Dave Huntress stood on the Bangor waterfront Saturday, smiling broadly on a warm July Maine morning.
Theoretically, Huntress was in town to help hand out prizes for the Coastal Conservation Association’s first Penobscot River Striped Bass Tournament.
In actuality, Huntress didn’t need to fulfill those duties … nor did anybody else.
“So far, I don’t think we’ve seen any fish come in, any pictures of any fish, but it’s a learning year,” Huntress said. “We just happened to pick the year where no fish seemed to come up the coast. And it’s not just here. It’s been the Kennebec and points south, guys just aren’t finding fish this year.”
The tournament began June 21 and ran for more than a month, ending on Saturday morning. The fact that Huntress was still smiling on Saturday says something about the man … and the reason hundreds of folks turned up at the riverfront to celebrate.
Fishing is fishing, after all, and many of us have come to view catching as a desirable bonus. But there’s always a reason to stop, think about the resource and recognize how far we’ve come in just a few short years.
On Saturday, a large group of conservation groups teamed up to present the Penobscot River Revival, and a steady stream of visitors took the time to wander through the tents and talk about the river that flowed steadily past.
Many of the participants realized that the mere concept of a “revival” on the Penobscot wouldn’t have been conceivable just a decade or two ago.
“I think that 20 or so years ago, the river had some problems,” said Gayle Zydlewski, one of the revival’s organizers and the chairwoman of the Lower Penobscot Watershed Coalition.
“There was a lot of pollution and I think people turned their back to the river and didn’t focus on it as a positive experience or a place they could go to enjoy,” she said. “I think that that’s turned around a lot and that’s making people able to turn back to the river and see what it has to offer.”
In the days when industrial pollution clogged the Penobscot, you weren’t likely to see many recreational boaters on the water.
Over the years, that has changed, slowly but surely.
Huntress, who grew up in southern Maine and has spent time on various Maine rivers over the years, says the Penobscot is still curiously lagging behind some others.
“There aren’t a lot of boats out on the river compared to other rivers,” he said. “If you go out on the Kennebec or some of the rivers down around Kittery, Portsmouth, that area, you see a lot of boats out, you see a lot of people out on weekends, enjoying the water. You don’t see that up here. I’m not exactly sure why, but we’d like to see that change.”
Anglers will tell you that during good years – the present summer has been an exception – fishing for striped bass in the river can be very good. During the spring, some catch smelts. And lower down the river, closer to the ocean, mackerel are often caught. Proving the river’s diversity is a study by University of Maine graduate student Stephen Fernandes, who spent the past two years netting and tagging Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon.
Recognizing the Penobscot as a thriving habitat full of all kinds of fish is important, Huntress said.
“In the past, the Penobscot’s really been known as an Atlantic salmon river,” Huntress said. “With the Penobscot Restoration Project and some of the different events that are going on right here, right now, it’s kind of a momentous occasion to start looking at the river again as more than just a drainage ditch running through the backyard of Bangor, Brewer and points upstream and trying to really get people thinking about it as a multi-species river and to get people out and actually enjoying the resource more than they have been.”
On Saturday, Huntress and Zydlewski found plenty of people willing to share that vision. In the background, an occasional pleasure boat motored upriver, illustrating just one of many recreational options that are available. Under the various tents people talked about their goals for their home river and continued to plan for the future.
“It’s exciting,” Zydlewski said. “Just to know there are so many people that are interested in the river and working toward the knowledge of the river is very exciting, and having them here talking with each other is just a rewarding experience.”
Even if nobody’s catching many stripers this year.
“I’ve heard of several fish being hooked and landed, and a few fish that have been lost right at the boat,” Huntress said. “I haven’t seen any pictures yet, and that’s [who] the prizes end up with.”
Even without a clear winner in the inaugural derby that he helped plan, Huntress was philosophical.
“That’s fishing,” he said, still grinning.
Coming up …
Later this week I’ll tell you more about the groundbreaking work done by Fernandes.
He spent the past two-plus years catching and tagging sturgeon in the Penobscot, and he’s got the photos to prove it.
You didn’t think we had sturgeon? Think again. We’ve got a lot of them, and Fernandes will tell you some of what he learned during his masters project.