One of the rituals that defined the Queen City of the East each spring was the annual contest to see who would catch the first Atlantic salmon at the famous salmon pool in the Penobscot River between Bangor and Brewer. One of the top contenders for the prize in the early years of the 20th century was Karl Andersen, a Bangor house painter and boat builder. A century ago today, Andersen added a new twist to the contest by sending one of the fish he caught to the president of the United States, a tradition that lasted for much of the century.
By 1912, the salmon competition was well established. “The season at the Bangor pool — the only one in the United States on the entire Atlantic coast — opens next Monday, April 1, and a considerable number of local fishermen will enter the competition for the honor of taking the first salmon, always a much sought after honor,” wrote an enthusiastic reporter for the Bangor Daily Commercial. “It is not an empty honor either, for the first salmon brings $1.25 a pound in the open market and it means a most profitable day’s work to whoever kills it.”
The reporter provided a vivid description of one way to catch a salmon: “Although many men fish from the Brewer banks, the best fishing is had in a boat and any number of competent boatmen may be engaged by the day or hour. The angler is seated in a comfortable arm chair in the stern while the man at the oars takes him up into the quick water near the foot of the dam where the fish lurk.
“When a salmon has once been hooked, it requires skillful maneuvering to land him safely and in this the boatman plays an important part. It is seldom that a good sized one is brought to the gaff within half an hour after he has taken the fly and there are many instances when over two hours have been consumed in killing him. And usually every minute of the time is a fight.”
The drama was heightened each year by the knowledge that the salmon population was declining, and the fish were getting smaller. Some people blamed the decline on the upriver pulp mills and other sources of pollution, while others identified the down river weirs, which caught large numbers of the fish for market.
“Only a very small proportion of the Penobscot River salmon are killed with a fly at the Bangor pool. Most of them come from the weirs between here and Bucksport,” wrote the Commercial. “They are shipped fresh to the city on the Bucksport train and by boat every day and are shipped from here all over the country.”
In fact, not enough salmon were caught at the Bangor pool to supply the local demand. Many of the salmon “sold here and shipped out of the city, actually come from the St. John River,” confided the reporter.
Karl Andersen was a Norwegian immigrant who owned a house painting business in Bangor, one of many enterprises that was destroyed in the fire of 1911. The best account of him that I know of can be found in an article written by Richard Jagels in the January/February 2010 edition of WoodenBoat magazine.
Jagels wrote that besides painting houses, Andersen was a boat builder, specializing in a type of double-ended rowing peapod based on his recollections of a Norwegian craft called a faering. He also speculates that Andersen introduced “harling,” a Norwegian fishing technique requiring an oarsman and a fisherman and a small, maneuverable boat like the faering, to the area.
“The significant role that Karl Andersen played in promoting salmon fishing in the Bangor area, through his peapods, the possible introduction of harling, and the initiation of the Presidential salmon tradition, are mostly unknown today,” wrote Jagels.
Andersen’s prowess as a salmon fisherman was well known a century ago. Before 1912, Andersen had caught the first fish of the season at the pool several times. I have newspaper accounts of at least three such events in 1908, 1910 and 1911. Perhaps there were others.
In 1912, a century ago today, the Commercial wrote up Andersen’s accomplishment this way: “When the early afternoon train left Bangor for the west Tuesday, a handsome, silvery coated, 11-pound Penobscot river salmon reposed on ice up forward in the express car, bound for President Taft at the White House in Washington. It was sent as the gift of Karl Andersen, the lucky angler, who on Monday landed the first two fish taken at the Bangor pool this season.”
Andersen stated his reason for sending the fish to Taft: “As long as Bangor presented President [Taft] with its full quota of delegates to the Republican state convention Monday night, I thought it more than fitting that I should contribute to the city’s meed of honor and respect by sending him the salmon.” My dictionary says that the unusual word “meed” means “a fitting recompense” or (archaic) “a merited gift or wage.”
Andersen actually caught two fish. He sent the second fish to President Taft. The first fish, a 15-pounder, was sent to W. Campbell Clark, president of the Clark Thread Co. of Newark, N.J. Clark had been getting the first fish from the Bangor pool for “a number of years” courtesy of John McGregor of South Lincoln, said the Commercial on April 2. McGregor had died, but his wife was continuing the tradition. Oscar Fickett, a local grocer who specialized in Penobscot River salmon, handled many of these transactions.
The tradition of sending the first fish to the president continued uninterrupted until 1954, when it was ended by a scarcity of fish. Revived for a time in the 1980s, the practice was stopped again in the early 1990s. Today the Penobscot River salmon are classified as endangered while efforts are made to bring them back.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An early version of this story omitted a photo credit line. The salmon pool photo is courtesy of Dick Shaw.