The fish may not have been biting, but Maine’s first salmon season of the millennium was enough of a success that state officials already are mulling the possibility of allowing anglers back on the Penobscot River this spring.
More than 200 anglers from throughout New England – and several from across the country – purchased licenses for the monthlong Atlantic salmon fishing season that ended Oct. 15.
Very few anglers managed to even entice a salmon into striking, much less land one, according to preliminary reports.
The Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission, which administered the “experimental” season, has only one confirmed catch. But commission chairman Dick Ruhlin said he has heard at least two other claims of salmon being landed. Anglers were required to release the fish immediately.
Regardless of the number, Ruhlin said he believes the season was a success because it put Maine “back on the Atlantic salmon map” and, it is hoped, revived interest in the proud sport.
“Salmon fishing is about fishing; it’s not about catching,” said Ruhlin, who has 50-plus years of salmon fishing experience. “A dedicated salmon angler is more interested in fishing over a piece of water where there is a good probability of a fish being there and presenting a good cast.” It’s also about camaraderie, he said.
ASC staff will not know for sure how many fish were caught – or the number that were hooked but not landed – until they tally the detailed reports all anglers were required to keep for every fishing expedition.
Staff are expected to formally present the data to the commission board in December. Commission members then will consider those trip reports as well as the post-season assessments of ASC biologists when choosing their next steps.
“If we can see that everything is a positive, then right now I think … that we may want to go ahead with a spring season,” Ruhlin said Thursday night.
Speaking on his own behalf, not for the commission, Ruhlin said he likely would support a temporary season beginning in mid- to late May unless the reports end up showing the fall fishery harmed fish. The commission likely would hold public hearings before approving a spring season, he said.
A spectacular and powerful fish beloved by anglers, Atlantic salmon once numbered in the hundreds of thousands in New England rivers before dams, pollution and humans devastated the stocks. Today, Maine is the only U.S. state where wild, sea-run salmon still return to their home rivers to spawn.
Maine banned all fishing for sea-run salmon in 1999 in order to protect the dwindling numbers of returning adults. With Penobscot adult returns consistently numbering around 1,000, commission members decided earlier this year to go ahead with an experimental fishery in the fall when fewer adult fish are still in the water.
Patrick Keliher, the ASC’s executive director, said biologists inspected every adult captured in the fish trap at the Veazie dam for signs of injury or fatigue from fishermen. The fish appeared healthy, he said. The trap is located upriver of where anglers were allowed to catch and release fish.
“From a fishery standpoint, I think the salmon community has proven we can have a fishery without harming the resource,” he said.
Gary Arsenault was one of the local salmon fishermen who supported a fall fishery as long as it erred on the side of protecting the fish. A past president of the Maine Council of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, Arsenault and other council members successfully argued to lower the daily catch limit from two fish to one.
Arsenault believes a spring fishery could be successful, as long as the ASC and anglers follow the same conservative philosophy.
Like Ruhlin, Arsenault joined his fly-fishing buddies several times on the Penobscot during the salmon season. Although he didn’t catch a salmon, he called the season a “booming success.”
“The people came from everywhere,” he said. “We were fishing with people from all over the U.S.”