West Branch Salmon
September 29, 2010
This portion of Maine's Penobscot River is one of the Northeast's top fisheries. Here's how you can join the action. (May 2010)
The West Branch from Big Eddy downstream to Ambajejus Lake is a challenging stretch of river with everything from flat water to heavy rapids and waterfalls. Rapidly changing water flows can take even the most experienced angler or paddler by surprise, so caution is advised.
Anglers in search of wild landlocked salmon in a remote setting would be hard pressed to beat Maine's West Branch Penobscot River. This mighty river drains mostly undeveloped, forested areas to the northwest, north and northeast of Moosehead Lake. The West Branch Penobscot is one of the Northeast's finest salmon fisheries. As with any river, some stretches provide better angling than others.
"Focus on the section between Ripogenus Dam and Pemadumcook Lake," advised Tim Obrey, a regional fisheries biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. "It's a unique section of river. I can't think of any other place with a resident population of river salmon. This is not a population of fish that comes up from the lakes to spawn. These salmon winter in the lower areas of the river. As the water temperature starts to warm up they start migrating upstream."
Obrey said the best early spring fishing is from below Rip Dam downstream to Abol Bridge.
"As summer goes along those fish move up the river," he said. "By June they're above Telos, Big Eddy and Little Eddy. The fishing is good all summer because of the cold water coming through Rip Dam.
"The West Branch Penobscot below Chesuncook is probably one of the premier salmon fisheries in New England but it would not be there if not for the hydro-power station," Obrey noted. "It keeps the water cold and keeps flows consistent all summer. Without the dam, the releases river would dry up. Therefore, anglers have some of the best fishing in July and August when in other places there would be no flow at all."
Obrey said the dam also creates "smelt drift" in the river when smelts from Chesuncook Lake are swept down to the West Branch Penobscot.
"Smelt drift peaks in the wintertime, giving salmon a ready food source in winter," he said.
"The West Branch has good sources of food for salmon all year," Obrey said. "It has unbelievable caddis hatches in June and July. It can look like a blizzard up there in June when the caddis flies are coming off."
Early spring anglers may want to fish smelt imitation patterns.
"In fact, many fishermen use some type of dead smelt or drifting pattern," Obrey advised. "But, once the caddis hatch starts, that's the bread-and-butter fly up there. There's a West Branch caddis pattern that is pretty well known. Or, fish dry or emergent patterns such as a Lafontaine caddis, which floats just under the surface."
When fall rolls around, it's time for fly-fishing enthusiasts to try a new tack.
"In September, a lot of people, start to use streamer attractor patterns," Obrey said. "The Montreal Whore is the new go-to fly up here in fall for salmon. You want something flashy, with marabou, plus attractor patterns that make the fish angry.
"The salmon are already in an agitated state come September because they're getting ready to spawn -- they get really aggressive. They don't feed as much in fall, so most people switch to attractor patterns," he added.
The North and South branches of the Penobscot River feed into Seboomook Lake. The West Branch Penobscot flows from Seboomook downstream for about 200 miles to its confluence with the East Branch Penobscot in Medway.
Perhaps the section of the West Branch that is best known for its excellent salmon fishing and white-water rafting opportunities is the stretch that flows from Rip Dam to Abol Bridge.
From Little Ambejackmockamus to Big Ambejackmockamus, there are plenty of great fishing spots that are accessible after a short hike. Downstream from the Horserace Rapids is the Nesowadnehunk Dead Water, also called Sourdnahunk Deadwater by locals.
The two-mile deadwater ends at Sourdnahunk Falls. This is one of the river's more popular fishing holes. If it's too crowded, better and more solitary fishing may be found another hundred yards or so downstream.
Two streams, the Abol and Katahdin, flow into the West Branch at Abol Bridge Pool providing cool, flowing water well into the hot summer months. Good salmon fishing may be found even farther downstream as the West Branch winds its way toward Ambejejus and Pemadumcook lakes.
The privately owned Golden Road, which runs through Maine's north woods paper company lands, provides relatively easy access to premier salmon water from Millinocket up to Rip Dam. This region is relatively undeveloped, and with some stretches of the river measuring 200 feet in width, there's plenty of quiet riverbank or float pool for everyone.
Because this is active paper company land, always give lumber trucks the right of way and be sure vehicles are parked well off the roadway.
Regulations vary depending on time of year and the stretch of the West Branch being fished. From Seboomook Dam down to Chesuncook, fishing is allowed with artificial lures only from April 1 to Aug. 15. Fly-fishing only is allowed from Aug. 16 to Sept. 30.
From Rip Dam down to the Telos Road Bridge, the river is open April 1 to Sept. 30, fly-fishing only, with a minimum length of 26 inches on salmon.
From Telos downstream to the head of Debsconeag Falls, salmon fishing is allowed using artificial lures with one hook (single point or treble) from April 1 to Aug. 15, with a minimum length limit of 18 inches. The same length limit applies from Aug. 16 to Sept. 30 with fly-fishing only.
The daily creel all along the West Branch Penobscot is one salmon per day.
For more information about the West Branch Penobscot, check DeLorme's Maine Atlas and Gazetteer, maps 42, 43, 49, 50 and 51.
For Maine fishing information, call the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife at (207) 287-8000 or visit www.maine.gov/ifw/. For information about the Moosehead Lake region, contact the Moosehead Lake Region Chamber of Commerce, (207) 695-2702 or www.mooseheadlake.org.
The West Branch Penobscot is in a remote area, to be sure, bu
t there are plenty of places to set up camp, and knowledgeable outfitters provide hot-spot tips, tackle and guide services.
Big Eddy Campground, owned by the Chewonki Foundation, offers 62 campsites for tents, pop-ups and RVs up to 28 feet long, plus a few sites for longer fifth-wheel units. Cabin rentals are also availablable.
Call (207) 882-7323 or visit www.chewonki.org and select "Popular Pages" and then "Big Eddy Campground."
Allagash Gateway Campsites on Ripogenus Lake has cabins and 50 primitive campsites, RV sites, a marina and canoe rentals, and provide transportation to the West Branch Penobscot.
For details call (207) 723-9215 or visit www.allagashgateway.com.
Frost Pond Camps at Ripogenus Dam has campsites and rustic cabins. Call (207) 433-0328 or e-mail email@example.com.
Abol Bridge Campground and Store offers campsites with tables and fireplaces, plus a bathroom with flush toilets and metered hot showers. A small camp store has groceries, ice, firewood, gasoline and propane but no phone.
Write to Abol Bridge Campground, P.O. Box 536, Millinocket 04462.
Stop by the Maine Guide Fly Shop at (207) 695-2266 or www.maineguideflyshop.com, or try or Northwoods Outfitters (866) 223-1380 or www.maineoutfitter.com) in downtown Greenville for "where they're biting" information, gear and guide services.