Stripers in the Penobscot? You won’t know if you don’t try

Last week I received an email that would have been commonplace just five years ago: It showed a smiling youngster holding a small striped bass, which he caught in the Penobscot River between Bangor and Brewer.

Alas, things have not gone well for the striper fishery over the past half decade, in Maine as a whole or in the Penobscot specifically.

Is it time to try the Penobscot for stripers? Hunter Pate caught this small one … you might catch one, too.

But the photo brought back memories … and got me to thinking: If young Hunter Pate caught a striper, will others soon begin catching them, too? Will boats begin to troll the river from Bangor south? Will cars crowd the south Brewer parking area where shore anglers always had great luck?

Hunter’s mom, Sue Pate, was also curious. Hunter’s an avid angler, and try as he might, he only caught one striper all year last season. That came on his birthday, July 8, 2011.

Sue Pate’s brief email explained Hunter’s early success, and may illustrate one of the problems that Penobscot anglers must overcome. Even though Hunter Pate had every reason to expect to NOT catch a striper, he went fishing. He’s been keeping busy catching pickerel and smallmouth bass in the river. And the striper was simply a bonus.

Unfortunately, most of the old-guard striper anglers, who took advantage of the boom seasons, have simply stopped fishing for a species they don’t expect to catch. The bottom line: There could be thousands of stripers in the river, and most of the folks who used to fish for them wouldn’t even know about it.

The circular logic is a bit depressing, and reminds me of the old Yogi Berra classic that goes something like this: “This place is so busy, nobody ever comes here any more.”

In this case, the opposite is true. Not many people are fishing the Penobscot because they don’t think the stripers are in. And because not many people are fishing, not many stripers will be caught … even if the fish happen to show up in droves.

Of course, anglers have reason to be pessimistic. According to the Maine Department of Marine Resources statistics, a total of 1,168,763 stripers were caught in Maine waters back in 2007.

Then the bottom fell out of that Maine fishery.

A year later, just more than a half million fish were caught. And last year, just 142,607 striped bass were caught in the state’s waters.

Those numbers are sobering. And you don’t have to look very far, nor talk to very many anglers, to find out how that reality has affected fishing effort on the river.

A pal of mine bought a boat specifically for striper fishing several years ago, when the striped bass boom was on. He did well at first. Then, not so well. Then, one year, he didn’t catch a single striper.

He sold the boat and headed inland, to fish freshwater for trout and salmon.

Others don’t have that luxury. In south Brewer, kids rode bikes to the park and fished for stripers. Families stopped by for an afternoon of fun. Now, they’re all gone. The few folks you see at the park these days are sitting, watching the river, or eating a picnic lunch.

Earlier this week, I talked with Patrick Keliher about the striper situation. Keliher, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, explained that the absence of striped bass is a management issue that his agency is working hard on. And the problem doesn’t begin in Maine. Instead, it starts much farther south, where the striper fishing is still very good.

“I think what we need to do is have an understanding of, regionally, the importance of the fish,” Keliher said. “Right now [stripers are] managed from Maine to North Carolina. The fishery has remained robust in those mid-Atlantic states, so they have not wanted to see a reduction in their [legal take of the fish]. And if we [in Maine] say we need to lower mortality rates to benefit our fisheries long-term, it impacts their fisheries short-term.”

Keilher said trying to reach agreements with those other states is important. But because officials in those states are not seeing a scarcity of the fish, they aren’t as willing to change.

The result of that philosophy, Keliher said, is being felt in Maine.

“As a population shrinks, it shrinks to its core,” Kelher said, pointing out that the migrating fish have their core in the mid-Atlantic states. Maine is at the fringe of the species’ range. “And that’s what’s happening to striped bass.”

Keliher and striper anglers have reason for optimism, though. Hunter Pate is not the only angler to have had success this year. Positive reports are streaming in all along the Maine coast.

“Actually, the Kennebec [River] has a pile of fish in it right now, and Casco Bay has got a lot of fish in it right now,” Keliher said. “They’re there. They’re here. And we’re seeing little fish for this year, and we have not seen little fish for awhile.”

Seeing those “little fish,” along with some bigger ones, means that several age classes of fish are represented in the population. That’s a positive step.

Of course, many former striper anglers may still be skeptical. They may not believe that there are fish to be caught. They may continue to remember the good old days, and refuse to fish for stripers if the action will be slower.  And if that’s the philosophy of an angler, one thing is certain: That angler won’t catch a single striped bass.

Keliher recognized that fact, and chuckled when asked if he’d advise people to hit the water and try their luck.

“I think you’ve always got to try. It’s called ‘fishing,’ not ‘catching,'” Keliher said. “The good thing about a river like the Penobscot is, [even if] the striped bass aren’t there, you [can] go to the fringes and catch a few smallmouths. It’s always worth going fishing.”




John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.