The Rise of Dams, The Fall Of Salmon On The Androscoggin

Nearly two hundred years flowed by between sightings of Atlantic salmon, salmo salar, in the Androscoggin River. A lone salmon was noted in 1816, then for a long time there were only scattered sightings, a fish here and a fish there. The King of Fish was defeated by dams and discouraged by toxic pollution and raw sewage dumped into the river by paper mills and by the cities and towns along its winding journey to Merrymeeting Bay, where it teams up with the Kennebec to float destroyers built at Bath Iron Works out to sea.

afternoon sun

Upper Dam as it was. The waters of Lake Mooselookmeguntic flow through the dam into Upper Richardson Lake, then through Middle Dam into the Rapid River and down to Umbagog Lake, through Errol Dam and finally into the Androscoggin River.

When the earliest European settlers arrived the Andro’s salmon run numbered in the tens of thousands, and they were netted and salted and sent back to Europe in barrels for consumption. In those good old days the salmon could swim all the way to Great Falls in Lewiston, then up numerous tributaries to spawn. Then came the dams, many dams, built for water power to run sawmills, textile mills, shoe factories, with never a thought for the passage of salmon or the millions of other commuters, the alewives or river herring. In his “Brief History” of the Andro, published on the website of the nonprofit Maine Rivers, Doug Watts notes that as early as 1788 the citizens of Brunswick were concerned that dams, weirs and illegal dipnetting out of season would soon eradicate the salmon runs. They were right. In 1835, Watts notes, citizens petitioned the Maine legislature to take action to restore the fish runs by forcing dam owners to provide fish passage, as they were legally required to do. The legislature yawned. The fish did not pass. The sawmills became paper mills, which used a soup of toxic chemicals to turn trees into paper, and the soup went straight into the river.

In the past few years two or three salmon per year have tried their luck on the restored Andro. They can vault up the fish ladder at Brunswick and head upstream to look for a suitable spawning bed, which is sort of like hunting for an apartment in Portland for under $500 a month. The State of Maine, true to its 1835 denialism, fought tooth and claw against participating in the fact-based universe and listing the Atlantic salmon as an endangered species. But listed it was, and is, and the great fish has numerous champions fighting for its restoration in the Maine rivers where it once swam unimpeded and in profusion. The Atlantic Salmon Federation, Trout Unlimited, the Downeast Salmon Federation, the Penobscot Nation and others are toiling in common cause on the salmon’s behalf.

For an angler, the strike of the Atlantic salmon is an electric, unforgettable, addictive moment. When I was about 14, my father and brother and I were meandering down Route One looking for places to fish for trout. We stopped for a break beside the Narraguagus River near Cherryfield, and more for the hell of it than with any notion of catching a fish I took out a baitcasting rod and lobbed an ugly, purple, sparkly jointed plug into the river. The water exploded. Whatever had grabbed my lure — submarine? giant bluefin tuna? — headed for the sea. The crank handle of the cheap reel bloodied my knuckles as line vanished off the spool. This went on for an eternity of probably three seconds, then the line went slack. I reeled in the plug, which, surprisingly, was still attached to the line. One of its hooks was now perfectly straight. I had inadvertently, in my angling innocence, hooked an Atlantic salmon. Innocence lost, I wanted it to happen again, and many years later it did, though in Canada. I am hoping it will one day happen again on a Maine river.

Nick Mills

About Nick Mills

Full disclosure: I was not born in Maine, alas! I was born in Massachusetts, but the family moved to Maine when I was eleven, and I grew up in Thomaston. My dad was skipper of one of the draggers that sailed out of Rockland, in the days when it was a rough-tough working fishing port. When he came in from the sea his favorite activity was freshwater fishing with me and my brother, Peter. We learned together to flyfish for trout in the Alder Stream in Eustis. Once hooked on the sport, pun intended, I fished at every opportunity in every place I could -- in the rivers, streams and ponds of Maine; in the mountain ponds of Utah, where I was stationed for a year in the Army; in high Andean lakes in Colombia, where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer; even in a lagoon that surrounded one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Baghdad. I tried once to go trout fishing in northern Afghanistan, when the U.S.S.R. occupied that country; a landslide blocked my path, but that led to a more interesting adventure, which I will tell you about in a future post.