Just four years ago, despite his best efforts, Hunter Pate caught only one striped bass in the Penobscot River.
To many, that wouldn’t come as much of a surprise. After all, according to Maine Department of Marine Resources data, the bottom had fallen out of the state’s striper fishery, and many anglers had simply stopped trying to fish for the species, considering the pursuit a waste of time.
But not Hunter, nor his family and friends. The Orrington 18-year-old keeps trying, and every so often, his mom, Sue Pate, sends a dispatch from the river, telling me how the fishing has been.
Lately, the fishing has been very, very good.
This week’s email was an eye-opener, and it contained more than a dozen photos of Hunter and his pals showing off healthy-looking stripers.
Over a five-day span, fishing from the family’s dock on the Penobscot, the Pate crew caught and released a total of 33 stripers, Sue reported earlier this week. Six more were added to the scoreboard after she sent the email, bringing the grand total to 39.
“The largest fish is 25 inches, though we have lost two which appeared much larger,” Sue said. “All were caught with bloodworms.”
The Orrington anglers have tried a number of lures — unsuccessfully — and are catching most of their fish from 30 minutes to two hours after a high tide.
Joey Pate, Hunter’s brother, leads the family leaderboard with 14 fish.
On Thursday, Hunter said he hadn’t fished for stripers at all until he heard another encouraging report.
“We heard that somebody caught one up by the Bangor Dam so we went out, bought some bloodworms and decided to try it,” Hunter said. “The first day we’ve caught three, and every day since then we’ve caught them.”
Hunter left for New Hampshire on Wednesday and planned on fishing when he returned to Orrington on Thursday. He said his buddies were still fishing in his absence and caught six more stripers. That put the tally at 39 fish, pending Thursday’s high tides.
Sue said the group has been enjoying the experience.
“With the sunny days ahead we expect more anglers visiting and more ‘Fish on!’ calls,” Sue said. “It doesn’t get any better than this. Summer days with afternoon tides, a beautiful river, enjoying nature, camaraderie and friendly competition.”
Even a year or two ago, the thought of catching 39 stripers in the Penobscot seemed a pipe dream.
But on Thursday, Hunter said that he expected more anglers would be targeting the river soon.
“A friend of ours went to Van Raymond’s to try to buy bloodworms, and the guy there said, ‘That Pate kid’s catching some stripers,” Hunter said. “I guess word’s getting around.”
According to Department of Marine Resources data, a once-thriving striper fishery in Maine collapsed between 2007 and 2011.
Back in 2007, anglers caught 1.1 million striped bass in Maine. Four years later, avid striper anglers were selling their boats and heading elsewhere, after a year in which just 142,607 bass were caught.
At the time, Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, said that Maine’s location on the edge of the stripers’ range made population shifts more noticeable here.
“As a population shrinks, it shrinks to its core,” Keliher said in 2012, pointing out that that core exists in the mid-Atlantic states, with Maine on the fringe.
And when that population shrunk to its core, Mainers stopped expecting to catch stripers in some rivers — especially those, like the Penobscot, that were on the northern edge of their range.
Anglers posting in online fishing forums have reported catching plenty of stripers in southern Maine this season, and the fish have moved into more central rivers — the Kennebec and St. George — in recent weeks.
But the questions has remained: Are they in the Penobscot? And if they are, if nobody’s fishing for them, will we even know it?
Here’s one answer: Yes, they are. In fact, fisheries biologists at the Milford Dam even caught one in their fishway earlier this month.
And here’s another: Thanks to the Pates, we do know that the stripers are out there.
A few short years ago, anglers crowded the river, often fishing from shore, and had great luck tossing hooks baited with bloodworms into the Penobscot. Late last week, I drove by one such location in Brewer, hoping to find a similar scene after hearing the first report of the Pate family’s success.
The park was empty.
Hunter, for one, thinks his fellow anglers might want to change that trend.
“I don’t know if it’s gonna end soon or not, but just go out and try it,” he said. “It’s worth a shot.”
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke.