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Recreational Fishing in Harpswell

Son-in-law Pete chuckled with delight as he pulled up his fishing line which had a life of its own with several squirming mackerel attached to it. His line was rigged with a collection of 7 small flies in what is known as a Sabiki rig. If you position yourself on a local dock with a Sabiki rig and mackerel or herring swimming below, you will soon have a bucket full of fish for the table or to use as bait for larger fish like striped bass. We were fishing from my boat near the mouth of Mackerel Cove that day when the fish finder noted a cluster of baitfish below, an invitation to great fun for fishermen of any age.

Harpswell waters have always yielded fish to those seeking food or fortune. The native inhabitants knew how to catch fish using spears, nets or rudimentary fishing rigs using bone hooks. European visitors were astounded at the bounty of fish in waters such as ours, particularly sought-after fish like cod and haddock. While commercial fishing has suffered a significant drop in volume in the last century, there are still boats plying local and neighboring waters in search of fish for the seafood markets. Many local fishing families continue to chase fish as their ancestors did, in some cases for more than 200 years.

The ocean is ever changing, and the mix of local fish is changing as a result. The rise in average water temperatures and an increase in carbon dioxide levels has impacted the ability of some species to live and reproduce here. Overfishing of many species has forced commercial fisherman to adapt to new conditions or to leave the area for more productive waters. Populations of fish like the valuable cod and herring are far below historic levels but recent years have seen an increase in menhaden (more commonly called pogies), new species like black sea bass and potentially troublesome visitors like great white sharks. Along the coast of Maine species like the Atlantic salmon and shad have been hugely impacted by development, pollution and dams on the rivers used for spawning.

Former harbormaster Jim Hays grew up in a fishing family with roots that go back two centuries. Jim fondly recalls going out in the fishing boat with his grandfather and other men to pursue the great bluefin tuna and cod. The number and size of fish available in the mid-20th century seem almost incomprehensible today. Jim recalls his boyhood years using a handline to catch cod nearly as big as he was at the time. He also remembers watching the men using harpoons to pursue giant tuna as they fed upon huge schools of baitfish.

Striped bass on ice (iStock photo)

Sometime in the 1950’s a visiting “sport” offered Jim’s grandfather $50 to take him out fishing, perhaps one of the first fishing charters in local waters. $50 was a big sum of money in those days so Jim’s grandfather happily accepted the challenge and worked hard to get his boat in shape to host the man who offered such a large sum to catch fish. In more recent decades a number of people have figured out how to make a living using their skills to give paying clients a pleasant and productive day on local waters.

I had a delightful chat with Doug Jewett who lives in Brunswick but has fished Harpswell waters for many years. Doug specializes in fly fishing charters for striped bass, easily the most popular fish for charter customers these days, known for their size, speed and fighting ability on a line. If clients want to pursue other fish species, Doug is happy to accommodate them using a mix of shrimp flies, large and colorful streamers or light plugs that make a popping noise when pulled across the surface of the water.  Doug is not as active these days as he enters his ninth decade but his voice reveals that the thrill of landing a big fish on a fly rod still runs in his veins.

Today there are several charter captains based in or near Harpswell who regularly take clients out for a wide variety of fishing experiences. Jay McGowan runs Striper Swiper II charters for fishing and lobster tours. Emily Morse runs an operation called Cribstone Guide and Charters. They may be running offshore to 40-50 miles out to find the big tuna or to drop lines for popular groundfish like the cod and haddock. The other option is to stay in nearshore waters for mackerel, harbor pollock, or redfish.

The coronavirus pandemic was disruptive to almost everything in our lives and did no favors for folks trying to make a living from fishing charters. But an odd thing happened in 2021 – lots of people had finally had enough of isolation and quarantines so they began seeking outdoor adventures. Golf courses, beaches, parks and campgrounds suddenly were overflowing with people taking advantage of the beauty of Maine’s woods and waters. This spelled opportunity for local fisherman Bill Tranter who opened a new business called Midcoast Charters, with his sturdy 32-foot boat.

Bill has found a steady increase in the demand for his services, with summer visitors looking for fun and fresh food on local waters. He is expecting his business to double this summer based on early bookings.  Some clients are simply looking for a nice day out and they are happy to let the kids haul in a mess of mackerel, harbor pollock or cunner (also known as bergal). Some want to pursue tuna up to several hundred pounds or sharks like the porbeagle or blues, with an occasional thresher or mako on offer. Bluefish used to be a regular catch locally but their numbers have fallen off recently.  The money fish for Bill is striped bass, a seasonal migrant from southern waters, that had been suffering a population drop but seems to be making a comeback. Bill noted that local fishermen have been landing stripers as large as 30 pounds this summer, a handful for any rod and reel.

Harpswell has a notable history in sportfishing thanks to the venerable Bailey Island Fishing Tournament. This event was started in the late 1930’s and over the years grew to attract hundreds of fishing crews to compete for prizes and local fame. Les McNelly was kind enough to chat about the tournament he headed for a number of years. Unlike some fishing tournaments that attract people chasing big money, the Bailey Island Tournament was always more about fun and fellowship, with local fishing captains competing to claim bragging rights for finding the biggest bluefin tuna (not to mention the $2,000 top prize). Getting your name inscribed on the trophy cup was akin to winning the Stanley Cup for some locals!

For a $50 registration fee, fishermen gained the right to pursue fish over several days, always starting with a Monday 7:00 AM start out of Mackerel Cove. There were prizes for first fish caught, largest fish of the day and largest fish overall. The catch varied year to year but it was not unusual to see the weigh in dock covered in big fish two or three deep. Some of the bluefin tuna weighed hundreds of pounds, true monsters of the deep.  In recent years the tournament organizers saw the opportunity to make it more of a family friendly event so they added new categories of fish to the event and prizes for younger fishermen. Sadly, the tournament has been on hold during the pandemic but local supporters are hoping to bring the event back to life in 2023.

The good news is that you can find fish all around Harpswell, whether fishing from a boat or from the shoreline. Old pal Travis Keltner did a lot of flyfishing here over the years, favoring a position at the opening of local mud flats as the tide came in, picking up striped bass that were cruising the shallow waters in search of food like crabs, worms and shrimp. Dan Hoebeke makes a habit of fishing from his front yard once the sun goes down, often catching several striped bass in a session. Dan sent me a photo recently of a 22 pounder that he landed one night (he is silent on the bait used to land the fish for obvious reasons!).

Rob Bryan enjoys chasing the stripers near his home on Harpswell Sound. Either wading or using his canoe, Rob uses either a 7 or 8 weight fly rod or medium action spinning rod to pursue these hard fighting fish. Most of the fish Rob lands are what are called “schoolies,” sub-legal stripers that often run between 16-20 inches long (the legal requirements for keeping a striper vary each year but typically you need to catch a fish larger than 28 inches). Using blue and silver lures by companies like Rebel or Rapala, Rob tries to attract cruising stripers to fall for his imitation fish. At other times Rob might use a popper, making a lot of noise on the surface in hopes of drawing in a hungry fish. Drifting live bait like mackerel is another popular way to fool a striper. Rob used the word “accessible” to describe the striped bass, an apt description and added one caution – be careful if there are seals active in the area where you are fishing because the seals are clever enough to steal a fish fighting on the end of your line!

So, while the days of fish so thick in local waters you could almost walk on them are long gone, there are still plenty of opportunities to wet a line in search of great action. Whether you are dropping a line from a local pier or spending a few hundred dollars for the services of a professional guide, Harpswell waters are capable of yielding a great day on the water and fabulous fare for your dining table. Get out there and take a kid fishing with you!