We Mainers are passionate about all things outdoors and never was there a more stunning example of how hungry that community is for re-establishing a sense of connection than a visit last weekend to the Augusta Civic Center.
People of all ages descended on the venue for the 40th State of Maine Sportsman’s Show sponsored by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and “The Maine Sportsman” magazine.
Perhaps not since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 have there been so many people crammed into such a small space. And what an experience it was.
“There was a line across the road when we arrived and the ATM ran out of money,” Will Lund, editor of “The Maine Sportsman,” said late Saturday morning. “This has exceeded all of our expectations,” he said of the turnout.
In all, more than 7,600 people turned out during the course of the three-day event, which shone the spotlight on all things outdoors and recreation. Lund said the attendance was the largest in recent history, a 5 percent increase over the most recent show in 2019 and 20 percent higher than 2018, when a snowstorm likely kept numbers down.
More than 100 vendors and exhibitors were set up in tightly packed rows around the main hall and outdoors aficionados swarmed the floor to check out the extensive offerings.
Lure companies, guides and outfitters, boat and recreational vehicle dealers, conservation organizations, food vendors and craft creators were among the participants at the event.
“It’s the busiest I’ve seen it in my 11 years at SAM,” said the organization’s executive director, David Trahan. “People are happy. Lots of kids are here.”
The mass gathering didn’t seem to bother folks, most of whom had not spent time in a large crowd, in tight quarters, for a long time.
“Everybody’s been forced to separate from each other and you can’t be human like that, so it’s great,” Trahan said.
Vendors and exhibitors finally had the opportunity to reconnect face to face with the public.
Bob Mallard, the executive director of the Native Fish Coalition, said the show is a key opportunity for the nonprofit organization to share its message.
“We see this as a hugely important platform,” Mallard said of the chance to talk with Mainers about the value of promoting, protecting and restoring wild, native fish in the state as part of a healthy environment.
“When you’re in a general sporting show, you’re with people who don’t necessarily understand what’s wild and native, don’t have an issue with stocking,” he said. “You’re probably reaching people that you’ll never reach any other way.”
Mallard said being there generates new members and donations and also facilitates the sale of decals and bumper stickers, hats, gear — along with his fly fishing books.
“We rely very much on shows and to not have shows for two years, it cost us thousands,” said Mallard, who also is an outdoors contributor for the Bangor Daily News.
Across the main hall, numerous show-goers stopped at the Maine Women Hunters booth.
The organization, which began as a Facebook group started by Christi Holmes of Gray, focuses on creating and promoting hunting and outdoors activities for women.
“This is our first show. Women walk by and say ‘oh, I didn’t know this existed,’” said Holmes, who writes a monthly outdoors column for the BDN.
Visitors wanted to talk about the group and sign up for a raffle, while youngsters were attracted to the colorful and creative hats, shirts and bumper stickers available for sale.
Holmes and other Maine Women Hunters members participated in panel discussions about hunting and outdoors topics geared toward women.
“I had to struggle through teaching myself and finding mentors,” she said of her motivation to start the Facebook group.
T.J. Hebert is a Registered Maine Guide who owns T&J’s Maineiac Outfitter in Clinton. He has been in business for six years.
The State of Maine Sportsman’s Show provided him with a golden opportunity to see some old friends and connect with potential clients.
“It was great for me,” Hebert said. “The turnout was so high and I think everybody enjoyed some success from that show.”
The appearance yielded several 2022 fishing bookings for him and generated many more potential leads. His wife Sarah also sold most of her handmade decorative items for the home.
Based on the success of the State of Maine Sportsman’s Show, it seems Mainers are ready for another fun year in the outdoors.