For these magnet fishers, the payoff is greater than the hunt for treasure

·8 min read

Jul. 24—WESTBROOK — Dylan Moulton peered over the metal fencing on the old railroad bridge over the Presumpscot River, then stepped back and took aim. He tossed a round magnet tied to a 110-foot rope, watching as it arced up before landing with a kerplunk in the murky water.

On his second time out with a group of magnet fishing enthusiasts, the 10-year-old from Scarborough hooked two rusty bicycles and hoisted them onto the bridge with a little help from other fishers. His excitement over his first catch — a yellow bike covered in rust and muck — was contagious.

"I like helping clean up stuff," he said as he reeled in his rope and tossed his magnet back in the water. "And it's also fun."

Over the past couple of years, volunteers with Citizen Magnet Fishing and other die-hard magnet fishers have pulled well over 20,000 pounds of metal from the Presumpscot River, which flows through Westbrook and under the Black Bridge where they fish. Their haul includes dozens of bikes and shopping carts, a safe, railroad spikes and countless unidentifiable pieces of metal.

Colt Busch, the unofficial group leader, started magnet fishing four years ago after his friend showed him YouTube videos of magnet fishing all over the country. He was immediately hooked and started making YouTube videos of his own. In a video from last spring, he documented the group pulling a safec and a lawnmower from the river.

Magnet fishing is fun, Busch said, and also gives him the opportunity to get outside, clean up the environment and connect with children to inspire them to do the same.

"We are the ones that made this water dirty and we're the only ones that can clean it," said Busch, who lives in Lewiston and also fishes in rivers closer to home.

CLEANING UP THE RIVER

Busch, 41, uses social media to share when the group will be out on the Presumpscot, and people always show up. Sometimes it's just a few quietly tossing their magnets into the water. Other times, 20 people will crowd onto the bridge while a diver in the water helps guide them to debris. Busch and other regulars come with extra magnets to teach passersby, usually kids from the neighborhood, how to fish.

Earlier this year, the nonprofit Friends of the Presumpscot River presented Busch and fellow magnet fishers Debbie Geer, Russell Galloway, Cameron Fox, Timmy Morgan, Roy Albert and Chris Magoon with the Chief Polin Award, given annually to people who advocate for the river in various ways. John Chandler, a kayaker from Portland, also received the award for picking up trash as he paddles the river.

Michael Shaughnessy, president of the Friends board and a Westbrook city councilor, said the magnet fishers bring attention to the river and the abuses it has suffered. For decades, the river was treated as a dumping ground, he said.

"Colt is no shrinking violet in terms of putting himself out there on social media and propelling the whole notion of magnet fishing as a kind of recreational activity. That's great because the more people that do that, the better," Shaughnessy said. "The more he can push the concept of magnet fishing, the more people will go out there and get hooked on it and clean up rivers."

The 25.8-mile Presumpscot River flows from Sebago Lake to Casco Bay, passing through Standish, Windham, Gorham, Westbrook, Portland and Falmouth. Its 648-square-mile watershed is the largest freshwater input into Casco Bay.

The name Presumpscot originates from the Abenaki words meaning "many falls" or "many rough places." In the 1500s, a site on the river called Ammoscongin — now Cumberland Mills Dam in Westbrook — was used as an indigenous planting ground because of the plentiful fish in the area, according to Friends of the Presumpscot River, which is dedicated to improving the water quality, fisheries and natural character of the river.

The river historically supported shad, alewives, blueback herring, striped bass, brook trout and landlocked and Atlantic salmon, but construction of dams along the river starting in the 1730s flooded its 12 falls and halted the passage of fish. The ecological vitality of the river steadily declined as more dams went in and the water became thick with industrial waste, according to the Friends group.

People have advocated for the unobstructed passage of fish up the river for more than 250 years, starting with Abenaki leader Chief Polin in the 1750s. He traveled to Boston to meet with the colonial governor to demand fish passage downstream. While the governor seemed to accede, nothing changed, leading to an armed conflict in 1756 between Abenaki people and white settlers. Chief Polin was shot, and many of the remaining Abenaki moved away as white settlement encroached on their land.

In the past 50 years, the river has seen dramatic improvements. The Clean Water Act in the 1970s required the treatment of water discharges, leading to much better water quality. And with the removal of a dam and installation of fish passages, the trout and salmon fisheries have been restored.

A TREASURE HUNT

Westbrook Mayor Michael Foley said it has been great for the community to have the magnet fishers donate so much time to cleaning up the river.

"We're doing what we can as a city to support them," he said. "We don't have staff to help with disposing of items, but we've worked with businesses in the community who have donated dumpsters for them to put things in."

The fishers have turned over recovered items to police, including bullets and bicycles that look like they'd just gone in the river. They donated an antique shotgun to the local historical society. Most of their catch is junk, bound for recycling.

After the group fished for about an hour on a sunny Friday afternoon, the pile of rusty metal pulled from the river already included six bicycles, a shopping cart with a missing wheel and what looked like an axle. The pile had nearly doubled after a couple of hours.

Nick Wallace, a stay-at-home dad from Gorham, was on the bridge with his 11-year-old son Elijah and helped others pull in bikes they had hooked. He first heard about magnet fishing from Busch and decided to give it a go.

"I've been here ever since," he said.

Wallace said magnet fishing helps him relieve his anxiety and depression. He enjoys meeting new people, some of whom he now fishes with on a regular basis. After falling in love with the hobby, he upgraded his gear to a magnet that can hold 3,600 pounds.

Many people start with smaller magnets that can pull up to 1,200 pounds and are about the size of an adult's palm. Busch and other regulars at the Black Bridge recommend newcomers, especially kids, start with kits that can be purchased for around $80 and come with a magnet, rope, carabiners and gloves. Stronger magnets typically cost over $100.

Recently, Wallace hooked a heavy, rusty metal wheel that looked like it could have come from a mine cart. The kids on the bridge crowded around to look at it, just as they did when another adult pulled out a metal plate that had fallen off the railroad bridge.

Brigid Rankowski, a professional mermaid who holds the title Miss Mermaid Maine, is often in the river below the bridge in scuba gear, diving to help the magnet fishers recover items. She's helped recover bowling balls, wheelchairs, a boom box and shopping carts from businesses that no longer exist.

"The scary thing is, we've been doing this over a year and we're still pulling stuff out from this exact spot," Rankowski said.

Rankowski has used her Miss Mermaid title to spread the word about magnet fishing as a way to highlight the importance of not polluting the state's waterways. Seeing dedicated volunteers out magnet fishing motivates the younger generation, she said.

"The kids are happy with whatever they get. It's like a treasure hunt," she said.

Moulton, the 10-year-old from Scarborough, took a short break from fishing to give tips to Caleb Harrison, who came from Portland to try magnet fishing for the first time. His mother, Meredith Harrison, said she saw posts about the magnet fishing group on Facebook and knew it would be an activity her son would enjoy.

"It's outdoors and fun," she said. "It involves magnets, which any 10-year-old loves."

Caleb Harrison positioned himself near the rail, magnet in hand and rope coiled by his feet. Moulton told him to throw the rope as far out as possible so the magnet wouldn't stick to the metal bridge.

"Just huck it," he told Harrison, who did just that.

Together, the boys watched as the magnet splashed into the water, sending ripples toward a log where a painted turtle rested in the sun. They didn't catch anything that first go, but happily kept trying for treasure.