Androscoggin River Fly Fishing

Just as Jim Pellerin shouted, the sun broke clear of the clouds.

The golden light boosted the colors of everything it touched. The yellow and red leaves lining the bank brightened. The long grass along the water’s edge softened to pale green. The Androscoggin River turned silver, with bright white ripples floating like frosting on the current.

Regional fisheries biologist John Boland and Jim Pellerin, assistant fisheries biologist, weigh a small rainbow trout they caught on the Androscoggin River as part of a fall fish count.
“I got a rainbow,” Pellerin called out. “Bring the net.”

Many Mainers might find something wrong with this beautiful picture. To those who remember a river that looked bad and smelled worse, the words “beautiful” and “Androscoggin” just don’t seem to belong together.

A few decades ago, before the Clean Water Act, the Androscoggin was among the most polluted waters in North America. Now it looks, smells and fishes like an L.L. Bean commercial. It’s even uncrowded, because to many Maine anglers, fly fishing for trout in the Androscoggin is just unimaginable.

“At this point, that river is kind of undiscovered,” said Pellerin, assistant fisheries biologist. “But people are starting to figure it out.”

Not only is the fishing good on the Androscoggin, but Pellerin and other state fisheries biologists are studying ways to make it better. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife began stocking rainbows last May in about a dozen waters in southern and central Maine, including the upper Androscoggin. The experimental project is designed to assess the benefits and risks of stocking rainbow trout, compared to brown trout and brook trout.

In some waters, equal numbers of brown trout and rainbows were stocked; in other waters, brook trout and rainbows.

Now Pellerin, John Boland, regional fisheries biologist, and other state biologists are beginning to check up on the rainbows by fishing and/or netting most of those waters.

“We need to sample a population, get estimates of survival and get a picture of how they’re doing and how they’re growing,” Boland said.

On the upper Androscoggin 1,700 rainbows and 1,700 brown trout were stocked last spring. But rainbows aren’t new to the river. New Hampshire has been stocking rainbows for years and many drop down into the Maine portion of the Androscoggin.

The river also boasts one of the few wild rainbow populations in Maine, probably the result of stocking decades ago. Those trout managed to hang on even during the polluted years by taking refuge in the cleaner tributaries.

Having so many different sources for the rainbows is one reason it was important for biologists to collect samples on the Androscoggin themselves. Few anglers would take note of the clipped fin that marks one of Maine’s stocked rainbows.

news photo

Boat access to the Androscoggin River:
From the New Hampshire border to Bethel, there is good fishing for rainbow trout and brown trout. Some brook trout also inhabit the cooler tributary systems.
Nor is there any way for the unaided eye to see the difference between a wild fish and one stocked in New Hampshire. That won’t be sorted out until scale samples are analyzed this winter. Fish that spend their early years in a hatchery show a different pattern of scale growth.

“Anglers aren’t going to know if they’re catching ours, New Hampshire’s or the wild ones,” Pellerin said. “So that’s why we’re going and getting the fish data, because we can tell.”

On Oct. 3, Boland and Pellerin paddled a canoe to fish the seven-mile stretch from Gilead to West Bethel. The hands-on method was used because neither the trap nets, which hold fish but don’t kill them, or an electro-fishing boat, which stuns fish long enough to take measurements, would work well on the Androscroggin.

Telegram photographer John Patriquin and I canoed and fished with them. Boland, Pellerin and Patriquin, all excellent fly fishermen, caught 31 trout. Even I, who rarely fish for trout, landed four, for a total of 35.

On Thursday, Pellerin fished the river again, with Francis Brautigan and Scott Davis, also fisheries biologists, and five volunteer anglers. They landed 87 trout: 74 rainbows, 12 browns and one brook trout.

That’s good fishing days on any water. But it’s especially good on a beautiful river on a warm fall day.

“How could you not like it?” Boland said. “We lucked out.”

Collecting their samples by fishing also will help answer a key question in the rainbow study: Are rainbows easier to catch?

On Oct. 3, the answer was yes. Of the 35 fish we caught, weighed and measured only five were brown trout and only one brown had the clipped fin that signaled it was stocked for the study. Of the 30 rainbows, seven were stocked from Maine hatcheries. The rest were unmarked, meaning they either were wild or came from New Hampshire hatcheries.

In Thursday’s catch, only five of the rainbows were marked and so were five browns.

The largest brown trout we caught was 16 1/2 inches and weighed slightly less than two pounds. The largest rainbow was 17 inches, weighed 1 pounds, Pellerin said, and probably was about 4 years old. On Thursday, an 18-inch rainbow was landed, also just under two pounds.

The biggest of the stocked rainbows, now about two years old, was 13 1/2 inches and weighed about  of a pound.

More rainbows than browns may be showing up simply because brown trout are, as many anglers believe, much harder to catch, especially when they grow large and wary. But it could also be, Boland said, because the brown trout aren’t surviving as well.

About 700,000 brook trout are raised in state hatcheries each year and roughly 250,000 brown trout. Those fish are stocked in Maine waters so they can be caught by anglers. If the chance of catching a rainbow is significantly higher than catching a brown trout, Boland said, then rainbows might provide “a bigger bang for our buck.”

Biologists hope that they will find the answers to many questions over the course of this four-year study. But they stressed that much more data will be needed before any conclusions can be drawn.

“All we know at this time, with this little bit of data, is that the rainbows are showing up in much higher numbers than the stocked browns,” Boland said.

Ray Red, an avid angler from Steep Falls, already is convinced that rainbows are easier to catch. In fact, he says, they’re are too easy.

He’s fished Jaybird Pond in Hiram, one of the study waters, for years and was dismayed this season to catch twice as many rainbows as brook trout. He and a friend also fished the Androscoggin in late September, landing about eight or 10 trout, all but two of them rainbows.

“They aren’t very hard to fool,” Red said. “I’m a sportsman. I like the sport of catching fish, not just catching fish. I prefer the challenge.”

Some anglers on the Kennebec River also complained that the rainbows stocked below Shawmut were too easy to catch. But for other anglers, the fact that they’re easier to catch is one of the chief benefits of rainbow trout.

“We got quite a bit of feedback on the rivers this spring,” Pellerin said. “On the Kennebec and the Little Androscoggin, people were very happy and catching a lot of fish.”

Dave Boucher, the fisheries biologist who primarily oversees the upper Androscoggin, says the solution may lie in stocking a combination of browns and rainbows. Avid anglers could enjoy the challenge of landing a brown trout, while average anglers could enjoy the opportunity to catch several rainbows.

“With browns and rainbows you can have both,” Boucher said.

But first more anglers will have to be convinced to give the Androscoggin a try. The bad memories and the black jokes have lasted longer than the polluted water.

Local residents remember when the fumes from the river peeled the paint off nearby houses. They recall chunks of sludge the size of washing machines and sofas. As kids, they say, they warned each other that anyone who fell in would never come out.

Was the river really that bad?

“It wasn’t good,” Rob Donald, who owns a fly fishing shop in North Jay, said with a rueful laugh. “I can remember going out there in a canoe when I was in high school and you could just see the layers (of pollutants) down through.”

It’s still not safe to eat too many fish from the Androscoggin. In addition to mercury warnings, which apply to all inland waters, the Androscoggin is one of a dozen rivers with additional warnings about PCBs, dioxin or DDT. The state advises eating only six to 12 fish meals per year from the Androscoggin.

Most of his Donald’s customers still head toward the West Branch of the Penobscot, the Rangeley Lakes region or other notable fishing spots. They don’t even think of casting a line or launching a canoe into the river in their own back yard.

“I know they’re putting a lot of effort into making the Androscoggin into a place to go play,” Donald said. “But it’s going to be tough.”

Yet out-of-state anglers have no bad memories to block their enjoyment of the river, said David Yeaton, who works at Sun Valley Sports in Bethel. The outdoor guide service takes visiting fishermen on the Androscoggin several times a week.

“It’s a beautiful stretch of river,” Yeaton said. “The fishing’s great. They’re catching fish and they’re happy.”

That’s not to say that local trout fishermen ignore the Androscoggin. Some discovered the good fishing long ago, but “they’re not going to say anything,” Donald joked.

It’s not uncommon to see six to 10 fishermen upstream of the bridge off Route 2 in Gilead, Pellerin said. Other popular spots are where the Wild River meets the Androscoggin and the boat launch in West Bethel.

In addition to the rainbows and browns stocked above Bethel, 5,600 brown trout were stocked below it and another 6,000 at Rumford this year.

Nor is trout fishing the Androscoggin’s only or even primary attraction. Below Rumford, a great smallmouth bass fishery has developed. Some anglers call it the best bass fishing in Maine and some say it’s the best on the East Coast.

“It’s an incredible recreational resource for the people up there,” Boucher said. “As time goes on and we develop the fishery it will really take hold.”