There are parts of New England that manage to surprise even lifelong residents, pockets of stunning natural beauty where you might not see another human being for hours on end. One such place is the section of the Penobscot River that flows through the towns of Lincoln and Chester, about an hour’s drive north of Augusta. Until last August, the Penobscot I was most familiar with was the upstream sections famous for whitewater rafting and blue-ribbon landlocked salmon fishing, as well as its tidal portion from Bangor to Penobscot Bay. Therefore, I was thoroughly unprepared for the exquisite natural beauty of the river’s languid midsection.
My introduction to this magical place was arranged by Zac Glidden, then of Tracewski Fishing Adventures, which offers drift-boat trips along the Penobscot (Glidden now runs his own guide service, called Wild Goose). After splashing Glidden’s 16-foot Hyde at a dirt put-in at the base of a bridge, we entered a different realm. The river immediately swallowed us up, its verdant banks muffling manmade sounds. Soon all was silent, save for the occasional dip of oars and the calling of birds.
I was immediately struck by the clarity of the water. While I expected to encounter a sluggish, tannin-stained river, the Penobscot proved every bit as clear and inviting as a North Woods trout stream, with thick weed beds undulating in the moderate flow. Naturally, the water conditions vary according to the amount of rain received upstream. Spring in particular can see a substantial increase in current and roiled water, but the river’s normally “low-key” nature usually returns to form by mid-June.
On this balmy August day, the river eased us along at a comfortable pace that made it possible to fish each likely holding spot with care. The action wasn’t long in coming. A few casts along the shady bank with a soft-plastic tube lure yielded a strike from a scrappy smallmouth, which displayed its remarkable aerial skills through a series of energetic leaps.
It was to be the first of many such fish, as it turns out that the Penobscot is a virtual smallmouth factory. Introduced to the Penobscot in the late 1800s, smallmouth bass quickly occupied the river’s quieter stretches, from Bangor all the way north to Millinocket. The section that flows through the Lincoln area is loaded with prime smallie structure, including submerged boulders, deep holes, undercut banks, overhanging tree limbs, weed beds, logs and the mouths of feeder creeks. In short, you’re likely to find fish almost anywhere.
And we did. A mere 60 minutes into the drift, I had landed some dozen fish on tubes, spinnerblades and poppers. As Glidden expertly positioned the drift boat, I was able to pull bass after bass from the bank edges and below overhanging branches. At one point we came to a spot where the river rejoined after flowing around a small island. The confluence of current had carved out a 15-foot hole at the base of the island, and it was loaded with smallies, including some bigger bass we could clearly see swimming around like so many pet fish an aquarium.
Midway through the trip, I switched to a five-weight fly rod rigged with a floating line, an eight-foot leader and that famous smallmouth-slayer: a yellow Sneaky Pete slider. I couldn’t keep the fish off the thing, and would often find myself attached to a leaping bass after letting the fly drift idly behind the boat. It was stupid fishing, on a glorious, warm, sun-drenched day that eventually lulled me into a kind of reverie.
When hunger got the best of us, Glidden beached the boat on a gravel bar and produced a shore lunch of cold cuts, coleslaw and potato salad. We sat in the warm sunshine and talked of past fishing adventures as the bass splashed around us. Eventually, I waded out through the grass-covered shallows and caught several more fish on the Sneaky Pete, just soaking in the beauty of the river.
Remarkably, we never encountered another fisherman the entire day, and rarely heard the sound of a vehicle as we drifted along the leafy banks. Occasionally we’d be startled by a bald eagle flapping off from an overhead perch or a stick-still heron stalking the shallows. Deer, mink, otter and even moose are sometimes spotted along the river, according to Glidden.
One of the many highlights of fishing the Penobscot is the fishery’s consistency. Smallmouth can be taken all day long, as well as at night, from June through October, and fall offers the added bonus of fishing amid brilliant autumn foliage in cool, crisp weather. As if I need another reason to return.
BOOK A PENOBSCOT RIVER DRIFT BOAT TRIP
Contact Zac Glidden
Wild Goose Guide Service