January 18, 2022

Penobscot salmon season opens today

After nearly a decade’s hiatus, fly fishermen can once again test their skills against one of the kings of sportfish – the Atlantic salmon – on the Penobscot River beginning today.

But with the Penobscot raging after Tuesday’s heavy rains, the biggest challenge for anglers determined to participate in opening day may be finding a safe place to fish, never mind connecting with a salmon.

“I’m sure the fishing conditions are going to be tough until the water drops,” said Patrick Keliher, executive director of Maine’s Bureau of Sea-Run Fisheries and Habitat.

Springtime fishing for sea-run Atlantic salmon has been prohibited on the Penobscot and all other Maine rivers since 1999 in an effort to protect dwindling stocks of the wild fish. For the past two years, the state has held a fall catch-and-release season on the Penobscot just north of Bangor.

But a core group of longtime anglers fought hard for a May-June catch-and-release season, arguing that reviving the spring tradition would raise awareness about the salmon’s plight without threatening the fragile fish population.

In a compromise, the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission approved a May season, when water temperatures are cooler and fewer fish are typically in the river.

The Penobscot boasts the only sizable run of spawning salmon in the United States thanks in large part to a multimillion-dollar hatchery and stocking program spearheaded by the federal government. But at roughly 1,000 fish, spawning returns on the Penobscot are still a fraction of historic runs and remain well below the number needed to sustain the population.

For that reason, the month-long spring fishery remains controversial, especially among biologists.

Some in the Bureau of Sea-Run Fisheries and Habitat – a part of the state Department of Marine Resources – were against the proposal. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is considering adding the Penobscot salmon population to the federal Endangered Species List, has expressed strong concerns about the fishery.

Keliher said he knows federal agencies will be closely watching the season, which could be the last if the fish are designated as “threatened” or “endangered.” But so will state biologists, game wardens and others who want to ensure that anglers adhere to the strict rules meant to protect the fish, he said.

Anglers, who are required to purchase a special license, will be restricted to using single-pointed, barbless flies and must release any fish immediately without removing them from the water. Fishing will be allowed from just above the old Bangor dam to just below the Veazie dam.

Any angler who lands a salmon must stop fishing for the day. And the entire fishery will be closed if a total of 50 fish are caught during the May season.

“The key is we really want to see good participation,” Keliher said. “Just like the fall fishery, we just want to try to get people back involved with the river.”

On Wednesday, the Penobscot looked better suited to whitewater rafting than fly-fishing, however.

Water thundered over the Veazie dam and covered much of the shoreline where generations of anglers have lined up to fish the well-known salmon pools.

Water flow at West Enfield, upstream from Veazie, was measuring 114,000 cubic feet per second – roughly 31/2 times the median flow for the date, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Earlier Wednesday, the National Weather Service had issued flood warnings for the communities of Eddington, West Enfield and Old Town along the Penobscot.

Norm Dube, a biologist with the Bureau of Sea-Run Fisheries and Habitat, said it is impossible to forecast how many salmon are in the river at present. But the staff believes there are a few salmon fresh from the ocean – also known as “brights” – as well as a few that wintered in the river.

“They are pretty powerful swimmers,” Dube said. “The closer you get to the bottom, the velocity is less, so they will hang out in pools.”

Dick Ruhlin, chairman of the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission, which oversees the state’s management of the species, said there a few select places where brave fishermen could cast from the shore. And he observed at least one boat Wednesday tied near a pool that likely contains salmon.

Ruhlin said he has received calls from people in Washington state, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and other states in recent days asking about the season. And he said the water levels could decline several feet in the coming days.

For now, Ruhlin will be content to engage in the other tradition of salmon fishing -watching others – at least until the level drops a bit.

“I’ll have my fishing gear with me, but I have no intention of going out there,” Ruhlin said Wednesday. “It’s too high and too cold.”



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