Salmon fisherman troll around Smith Point on Lake Winnipesaukee at sunset.
(Daryl Carlson photo for the Laconia Daily Sun)
Mike Normandin grew up in Laconia, near the Winnipesaukee River, where he learned to fish a little more than 60 years ago.
"We spent a lot of time out there, fishing for anything that swims. We did a lot of fishing as kids," he said.
Decades later, like countless other grandparents, Normandin taught his grandchildren how to hold a pole, wait for a bite, and reel in their catch. Normandin recently served as president of the Belknap County Sportsmen's Association, which promotes the sport of fishing through events such as its Kids' Spring Fishing Derby, which will be held this year on June 5 at Gunstock Recreation Area.
The collective efforts of parents and grandparents, like Normandin, have resulted in steadily increasing interest in fishing, as measured by fishing license sales.
"Generally, the license sales go up each year," said Susan Perry, licensing supervisor for the state's Fish and Game Department.
Her statistics tell the story. In 2005, there were 92,118 resident and 44,672 non-resident fishing licenses sold. Resident licenses increased to 100,941 in 2010, and 111,871 in 2014. Non-resident licenses followed a similar curve, rising to 45,502 in 2010, and 48,661 in 2014.
There would have been reason to suspect that 2016 would be the year that the trend would break. The fee for fishing licenses increased this year, from $35 to $45 for residents, while non-residents will pay $63 for a year of fishing in New Hampshire's freshwater. That fee increase had the misfortune to debut in the same year that an unseasonably mild winter made for the worst ice fishing season in recent memory.
Through March, Perry said, sales were down this year, compared to the first three months of 2015. But after a few warm and sunny weekends in April, this year is on pace to continue the long-term trend. Through April, there have been 48,266 resident licenses and 10,277 non-resident licenses sold this year, each of those figures are substantially higher than the same period in 2015.
Fish and Game offers three ways to buy a license: purchasing online through www.wildlife.state.nh.us, visiting that site to print and mail in a form, or by visiting a local license agent. The Fish and Game website has a list of agents, listed alphabetically by town.
It's no accident that interest in recreational fishing is strong in New Hampshire – the state has been cultivating the sport for more than a century. Scott Decker, the fisheries program manager for Fish and Game, said the state's fish stocking program dates back to 1874, when a hatchery was constructed at Livermore Falls in Holderness to attempt to restore Atlantic salmon to waterways disrupted by dams. The first trout hatchery was built in the late 1880s.
It might come as a surprise to many modern anglers to learn that most of the sport fish found today in New Hampshire's lakes and ponds are not native, and wouldn't exist here if not for stocking program. The largemouth and smallmouth bass were brought in from stock found in the Great Lakes and upper Mississippi River system, said Decker, while the rainbow trout were shipped from the scenic McCloud River in northern California.
Of the fish prized by fishermen, only brook trout and lake trout are native to New Hampshire, said Decker.
"If there was no stocking, the only [fish] you'd have would be pickerel, perch and pouts," said Decker, adding, "Probably some sunfish around, lake trout and brook trout, American eels, lake whitefish and round whitefish."
In the stocking program's early decades, Decker said enthusiasm for sport fishing greatly exceeded the scientific foresight for how the activity might affect the ecosystem. Competition from introduced species resulted in the extinction of the Sunapee trout, a species found in the lake by the same name, and the native whitefish population, while still existent, would likely be more robust.
"People just didn't have the knowledge that that was a bad thing," Decker said. "People didn't know about preserving genetics, they just wanted more fish to fish."
While there were once 11 fish hatcheries around the state, Fish and Game now operates six. The hatcheries raise about 400,000 pounds of fish each year, which are distributed to waterbodies throughout the state. Even remote ponds are stocked using aircraft. Decker said the brook trout is by far the most prevalently stocked fish.
"They're the most easily raised and easily caught, and they're the state fish," he said.
For 25 year-old Ethan Cote, one of Normandin's grandsons, fishing has turned into a favorite pastime.
"I grew up doing it, I enjoy being outside and on the water, I find it a more relaxing way to spend my time than inside watching TV," he said. Cote said the growing popularity of fishing is likely due to its ease of entry – a person can buy a cheap fishing rod, a few worms and license in the morning and have a good chance of catching a fish by the end of the day. Cote turned many of his college friends into fishermen, too, who liked the idea of going out for a boat ride. Along the way, they experience the calm of floating on a natural pond, underlaid by the constant possibility of a big fish striking the bait.
"It's a pretty enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, on a boat with a couple of buddies, casting a couple of lines," said Cote.