Atlantic salmon fishing makes quiet return on Maine's Penobscot River after nearly a decade

The nation's first wild Atlantic salmon season in more than six years has been reinstated on Maine's Penobscot River. 

EDDINGTON, Maine — Just two decades ago, anglers from as far away as Japan and South Africa would wait their turns along the Penobscot River for a chance to cast a line at what many regard as the king of game fish.

But on a recent day in the nation's first wild Atlantic salmon season in more than six years, on a bright, breezy morning with hints of colorful autumn foliage, Pete Brunner had the river pretty much to himself.

"I was a little surprised that no one was here this morning," said Brunner, who frequented the salmon fishery during its heyday in the 1980s.

Brunner, of Falmouth, was one of more than 200 anglers who bought licenses for what the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission billed as an experimental fall season, a tightly controlled opportunity to capitalize on several years of improved salmon runs.

The Penobscot once drew untold thousands of silvery salmon returning from the sea each year to spawn in the gravelly stream beds where they were hatched.

In a tradition dating back to William Howard Taft's presidency nearly a century ago, the first fish taken from the Bangor Salmon Pool each spring was delivered to the White House.

However, dam construction, pollution and fishing took their toll. The number of salmon counted at the Veazie Dam fell from about 3,100 in 1990 to 535 a decade later, and fishing for salmon in Maine was shut down in 1999.

The following year, the federal government listed Atlantic salmon as endangered on eight smaller Maine rivers and warned that the species was in danger of extinction.

A turnaround has pushed the number of salmon on the Penobscot above 1,000. And a proposed $25 million restoration project that calls for the removal of two dams and construction of a fish bypass at a third has raised hopes of further gains.

This year, the salmon commission allowed fishing on the Penobscot from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.

There were only a handful of reports of anyone hooking a salmon, much less catching one, during the first few days.

But toward the end of the second week, Beau Peavey, a 22-year-old college student from Glenburn, reeled in a 12-pound, 32-inch salmon that pulled hard and made four jumps during a 15-minute fight.

"It was a healthy female. It was fine when it was released," said Peavey, who caught his first Atlantic salmon when he was 4.

Peavey has been fishing the Penobscot nearly every day during the fall season.

"It's a matter of time. Put in the time and you should be rewarded," he said.

The monthlong season could help energize the Penobscot's salmon clubs, the oldest of which date to the 1880s.

The clubs, festooned with mountings and photos of trophy fish, had waiting lists of prospective members during the big salmon runs of the late 1970s and early '80s, but their membership rolls have dwindled since salmon fishing ended in 1999.

Traditions continue, like the opening day breakfast sponsored by the Eddington Salmon Club, but mostly the clubs are frequented only by a handful of members, many of them retirees, who gather for morning coffee and cribbage games.

"We're getting to be an old age club," said 73-year-old Bob Rourke, of Orono, as he played a few hands at the Veazie Salmon Club.

At the start of the season, a couple hundred people turned out to renew old friendships.

"A big part of salmon fishing is the social aspect and (the fall season) has brought that back," said Pat Keliher, executive director of the salmon commission. "And it puts these anglers back on the river.

"They are our eyes and ears and our greatest stewards."

Many fishermen hope the success of Maine's fall season, coupled with gains in the salmon restoration program, will prompt the commission to eventually return to a spring season, which would draw a lot more interest.

"It's not about catching a fish, it's being able to," said Gary Arsenault of Winterport, a salmon fishing enthusiast and conservationist.