An Atlantic salmon makes its way to a holding tank at the Milford Dam fishway at Brookfield Energy in Milford. Credit: Ashley L. Conti

The migratory flow of Atlantic salmon returning to the Penobscot River has picked up a bit in recent weeks as the river water cools, and the total number of fish — an eight-year high — continues to creep upward.

Three previously uncaptured salmon were caught at the Milford Dam fish lift this week, raising the season total to 1,097. This is the first year since 2011 that more than 1,000 Atlantic salmon have returned to the Penobscot.

Atlantic salmon are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act in all Maine rivers. Fishing for them has not been allowed since 2009.

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The lift was closed in mid-August for a short time for scheduled summer maintenance, and was reopened on Aug. 22.

In a regular report on activity at the dam, Jason Valliere of the Maine Department of Marine Resources Division of Sea Run Fisheries and Habitat said that the river temperature is hovering around 70 degrees after peaking near 80 degrees in late July.

“Hopefully as river temps begin to drop fish will start to move around more and we will start seeing better numbers of fish,” Valliere said.

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Valliere also reported an observation that will be of interest to those who are concerned that fish struggle to find the “attracting flow” that is designed to lure them to the fish lift at the Milford Dam.

According to recent evidence, the salmon appear to be finding that lift quite well.

“On another interesting note, 50 fish captured at Milford were radio tagged this year and released back into the river in Brewer [10 miles downstream of the dam],” Valliere said. “Of those 50 fish, 46 of them re-ascended the dam via the lift, one was netted over the dam by [dam staff] during dewatering of the ledges.”

And the three fish that were not recaptured each approached the Milford Dam before deciding to settle in traditional holding pools lower in the river, he said.

Some of the radio-tagged fish were detected as far upriver as Howland and West Enfield.

The DMR crew also counts and documents the presence of other fish species at the Milford Dam. Some notable totals this year: 1.9 million river herring, 2,490 American shad, 2,696 sea lamprey and 102 striped bass have been counted.

The Penobscot salmon returns for the past decade, by year: 2010: 1,281, 2011: 3,037, 2012: 608, 2013: 372, 2014: 254, 2015: 724, 2016: 500, 2017: 817, 2018: 735, 2019: 1,097 (to date).

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...