhaps you read my column last year about what DIF&W eventual conceded was a “mistake” in stocking hatchery brook trout where they could – and did – get into the Rapid River, perhaps our best wild brook trout fishery.

While SAM has pulled back on fisheries issues, Gary continues his advocacy. I remember clearly the time that Gary spoke courageously on SAM’s behalf before an angry group of bait dealers and ice anglers who were opposed to SAM’s legislation to protect another list of wild brook trout waters that haven’t been stocked in more than 25 years. He more than held his own and won many converts to his cause.

Gary Corson has waded into the deepest waters to fight for Maine’s native fish and anglers, and he often wins the argument and the day. I am very proud to be his friend, and appreciate all his has done for us.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.