Kennebec River Browns
March 17, 2014
Long before there was a Green, San Juan, or Bighorn tailwater trout fishery, anglers flocked to Maine in search of native Eastern brook trout that measured in pounds, not inches. For decades, Maine was arguably the most popular trout destination in the U.S. Areas such as Rangeley and Moosehead drew fly fishers from all over the country. Railroads linked the major cities of the East to Maine's best fishing locations. Sporting camps sprang up along the shores of many Maine lakes and rivers. Full-time fishing guides numbered in the hundreds. It could be said that brook trout—or brookies as they are called up here—put Maine on the map.
While the state is still the stronghold for native Eastern brook trout, Maine's wild brook trout populations have been drastically reduced by up to 90 percent. In many places where the habitat is no longer conducive to delicate brook trout, brown trout have now replaced the natives. The middle Kennebec River is such a place.
The Kennebec River has a rich history. Native Americans once walked its shores—their petroglyphs can still be seen on a rocky ledge along the river. Stone tools are still occasionally found on gravel bars by fly fishers and boaters.
In 1724, Jesuit priest Sebastian Rasle along with Chief Bomazeen and many of his Abenaki followers lost their lives when British forces invaded their riverside village. Benedict Arnold passed through the area on his ill-fated March to Quebec.
The Kennebec was also a working river. For generations, logs were sluiced down the river to feed paper mills in the towns of Skowhegan and Madison. You can still find pulp logs along the banks, islands, and in shallow back eddies.
Dams sprang up to power these mills. The river was channelized and rerouted in some places. Industrial and municipal wastewater poured into the river—often untreated. Residents used the river as a place to dump trash and other unwanted items.
But quietly the Kennebec began to change. Logs started traveling by road instead of river in the late 1970s. Due in part to the Clean Water Act and other regulations, the mills improved their effluent. Towns upgraded their sewer infrastructure. Soon the river began to show its potential.
As attitudes toward the environment began to change, people began to treat the river better, paving the way for the middle Kennebec to transform from a working river to a recreational river. Surprisingly, it was the more urban lower Kennebec that first caught the attention of fly fishers. Brown trout up to 5 pounds came from the downriver towns of Waterville and Fairfield. These fisheries became some of the most popular in the state.
Meanwhile, the middle Kennebec was developing a quiet following of its own—becoming possibly the best-kept secret in New England. Browns were first introduced into the Kennebec in 1941, and in 1987, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife (MDIF&W) started annually stocking browns in the Kennebec below Williams Dam near the town of Solon. This section receives between 1,500 and 5,000 8- to 10-inch trout per year. Natural reproduction is limited, but there are some wild stream-born fish in the river, and because of the ever-improving habitat and water quality, holdovers are plentiful.
In 1995, MDIF&W began a similar stocking program below the Abenaki Hydro Dam in Madison. This section receives between 2,000 and 4,000 fish per year. By the mid-1990s, the Solon stretch had become arguably the finest brown trout float fishery in New England, and the Madison stretch soon became its wade-fishing equal.
In Madison, the fish are stocked at the various boat launches and public access sites. In Solon, in addition to traditional shore stocking, fish are now float stocked by local volunteers and members of the Kennebec Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited. MDIF&W has even experimented with aerial stocking to help spread the fish out and lessen predation by eagles, ospreys, loons, mergansers, otters, and stocking-truck chasers.
The middle Kennebec consists of two dam-to-dam stretches of river. Both are managed under rules requiring artificial lures in the tailwaters (the free-flowing sections of river), with a 16-inch (minimum) one-fish limit.
The Madison stretch is open to fishing year-round while the Solon stretch is open April through October. Although both areas are referred to as "the middle Kennebec" they are very different fisheries.
In Madison below the Abenaki hydro dam, the Kennebec is a classic northern New England river. Here the river flows over a boulder-strewn riverbed with steep wooded banks. The grade is continuous with rapids and riffles broken up by the occasional glide or run. The water is slightly discolored, but clear. The rocks are covered with vegetation, and the insect life is robust.
Conversely, the Kennebec in Solon below Williams Dam looks more like a scene out of New York's Catskills Mountains. Here the Kennebec flows through a broad gravel-bottom river valley with gently sloping banks. The river is braided, the grade is gentle, the bottom is light-colored, and the water is as clear as tap water. The long slick glides typical of those found on rivers such as the Delaware are interrupted by occasional minor riffles.
The Kennebec in Madison is a wade fishery, which although located just outside of town, has the feel of a much more remote section of river. With nearly 2 miles of undeveloped riffle-and-run water, this section of river is one of the best big water brown trout wading fisheries in New England. It also boasts some of the strongest and most diverse hatches on the entire Kennebec.
When high water recedes (normally around Memorial Day), hatches break wide open on the Madison area, starting first with size 14 Quill Gordons , Hendricksons, and a heavy dose of Brachycentrus (Grannom) caddis. After the Gordons and Hendricksons start to taper off in mid June, large Sulphurs (Ephemerella invaria) begin to provide afternoon and evening hatches. In fact, you can count on afternoon mayfly hatches and significant dry-fly fishing nearly every day from Memorial Day until about July 4 when afternoon mayfly hatches become scarcer.
While there are sporadic afternoon hatches of smaller size 18 Sulphurs (Ephemerella dorothea dorothea), through July, dry-fly fishing becomes mostly an evening caddis affair during the last hour of daylight.
The middle Kennebec is a diverse, robust caddis river that according to Thomas Ames, Jr.—author of Hatch Guide for New England Streams—has every major Eastern caddis species in healthy numbers. After the Grannoms there are various Spotted Sedges (Hydropsyche, #14-18), Zebra Caddis (#16-18), and in the late summer Tiny Blue Sedges (#18).
In August, mayflies make a comeback with a strong hatch of #12 Isonychias, and around Labor Day Blue-winged Olives start up and become important until November. The Blue-winged Olive hatch is a dependable afternoon event through the fall, and the hatch on the middle Kennebec is the best I've seen in Maine.
While the Madison area is a classic match-the-hatch area, it can be difficult to fish subsurface due to the anchored aquatic weeds. In the Solon area it's quite the opposite as the weeds and associated aquatic insect hatches are less pronounced, and there is more opportunity to nymph fish in the riffles using Copper Johns (#14-18), Buckskin Caddis (#16-18), Prince Nymphs (#12-16), and a variety of Golden Stonefly imitations. Mike Mercer's Beaded Biot Epoxy Golden Stone (#6-12) is an all-time favorite.
While nymphing takes the majority of the fish in the Solon area, the biggest fish usually come from throwing streamers near the bank and retrieving them a short distance back toward the boat while drifting. Traditional streamer patterns like Zonkers, Woolly Buggers, and Zoo Cougars definitely catch fish but I subscribe to the "big fish, big fly" philosophy, and prefer to use 4-inch articulated streamers like Craven's Gonga, Staton's Prostitot, or Kelly Galloup's Sex Dungeon. (Evidently, bold streamer patterns require bold names as well.)
The Kennebec in Solon is a primarily a float fishery due to limited walk-in access. This stretch offers roughly 8 miles of mostly undeveloped river. In addition to the brown trout, there are wild landlocked salmon, wild rainbows from upriver, and there are occasionally stocked brook trout. While you should think of it as primarily a brown trout river, this is one of the few places in New England where you can catch four salmonid species in a single outing—we call it the "Kennebec Slam."
Expect brown trout mostly between 8 and 12 inches on the Kennebec but larger fish are not uncommon, and fish up to 20 inches are caught every year. We normally catch the biggest browns during the early spring mayfly hatches, during the fall pre-spawn period, and in the summer during the early mornings and late evenings, or by casting large streamers on overcast days.
Tackle & Access
Access the Madison section via Arnolds Lane just off Route 148 on the west side of the river in Anson. After the road turns to dirt there are several formal access points before the road hits a dead end. You can also access this area via Father Rasle Road off Route 201A on the east side of the river in Madison. There are several formal and informal trails between where the railroad tracks cross the road and the cemetery just downstream.
Wade-in access to the Solon area is just northwest of the Route 201A Bridge in Embden. This serves as an informal boat launch as well. You can also get to this piece of river from Williams Dam just north of downtown Solon. This allows access to both sides of the large pool below the dam. In addition, a private boat launch and some wading is available at Evergreens Campground in Solon. There is a public takeout for float trips off the so-called Dump Road in North Anson.
I suggest 9-foot or longer rods on the Kennebec because they help you reach the fish, make effective mends, and keep line off the water. I use a 4-weight for drys, a 5-weight for most of my nymphing, and I keep a 6-weight strung up with a streamer at all times.
Chest waders are necessary in all but the warmest weather in July and August when wading wet is often more comfortable. Studded soles help cut through the weeds and moss in the Madison section, but standard rubber soles are adequate in the Solon area.
Diamond in the Rough
The middle Kennebec is still a diamond in the rough. A few minor changes would secure its position as the premier big water trout fishery in New England, and one of the finest classic trout fisheries in the Northeast. Regulations that protect large fish would be a big help. I suggest a 16- to 18-inch slot limit that allows some harvest of state-stocked trout, but protects mature 18-inch and larger trout as trophy specimens. A boat access downriver from Madison, and better walk-in access in Solon would help expand access to this great fishery.
With a traditional New England lake/pond centric view of fishing, state and local officials often overlook our rivers and streams. But Maine is now beginning to understand what its rivers and streams can do for its sagging rural economies.
The middle Kennebec was once a working river. It is now unemployed. It is time to put the river back to work again. Only this time let's do it with fishing and recreation, rather than log driving and power generation.
Bob Mallard has owned and operated Kennebec River Outfitters (kennebecriveroutfitters.com) in Madison, Maine, since 2001. He is the author of the book 50 Best Places Fly Fishing the Northeast (Stonefly Press, 2014).