OLD TOWN, Maine — Hundreds of years ago, they called this set of rapids off French Island “Shad Rips,” and it was a reliable place for native people and settlers to find yearly migrations of large, silver fish. Those fish were shad, not salmon.
Then the dams were built on the lower section of the Penobscot, shutting off that migration. The river grew polluted. The American shad weren’t able to reach their spawning grounds, and runs evaporated.
But still, a few locals knew this place by the same name.
Cheryl Daigle of Old Town is one of those locals. And on Friday, June 10, she welcomed a group of anglers to celebrate an occasion that she said was special. The invited guests arrived with fly rods in hand and quickly learned that the situation on the Penobscot has changed drastically.
The shad are back.
“It’s absolutely thrilling to see people fishing out here,” she said. “It’s kind of like a dream come true after all of the hard work that we’ve done to bring these fisheries back.”
Daigle was among those who worked on the Penobscot River Restoration Project, which stretched over 16 years and resulted in the removal of two dams on the lower Penobscot and a fish bypass being built at a dam upriver.
Three years ago, the dams started coming out. And it didn’t take long for the shad to realize that they could swim into places that had been impassable for more than 150 years.
Last year, after both downriver dams had been removed, 1,806 shad returned to the river. This year, that total is already at 3,250. On a single day last week, 1,000 shad were counted at the Milford Dam.
Denis “Dee” Dauphinee of Bradley is one of those anglers who have been eagerly awaiting the return of shad to Shad Rips. He and his son, Hazen, have been scouting the river for four weeks before heading to Old Town on Friday.
Dauphinee has done his homework on shad, and explained what kind of water he’d been looking for.
“[Shad] don’t typically hold in big eddies like brook trout do,” he said. “They’ll hold at the base of a set of rips, or anywhere there’s a current change or any kind of structure that’s going to be an obstruction for them.”
Dauphinee said shad get confused when they reach a change of current, and they will often hunker down and wait for water temperature or light to change.
It didn’t take him long to find a likely spot at the tail of Shad Rips, and in 20 minutes, he brought three shad to hand.
Why shad? Because they’re feisty and fun to catch. According to a Maine Department of Marine Resources fact sheet, shad are sometimes called “the poor man’s tarpon,” because they fight hard and tend to leap from the water.
Shad can range from 3 to 9 pounds and can grow to 30 inches. They feed on plankton but will strike lures, baits and flies.
Shad are anadromous fish and return from oceans to rivers — such as the Penobscot — to spawn in the spring.
All of which made them an attractive target for this group of anglers.
As did this: Pete Douvarjo of Sedgwick is a registered Maine guide who splits his time taking people on fishing trips — family fun outings and shark adventures off the coast, smallmouth bass trips on the Penobscot — and was looking to do some advance scouting for a shad fishery he expects to explode in the coming years.
“I talk to my colleagues on the Kennebec [River], and they have this unbelievable shad fishery,” Douvarjo said. “[Shad trips] would be a good thing to be able to offer, even if you only do it once or twice a year.
And what does the appearance of shad after such a long hiatus mean to him?
“This is the river coming back to life. That’s what this is,” Douvarjo said.
Pat Keliher, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, didn’t fish on Friday. But when told about the group’s success, he said he wished he’d brought a fly rod with him to a Penobscot River Restoration Project celebration in Howland that was held earlier this week.
At that celebration, attendees were told that a single shad also had been counted at a dam in Enfield, about 20 miles upriver from Old Town.
“We had so little information on what was happening with shad in the river [we didn’t know what to expect],” Keliher said. “It really wasn’t until some studies were done by [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and UMaine that we said, ‘It looks like we may have more shad here than we expected.’”
While the return of river herring to the river — more than 1.2 million thus far in 2016 — was expected, the shad remained a bit of a mystery.
Keliher said that intensive stocking of river herring helped “seed” the river, and biologists were confident that they’d head to sea, then return to spawn.
Shad were not stocked, he said. The shad were in the river already, looking for a way to get upstream.
“It was really hard to say how they would respond to some of the early dam removals. But obviously, it’s been a great response,” Keliher said. “It just goes to show you: You expand these rivers, you open up these rivers, and the fish respond.”