On April 1, 1912, winter still gripped the lower Penobscot River valley. Ice crowded the Bangor waterfront. Downstream, commercial salmon fishermen waited to drive their nets into the muddy bottom of the bay. The fishermen who worked the weirs were anxious, unsure if the catch would follow the previous year’s harvest of close 9,000 salmon, the largest in some time.
Karl Anderson, a house painter and member of the Penobscot Salmon Club, likely left his house before dawn in order to be on the river at first light.
According to the Bangor City Directory for that year, Anderson’s route would have taken him from his house on Otis Street along a small stream and across State Street and the railroad tracks, beneath the new electric wires strung between poles.
At the water’s edge was Anderson’s peapod-shape fishing boat, a kind of double-ended rowing canoe. He had made the boat himself of wood and canvas, based on designs he remembered from his home country of Norway. As he rowed into the river, fellow anglers may have watched from the maroon and yellow-trim porch of the clubhouse, now on the National Register of Historic Places. Inside the clubhouse cabin, more fishermen gathered around the two fireplaces. Sucking cigars and sipping whiskey, they leaned back in woven chairs varnished to a bright vermillion. Above their heads, dozens of bamboo fly rods hung on banks of hooks.
Karl Anderson caught two fish that chilly April afternoon. He was the only successful angler on opening day of salmon season in 1912. One of the salmon, a sixteen-pounder Karl fought for an hour, went to Campbell Clark, president of the Clark Thread Company in Newark, N.J., who frequently paid the highest price for the first fish. Karl decided the other salmon he caught that afternoon should go to the president of the United States.
Bangor delegates to the Republican State Convention had just voiced their unanimous support for the reelection of President William Howard Taft, and Karl thought that sending the eleven-pound, silvery-coated fish to Washington would “show the city’s honor and respect for the president.”
So the next morning, Karl took the salmon to Oscar Fickett’s market on Broad Street, where the fish was packed carefully in a crate with straw and ice, taken to Union Station, and placed in the express car of the early afternoon train to Washington, D.C.
Thus began a yearly tradition of sending the first salmon caught on the fly to the president, an annual testament to Bangor’s place as the premier destination for Atlantic salmon angling in the U.S.
The first salmon of 1939 struck at noon. According to Bangor Daily News reporter Bill Geagan, “Horace Bond was flicking his 5-0 double Atwood fly in Peavey Run, directly opposite the Penobscot Salmon Club, when the big silverside struck. Bond’s light rod buckled like a sapling in a gale and his reel screamed as the hooked fish darted for deep water down the river. Other fishermen pulled their boats as far out of the way as possible to give the lucky angler plenty of room to fight his fish. The salmon broke water only once; a sparkling silver crescent momentarily framed in froth. After sixteen minutes, Horace Bond landed the thirteen and one-quarter pound female.”
The Young Business Associates of Bangor bought the fish, at $3.00 per pound, from Jones Seafood Market and shipped it by air to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in time for Easter dinner at his retreat in Warm Springs, Ga.
Although the salmon was the seventh given to Roosevelt, reporter Geagan had faith that “as President Roosevelt is an ardent fisherman, the gift will perhaps appeal to him even more than his predecessors.”
Roosevelt did love fish, and he also loved tradition. He sensed deeply that the Depression had brought a sharp break in American life as it had been. Perhaps for Roosevelt, the salmon symbolized all that his New Deal was attempting to save.
In 1947, Donald Smith began to reel in his line from the Peavey Pool when the first fish struck, the presidential salmon destined for Harry S. Truman. Later that year, after fishermen caught only 40 fish in their weirs, the state closed the commercial salmon fishery on the Penobscot.
Anglers kept casting, although the number of adult Atlantic salmon returning from the ocean continued to decline. Only a few hundred made it to headwater spawning grounds. The fish got smaller, and the run shifted later, too, as documented by the newly created Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission. Fewer salmon were caught on opening day.
It took two months for someone to land the presidential salmon of 1954. Flannel-clad Bangor resident Guy Carroll took the 10-pounder from the Bangor Salmon Pool with a No. 6 black doctor fly on a morning in May. The Penobscot Salmon Club shipped the fish the same day to President Eisenhower. It was Eisenhower’s last presidential salmon.
Salmon numbers dwindled so low that the Atlantic Salmon Commission shut down the recreational fishery. Most anglers either gave up or traveled to the Down East rivers where conditions were better. The Atlantic Salmon Commission continued to stock hatchery-raised fish in the Penobscot River, and supported anglers in briefly reviving the presidential salmon tradition in 1964, with a fish caught in the Narraguagus River by Harry Davis of Cherryfield.
With the Penobscot salmon fishery almost nonexistent for much of the 1960s and early 1970s, Richard Nixon never received a presidential salmon, but it was during this period when political actions helped make return of the Penobscot’s salmon possible. The Clean Water Act, ushered to realization by Maine’s own Sen. Edmund Muskie, reduced pollution loads in the river by 80 percent.
State and federal fisheries managers designated the Penobscot River as a national model for restoring Atlantic salmon and other sportfish. The Anadromous Fish Conservation Act funded construction of new fishways on the dams. For the first time in more than 100 years, many Penobscot tributaries were open to spawning salmon.
And they came back: 138 fish in 1970, 337 in 1972, hundreds more when a spring flood took out a fifteen-foot chunk of the aging Bangor Dam. The fishermen spread out and moved upriver.
For the first time in decades, salmon rolled, twisted, tossed, jumped and swirled, their tails scissoring the surface at high tide.
“At times the fishing was chaos; unbelievable except to those who were there to see it,” recalled angler Richard Ruhlin.
So many people fished and wanted to fish that the historic Penobscot Salmon Club didn’t have room for them all, and so emerged the Veazie Salmon Club in 1978 and the Eddington Salmon Club a few years later.
In 1981, with adult returns nearing the 1,000 mark, the presidential salmon tradition resumed to honor Ronald Reagan. The salmon clubs presented the presidential salmon of the 1980s and early 1990s amid their opposition to proposals for new dams on the Penobscot River: the Big A dam on the West Branch, the Bangor Dam, Basin Mills Dam.
Delivering the salmon could take days or weeks, depending on who was in office, recalled Ed Baum, a fisheries scientist who spent 30 years with the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission. Baum was responsible for holding the presidential salmon in his freezer, and even got to attend the presentation a few times. “After a while,” Baum said, “the politics got out of hand and the fish got lost in the shuffle.”
The presidential salmon of 1993 became so lost in the political shuffle that Scott Westfall never had the chance to deliver it to the president; his father, Claude, holds the title of the last angler to present a wild Maine salmon to the president, to George H. W. Bush in 1992.
“I had no idea I would be the last one,” Claude Westfall said.
Baum is optimistic that catch-and-release fishing for Atlantic salmon will return to the Penobscot River. “With the dams coming out, and more people getting involved, there’s a much stronger base for the resource,” said Baum, who like many, envisions a day when the first fish of the year once again will be commemorated with honor and respect.