By Terry Hussey
Imagine the thrill of spending an hour or more to haul in a fighting 20-pound salmon on the Narraguagus River, with a crowd on the bank cheering you on. Phil Harriman of Cherryfield told members and guests at the Milbridge Historical Society that this was a rather common occurrence on the river in the mid-1950's. Harriman was the speaker at the Society's November 12 meeting at the museum.
Harriman showed a video of two different kinds of sport fishing that once flourished in the area. The first part of the film was about a fishing trip to Tunk Lake in mid-April, in the 1950's, for some ice-out fishing. Harriman was guide, cook, and photographer for three businessmen from Needham, Massachusetts, who were fishing for land-locked salmon. They used a 15-foot round bottom boat to navigate the rough waters of the lake. Harriman said most of the fish were two or three pounds, and they were plentiful.
The second part of the video showed fishermen from the Atlantic Salmon Association fishing on the Narraguagus River, usually in Cherryfield. Fishermen from Boston or New York came to stay at the Narraguagus River Inn and fish in the many deep salmon pools. A fisherman could expect to catch a 12-20 pound fish. Often, watching from the bank, was a crowd of onlookers, all offering advice. The largest fish caught in any Maine river was a 26.5-pound salmon caught in Cherryfield.
Harriman said that sport fishing like this began in Cherryfield after World War II, and really only lasted until about 1960. After that time, the number of fish dropped off rapidly, and today the salmon are considered an endangered species.
The video showed pictures of early efforts at salmon restoration. In earl spring, biologists from Craig Brook Hatchery, in Orland, identified a deep pool that contained about 50 adult salmon. Using nets, they trapped the fish into a small area and then used nets to lift them into a truck. They were taken to the hatchery, where the eggs were stripped from the fish in October, so that young could be raised for stocking.
Harriman said that at first, the state stocked brooks with tiny fish, only four or five inches long. "This was not very successful," he said. In later years, they used larger fish, eight or nine inches in length, called smolts. These fish were big enough to be ready to return to salt water immediately. "But the return from stocking was always rather poor," said Harriman.
What ended Salmon fishing?
What caused the demise of salmon in the rivers Downeast? "No one really knows," said Harriman. At first they thought that big trawlers taking fish off the coast of Greenland where they wintered was the problem, but that cause is no longer blamed.
Others cite the large number of seals and cormorants. It's been reported that hundreds of salmon tags from tagged fish have been found on the coastal islands where the cormorants nest. In the rivers, some blame the abundance of pickerel and bass.
Poachers have always been common. Finding a pool full of egg-bearing adult fish and taking them all probably contributed to a sharp decline in the number of fish. Using improper methods of fishing, like jigging or netting, was another problem. "The average fisherman with a rod and reel never took enough fish to cause the decline," said Harriman.
The enthusiastic audience asked many questions of Harriman, the fishermen clearly longing for the return of exciting times and abundant fishing on the river.