Rapid digital conservation

Maine's Rapid River traditionally holds huge brook trout, not smallmouth bass. 

Brook trout usually are measured in inches, but those of Maine's Rapid River are measured in pounds. The river runs a short-but-steep descent over 3.2 miles of rugged, remote terrain, and provides an angling experience unlike any other. Fishermen from across the state, region and country are drawn to the Rapid en masse in search of its fabled "squaretails," as the big brookies are known, and most return home gratified.

Recent years have seen those anglers landing steady numbers of fish, yet there's often a catch they didn't expect — many times the fish in their hands are bass. Smallmouths were illegally stocked into Umbagog Lake, into which the Rapid runs, about 20 years ago, and their numbers and size have grown steadily with each passing year.

Historically, bass and trout have not played well together, as each species' young compete voraciously for habitat. Finding the predators to be few and the forage plentiful, smallmouths monopolized Umbagog Lake, and, in turn, began to do the same on the Rapid.

When smallmouths began filling Pond-in-the-River, a natural lake that divides the Rapid's two stretches, the sportsmen's community realized that conditions had reached a crisis point. Conversations about what could be done to correct the situation changed from casual riverside banter to impassioned public debate, and ideas began to be traded in a new forum, a website called www.flyfishinginmaine (FFIM).

In just under a decade, the site has grown from a small college project to one that attracts some three million visits a year. A shift in the type of information posted to the site has accompanied the site's growth; while hot spots and flies once dominated its online forums and chat rooms, far more discussion is now devoted to fisheries conservation issues. Recent events surrounding the Rapid are emblematic of this shift.

A frequent FFIM contributor, Jeff Levesque, who is a member of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine (SAM), suggested an organized bass harvest on the Rapid. The rationale: Taking as many bass as possible from the river would ease the pressure on the trout population and provide a means to elevate public awareness on the issue.

Levesque pushed and succeeded to make a bass harvest the focus of the FFIM Spring Conclave, an event originally designed to provide great fishing and camaraderie for the outdoors community that now focuses on a higher goal: supporting conservation. The 2003 conclave had hosted about 100 anglers and generated about $1,500 for the Saco River Salmon Club and the inaugural Maine Youth Camp sponsored by Trout Unlimited (TU).

A coalition of local sporting and conservation groups that included TU, SAM and the Rangeley Region Guides & Sportsmen's Association unified behind the idea, and introduced it to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW), which had joined the search for answers on how best to protect the river. The department offered its sanction and supervision for a special bass harvest on the Rapid, and made provisions for captured specimens to go toward scientific study.

Plans quickly coalesced for the event to be held in June, and the conclave was organized almost entirely through the FFIM site, which handled everything from outreach to registration. Organizers set the lofty goal of raising $5,000 to support brook trout protection, and mapped out a strategy for auctions, raffles and other programs to be held in conjunction with a fishing derby.

The event proved to be an unqualified success. In a 6-hour tournament, approximately 40 anglers caught and kept 85 bass (the top fly was a size 10 black wooly bugger). An expert fly caster offered lessons; custom bamboo rod builders spent a day practicing their craft and then donated their product to that evening's raffle; and one lucky guide even won a new canoe. The event also allowed the community to offer thanks in the form of plaques and Leatherman tools to MDIFW biologists for their hard and often-unnoticed work.

The final take: $7,000 for the cause of trout conservation in the Rapid River.

During the event, many folks who had first "met" on FFIM commented on the remarkable ability of the Internet to unify people who support a common cause. Those who raised the money and awareness for brook trout conservation in the Rapid never would have united without their virtual community. The site has the right volume and niche to be a warm, close-knit community, yet large enough to amass a public will of formidable size. And its outreach capabilities are unbeatable, with thousands of weekly users.

Some folks think of the Internet as anti-social, a way to get things done without any human contact. Some even fear that as we move deeper into the 21st century, people could literally live entire lives without leaving home, ordering food, books and clothes online.

Websites like FFIM allow for some diversion to that fear, and enable a virtual community to make valuable contributions to the natural world.

Dan Tarkinson is the founder and editor of www.flyfishinginmaine.com.
Jeff Reardon is the New England Conservation Director for Trout Unlimited.

Material fromTrout Unlimited.

Visit their web site at www.tu.org