Aggressive fisheries regulations have restored Maine's Moosehead Lake to its rightful place as one of the best destinations in the Northeast for salmon, lake trout and 5-pound native brookies. Our expert has the story! (June 2009)
Anglers who have not recently wet a line in Maine's Moosehead Lake are missing out on some great fishing. Don't plan an April 1 excursion, though. This big, northern lake is surrounded by cold mountain air, and ice-out doesn't generally arrive until May, although good fishing may be had earlier in many of Moosehead's tributaries.
At 40 miles long and 20 miles wide, Moosehead is the largest lake within one state's boundaries east of the Mississippi. In days gone by, Greenville and Rockwood, on the shores of Moosehead Lake, were the destinations of choice for big fish. The rich and famous traveled here by train, populating resorts and lodges around the big lake. Eventually, long vacations and rail travel became less popular, but traveling anglers continue to search out Moosehead, which is still famous for big salmon, wild brook trout and togue (lake trout).
According to Tim Obrey, a regional fisheries biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the fishing at Moosehead declined from phenomenal to just "really good" during the late 1980s, but has rebounded due to careful management.
"In the late 1980s, we documented a dramatic increase in the abundance of wild lake trout in Moosehead Lake," Obrey said. "There were several factors that contributed to changes in the fishery. One important factor was the stricter regulations adopted in the 1970s to protect lake trout until they had the opportunity to spawn. Reductions in bag limits and higher length limits were implemented to increase the number of lake trout in this big lake.
"Also, at about the same time, a new water management plan was adopted to improve winter survival of lake trout eggs," Obrey continued. "Lake trout lay their eggs in October in four to six feet of water around wind-exposed shoals and shoreline areas. Historically, there were many winters when the lake was drawn down to a level that exposed the eggs and reduced survival. The water management plan adopted in the 1970s reduced the winter drawdowns to levels that would protect the eggs until they hatched in April or May.
"These changes in management, combined with historic harvest rates of larger lake trout in the mid-1980s, resulted in an explosion in the number of small lake trout (less than 18 inches) on the lake," Obrey said.
SMELTS IN TROUBLE
Smelts are the primary food source for lake trout and salmon in Moosehead. Soon, swelling lake trout numbers had taxed the forage base and the smelt population took a dive.
"The growth rates of both lake trout and salmon suffered," Obrey recalled. "At the peak of the problem, salmon survival actually declined. There was just not enough food to sustain the coldwater fishery. The department reacted by liberalizing bag limits on lake trout and allowing harvest of smaller fish. We also severely reduced the salmon stocking rates."
The health of the Moosehead fishery fluctuated over the next 15 years.
"There were some signs of improvement in growth rates in recent years," Obrey said.
"However, we suffered another setback in 2006 when another wave of smaller lake trout entered the fishery and the smelt population again declined. In 2008, radical changes in length and bag limits were adopted. Right now, there is no size or bag limit on lake trout under 18 inches."
The department also increased the bag limit on lake trout over 18 inches from one fish to two fish. As a result, harvest rates of smaller lake trout increased from around 5,000 fish per winter to nearly 30,000 fish in the winter of 2008. Anglers also doubled the removal of lake trout over 18 inches.
Obrey said these regulations would likely be in effect for several years so that management objectives for population structure and growth rates can be met.
"Don't let anyone tell you the fishing is poor on Moosehead Lake," biologist Obrey noted. "It is, in fact, quite the contrary. We are working to improve the weight of the fish and increase the number of larger fish, but the catch rates are exceptional for lake trout between 14 and 18 inches. And, the fishing for salmon and brook trout is still very good. We are meeting all our catch rate objectives for these fish, especially on the associated rivers."
Those rivers include Roach, Moose, West Outlet Kennebec and East Outlet Kennebec.
"The Roach River is a really good salmon and brook trout river, primarily in September" Obrey said. "We manage it for all fisheries. We open the dam at First Roach Pond and release water in September to create a fishery there. We manage the water in summer to promote natural reproduction."
The Moose River in Rockwood is also good for salmon, brook trout and the occasional lake trout near the dam during spring fishing.
"That fishery is good all summer," Obrey said. "Smelts drift down from Brassua Lake all summer. It's really good from May to mid-July, and then again in September. We get some really good caddis hatches."
Obrey said that the East Outlet is similar to the Moose River.
"The fishing is really good from May to mid-July," he said. "There is a good caddis hatch, and around the first of June things pick up for dry fly fishermen. The stone fly hatch is at about the same time.
"The East Outlet is also open through October, which provides an extended fishery, which the others don't," Obrey noted. "These are primarily hatchery fish, although anglers catch a few wild specimens. The stretch from the dam to the beach pool is open year-round, but from Oct. 1 to March 31 it is catch and release. It's open all winter long for fly-fishing, and a few hard-core anglers take part in that. There are salmon and trout in there in winter. A good fisherman can catch them."
Obrey recommended that anglers examine the current law book before heading out, as regulations vary on the lake and its tributaries.
"The West Outlet is up the road from East Outlet and is smaller than the East," Obrey said. "Fishing is pretty good in spring and fall. There are a lot of hatchery trout. It's stocked quite a few times during the summer. People do catch some bass there, smallmouths that come up from Long and Indian ponds.
"The lake is stocked with 7,500 salmon," he cont
inued. "But, it's all wild lake trout and brook trout. There is actually a fair number of wild salmon.
"The one place I know that sticks out better than any other is the mouth of the Moose River in early May during the smelt run. That's usually a hotspot for salmon and togue. The north end of the lake from Rockwood to Northeast Carry is probably the best on the lake if anglers are targeting brook trout. Lake trout can be caught just about anywhere," Obrey said.
There are plenty of togue ranging from 15 to 17 inches, he added. While newly relaxed regulations are geared toward fattening up the lakers, anglers do still occasionally catch 5- to 10-pound fish.
Anglers are being encouraged to keep the smaller togue. A new winter lake trout fishing derby has been established toward that goal, held usually in late January and early February. During the three-day event in 2008, anglers caught about 2,000 lake trout.
"Summer anglers catch a lot of 14-to 18-inch salmon," Obrey said. "Brook trout run close to 15 or 16 inches, but they still catch some big brook trout, too. That fishery fluctuates from year to year. Some years are better than others. Every once in a while we get a big wave in the fishery where anglers catch a lot of big brook trout ranging from 3 to 4.5 pounds.
"We never really know when it's coming, but it happens every couple of years so they're still here," Obrey said.
"Maine is one of the last places on the whole East Coast where you can still find big, wild brook trout. They're nearly gone because of habitat loss and spreading exotics. We want to try to preserve that fishery as long as we can," Obrey said.
BASS IN MOOSEHEAD?
Smallmouth bass may also be taken out of Moosehead. This is glad tidings for some and a sore subject for others around the big lake. Bronzebacks were illegally introduced into this primarily coldwater fishery, and they were not particularly welcome.
"There's no size or bag limit on bass in Moosehead," Obrey said, noting that MDIFW is not encouraging that fishery here.
The best bass fishing can be had in Lily Bay.
"The numbers are not great, but they're big. Two- to 3-pound smallmouth bass are not uncommon, and they average 17 inches," Obrey noted.
"Fishing in the Moosehead area has been very good the past two years following several average years," said Bob Hamer, director of the Moosehead Lake Region Chamber of Commerce. "In spring 2007, a wild brook trout caught in Moosehead Lake was weighed in at 6.5 pounds."
The chamber, perched atop scenic Indian Hill, is an excellent first stop for anyone arriving in Greenville from points south. Information about lodging, dining, local guides, bait and tackle shops and events may all be had here.
Call the chamber's office at (207) 695-2702, e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the agency's Web site at www.mooseheadlake.org.
The chamber's fishing link is at www.mooseheadlake.org. Anglers will find a printable list of lakes, ponds and rivers that are open to fishing. An interactive mapping section is under development and will soon be available online at www.mooseheadmaps.com/. Click on "Outdoor Recreation" and then "Fishing" and "Places to Fish."
Hamer also recommended the Moosehead Lake Fishing and Boating Guide by Maine Lake Charts, Inc., in Gardiner, which he said is an excellent angler resource with very accurate depth markings for Moosehead and Indian Pond, as well as boat launch information.
Angler-friendly lodging is available in many locations around and near Moosehead Lake. There are even some free campsites available on a first come, first served basis.
Lily Bay State Park in Beaver Cove has 91 tent and RV sites available along the shores of Moosehead Lake, as well as boat launch facilities.
Call (207) 287-3824 for more information.
Casey's Spencer Bay Camps offers visitors the options of tenting, full service RV sites or cozy cabins. These camps, situated on Stevens Point, jut into the big lake. Boat launching and a marina are on site.
Call (207) 695-2801 or visit www.caseysspencerbaycamps.com.
The Tomhegan Wilderness Lodge and Cabins on the shore of Moosehead Lake in Rockwood offers guest rooms in the 1910-era lodge, as well as fully equipped, hand-hewn log cabins. There's also a general store on site.
Call (207) 534-7712 or visit www.tomhegan.com.
Other lakeside lodging includes Beaver Cove Camps near Lily Bay in Beaver Cove, Wilson's on Moosehead Lake at the East Outlet dam, which also provides guide services. The Birches Resort in Rockwood has a restaurant on site and also provides guide services.
Check with the chamber for a more complete list.
There's no shortage of stores in the region where equipment may be purchased or rented. In downtown Greenville, Northwoods Outfitters will sell or rent pretty much anything a Moosehead-bound angler might need, along with guide services.
Call (207) 695-3288 or visit www.maineoutfitter.com.
Also downtown is the Maine Guide Fly Shop. Owner Dan Legere is arguably the most knowledgeable fly- fisherman/fishing guide in the region, if not the state. His Web site, www.maineguideflyshop.com, is an excellent resource for anglers, and fishing reports posted there often prove invaluable to fly-fishing enthusiasts.
Guided trips include drift boat trips on the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers for salmon, float tubing remote ponds for brookies and bugging for big bronzebacks.
"This shop is a great place to call for daily fishing info because Dan and several of his guides are on the water throughout the fishing season and have a very good idea of what flies are working," Hamer noted.
Call (207) 695-2266 for an up-to-the-minute report.
Kokadjo Camps and Trading Post, on the Roach River and Roach Pond, includes a restaurant, general store, boat rentals and guide services.
Call (207) 695-3993 for details.
Guides Steve Cole of Reel Affair Guide Service, at (207-695-2540), and Bob Lawrence of Lawrence's Lakeside Cabins, at (207-534-7709), will help anglers target lake trout and salmon.
For a bass-fishing guide, contact Chris Young of Young's Guide Service at (207) 695-2661.
Other places to get fishing tackle, bait and other supplies include the Indian Hill Trading Post, Moose
head Bait and Tackle and Kineo Flies.
Greenville is home to the region's Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife office. To pay biologists a visit to either pick their brains for local information or to brag about your catch, drive forward through the blinking yellow light in downtown Greenville toward Beaver Cove, and then take a left onto Village Street. Or, give them a call at (207) 695-3756.
Boating access is plentiful around the lake. Any vessel over 16 feet is best launched at the Greenville Junction Wharf or at the Moosehead Marina in Rockwood. Lily Bay State Park also has facilities to accommodate most sizes of watercraft.
The launch at the Seboomook Campground can handle mid-sized boats up to 16 feet, but the road may not be kind to vehicles hauling larger boats on trailers.
There's an unofficial launch site at Spencer Bay for access to the northern end of the lake, but car-top boats are best here, too. Some anglers do trailer their boats up there, but if you decide to do so, be sure to bring a spare tire!
Visitors to this wilderness region would also do well to keep in mind that cell phone reception is spotty at best once you get off the beaten path. Know where you are going, bring what you might need and let someone know where you're going and when to expect you back.
For general fishing information, lake and pond maps, access information and more, call the MDIFW information line at (207) 287-8000 or visit the agency's Web site at www.state.me.us/ifw/. For travel information, contact the Moosehead Lake Region Chamber of Commerce, or call the Maine State Office of Tourism, (888) 624-6345; or visit www.visitmaine.com.