BREWER — Not too many years ago, Andrew Condon could head to the banks of the Penobscot River during the summer months and be nearly guaranteed to find plenty of other eager anglers to talk to.
“We’ve always had pretty good luck here,” the 24-year-old Brewer man said on Friday, as he tossed a lure into the river while standing on a rocky outcropping behind the Penobscot Salmon Club.
“When I was in high school I would come down here and we’d set up and there would literally be 10 or 15 guys, the old timers from the club, that would just sit out here with their poles stuck in the ground, waiting for the stripers to hit,” Condon said. “And you’d see people pulling them up like crazy. It was really cool to see everybody out here fishing and having a good time.”
That was then — five or six years ago.
This is now: Even though Condon was fishing on Friday morning, he wasn’t targeting striped bass. Instead, he was tossing tiny smallmouth bass lures, hoping to catch a species that he knows is present, rather than one he hopes returns.
“Last year wasn’t so great because I didn’t see any fish get pulled up, and I had no fish myself,” Condon said. “The only fish that I saw was the one that was [in a photo] on Van Raymond [Outfitters’] door. It got me out here, but I was here, solo, by myself, for basically the whole summer.”
For the past two years, anglers would tell you that the stripers just weren’t present.
On Friday, Pat Keliher, director of the Maine Department of Marine Resources Bureau of Sea-Run Fisheries & Habitat provided a report that proved just how bad the fishing has been.
According to the federal Marine Recreational Information Program, anglers caught more than 4.1 million striped bass in Maine waters in 2006.
Two years later, that total had dropped to 519,409 stripers caught. And last year, it dipped even further, to 274,290 fish caught. The 2009 total is incomplete, in that it doesn’t include totals for September and October, but most striper fishing in the state takes place during the summer months.
In 2006 anglers harvested, or kept, 72,827 stripers in Maine. Last year, despite the much poorer fishing, anglers kept 47,439, not including those kept in September and October.
Federal and state fisheries staffers are studying the decline, but no single cause has been isolated.
Keliher said the number of spawning fish has declined, but the total biomass of fish in the population has remained fairly stable. He’s not sure if fish migrated to Maine last year and simply stayed offshore, chasing bait, or whether there were other reasons anglers were unsuccessful.
During an interview conducted last summer, Keliher said that steady heavy rain may have affected the bait fish that stripers feed on, and those baitfish may have stayed farther off shore to escape the infusion of fresh water.
Another national concern is a mycobacteria infection of fish in the Chesapeake Bay, where the stripers that migrate to Maine originate.
According to Mike Brown, a DMR marine scientist, mycobacteria are slow-growing and are normally not a threat to fish in the wild.
“The only time it’s an issue is in poorly run aquaculture situations, where you have a lot of overcrowding and high water temperatures,” Brown said. “This is the first time in a wild population that a mycobacteria outbreak has been discovered.”
Brown said fish that have returned to Maine have not shown evidence of the lesions that signal an outbreak of mycobacteria.
Despite the recent decline in fish caught, Keliher is cautiously optimistic that angling will improve this year.
“What I would say is the reports we’re hearing from the south of us have been fairly positive,” Keliher said. “We know there have been some good catches in and around [Cape Cod] and moving up with schoolies on the North Shore of Massachusetts. My staff … has seen some good numbers of striped bass below the dam on the Androscoggin [River] in Brunswick.”
Other unconfirmed reports indicate that a few fish may have been caught in the Penobscot.
And Keliher said that anglers are seeing a lot of baitfish, which also bodes well. Convincing anglers that things could be improving might be a bit tougher, he admitted.
“Because we’ve had this decline, the early angling effort is not like it has been in the past,” Keliher said. “What we need is some good reports, some fish being caught, and once the word gets around, there will be fishermen everywhere.”
So far on the Penobscot, that hasn’t been the case. At Van Raymond Outfitters in Brewer, fishing manager Jim Snow said a few people have asked to buy blood worms as bait for stripers, but the store is not yet selling the worms. That’s a huge change from just a couple years ago, he said.
“I can tell you that one weekend [two years ago] I went to Gouldsboro and got back here at 5 o’clock Friday evening with six flats of blood worms. That’s 1,500 blood worms,” Snow said. “When we closed Saturday night at 5 o’clock, they were all gone. We threw out blood worms last year. The last two years ago we have.”
This year, Snow is taking a wait-and-see attitude. Van Raymond Outfitters is just across the street from a park that is very popular with anglers when the stripers are running, and word-of-mouth reports travel fast.
“I want to see people at least seeing fish. And I want more than just two or three people seeing fish,” Snow said.
That’s exactly what the anglers want to see.
And it’s exactly what Keliher wants to see.
“We’re hoping we’re going to see a pile of fish out there and we’re going to see a lot of smiling anglers,” Keliher said.