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Free Fishing Weekend a Medford thing

Created by a Medford man to boost Pennsylvania fishing license sales 35 years ago, Free Fishing Weekend comes again to Oregon this Saturday and Sunday.

This weekend will be the third of four Free Fishing Weekends in 2019, which allow Oregonians and even out-of-state visitors to fish, clam or crab without licenses or tags.

However, all other fishing regulations, bag limits, size restrictions and area or species closures remain in effect.

While in effect in Oregon the nearly three decades, state angling officials believe it helps recruit new anglers to the fold.

“Participation rates in our Free Fishing Weekends are high but we have no way to track how many move into buying a license in the future,” says Michelle Dennehy, spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Unlike the main Free Fishing Weekend held in early June to coincide with free entry and camping at Oregon state parks, there are no special events at area waterways where free loaner rods, bait and volunteer instruction is available, and no extra trout have been stocked specifically for this weekend.

In fact, the only fresh rainbow trout stocked this weekend are the weekly rainbows released through summer in the far upper Rogue River and tributaries around Union Creek and Prospect, according to the ODFW.

Medford native Mike Bickler is credited with creating the first Free Fishing Day in 1984 while working as public information director for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

That year, Pennsylvania jacked up its fishing license costs by 25 percent, and people quit buying licenses, Bickler told the Mail Tribune in 1998. He dreamed up the free day on the water to invite anglers back with the idea of reminding them how much fun they had fishing.

Bickler had a catchy slogan to go with it, as well: “When was the last time government gave you something for free?”

It was a little public relations ploy that worked. Pennsylvania had its first Free Fishing Day in September, and by October almost all the ex-pat anglers had returned to the fold and bought licenses, Bickler said in a 1998 interview.

Bickler moved back to Oregon in 1988 and took a public information job with the ODFW, but by then his idea had preceded him.

That year, backers took Bickler’s free-fishing format to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, but it failed. It passed in 1989, and Oregon’s first event was in 1990.

It has since morphed three times, first turning the free day into a free two-day weekend. In 2015, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill directing the ODFW to offer up to eight free fishing days annually.

Initially, the agency added days around Thanksgiving to encourage fishing instead of Black Friday shopping New Year’s Day and Earth Day. But the first weekend in June remains the traditional one.

This year the ODFW chose to drop Earth Day in favor of President’s Day weekend as part of its plan to diversify opportunity at different times of the year, Dennehy says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Mike Feeley submitted this photo of his son, Colin, 6, with his first trout, at Applegate Lake.