June 23, 2018
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Businesses faltering as fish vacate the Kennebec

By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

BATH, Maine — If Chris Grill needs a reminder of why his bait and tackle shop has failed, he need only look out the shop’s back door at the Kennebec River.

“Look at it,” he said on Tuesday, surveying the water from his back deck. “It’s been muddy like that since Hurricane Irene. No one has caught any fish since then. There are no boats out there.”

The temporarily brown water of the Kennebec is only the latest in a litany of reasons why Grill’s shop, the Kennebec Angler, will close its doors in the coming weeks after 13 years in business on the Bath waterfront. A depleting stock of fish in the river, high fuel prices, inexpensive fishing rods that offer lifetime warranties, a sour economy and too many customers going to Walmart, L.L. Bean, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Cabela’s have all turned what was once a thriving business into a financial sinkhole.

“Financially, we peaked about six or seven years ago,” said Grill, a Bath native and 1975 Morse High School graduate. “We were almost starting to make some money.”

For years, Kennebec Angler has been a place not only to stock the tackle box, but a social headquarters for like-minded sportsmen trading tips about what the fish were biting on and where. It was also a place where fishermen came after they couldn’t find what they wanted anywhere else.

“I could always get it for them, no problem,” said Grill. “I feel like I gave it an honest try.”

But the locals provided only so much of the revenue. The rest came from away — fishermen looking for a piece of the Kennebec’s sometimes-legendary striped bass fishing.

“I usually do a better business with the tourists than I do with the locals,” Grill said.

At the height of his business, Grill had four full-time employees through the summer months. Now he’s essentially down to running the shop himself.

“I used to have $2,000 to $3,000 days,” he said. “Now I haven’t had a $1,000 day in quite a while.”

Part of the problem is simply a lack of striped bass in the river more years than not. In the late 1990s, according to Grill and some of his customers, they were easy to catch. Now they’re spotty most years if they show up at all, which Grill said most people in the know attribute to polluted waters along the stripers’ migration routes.

Eric Wallace of Freeport, who runs charter boats along the East Coast, said he has seen a severe decline in the number of stripers caught in Maine. In addition to the pollution problem, Wallace said he suspects some sportsmen have simply harvested too many of the coveted species.

“I think a lot of recreational anglers need to look in the mirror,” he said. “Along with commercial harvesters, they have brought the stock to all-time lows in most areas. There’s not a striper guide or tackle shop owner around here who’s safe.”

Jack Witham, board chairman for the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust, said a range of studies have shown that fish stocks in the Kennebec River — particularly stripers — are shrinking despite tremendous strides made in the past 50 years in cleaning up the water. The removal of dams and extensive efforts to stop the flow of toxins to the waterway have transformed the river from something most people didn’t want to be near in the 1960s to quite the opposite today.

“We’ve cleaned up the waters, but we haven’t brought back the fish populations,” he said. “To think there’s not enough fishing going on to support a single bait and tackle shop is pretty sad.”

Scott Smith of Georgetown said his interest in fishing intensified a few years ago. Not only was Kennebec Angler his usual supply shop, it was where he has learned a lot.

“This place has been a great resource for a lot of people,” he said. “It’s been a great source of local knowledge, and coming here is usually a social event.”

Grill, who represents the fourth generation in his family to run a business in Bath, said he doesn’t know what’s next for him other than some ice fishing this winter and more attempts at catching some striped bass next year. Only instead of the Kennebec, he’ll cast his line off the coast of New York, where the stripers turn up almost every year.

“In the Hudson River, the striper stock is in great shape,” he said.

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