Minutes before a July sunrise over Popham Beach, at the mouth of Maine's legendary Kennebec River, an outgoing tide and swirling currents roil the water to a froth, churning bait in a spin cycle and drawing marauding schools of tail-slapping stripers to the surface.
The sights and sounds are cliché Maine, but jaw-dropping nonetheless: seals bobbing in the current, herring gulls cartwheeling and diving, lobster boats chugging their way to sea, a lighthouse swirling yellow light through ocean mist.
Get up early, and you can catch this kind of fishing then be back in time for breakfast with the family. The close proximity of world-class fishing to top vacation destinations is what sets Maine apart from virtually any other state in the country. Fast fishing for trout, salmon, large- and smallmouth bass and saltwater species like striped bass, bluefish and mackerel, can be had next door to the very same places your spouse or kids might otherwise choose for a family vacation.
Taking advantage of this happy "coincidence" begins with a map of Maine's top tourist destinations (Maine's Office of Tourism is a good place to start) followed by close study of this big state's topography, bait runs, spawning activity, insect hatches, fish species and water levels.
Get a jumpstart by hiring a Registered Maine Guide early in your trip. They'll key you in to the best locations and the proper size and type of lure — important if you plan to do-it-yourself the rest of your stay — and you're all but guaranteed to catch fish, which is the best way to start any vacation. Freshwater fishing licenses cover you for both fresh and salt; buy one and check local regulations before you go online from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Here are six great places to fish in Maine, and our advice on how and when to plan your family vacation around them:
THE KENNEBEC, BATH & CASCO BAY
Striped Bass And Beaches
The churning currents, seals and stripers of the tidal Kennebec aren't just a tired cliché. They're real. The Kennebec has long been heralded as one of the world's fishiest rivers, and its beaches and quaint coastal towns are among New England's most unique tourist destinations.
In 1999, Edwards Dam, upriver in Augusta and a relic of the early New England dam-building era, was breached. Historical fish runs of alewives, shad, striped bass and sturgeon came storming back into the river.
As it happens, these newly-revived baitfish runs — and the early-summer arrival of big, predatory striped bass and bluefish that feed on them — reach their peak just as the weather begins to warm along Maine's coast, yet another happy coincidence. Expect swarms of "schoolie"-sized stripers in the 12- to 26-inch range between Bath and Merrymeeting Bay by early June. Good fishing continues through the summer.
The Kennebec is big water, with complex rips, tides and navigation. That shouldn't scare you away. In fact, it makes for a perfect excuse to plan an early morning excursion with a local charter boat captain early in your stay (no license required if you fish with a guide.)
Later in the trip, take your kids and family out, too. Popham and nearby beaches — Head Beach, and Small Point, for example, are a great choice for shore-bound, do-it-yourself anglers of any stripe. Surf casters take fish in low light on top-water poppers, soft plastics in the 7- to 10-inch range and paddle-tail swimmers. And bait fishing on bottom with fish-finder or Carolina rigs, eels, bloodworms or chunk bait can be excellent even on the brightest Maine summer day. Pack a sand spike, beach towels, bathing suits and the kid's toys. Everyone will be happy here.
Information on saltwater fishing in Maine, including regulations and registration requirements, can be found at the Department of Marine Resources website.
Extend Your Stay
- Check into one of the region's prospering farmer's markets to stock up on snacks and lunch for day trips.
- For the more adventurous, a hike into Seawall Beach, a stunning strip of white sand across the Morse River from Popham, offers fishing, swimming and hilltop views of some of Maine's most beautiful maritime scenery.
- On your way north, or south, stop in anytime at L.L.Bean — no locks on the doors here — or shop Freeport's outlets on rainy days.
GREENVILLE & MOOSEHEAD LAKE
Native Brook Trout & The Best Moose Watching In The Lower 48
Maine's best trout and salmon fishing swirls in an orbit around its biggest and arguably, most beautiful lake: Moosehead.
The lake, vast, undeveloped spruce forests and surrounding network of quiet gravel roads, mountain hiking paths, beaver bogs, trout ponds and rivers also happen to be the best place in the Lower 48 to spot a moose. Maine's moose population statistics speak for themselves. With 76,000 moose wandering the state's woods and waters, there simply is no better place to see this big, lumbering, crowd-pleasing mammal south of Alaska — and certainly no place as easy to do it with your family.
Both the moose watching and fishing are best sampled using the lakefront towns of Greenville and Rockwood, with their many quaint sporting camps (see the Maine Sporting Camp Association for some ideas) as a home base. And there's no reason why you can't do both, often at the same time. It's not uncommon to spot a moose when you're fishing, hiking, paddling or driving to and from your day-trip destination.
For the angler, seeing a moose just makes a great day even better. Maine is one of a handful of places in the world — and by far the most accessible — where you can catch wild landlocked salmon in lakes and rivers, and native brook trout in ponds and streams. Higher elevations around the lake mean the fishing stays good long after it begins to wane in southern New England.
Here again, a guide will make the job easier. But if you're fishing on your own, the options are endless. Hundreds of native brook trout ponds lie within an hour's drive. The East Outlet of the Kennebec, Roach River and West Branch of the Penobscot — all fabled trout water — are within striking distance.
Extend Your Stay
SEBAGO & PORTLAND
Bass & Beer
It's hard to imagine a more conveniently situated lake than Maine's sprawling Sebago. It's also hard to find one with better and more diverse fishing.
At just 20 minutes from downtown Portland, on Maine's island-studded Casco Bay, you can enjoy world-class large- and small-mouth bass fishing along its picturesque shorelines, catch pie-plate crappies over spawning beds, even troll for salmon and togue (Maine for lake trout) over deeper water. When it's all done, sample the sights, food and drink (think: beer) of Portland, one of the country's most unique, event-filled and up-and-coming coastal cities.
In fact, this is one place where you can truly do it all. A well-situated bed-and-breakfast, hotel, inn or even rental accommodation on Sebago, in Portland or one of myriad surrounding lakes put it all within reach.
The freshwater bass spawn starts when lake water temps reach 60F, usually in late May and early June at this latitude, and the top-water action is red hot through June and July. It's hard to go wrong with a spinner bait, live bait or popping bug placed enticingly close to the big boulders that line Sebago's shorelines, docks and downed trees. Live bait, readily available, works great too. There's enough water — and species — to keep you and the kids busy for a week or more. Watersport options abound — so do hiking, biking and birding.
Extend Your Stay
- Maine's craft beer scene is second-to-none. There's even a "beer trail" for serious samplers.
- Kids will love Portland's Children's Museum.
- And this friendly city's restaurants offer some of the East Coast's finest eateries.
Trout And Salmon To The West, Bass To The East
Katahdin looms over nearly every stream, river, pond and lake in the greater Millinocket area, which means eye-popping scenery on every hike, bike, paddling, rafting or fishing trip. It's hard not to come back without beautiful photos and memories.
But for the angler, this place lies on an imaginary line that doesn't appear in any guidebook or tourist map, between world-class smallmouth bass fishing (to the south and east) and world-class trout and salmon fishing (to the north and west). The West Branch of the Penobscot, below Ripogenus Dam, harbors some of the best big brook trout and landlocked salmon fishing south of Labrador. Fly anglers shouldn't miss its renowned late June and July caddis hatches, which draw enormous fish to the surface in splashy rises.
Further down river on the Penobscot, the species mix shifts to smallmouth bass. The fishing here — and in many surrounding rivers and lakes — is second to none in this part of the world. Fifty fish days and 2-3 pounders are common here. Spin, bait and fly-fisherman are welcome.
For those seeking to get off the beaten path in Maine's fabled northwoods, this is your place. Camping opportunities abound in Maine's North Woods. Baxter State Park, home to Mt. Katahdin and dozens of remote, trout-filled lakes, offers cabins and primitive campsites (reservations required, see Baxter website here). And the greater Millinocket area offers lodging options from simple motels to lakefront lodges.
Extend Your Stay
- Climbing 5,267 ft. Mt. Katahdin is a quintessential Maine experience not to be missed. Start early and soak in sublime views that have changed little since Henry David Thoreau enjoyed them.
- And for those who still haven't spotted a moose, quiet country roads here are a sure bet to see your first.
Bass The Easy Way
Quaint and quiet describe the countryside here. The fishing, though, can be explosive. Dozens of bass lakes — some well known, and some unknown — dot the countryside here. Many offer trout fishing as well. Access points and boat launches are equally abundant.
Combine a car-top canoe or motorboat, either your own or a rental, with a Delorme's Map and Gazetteer — an indispensible tool that references all of the public boat ramps and access points in the state — and you could easily plan a week of family watersport and fishing adventures, fishing and paddling a different pond or lake every day. This is a place where you go to explore. There's nothing too far off the beaten path here — but it hasn't affected the fishing one bit. The ease of access is perfect for young families seeking accessible adventure.
Long Pond, Great Pond and Messalonskee Lake are the best known of the Belgrade chain, but the maps are splashed with blue throughout the region. A bit further south are Cobbossee, Maranacook and Androscoggin Lakes — tournament bass country where largemouths and smallmouths abound.
This region's central location makes it convenient for striking off to any of the other destinations mentioned here — opening the door to both saltwater and world-class trout and salmon fishing.
Extend Your Stay
- The Kennebec Land Trust has kindly conserved land throughout this region, offering plenty of options for family friendly day hikes.
- Crystal clear, cool water and hundreds of lakes with public access and beaches make for some of the cleanest, most refreshing swim holes in the country.
Big Brook Trout And Big Mountains
The Rangeley region is perhaps New England's oldest, most traditional, and best-known trout and salmon-fishing destination. But smart regulations and vast, still largely undeveloped, crystal clear headwater lakes mean that this well-known destination surprises with more and bigger fish every year.
In short: If you have serious anglers in your family, and some time to spend at it, you're probably more likely to catch a trophy brook trout or salmon here than anywhere else. The Magalloway, Rapid, Kennebago and Rangeley Rivers steal headlines for fly fishermen. These rivers fish best during the mayfly hatches, but 3- and 4-pound brook trout are taken by savvy anglers (or those with a guide) on nymphs and streamer all season-long.
For those who prefer to troll or fish lakes, options abound. Try Rangeley, Cupsuptic, and Mooselookmeguntic for trout and salmon on leadcore or downriggers. Sewn smelt, spoons and spinners all take fish when presented at the proper depth. Several tackle, outdoor sport and fly shops in Rangeley and Oquossoc are happy to advise.
Extend Your Stay
For families who love the outdoors, it's hard to find a place with more options. Several 4,000 footers grace the spine of Maine here, the Appalachian Trail runs through it all, and Sugarloaf Mountain — with golf, hiking and mountain biking (and skiing in winter) — is a short drive east. Finally, no fishing outing in the Rangeley area can be complete until you've visited The Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum — an incredible display of record fish sporting memorabilia the whole family will love.