BREWER, Maine — At first glance, the scene at the Penobscot Salmon Club on Friday seemed like old times: Trucks packed the small parking lot. Fishermen complained about the cold mid-May weather.
This, however, is a different kind of fishing.
There is no Atlantic salmon season on the Penobscot — or any other Maine river — this year, due to the listing of the species as federally endangered in this state. And even these fishermen weren’t really fishing yet — due to the mid-day low tide.
Most were thinking about fishing. Or getting ready to go fishing. Or making sure nobody else was tinkering with their equipment, which would make it impossible to go fishing. Or, in the case of Chris Tibbetts, who was stationed at a boat launch a mile upriver, watching the gear of several fishermen who have hired him to provide on-river security.
These men and women are after elvers, and are targeting the tiny “glass eels” that are selling for about $1,700 a pound. And over the past two weeks, a sizable crew of fishermen have descended upon Bangor and other towns up and down the Penobscot River, chasing a seasonal run that has slowed in southern parts of the state.
“[Some people] are just hostile,” Tibbetts said. “Everybody seems to own a piece of river and everybody wants to hold it.”
While Tibbetts said there are plenty of nice people out fishing, there are also some who look for trouble. Add in unlicensed poachers who are looking to make some quick cash, and you’ve got the potential for trouble.
Much of that trouble is the kind of stuff that doesn’t make it into the newspapers: Elver fishermen admit that their industry is often a self-policing society, and disputes are often handled internally, without formal law enforcement help.
“We had some issues last Wednesday right down the river,” Tibbetts said. “A couple of guys with weapons and sticks and this and that, wanting to fight over a spot [to fish]. It’s just one of those things. You’ve got to protect yourself if you’ve got to.”
On Friday Brewer Police said they never received or complaint or responded to any fight or argument on the river.
“Everybody’s mostly nice to each other,” Tibbetts said. “That ethic is huge. But then you’ve got some of those guys — it’s about the money, I’m sure — and you never know who’s gonna fight you or who’s gonna help you. Most people will help you. But then you get that one guy who thinks he owns the river and then something happens. [There are] a lot of fistfights.”
Tibbetts has served as an elver buyer in the past, working with his father-in-law in Wiscasset. This year, his father-in-law is focusing on fishing, not buying. That has freed Tibbetts up to do on-river security.
Tibbetts has four “clients” — licensed elver fishermen — who pay him to watch their fyke nets when they’re not around. Tibbetts has a pontoon boat and sometimes anchors in the river, watching the nets for others. Cutting of nets and stealing the eels inside is common, according to Tibbetts.
“There’s a lot of bag-cutting and stealing on this river,” Tibbetts said. This guy who just left [the boat ramp] had his bag cut yesterday. It had a quarter pound [of elvers] in it and he thought he’d just leave it there for the [rest of] the tide and it got cut right after he left. That was during the day.”
Elver fishing is big business, and Tibbetts takes his security responsibilities seriously, he said.
“I carry two firearms with me all the time. I’ve got my permits [to carry a concealed weapon],” he said. “At [his father-in-law’s shop, when buying eels in the past] we’re a lot more armed when we’re buying large amounts of eels. When we have a million dollars in cash or a million dollars in eels, I’ve got my AK-47 on when the eels are coming or the cash is coming. Seventy-round clips.”
The shop also has a high-tech security system, which has deterred break-in attempts in the past.
Eugene Carter of Bristol said he started fishing on the Pemaquid River in Waldoboro this year, and has worked his way north since the season started in late April. Carter was among the fishermen gathered at the Penobscot Salmon Club on Friday morning, and said he has been elver fishing for about 20 years.
“We go anywhere from Portland to Machias to here, and up to Augusta,” said Carter, who noted that more and more fishermen have arrived recently, setting fyke nets that have made it increasingly more challenging to find a place to stand and use a dip net.
Fyke nets are large, and are anchored to one spot in the river. Dippers use long-handled nets and are not allowed to step into the water while fishing.
“It gets hard,” he said. “You find a nice rock to dip on and they’ll just put their fyke net where you’ve been dipping, if you found a good spot. The next day you go back and your dipper guy has a hard time doing it.”
Carter said that over the past few days, it has been tough fishing, especially for those with dip nets.
“When you get weather like this, [the eels] seem to don’t want to go, when it rains and it gets cold,” Carter said. “There’s something about the sun. I think [the elvers] are like girls. They like warm weather. You don’t see girls running around in bikinis in this kind of weather. But you do when it’s warm. I think the eels are like them.”
Carter said he didn’t expect to fish during low tide, or during daylight hours, but showed up at the river just in case.
“You never know. Sometimes you can get ’em during the daytime,” he said. “Even in an off tide. You’ve just got to be there. They might only run for 20 minutes. And if you get a few, it adds up.”
Tibbetts seemed to agree with that sentiment. On the river, he said, you never know what you’re going to see. And if you’re on the river enough, you might see something that will truly amaze you.
“Last Thursday night, down by the old dam, there was a ribbon of eels,” Tibbetts said. “It was — no exaggeration — 40 feet wide, over 1,000 feet long, and about 15 inches deep, solid green of eels. It had to have been a ton and a half of eels there. It had to have been. And that’s no fisherman’s story.”
The eels were in the “middle third” of the Penobscot, an area that’s off-limits for fishermen. But it’s not off-limits for wide-eyed security specialists who are driving a pontoon boat.
“I was driving down the yellow brick eel road with that pontoon boat,” Tibbetts said with a chuckle. “I could watch them coming up in the wake of the boat. It was unbelievable. It was the Hail Mary, or whatever you want to call it. It was the modern-day gold rush. That was the best thing I’ve ever seen. Ever.”
And though there were others on the river that night who could vouch for Tibbetts’ story, he knows others might be skeptical.
“It’s just a fishing story if you don’t have the proof,” he said, frustrated that he didn’t have a better camera with him when the eel ribbon showed up. “If I was dishonest I could have dropped a dip net off the side of the boat and had 20 pounds in a second, $40,000 in literally a second.”
The experience has bolstered Tibbetts’ belief that Maine’s elver population is healthy, and that concerns that fishermen may be overharvesting the species are unfounded.
“In my opinion, there’s no depletion of eels,” he said.