Kennebec River Brown Trout
Author: KEVIN TRACEWSKI

Reprinted from Fly Fisherman

Kennebec River DriftboatThe classic Maine fly fishing trip usually involves traveling deep into the north woods to pursue brook trout or landlocked salmon in peaceful solitude. Because people could catch all the fish they wanted in these traditional haunts, most didn’t pay too much attention to rumblings about the great brown trout fishery being developed on the Kennebec River.

Encroaching civilization and the construction of countless logging roads have caused a decline in the quality of many premiere northern fisheries.  As a result, an ever increasing number of anglers are turning their attention brown trout and discovering the opportunities to be better than they imagined.

I took the plunge about five years ago after seeing photos of several beautiful 20-inch browns caught and released from a stretch of the lower Kennebec that I’d never paid much attention to.  Ironically, those fish were taken on the same weekend that I struggled to land a few small landlocks on one of my favorite streams up north.  Since then, I’ve gotten serious about browns and explore the Kennebec every chance I get.

HISTORY

Many people mistakenly think that brown trout are new to Maine.  But, W. Harry Everhart, author of The Fishes of Maine, writes that some of the first browns introduced into the United States were put into Ellsworth’s Branch Lake in 1885.  Substantial numbers of browns were also stocked in dozens of other Maine waters until the early 1930’s, when the Department of Fisheries restricted their use in order to prevent competition with native brook trout and salmon.

Increasing angling pressure, combined with declining populations of native salmonoids, however, encouraged the Department to take another look at brown trout.  And in the late 1970s, a management program which promoted the brown trout’s establishment in habitats that were understocked with other cold water species was developed.  The key to the program’s tremendous success is that brown trout are an extremely rugged, adaptable fish which can thrive in habitats that are unsuitable for other salmonoids.  Considering the acute demand for high-quality trout fisheries, it’s a good bet that browns will play an ever increasing role in Maine’s fly fishing future.

The Fishery

Kennebec River Brown TroutI bet that if you talk to a dozen local anglers who regularly fish for browns on the Kennebec, at least half of them will use the word ‘fantastic’, ‘outstanding’ or ‘exceptional’ at some point in the conversation.  Considering that the size of an average fish only runs between 10 and 12 inches, people not familiar with the river might say that sounds inflated.

The thing that makes the Kennebec special is that in addition to providing fast action on pan-size fish, the river also produces significant numbers of browns in the 15 to 20 inch range, along with a handful of 4 to 6 pounders each year.  And these days, with the “catch and keep” mindset that has prevailed in the state for so long, most people simply are not used to catching big trout like that in rivers.

So what allows the Kennebec to produce all these big fish?  Well, for one thing, brown trout themselves are usually a bit more wary than native brook trout and landlocked salmon – therefore they often attain a larger size simply because they live longer.  Habitat improvements, some special regulations, and slowly changing attitudes, are also helping things along.  But the main factor that distinguishes this river from all others is the tremendous rate at which the fish grow.

Maine Department of Fisheries biologist Denny McNeish says, “Brown trout in the Kennebec grow faster than fish living anywhere else in the state. Frequently, a brown stocked at 7″ will nearly double it size after only one year in the river; then, add another three or four inches the next year – phenomenal growth.”

Of course, an abundant food supply is ultimately responsible for this kind of growth, and the Kennebec is filled with all the big, meaty foods like crayfish, leeches, stonefly nymphs and sculpins that browns love to eat.  For a large freestone river though, it also produces a surprisingly rich flora of aquatic algae and plants which in turn support dense populations of mayflies, caddis flies and midges.  This is in large part due to a series of dams that stabilize flows and essentially turn the river into a series of fishable tailwaters.

Productivity in the lower river is also supplemented by millions of immature alewives and smelt that migrate back and forth to the ocean each year.  Marine biologist Lou Flagg says, “The availability of bait fish as a food resource is one of the real secrets to the success for browns living anywhere in the river below the town of Winslow, where the Sebasticook River dumps in.”  Judging from the number of trophy fish taken in this area each year, it’s hard to disagree.

TACKLE AND TACTICS

Kennebec River Brown TroutIn its free flowing sections, the Kennebec is a big, powerful river that is reminiscent of many of my favorite western haunts.  And just like fish in the Bitteroot or the Yellowstone, Kennebec browns spend more than 80% of their lives eating bugs off bottom.  This makes fishing nymphs with a floating line and strike indicator the method of choice for many Kennebec regulars.  Keep in mind that naturals range in size from 3” stoneflies to #22 caddis, so bring flies in a variety of sizes, styles and colors.

I like to fish nymphs on droppers, and often begin the day with a combination that includes something basic, like a #12-14 Copper John or Hares Ear trailed by a smaller bead-head or soft hackle.  To save time on the water, I usually pre-tie these dropper rigs up at home.  This makes changing flies a simple one-knot affair.  Of course, if the fish exhibit a strong preference for a particular pattern, I’ll switch things over.  But frequently, I fish droppers throughout most of the day.  For best results, be prepared to use at least a 5 weight rod and split shot to get your offerings near the bottom.

Depending on who you talk to, the reputation of dry fly fishing on the Kennebec ranges from world-class to mediocre.  This variability is largely due to the numerous dams that partition the river up into small, discrete sub-units that vary in their ability to produce good hatches.  However, all of the major eastern river mayfly species, including Hendricksons, Blue-winged Olives and PMD’s are represented.  And, stoneflies, alderflies, grasshoppers and ants are also frequently present in good numbers.   Caddisflies are undoubtedly the most ubiquitous group of insects on the river, with a #14 brown Elk-hair Caddis often being the trout’s fly of choice.

Even if you can’t locate rising fish, don’t shy away from using a dry fly as a searching pattern.  Often, floating an Elk-hair Caddis or Adams through a feeding lane a few times is one of the best ways to cover water in a hurry, and something I rely on a lot when float-fishing.  Sometimes I’ll get a bit more outrageous and try skittering a big double Humpy or Atlantic salmon Bomber along brush piles or cut banks that I know hold fish.

Finally, don’t forget about the big, ugly stuff like Woolly Buggers, Zonkers or Marabou Muddlers.  Remember, the oversized browns you are after frequently can’t resist an easy meal, especially just at the edge of darkness.

RIVER SECTIONS

Kennebec River MaineThe Kennebec above Wyman Lake is a brawling freestone river that contains good populations of landlocked salmon and brook trout, but few browns.  Easy road access makes the seven-mile stretch between The Forks and Caratunk the most heavily used part of the upper river.  But because of drastic fluctuations in water levels that result from hydroelectric releases at Harris Station, this area is notoriously difficult (dangerous) to fish.

From Wyman Dam downstream to the mouth of the Sandy River near Madison, the Kennebec’s gradient decreases and the river becomes braided.  Brown trout are common throughout this section, and although they often aren’t as large or as numerous as they are farther downstream, this is one of my favorite sections to fish. I enjoy floating this section, using a small boat or canoe as a taxi to reach riffles and pools that would otherwise be a long walk from the road.

As it winds its way from Norridgewock toward Augusta, the river increases in size and depth.  To maximize your success, avoid several of the deadwater stretches that exist from here down to tidewater.  One of the best bets for those unsure about where to get started is to spend a few hours fishing the tailwaters of several dams in the area.

The three mile section of river below the Shawmut Dam near Fairfield is particularly good because the local Kennebec Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited has put a lot of effort into stocking and habitat restoration.  A special, one-fish, 16 inch minimum size regulation also helps maintain the quality of the fishing there.

The river becomes tidal in Augusta, yet despite the dangers posed by marine predators such as seals, cormorants, bluefish and striped bass, a thriving population of sea-run browns can be found here.  These fish tend to move around a lot, making them difficult to locate.  Trolling techniques that cover a large area are most productive.  But wading anglers do well in the spring and fall by fishing at the mouths of inlet streams such as Bond Brook and Cobbosseecontee Stream.

SEASONS AND WATER LEVELS

Kennebec River Fly FishingDepending on the amount of spring runoff, I usually don’t even begin to think about fishing the Kennebec until around mid-May.  Of course, people do catch some good fish earlier, but almost always on bait below one of the dams or trolling for sea-runs in tidewater.  When the water drops and begins to warm up, however, action increases quickly.

The peak fly fishing period usually extends from late May into mid-July.  During this time of year, there are a few popular spots, like Fort Halifax Park in Winslow, or Shawmut Dam in Fairfield. But the Kennebec is a large river, and generally you can find places to spend the day in solitude, even during the height of the season.

Most people quit fishing when the water temperature in the lower river approaches 70 degrees.  Yet mid-summer anglers who adapt their fishing schedules to coincide with the low light periods when browns feed, do quite well.  Fishing into the middle of the night is probably the best way to consistently catch big fish.  And I know several people who catch hefty browns all summer long by doing just that.

Fly fishing at night is a specialized activity that could be difficult, or even dangerous, for people who do not have a thorough knowledge of the river. The daytime alternative which usually proves to be adequate in all but the hottest of years, is to seek out cooler water and active fish in the shaded, under-cut pools in the upper river between Bingham and Madison.

Spectacular foliage combined with cooling water temperatures can make the Kennebec seem like a fly fisherman’s paradise in the fall.

Angling on the upper river (Indian Pond Dam to Skowhegan) is allowed until October 31, while the season on the lower river (Skowhegan to tidewater) remains open year round.