Fish Story – Down East

A clubhouse on the banks of the Penobscot River recalls the days when salmon — presidential or otherwise — were plentiful.

By Tom Hennessey

I’ve long wished that the aged clubhouse of the Penobscot Salmon Club could talk. Situated on the Brewer shore of the Penobscot River’s Bangor Salmon Pool, the snug clubhouse is a touchstone to an era when Atlantic salmon fishing attracted anglers from across this country and beyond.

And those anglers from away had a better chance of hooking a salmon if they were invited to fish by members of the Penobscot Salmon Club. Organized in 1887 and incorporated in 1894, the club was restricted to 20 members who selfishly (but wrongly) professed to have private fishing rights to the Bangor pool, where salmon first paused to rest during their spring migrations to spawning grounds on the Penobscot’s North, South, East, and West branches.

Their exclusivist mindset continued into the 1950s, by which time dams, pollution, and commercial netting had nearly exterminated the Penobscot’s salmon runs. Nevertheless, a few of the club’s old-timers were still fishing — fortunately for me, as it turned out.

The first salmon caught was sent to the President, a harbinger of spring for 80 years.

On a June morning in 1950 — my freshman year in high school — Guy Carroll, a salmon club stalwart and a hero of mine, arrived while I was fishing from shore handy to Ryder’s Ledge. Expecting to be scolded for fishing on “private water,” I was relieved when Guy waved and said around his signature cigar, “How about giving me a hand putting my boat in?” Suffice to say, I got to the boat rack before he did.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing when, after carrying the double-ender to the water, Guy invited me to fish with him. So it was that I first ventured onto the swift, tide-turbulent waters of the Bangor Salmon Pool, accompanied by a legendary angler who had caught four “presidential salmon.” The tradition of sending the first fresh-run salmon caught at the pool to the White House each spring was established by the Penobscot Salmon Club in 1912, when William Howard Taft was president. In the years that followed, word that the presidential salmon had been caught at the Bangor Salmon Pool was a harbinger of spring delivered by radio stations nationwide.

Neither Guy nor I had a tap or a tug that morning, but I hooked and landed a memory that time would never tarnish. Subsequently, while attending the club’s annual April 1 opening-day breakfasts as Guy’s guest, I became acquainted with other Maine fishing notables: Horace Bond, Adolph Fischer, Walter Crossman — all men who had caught a coveted presidential salmon. The opening-day festivities actually began the night before, with a high-spirited soiree that was still going strong come morning.

To me, the old-timers’ stories were spellbinding. Through smiles and laughter, they recalled launching boats from shores stacked with anchor ice. They reminisced about fishing in fog-like drizzles, cold rains, snow and sleet — weather that required mackinaws, parkas, hip boots, and rubberized raingear. Yet they fished without life jackets, as if heedless of the danger of drowning, .

Guy Carroll came close, though, one opening day when his boat capsized while he was fishing at the Head of the Ledge. He said a “haystack” of water caught the bow of his double-ender and the next thing he knew, he was in the surging river, clinging to the keel of the boat. Luckily, Adolph Fischer was downriver, fishing on the Lower Shelf. Alerted by the shouts of other anglers, Adolph rescued Guy by towing him ashore while he clung to his own boat with one hand and Adolph’s boat with the other hand. Luckily, Guy’s rod was still in the overturned boat, held beneath a seat by the buoyant cork handle. Likewise, the leathered-and-buttoned oars were still locked, secured by twists of wire connecting the ears of the oarlocks. Undaunted, Guy hurried home, changed clothes, and returned to the salmon pool “to fish out the tide.”

The men embellished their stories with references to the tackle symbolic of the club and the salmon pool: artfully crafted 12- and 14-foot two-handed bamboo rods built by the world-famous Thomas Rod Company of Bangor, vom Hofe reels with drags designed to arrest hit-and-run salmon, and classic feather-winged flies imported from England and Scotland. Overhead, empty rod racks held the names of anglers who made their last casts when the 20th century was young. Long-handled gaffs and pairs of oars were propped in shadowy corners and the smells of bacon frying and coffee brewing mingled with the smoky aromas emanating from cigars, pipes, cigarettes, and the yawning stone fireplace.

The club’s veterans were masters of making do. They shortened legs of old wooden chairs to make comfortable boat seats. To get their flies down to salmon lying deep in the cold water, they made sinking lines by rubbing white lead into lengths of codfish line spliced to the ends of their braided-silk fly lines. They coiled opaque-white catgut leaders in tea leaves and coffee grounds so they’d be less visible in the “alder water” — so called because it was stained dark from tannic acid seeping from alder swales and peat bogs along the Penobscot’s course.

Along with seals and otters, outboard motors were not welcome in the Bangor Salmon Pool. The club members instead rowed highly maneuverable double-enders, aligning their boats with the current and allowing them to drift downward while casting flies over the pools and runs where the salmon rested. That method of fishing was introduced to the club by one Karl Andersen, who fished that way on the rivers of his native Norway. It was Andersen who first sent a salmon to President Taft, initating the presidential salmon tradition.

By the mid-1950s, shouts of “Fish on!” no longer echoed above the brawling waters of the Bangor Salmon Pool. Not until the early 1970s did anglers’ rods bow again to the king of freshwater game fish, thanks to U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie’s Clean Water Act, enacted in 1972, and the salmon-restoration program established by Maine’s Atlantic Sea-Run Salmon Commission. By 2009, the Penobscot’s salmon run was in trouble again. The fish was listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, and fishing was prohibited, drawing protests from anglers who questioned the inclusion of hatchery-reared salmon. More recently, returns of adult salmon to the river have dwindled to only a few hundred fish, in spite of annual stockings of 500,000-600,000 smolts (juvenile salmon). Restoration efforts continue.

Supposedly, it isn’t good to dwell on the past, but I’m forever thankful for Guy Carroll and the other Penobscot Salmon Club veterans who shared their knowledge of Atlantic salmon and fishing with me before I was old enough to shave, guiding me to a career in sporting art and outdoors writing. Small wonder, then, that when I make periodic visits to the old clubhouse, now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, I think of the stories it could tell about the era that spawned the presidential salmon tradition. If only it could talk.

Get more Maine — Subscribe to Down East magazine at this special rate.