Penobscot River Smallmouth Bass

Reprinted from Flyfishing Magazine

Penobscot River SmallmouthFor anglers from throughout the northeastern United States, Maine’s Penobscot has long been a legendary river. Although historically, the Penobscot is probably best known as the river that once supported the country’s largest run of Atlantic salmon.  Today, smallmouth bass are undoubtedly the river’s number one sportfishing resource.

On an average day, a fly fisherman with moderate skills can realistically expect to land between 25 -35 smallmouths between a pound and a half and three pounds on the lower Penobscot. Considering that there are usually some smaller fish mixed in, the action at times can seem to be almost non-stop.

Physical Characteristics Of The River

The mainstem of the Penobscot is a very large river (average width 75-150 yards) which maintains an adequate flow for float fishing throughout the summer. It is formed at the junction of the West Branch (famous for its landlocked salmon fishing) and the East Branch near the village of Medway, Maine. From there, it flows south for 70 miles, and drops about 230 feet, before reaching tidewater in Bangor. The portion of the river which is of principal interest to the fly fisherman begins below the Mattaseunk dam (six miles north of Mattawamkeag) and extends downstream about 55 miles to the village of Old Town.


Maine Smallmouth BassSmallmouth bass can be caught in the lower Penobscot at almost any time during the open water angling season. I have taken them as early as mid-April (while fishing for landlocked salmon) and into late October. Because of the cold water and runoff in early spring, however, the good fishing does not usually get underway until after the bass begin to move onto their spawning beds in June.

For local fisherman, this is convenient in two ways. First, it does not interfere with early season fishing for trout and landlocked salmon. Second, it allows floats to be delayed until the spring runoff has subsided, and the river has become a safe and enjoyable place to be

I do most of my bass fishing in July and August.  At this time of year, water temperatures on the lower Penobscot are usually in the mid 70’s and bass activity is at its peak. Although the larger fish seem to be a little more active in the morning and evening, smallmouths generally provide plenty of action on leisurely floats during the middle of the day.

I realize that many anglers feel that you really need to “work” to get good fishing. But the beauty of these Penobscot smallmouths is that they can be fished at convenient times of the day and during the most pleasant part of the season.


Under normal circumstances, any 6 to 8 weight outfit will work fine on this river. These fish are fighters, however, so be sure to have a reel with a decent drag and use tippets no lighter than 3X (six-pound test).Most of my fishing is done with a floating line, but I always carry a sink-tip,just in case.

Wind can be an important factor for fly fishermen on the Penobscot is the wind. Most days, it is not a problem, but when a hard, south wind blows up the river, it can cause some casting problems.  Fortunately, there are many islands and channels where you can hide from the wind if necessary.

Tactics And Techniques

Maine Smallmouth Bass FishingAlthough the Penobscot can be fished successfully from the bank in some places, a driftboat, canoe, kayak, or other shallow-draft vessel will make your day more productive and enjoyable.  In the upper river, fish tend to hold near the heads of riffles where the flow begins to moderate and interface with boulders or ledges (very similar to trout holding water). Here Muddlers, leeches, and bait fish imitating streamers all work well when fished in the classic “down and across” fashion.

The shallow channels among weed beds are also hotspots for Penobscot smallmouths.  These places can be a bit more difficult to approach and fish than the riffles, so they tend to be favorites among the more experienced fly fishermen on the river. They also seem to consistently produce the river’s largest bass, especially in the early morning or evening hours. Crayfish, baitfish and leech patterns (preferably tied on weedless hooks) are the flies of choice. Because of the low water levels within the channels of the weedbeds, floating lines are a must.

In its lower reaches (from Howland to Old Town), the river tends to get deeper and more sluggish, and contains many areas with islands which braid into numerous smaller, side channels. The fallen trees and undercut banks around these islands create textbook smallmouth bass habitat and provide for excellent fishing. Because of its proximity to Bangor, and the fact that deeper water provides safer passage for outboard motors, this lower section receives a bit more angling pressure than the waters above.

For the fly fisherman, the most appealing feature of this section of river is that bass can be caught very effectively on top-water baits and popping bugs. Most bass are not overly finicky about the type of popping bug that they will strike; although the smaller, cork-bodied bugs seem to be better that the larger deer hair varieties.

For float-fishermen, the key to success is simply taking your time. Because most floats are relatively short, anglers should not be afraid of spending an hour or so in one spot once they have found a group of fish. The river also allows you to wet-wade many sections during mid-summer.

Tips For Floaters

October Smallmouth Bass FishingThe lower Penobscot River contains a wide variety of water types that range from flatwater to serious rapids. Much of the faster water is located in the up-river sections (above Lincoln), with slower flows becoming more dominant as you move downstream (toward Old Town). Small sets of rapids can be en­ countered just about anywhere along the river’s entire course, however, so floaters should keep a close eye on the water at all times. A detailed description of water conditions throughout the entire Penobscot watershed is contained in the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) River Guide Volume II (Northern New England).

Although US Route 2 parallels the east side of the river for much of its course, the vast majority of the riverbanks are undeveloped and provide a semi-wilderness type of setting for the float fisherman. The road provides 13 official public access sites which are maintained by the state of Maine or local towns. Additional unofficial launch spots also exist a few areas where the road comes close to the river and a canoe can be slipped in.