After a Seven-Year Ban, Salmon Fishing Returns to Maine
BYLINE: By PAM BELLUCK
Forget your trout, your striped bass. Wild Atlantic salmon are a fisherman's Holy Grail.
They are fickle, finicky and feisty, and, in recent years in this country, few and far between.
So scarce that in 1999, Maine, the last American bastion of wild Atlantic salmon, closed its rivers to salmon fishing to save the salmon, whose numbers had shrunk from pollution, dams and other forces. But it dealt a blow to fishermen around the country, especially those who recall the heyday, when the first silvery salmon caught in Maine each year went to none other than the president of the United States.
Now, with salmon slowly returning, Maine has opened its first wild salmon season in seven years -- a month of restricted fishing on the state's storied Penobscot River.
It is drawing people from as far as Washington State and South Carolina, in hip-waders and in boats.
[But it took until Wednesday, nearly two weeks after opening day, for the first salmon to be caught.
[It was landed by Beau Peavey, a 22-year-old junior in college (''I took two years off to fish,'' he said), who is such a devotee he has been on the river before sunrise every morning and again every evening since the season's first day. The salmon -- a frisky 32-inch 12-pounder that fought back with ''four jumps and a couple of good long runs'' -- was caught after Mr. Peavey abandoned his own flies and used a pink fly created years ago by a now-deceased member of his salmon club.
[''From the time I was 9, I spent every waking minute up there fishing,'' he said. ''The river closed when I was 15, and I caught one of the last legal fish in 1999. I fish religiously -- that's my life.'' Mr. Peavey is a spring chicken in the salmon game here.]
Before dawn on opening day, Bill Claus, 79, waded into the shimmering river, having thought he would not live long enough to fish for salmon here again. Also there was Ivan Mallett, 87, who caught a ''presidential fish'' 25 years ago and hand-carried it to the White House and into the arms of Vice President George H. W. Bush (who was on salmon duty because President Ronald Reagan had been shot and was in the hospital.)
Although most fishermen have been outfoxed by the fish so far, few seem to mind. ''A salmon is called a fish of a thousand casts,'' said Dick Ruhlin, president of the Eddington Salmon Club. ''For most people, to catch one is the catch of a lifetime.''
The Eddington club and others were once so overflowing with anglers that a club member had to die for someone to get off the waiting list. Since the salmon ban, membership has dwindled, clubs have mostly been fishing for cribbage cards, and ''we're begging for people to come in,'' said Bob Wengrzynek, president of the Maine Council of the Atlantic Salmon Federation.
''A lot of the clubs have people who don't fish anymore because they can't, but 20 years ago they caught a salmon,'' Mr. Wengrzynek said. ''It's not about fishing, it's about the social structure. A lot of people will fish vicariously. When there's one person fishing, there's 20 people watching, and, by extension, that's 21 people fishing.''
So it was not surprising that Charlie Colburn, 84, showed up, even though arthritis keeps him from casting a line. ''Holy mackerel,'' he said, cane-hobbling along the riverbank. ''I think it's just great. So these people do get a chance to fish for that fish, to have the honor of hooking one of those fish, the king of all fish. There's no fish that can touch her.''
But the king of all fish has proven vulnerable to manmade meddling. Pollution from paper mills, blasting by logging companies, and dams that impede salmon migration helped slice the Penobscot salmon population to 530 in 2000, from nearly 5,000 20 years ago, said Patrick Keliher, executive director of the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission.
Other efforts to restore salmon included restocking fish and tracking them with transponders. An environmental coalition is raising $25 million to buy three dams from a power company, tear down two of them and build a fish bypass around the third.
But while the dam project is expected to restore thousands of salmon, it will take years. And with just over 1,000 salmon currently in the Penobscot, Maine's largest river, Mr. Keliher said, state biologists felt they could allow limited fishing, with the hope of ultimately resurrecting a sport that once drew millions of tourism dollars into Maine's economy.
''This is a big balancing act for us,'' Mr. Keliher said. ''Can we continue to have positive restoration efforts at the same time we're conducting recreational angling? We're going to eat the elephant one bite at a time.''
Maine is starting with baby steps: fall fishing, when salmon are smaller; catch-and-release only; no barbs on fishhooks; and no fishing when the water temperature hits 70 degrees because hooked fish recover better in cooler water. Mr. Keliher said each salmon reaching the Veazie Dam, where they are temporarily trapped, will be checked to see if it was hooked and what condition it is in. If the fish seem to withstand the fall season, Maine may allow the more-popular spring fishing.
The restrictions satisfied most environmentalists, said Andrew Goode, board president of the Penobscot River Restoration Project, the coalition buying the dams.
''We're about restoring the fish, but we're also trying to get the communities to turn their attention to the river,'' said Mr. Goode, who is also vice president for American programs at the Atlantic Salmon Federation, a conservation group. ''We're trying to raise so much money for this project. It's nice for politicians to see public interest in the river.''
More than 200 fishing licenses have been sold. At the Eddington salmon pool, where a path to the water was freshly graveled to ease the strains on arthritic knees and replacement hips, many anglers arrived in predawn blackness.
Some sailed small boats called peapods, while those on the shore followed the age-old salmon-fishing formula: placing their poles in a wooden rack, waiting their turn on a tarp-shrouded bench and performing a kind of angler's ballet, one after another.
''Take a cast, take a step and work your way up river,'' said Mr. Ruhlin, 70, of the salmon club. ''We're here because we love the sport, we love the river, and we're taking turns.''
There was sedate enthusiasm when David Horn, 65, a salmon veteran who has snagged them as far away as Russia, hooked one from his drift boat but lost it after 15 seconds. Mr. Claus saw one roll out of the water, but nowhere near his hot orange harr wing wet fly.
Mr. Mallett watched at first, his wife, Gloria, explaining that nowadays ''he does most of his fishing from the couch.''
And Joel Bader, 45, who heads the bass-fishing club in Bangor, was hoping the salmon would start biting, planning to yank his 10-year-old son out of school if they did.
''I was last here when fishing ended, and I'm here today,'' Mr. Bader said. ''It's amazing, really part of history. It's what every fisherman strives to achieve -- catching Atlantic salmon. It's what I want to achieve, especially on the Penobscot River.''