ORRINGTON, Maine — Hunter Pate is not one of a dying breed. Instead, he’s one of a breed that has slowly, one by one, simply given up.
He is a striped-bass fisherman on the Penobscot River.
And over the past seven years or so, many who share a passion for the hard-fighting, sea-going fish have sold their boats, moved inland to target other species, or simply thrown in the towel altogether.
Not the 16-year-old Pate, though.
“I’m pretty sure they’re not gone,” Pate said last week as he fished from his family’s dock on the Penobscot. “There’s always another fish to catch [out] there.”
Pate should know: He’s one of the guys who’s still fishing, even though he rarely has much company, and sees few striper fisherman troll past his house these days.
“We used to catch ’em all the time. Every day, we probably caught 10 or 15,” said Pate, recalling the “good old days,” back when he was a mere 8-year-old.
Then, something changed.
“A couple years ago, we actually got shut out,” Pate said. “We didn’t catch a single striper. The past couple years we caught one or two each year.”
Still, Pate keeps on fishing for stripers … when he’s not taking his boat out to compete in local weekend bass tournaments on inland lakes.
A couple of weeks back, he caught three stripers in a one-hour span.
“Maybe they’re coming back,” he said. “[I’ve spent] probably a week’s worth of fishing [since then]. Not a thing.”
But down the Maine coast, the tide is changing. Fisheries experts say striped bass have indeed returned to some of the state’s more southern estuaries.
Is the Penobscot next? Nobody knows. But at least one fisherman will be ready if the fish return to his home river.
According to Bruce Joule, coordinator of the Maine Department of Marine Resources’ Recreational Saltwater Fisheries Program, this year’s striper season is shaping up to be a good one for much of Maine.
“It’s probably the best striper fishing in five years,” he said. “We’re seeing a good mix in sizes from [smaller] schoolies right up to big trophy fish. Probably over the past five years there haven’t been many stripers east of Boothbay, and this year they’re up into the St. George [River near Thomaston] and they could be past there.”
Joule said the mix of fish, from the young schoolies to the older, bigger adults, is a good thing. In recent years, those younger fish were not among those that did make it to Maine.
Among the hypotheses — and there are many — is that the striped bass population might have experienced “a little problem with reproductivity,” according to Joule.
“[Another hypothesis] is that Massachusetts was seeing a lot of fish [in past years] and Massachusetts was seeing a lot of bait,” Joule said. “So if there were a lot of fish and there was a lot of bait, why would they move on? But that’s all conjecture.”
What’s not conjecture, however, is the fact that up here on the banks of the Penobscot, not many people are fishing for stripers. And that makes ascertaining the existence of the fish harder than it could be if hundreds of anglers were on the water.
“We conduct a survey for the National Marine Fisheries Service and one of my samplers was up in Bucksport on Saturday, another one in Verona on Monday, and didn’t encounter any anglers,” Joule said. “We’ve seen this: If the fish are in, people will fish. If they’re not, they don’t. But it’s word-of-mouth, really. We see this in southern Maine all the time.”
According to federal Marine Recreational Information Program, anglers caught more than 4.1 million stripers in Maine in 2006.
Two years later, the catch was just 20 percent of that. And by 2011, only 160,610 striped bass were landed in Maine waters.
Since then, anglers have been asking the same question: What happened?
“Six or seven years ago there were a tremendous couple of year classes [of fish] that came through and we saw fish all the way to the St. Croix [River in Down East Maine],” Joule said.
“I think what may have happened is they may have been pushed out of the Chesapeake early. There were just so many fish and not enough feed to support the population,” Joule said.
That was the boom.
Then, when those fish didn’t return again, or when other age classes of fish in the Chesapeake Bay didn’t feel quite so much pressure to find a meal, the run slowed.
Joule also pointed out that any potential effects on the East Coast stock of stripers would first be felt here, far away from the stripers’ hub in the Chesapeake.
“We’re the northern range, so if there is any contraction of population, we’re not going to see those fish,” Joule said. “They’re going to concentrate on the epicenter.”
The resulting absence of fish along the coast was the bust. Kind of. But those with longer memories remember the truly bad old days.
According to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fact sheet, striped bass were severely challenged in the 1970s and 1980s as commercial fishermen depleted stocks.
In 1985, many states closed their striper fisheries, according to the fact sheet. By 1995, the recovery of stripers was being hailed as a noteworthy success story.
That success stretched all the way up the Penobscot River to Bangor and Brewer, where shoreside anglers could catch stripers nearly at will. All it took when the fishing was hot was a tasty bloodworm for bait and a weighted hook, and you were likely to hook a fish or 10.
Armed with that knowledge, guides began taking sportsmen up the Penobscot. Fishermen abandoned inland lakes and began trolling the river. And some moved to riverside communities, hoping to take advantage of nature’s bounty right outside their front doors.
Exhibit A: John Kirk.
Kirk is a talkative Bangor attorney who is an avid fly fisherman. When he moved to Winterport in 2006, he quickly decided that ignoring the river that ran past his home would be a huge mistake.
Stripers can be caught on the fly, he reasoned. All he need to do was gear up.
“I was in the river almost every night from the middle of June to the beginning of September and the best we ever did in any one outing was three fish in one night,” Kirk said. “[We] burned up a lot of boat gas and covered the river from Veazie to North Haven.”
Not many fish participated in his frequent excursions, so Kirk decided he had to get more serious about the sport.
“The solution was, in the words of Chief Brody [from the movie “Jaws”], ‘I think we’re gonna need a bigger boat,’” Kirk said.
That bigger boat had all kinds of electronics, including a GPS and a fish-finder. It also had a much bigger motor.
“[It allowed] us to go farther, faster and spend even more money on boat gas,” Kirk said. “Bought that boat in 2008 and landed exactly one striper in the state of Maine on that boat … sold that boat in 2010 and have not striper fished in the Penobscot River since 2010.”
Kirk is among those fishermen who frequent Internet message boards that discuss fisheries and conservation. And he has spent plenty of time trying to figure out why the once plentiful stripers have given the Penobscot short shrift lately.
“One of the theories is that the current in the Gulf of Maine and the warm water in the Gulf of Maine is part of the reason why the fish aren’t coming into the Penobscot, into Penobscot Bay, anymore,” Kirk said, explaining that some anglers think the cold water nearer the Penobscot is avoided in favor of a warmer current that funnels the fish up toward Nova Scotia.
Another theory is that there’s a lack of forage for the hungry stripers to eat in Penobscot Bay.
That could be the case “because of, one, water temperature and two, also because of the midwater trawling that’s been going on involving the herring fishery,” Kirk surmised. “No food, no fish.”
Joule said the ongoing Penobscot River Restoration Project, which includes stocking alewives, or river herring, in some waters so that they’ll return and form self-sustaining runs, could play a role in giving the stripers more of a reason to turn the corner and head up the Penobscot.
“It sure wouldn’t hurt, putting bait in the water,” Joule said. “There’s great potential there. If there’s bait in the water and fish start to enter the river, and you have baitfish, you’re more apt to hold the fish, because fish aren’t going to hold where there’s no food.”
For now, however, Joule is left answering the same question that has been asked for the past half-decade or more.
“Pretty much the question is, ‘Are there [stripers] there or not?’” Joule said. “West of Penobscot Bay, yes. There are fish.”
And in Penobscot Bay?
Take your pick: No, maybe or not yet. Ask Hunter Pate.
Then ask Kirk what it would take to get him back out on a boat in the Penobscot. He lives just a few hundred feet from the water, after all.
“I still get in a boat on the Penobscot,” Kirk clarified. “I just don’t chase stripers. I chase smallmouth [bass]. I’d still go. If I had an afternoon to kill, or an evening to kill, and the tide looked right, I’d still go and check on some of my old spots, just for the fun of it.”
There’s just one thing stopping him, Kirk admits.
“The problem is I’m not geared up, boatwise, for it anymore,” he said. “If I’m in a boat now, it’s usually hanging onto a set of oars in the Kennebec or up at the West Branch [of the Penobscot], chasing salmon and brook trout.”
Where, one would surmise, he spends a lot of time with other former Penobscot River striper fanatics.