AUBURN — Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert didn’t exactly look like a natural easing into the Androscoggin River. He was sitting stiffly in a tiny craft called a kick boat, and he was wary.
“What about those whirlpools?” he wanted to know. “Are those things dangerous? They look dangerous to me.”
He was assured that the river was safe. He was handed a fly-fishing rod and a pair of fins. He went flapping into the river and within 5 minutes, he was transformed. The mayor was relaxed, oblivious to the crowd and the cameras on shore, and his eyes were fixed on his line.
He didn’t even seem to notice that he was drifting down river.
“Whoa!” he cried after another 5 minutes. “A bite!”
Welcome to downtown fishing on the Androscoggin River. They launched behind Gritty’s Brew Pub in Auburn, an area N. Macauley Lord says is among the best anywhere.
“This is a spectacular place to fish, one of the best in the state,” Lord said. “And nobody knows about it.”
He means it. The man who literally wrote the book on fly-fishing — Lord authored the L.L. Bean Fly Casting Guide — said the river between Lewiston and Auburn might be the hottest and most under-used fishing spot in the state.
“If I could bring a first-time fisherman anywhere,” Lord said, “I’d bring them right here. Aside from the fact that it’s beautiful, it’s absolutely loaded with fish.”
As if the fish themselves wanted to affirm Lord’s thought, one of them — 13 inches long — bit on his line the very first time he cast.
Lord was the guide for the afternoon, invited by Jonathan LaBonte, executive director of the Androscoggin Land Trust. Together, LaBonte and Lord ushered the mayors of both cities, as well as a handful of city councilors and others, into the water.
Like all good fishing trips, it began with a joke, this one about a one-armed fisherman told by Lewiston City Councilor Stephen Morgan. And with that tradition out of the way, the group paddled or kicked their way into the water, moving at a languid pace between Longley Bridge and the trestle farther downstream.
Competition among the fishermen began almost at once. Gilbert hooked two fish but failed to get them completely out of the water. Meanwhile, Morgan had found himself a spot in a shady grove.
“Who wants a photo op?” he hollered after 10 minutes in the water. A smallmouth bass dangled from his line.
“That,” said Mayor Gilbert, “must be the one I let go earlier.”
Catching fish is fun and all, but according to LaBonte, the excursion was about much more than that. Lewiston-Auburn should be considered a major fishing destination, but it’s not. LaBonte wants to convince fishermen at large about the joy of the Androscoggin, but first he wanted local city leaders to understand the river’s potential.
“They need to see if firsthand,” LaBonte said. “If we have to get these guys out there one at a time, we’ll do it.
“People think they have to be out in the middle of the woods to find good fishing,” he said. “But you can experience amazing sport fishing right here in the city.”
Need proof? As the group floated downstream, the sound of motorcycles could be heard roaring over Longley Bridge. Occasional sirens wailed. People stared down from the foot bridge at Bonney Park.
But overall, the setting was serene. On the river between the downtowns of Lewiston and Auburn, it felt like a remote fishing village, albeit one flanked by looming mills and channels connecting the river to the Lewiston canals.
Lord lives near the Androscoggin River in Brunswick. But he’ll make the half-hour trip to Lewiston every time, for the fish and for the ambiance.
“I think it’s prettier here,” Lord said. “It has more character. It has prettier rocks, prettier trees and a more interesting shoreline. You’ve got this amazing millwork. It’s fascinating up in there.”
Auburn Mayor Dick Gleason didn’t have time to fish, but he splashed around in a kick boat to get a feel for the area.
Mayor Gilbert didn’t have much time, either, but it got hold of him. He was out on the river for 90 minutes, hooking and losing fish, before he had to bail out.
Gilbert hadn’t fished in 40 years, he said. He had no idea he would get hooked so quickly.
“Everybody who fishes needs to get down here,” he said, peeling off his waders and climbing a bank. “They’ll keep coming back, I guarantee it. This was awesome.”
Morgan, in a kick boat, floated beneath the foot trestle and toward Lown Peace Bridge, chatting with Lord as he went. He stayed out on the water, casting his line over and over, while most others had wandered back to shore.
LaBonte kept his eye on them. The excursion was mostly about demonstrating the lure of the river, he said. But it was also about scouting. When word about the river catches on — and LaBonte is certain that it will — he wants to know the best spots for hauling in bass or even northern pike.
The Androscoggin Land Trust has future fishing events planned, including a kids’ and family day in August. Lord, the author and expert fisherman, has volunteered for that outing, as well.
There were others on the river Thursday. A pair of men and a group of children were casting lines from the Lewiston side. But fishing isn’t as common as it could be.
Part of the reason more people don’t fish here, LaBonte said, is a matter of perception. The Androscoggin River used to be a polluted, stinky mess. It’s been clean for decades, but some people can’t shake that memory of the area.
It will happen, LaBonte said. Just one trip down to the river should be enough to convince anybody that it’s a great spot for recreation. And the charm of fishing in the city will become apparent at once: Long day boating or hauling in fish? There are restaurants within walking distance on either side of the river.
Thirsty after an afternoon in the sun? You could pull your boat to shore and be at a table with a cold glass of beer within a minute.
It’s all there, LaBonte said. It’s just a matter of spreading the word.
“It’s a pretty amazing river,” he said. “And it’s open for business now. We don’t have to wait.”
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