The trip was, supposedly, a shad-fishing expedition. That’s what we told each other, and, as you can read here, the shad did cooperate when a group of anglers headed to Old Town’s Shad Rips last week.
But there were surprises lurking in the waters of the Penobscot River, we quickly found out.
Pete Douvarjo of Sedgwick was first up. He waded to a sandbar, then took a position just upstream from it and began casting a shad fly I had tied up just for this occasion.
A few casts later, his fly rod bent and he had a fish on.
But it wasn’t a shad.
It was a striped bass.
“That made my day, right there,” Douvarjo said after releasing the small striper. “I can’t believe it. Stripers, all the way up here.”
Denis “Dee” Dauphinee of Bradley, an avid fly fisherman who is also a novelist and outdoor writer, moved into position not far from the spot Douvarjo had been standing. Dauphinee had already caught three shad farther upstream, and now set his sights on a species he hadn’t had much recent luck with.
The stripers, you may recall, used to be quite plentiful in the lower Penobscot, until the fishery collapsed a few years ago. Only a few stripers have made their way up as far as Bangor in recent years … or, perhaps, they showed up and there were simply no anglers to try to catch them.
A few casts later, Dauphinee had a fish on as well. It, too, was a small striper. He pumped his fist at the sky in silent celebration.
He enjoyed catching the shad … but the striper was even more special.
“That’s my first striper in seven years,” he said. “It makes me excited for what’s going to come in five years, or 10 years. It’s only been three years [since the first dam was removed as part of the Penobscot River Restoration Project], and this is already happening.”
Before the dams came out, stripers couldn’t get to Old Town. Neither could shad. Or other fish.
Now, they can. And you can catch ‘em.
Later than night, Dauphinee returned to the river with his son, and the pair caught 30 more stripers. In the week since then, that total has risen to more than 100 stripers caught and released. I didn’t fish much that first day, choosing to take photos instead, but returned earlier this week and hooked a striper of my own.
Downriver, the Pate family of Orrington has been having similar luck, Sue Pate reports. The group often fishes from their dock, and uses bloodworms for bait.
On Sunday, the group caught 20 stripers. On Tuesday, they caught 39 more.
“Have you noticed the river is teeming with baitfish?” she wrote in an email. “We have never seen so many little fish. When the sun goes down, the river sparkles with all the silver flashes. It is awesome! The river is alive, indeed!”
The Penobscot River Restoration Project was never a one-species recovery plan, even though the river’s most popular fish — the Atlantic salmon — was certainly included in the laundry list of species that would benefit.
But since the idea was hatched, signatories and supporters have often had to educate others with a simple message: This isn’t a salmon project. This is a river project.
And now, the river is responding.
In the coming days, you’ll likely begin seeing more and more people on the Penobscot, casting from shore or fishing from boats.
Good news travels fast, after all.
Douvarjo, who organized the group that fished in Old Town last week, said he’s amazed at what he’s seeing on the river.
“This, to me, is the most exciting thing that’s happened in a long time: To catch stripers,” Douvarjo said. “How many miles above the ocean are we?”
Rough estimate: 30? 40?
The day, Douvarjo told us, was not simply thrilling. It bordered on historic.
Consider: The Penobscot has had dams on the lower river for a long, long time.
“It’s got to be 200 years since anybody’s caught a striper this far upriver. It’s got to be,” Douvarjo said. “We’re pioneers!”
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke