No sooner had the late Carroll Soucie eased the boat into the foam line trailing from The Spindle, a Penobscot River navigational marker just below Bald Hill Cove in Winterport, than a striped bass swatted my trolled streamer. I don’t know how many stripers “Soose” and I caught on that long-ago evening, but I know we often had fish on at the same time. The “schoolies” were so thick we could smell them, like sliced cucumber.
Such was my introduction to striper fishing, which I pursued religiously thereafter. Until four years ago, that is. From then until now I haven’t caught a whiff of the fish. What’s more, in casting questions as to why schools of stripers are shunning the Penobscot, I haven’t landed a definite answer. Bruce Joule, a marine biologist with the Department of Marine Resources, said the once-abundant runs of schoolies — fish averaging 17-20 inches long — had declined recently, particularly in rivers east of Boothbay Harbor. “We don’t know the reason for it,” said Joule, who discounted disease and commercial fishing.
However, in emphasizing that Maine’s coastal rivers are on the fringe of the striped bass’s northern range, Joule left me wondering about marine and freshwater habitats and the Penobscot River in particular. In the mid-1900s the river was virtually an open sewer, yet it attracted swarms of stripers. Now that the Penobscot is famously cleaner and healthier, its striper runs have disappeared. Go figure.
Equally interesting were comments from Marine Patrol wardens: Sgt. Paul Joyce said stripers were plentiful in southern Maine waters. “The Saco River is giving up some nice fish,” he noted, “and there’s feed everywhere.” Warden Chris Hilton reported that small runs of stripers arrived in the Kennebec River in June. He expects, however — anglers are hoping — that this month’s tides will bring larger runs. Yet, only a few miles eastward, warden Dan White affirmed that there hadn’t been an honest run of stripers in the Damariscotta, Medomak and St. George rivers since 2007— when the fish last appeared in the Penobscot.
So what caused the abrupt absence of stripers in midcoast and Down East rivers? The culprit can’t be lack of feed because the rivers are generous with eels, alewives and herring. Could it be cyclical? If so, it sure took its time coming around. All things considered, it’s anybody’s guess as to when runs of sporty striped bass will return to the Penobscot River; one hopes they’ll be so thick we can smell them.