I was brought up to respect the people who work on the water; whether they build, harvest, transport or protect, those of us who are recreational water users should always remember that we are playing and they are working.
Much of my experience as a boater has been along the New England coast or the massive inland waterways of the United States, and it’s pretty easy (and really important) to be respectful when you are heading up-river on the Illinois River in a 28-fot pleasure craft and meeting a 1,000-foot tow coming down.
Even with the differences between pleasure boaters and the professionals, we can learn from each other. I’ve been boating the coast of Maine for over 60 years, and the changes I’ve seen to recreational fishing are incredible, and mostly not good.
I don’t pretend to be a researcher, but I remember as a kid fishing from my Dad’s 13.5-foot lap strake skiff (built by Dewey Winchenbach of Waldoboro in about 1960) and almost never pulling up the hand-line without a fish on it. I have to admit that not all of the fish were keepers—nobody really wants a spiny dogfish or a skulpin in the boat, but there were lots of cod, haddock, hake, mackerel, bluefish, stripers and pollock, and some of them could be caught well up the Muscongus River in relatively shallow water. Now, with a few exceptions, those waters have no bottom fish at all and even the surface fish are inconsistent.
Over the past four years, I’ve rented a 20-foot Bertram “Moppie” from Jeff’s Marine in Thomaston and spent weeks every year looking for fish. I’ve fished all over the place up and down the St. George’s River, around the islands near Port Clyde, and out past Allen Island in upwards of 200 feet of water.
I’m generally looking for mackerel, bluefish or bottom fish, but I’ve found zip in that whole area with the exception of very inconsistent mackerel in Port Clyde harbor. It’s amazing that not even the junk fish (with apologies to the marine biologists) are around anymore —you used to be able to catch a spiny dogfish with just about anything.
This past fall, I did much better, but I had to travel for it. Based upon some good advice from local fishermen, I tried using high-low rigs with clams or squid over the ledges off of Monhegan, and I caught lots of fish; mostly small cod (released everything), some pollock, mackerel, red-fish and a couple of skulpin. The biggest cod was 24.5 inches, but most were in the 12- to 14-inch range.
Fishing up one side and down the other of the ledges, I found the most cod in 65- to 90-feet of water, with a few down to 125 feet, and lots of little stuff up to 30 feet. I also think I saw two schools of tuna on the surface, but I wasn’t set up to fish for them.
I’d fished these ledges before, but never with such a good result, and it seems to me that this kind of fishery seems to have recovered a bit. I reported my results to the Maine Department Marine Resources, and they have asked that I keep records of how I do next year when we return to the Midcoast in August and September.
Now I certainly can’t say with any authority that this is good news for the commercial fisheries, but I spoke to a Monhegan lobsterman who told me that he had been finding cod in his traps in deeper water, and that there might be more of them than last year. I found it interesting that there were no haddock or hake at all, and most of the junk fish were still missing, and there is still almost nothing on the bottom further in-shore.
I’d like to hear what others have found with bottom fish in-shore and ten or 12 miles out. Maybe better luck for this recreational fisherman can eventually translate to better catches for the professionals.
Alan F. Spear lives in Batavia, Illinois, but is a regular visitor to the Maine coast and islands. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.