The Pine Tree State is well known for its upland and big-game hunting, freshwater fishing, blueberries and steamed lobster, but its saltwater fishing can be a tough nut to crack. Maine’s marine fisheries present more challenges than the other New England states, and visiting anglers are often left scratching their heads when it comes time to break out the rods. Although dependable action with a short list of game fish is available, chasing down some of the other species requires more creativity.
Striped bass are the most heavily targeted and economically valuable sportfish on Maine’s coastline sine the 1980s, although the last few seasons have seen a large decline in the number of fish taken in state waters, perhaps due to an abundance of forage fish farther south. These migratory fish typically arrive in the state’s southernmost waters in May and push northward as far as Penobscot Bay by early June. The fish feed on herring, crabs, juvenile lobster, marine worms and other forage throughout the summer and begin their journey back south in mid-September. Sizes range from 12 to 50 inches or more, with the state record being 67 pounds. Fish over 40 inches long have not been nearly as numerous in recent years as they were in the early 1990s, when vast schools of menhaden (pogies) were thick in Maine waters. The majority of those taken now are “slot fish” (between the 20-inch legal minimum and 26-inch maximum size) or smaller.
Probably the easiest and most effective way to catch a striper in Maine is to use a chunk of fresh mackerel. I take 75 percent of my bass this way each season. Simply impale a 1-inch-thick mackerel steak on a 5/0 Gamakatsu octopus hook attached to 24 inches of 30-pound fluorocarbon leader. Toss the chunk into the foamy wash next to a rocky stretch of shoreline or beachfront sandbar and let it settle toward the bottom with the reel in freespool. Just be sure to keep your boat well off the shore and stay alert for any unusually large swells. When you feel a pickup, let the fish run for several seconds before flipping the bail or putting the reel in gear and setting the hook. By the way, I prefer a 6- to 7-foot spinning outfit rated for 12-pound-test line for this type of fishing, but you can go heavier if you wish.
A variation is to fish a mackerel chunk or fillet just off the bottom as you drift along with the current, a tactic that works particularly well in depths of 10 to 25 feet in tidal channels and rivers, such as the Kennebec and Sheepscot. In this case, slide a 2-ounce egg sinker on the line before attaching the swivel and leader, and lower the rig to the bottom. Bring it up a couple of turns and periodically check your depth as you move along. You want your bait to be just a foot or two off the bottom at all times. If you have enough mackerel, change your bait every few minutes so that each piece gives off the maximum amount of scent.
Live mackerel also make excellent bass baits. I hook mine upwards through the top jaw and freeline them in the rivers, or fish them under foam floats along the shoreline in less than 10 feet of water. The smaller macks (less than 6 inches long) make the best baits, and the tiny “tacks” about the size of your finger are positively dynamite.
Maine stripers will also smack topwater poppers, and my 2 favorites are the Yo-Zuri Hydro Tiger 384 and 4 3/8” Storm Chug Bug. Color doesn’t seem to matter. The key to consistent success with a popper is to fish it in less than 6 feet of water and to “chug” the plug with a regular cadence on the retrieve. Early morning and evening, when the water is mirror-smooth, is prime time. As for swimming plugs, I have had great results in past seasons casting and trolling 3 5/8” black-and-silver Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnows, and a friend of mine has taken loads of outsized mackerel on this lure as well. Soft-plastic paddletail swimbaits, such as the Storm WildEye Swim Shad and the Berkley Power Pogy, can also be extremely effective on bass, especially in the river systems.
Stripers on the Fly
Striped bass also make excellent targets on the fly, although the fish are generally smaller than the ones taken on natural bait. An 8- or 9-weight rod loaded with an intermediate or sink-tip line and a 6- to 7-foot leader are all you need for tackle.
Good basic fly patterns include 2/0 to 4/0 Clouser Minnows, Deceivers, Skok Mushies, Snake Flies, and poppers, although it’s always best to match the available forage. You can find action around any type of structure in the quiet back coves, creeks and rivers. Concentrate on points, shell and sand bars, isolated rock piles, channel edges, deep holes or pilings along shore.
A select group of fishermen also stalk stripers on the mud flats when water depth allows. In very shallow water it’s possible to see the fish tailing or pushing wakes as they look for food, setting up a great sight-fishing opportunity. Just be careful not to get stranded by the outgoing tide.
The ubiquitous mackerel is Maine’s virtual can’t-fail option for young and old, novice and experienced. These tiny, dependable members of the tuna tribe move into coastal bays and coves by the millions in May and generally stick around until October. Growing up to 2 pounds, they can be caught almost anywhere in clean salt water over 10 feet deep, including anchorages, marinas, coves, rivers and along exposed ocean shorelines.
Mackerel fishing isn’t rocket science. The tried-and-true weapon is a light spinning or spincast outfit armed with a 1/3-ounce, chrome-plated diamond jig. Tie the jig directly to the line (6- or 8-pound mono works best) and cast it out. Let it sink about 15 feet then retrieve it with short, upward jerks of the rod tip. If you’ve never caught a mackerel, you’ll be surprised at how hard these little guys fight.
If you want to collect a lot of mackerel quickly to use for bait, you’ll want a Sabiki rig. Developed in Japan, the Sabiki consists of a 4-foot section of mono with 6 or so “flies” constructed of processed fish skin, crinkly nylon and plastic glow beads attached every 8 inches on short “droppers.” There are dozens of sizes and colors available, but I like Hayabusa’s S-501E, which runs $5 at most tackle shops. Snap a 2-ounce sinker or metal jig to one end, tie the other to your line and lower the rig 15 to 20 feet below the boat. Jig it up and down with a fairly sharp motion. If the macks are around, you’ll likely catch a bunch on each drop.
If the mackerel appear uncooperative, you can sometimes chum them in by ladling over a mix of cheap, fish-flavored catfood, dry oatmeal and cooking oil. Another trick, and a lot of folks don’t know about this, is to troll a Sabiki rig to locate the fish. Snap a 2- to 4-ounce Kastmaster or Hopkins spoon to the end, let the rig out 75 feet behind the boat and troll very slowly, perhaps 2 knots. Once you find the macks, you can remain in the area and jig vertically for them.
If the dependable mackerel suddenly vacate their usual haunts in midsummer, chances are the bluefish have arrived. Blues were once very dependable off Maine, but numbers have been sporadic in the last 10 years or so. However, you can bet that any bluefish found off Maine will be on the big side.
The easiest way to catch a bluefish in Maine is to troll a swimming plug. My all-time favorite is a shallow-running, 7-inch Bomber Long-A in gold with a black back. The swimming action is terrific at nearly any speed, and I think the colors mimic a pogy (menhaden), which tops the list of things bluefish like to eat.
A spin or conventional outfit rated for 20-pound line is ideal for trolling. Attach the lure directly to your fishing line with a snap swivel; you don’t need a wire leader, as the lure body will provide enough protection from the fish’s sharp teeth. Troll the lure 100 feet behind the boat at 4 to 5 knots along the perimeter of bays, rocky shorelines and around the mouths of rivers such as the Saco, New Meadows, Kennebec and Sheepscot.
Bluefish will also nail topwater lures, but choose a size somewhat larger than you’d use for bass, such as a 5-inch Creek Chub Striper Strike or Yo-Zuri Mag Popper. If you spot a pod of blues lazily cruising on the surface, a common sight during late July and August, cast the lure ahead of the lead fish and work it back with plenty of popping action. One trick we learned back in the 1980s is to troll a topwater popper on the surface between 2 swimming lures. The noise created by the popper often attracts a pod of blues, one of which will attack it while others veer off and crush the swimmers.
Bluefish will also devour chunk baits, which can be frustrating if you’re targeting bass. Turn the tables on the blues by attaching a 6-inch length of No. 6 stainless wire to the end of your leader via an Albright knot. Then attach your hook to the wire with a haywire twist. The wire will prevent bite-offs from blues, yet is light enough not to deter strikes from bass.
Maine once hosted the best nearshore fishing for cod, haddock and pollock on the East Coast, but heavy commercial pressure from the 1970s through the early 1990s thinned the ranks of these species in many areas. One notable exception is Jeffreys Ledge, a 30-mile-long, roughly crescent-shaped area some 20 miles offshore that extends from Kennebunkport down to Newburyport, Massachusetts. Jeffreys has been closed to commercial fishing since 1997, so bottom fish are reasonably plentiful there from spring through fall. Other inshore and offshore grounds, particularly those south of Portland, can provide some decent action on occasion.
Cod is king in Maine, and although 50-plus-pounders are still caught now and then, most are in the 3- to 20-pound class. An 8- to 16-ounce diamond or Norwegian-style jig worked vertically in depths of 120 to 250 feet just above cobble or hard bottom is very effective. Thread a 4-inch, soft-plastic paddletail grub on a 5/0 hook attached a foot or two above the jig via a dropper loop, and you’ll have a deadly rig. Cod can also be readily taken on a high-low rig baited with fresh sea clam.
Haddock are favored as table fare by many bottom bouncers and are actually becoming more plentiful on the offshore grounds such as Jeffreys. Running 3 to 8 pounds, haddock prefer depths of 150 to 200 feet and a gravel bottom. Pieces of clam and chunks of fresh mackerel fished on a high-low rig are the preferred baits. Haddock have soft mouths, so if you think you’ve hooked one, don’t pump the rod; just reel up steadily. These fish make the rod tip “bounce” more than cod will, and many veterans can quickly tell which of the two species is on the line.
Other bottom dwellers you can expect to catch on either jigs or bait include cusk, pollock, several varieties of hake, wolffish and redfish, all of which make fine eating. And if you’re extraordinarily lucky, you’ll tie into a halibut, Maine’s ultimate deep-sea prize. These outsized flounder can weigh more than 200 pounds, but today a 50-pounder is a more likely catch.
When fishing or boating Maine’s coastal waters and estuaries, you may occasionally see a large, long fish leaping clear of the water. Many people assume that they’ve just spotted an Atlantic salmon, but it’s more than likely an Atlantic sturgeon, a species that was close to extinction but has made a remarkable resurgeance in recent years. Sturgeon are occasionally snagged by anglers or accidentally hooked by bottom fishermen, but the species is protected by federal law, and must be released.
The Dependables: Mackerel, Pollock & Cunner
If you’re looking to head off in the inflatable or kayak for some easy fishing, or just want to keep the kids occupied on the boat or dock for a few hours, you can’t beat this trio of accommodating mini-gamesters. An inexpensive spinning or spincast outfit loaded with eight-pound mono is all you need. For mackerel, lower a 1/3-ounce diamond jig down about 10 feet, then work it upwards with a short sweep of the rod tip and let the lure flutter back. Repeat the process until you hook up.
Juvenile “harbor” pollock, which run eight inches to nearly a foot in length, are the young of the deep-sea adults that can weigh upwards of 35 pounds. These little guys can often be found around docks and piers, but are most numerous over submerged ledges near the shoreline and will greedily hit a small diamond jig or Sabiki rig. The general rule of thumb is that if you fish on the bottom in less than 20 feet of water, you’ll likely catch pollock, but if you fish 10 feet below the surface in water 20 feet or deeper, you’ll hook mackerel.
Cunner, known as bergalls in the Mid-Atlantic states, frequent barnacle-covered wharf pilings and rocky shorelines exposed to the open ocean. Ranging from 6 to 12 inches long, these reddish-orange members of the wrasse family can sometimes be taken on artificials but are easier to catch on a small hook baited with a piece of clam or a periwinkle. Fish in the rocks tight to the shoreline or around pilings in 6 to 15 feet of water. You’ll probably need a couple of split shot or a small rubber-core sinker to get your bait down to the bottom where these fish feed. When you catch one, watch out for its sharp dorsal fin spines.
Mackerel make fine eating, especially when split and grilled, although some folks find them a bit on the oily side. Harbor pollock aren’t all that desirable and are best released. Cunner are tasty, and if you take the time to fillet them and remove the fine bones, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by their sweet, white meat when sauteed or broiled.
Maine Fishing Regulations
Maine’s Dept. of Marine Resources (DMR) website features a comprehensive section on recreational fishing, including the complete regulations for all the state’s saltwater species, information on identifying your catch, where to fish along the Maine coast, a launch ramp directory, tide charts, newsletters, state fish records, charter- and partyboat listings, marine weather links and much more. Go to website and click on “Recreational Fishing.”
Seasons, Catch & Size Limits:
- For more information on Maine’s saltwater fishing scene, visit the Department of Marine Resources.
There is currently no state license required for fishing Maine’s salt waters; however, federal regulations require that anglers fishing for striped bass and other anadromous species, as well as anglers fishing beyond state waters (3-plus miles offshore) must register with the federal government. Go to the National Saltwater Angler Registry for more information and to register.