Fishing the Maine Coast
May 20, 2019
Its list of saltwater game fish may be short, but Maine offers some fine summertime fishing amid spectacular scenery.
By Captain Barry Gibson • Photography by Barry & Cathy Beck/Tom Richardson & Steve Rubican
Although few serious fishermen would argue that Maine is a Mecca of saltwater angling, the Pine Tree State does host several marine species worth pursuing on rod and reel—and no shortage of beautiful spots to explore. Maine’s 3,400 miles of rocky coastline comprise innumerable bays, coves, and tidal rivers, thousands of islands and ledges, and a sprinkling of sandy beaches. Add in cold, clear water considered to be some of the cleanest in the country, couple it with fishing pressure that can only be described as light compared to states to the south, and the scene is set for some enjoyable fishing.
The most-targeted species has evolved from groundfish, such as cod and pollock, to striped bass. Recreational groundfishing was positively world-class off Maine during its heyday from the late 1940s through the 1970s, when stocks began to thin out. However, in the mid-‘80s through the ‘90s, striped bass began arriving in increasing numbers, and coastal anglers refocused their efforts accordingly. Today, stripers are by far Maine’s most popular marine game fish, although the season is slightly shorter than in other parts of New England.
Stripers Are King
Bass begin moving into the state’s southernmost waters in May, eventually pushing as far north as Penobscot Bay by mid-June. Although the Maine record is 67 pounds, set in 1978, the majority of fish range from 20 to 30 inches. The state’s new minimum size is 28 inches, so catching a “keeper” can often be a bit of a challenge.
Probably the easiest way to catch a Maine striper is to use mackerel, either live or chunked. A two-inch mackerel “steak” impaled on a 6/0 circle hook (circle hooks are required by law when striper fishing with bait in Maine) attached to a two-foot, 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leader and cast into shallow water near shore is simple yet highly effective. Water less than six feet deep is ideal for chunking, and the surf line of nearly every exposed beach along the mid- and southwest coast of Maine can be especially productive, whether fishing from a boat or shore.
Live macks in the five- to ten-inch range also work well, especially when fished in protected bays, coves and rivers (the Sheepscot, Kennebec and Saco are tops) in less than 15 feet of water. I like to use a 7/0 circle hook for live-lining, and attach a float or balloon four to five feet above the bait to keep it out of the rocks. The mackerel can be hooked through the upper jaw or just behind the dorsal fin. Cast the bait out, put the reel in gear and let the mack tow the float around. Sooner or later a bass will grab it and yank the float under. However, when this happens, resist the urge to set the hook. As soon as the rod bends over, reel as fast as you can. Most times, the bass will be solidly hooked in the jaw.
Suckers for Seaworms
Another productive method for taking stripers is by drifting a mackerel chunk, sandworm, or bloodworm along the bottom over ledges in the rivers. Ledges that come up to depths of 10 to 30 feet within areas of relatively deeper water are ideal holding spots for bass (there are a dozen or so around the city of Bath on the Kennebec River, for example), particularly on an incoming tide.
Rigging is simple: Slide a two-ounce egg sinker onto your line, attach a swivel then tie on 24 to 36 inches of mono or fluorocarbon leader. Lastly, tie on a 5/0 circle hook. Fish the rig vertically right below the boat as you drift along with the tide, and keep it just a foot or two off the bottom. Oftentimes a bass will peck at the bait before taking it, so patience is key. When your rod doubles over, simply reel to set the hook.
Artificial lures also take their share of Maine stripers. I really enjoy tossing topwater poppers such as the 4 3/8 -inch Storm Chug Bug and the 3 ½-inch Yo-Zuri Hydro Popper on 12-pound-test spinning gear into three or four feet of water along the shorelines of rivers and inland bays. This is light-tackle fun at its finest, with a backdrop of towering spruce trees, osprey and even bald eagles—often without another boat in sight. It just doesn’t get any better!
Fly-fishing for stripers is also popular in parts of Maine. Near the mouth of the Royal River in Yarmouth and the Harraseeket River in South Freeport, fly anglers stalk bass on the mud flats in shallow-draft skiffs. The fishery is similar to bonefishing in tropical waters, and often involves sight-casting to waking and finning fish in two to three feet of water. Nine-weight gear is ideal, and productive flies include long Deceivers, Crease flies, Gurglers, Clouser Minnows, Guitar Minnows, Mushmouths and crab patterns. Soft-plastics such as Hogy’s, Slug-Go’s and Fin-S-Fish will also take stripers on the flats. White, chartreuse and olive are top colors.
The striper may be Maine’s glamour fish, but for dependable action, mackerel top the charts. These pint-sized members of the tuna tribe swarm the nearshore waters in May, and usually stick around until October. Macks range from four inches up to two pounds, and can be caught virtually anywhere from a boat, dock, bridge, jetty or even right from shore.
Mackerel fishing is easy and inexpensive, and particularly popular with kids. A light spin outfit armed with a 1/3-ounce, chrome-plated “mackerel jig” is the setup of choice. Tie the jig directly to the mono (no leader or snap-swivel needed) and cast it out. Let it sink for a few seconds then retrieve it with short sweeps of the rod. First-timers are often surprised at just how hard a foot-long mackerel can pull!
If you want to catch a lot of mackerel in a hurry to use for striper bait, switch to a sabiki rig, available in most tackle and coastal hardware stores for around $5. A sabiki consists of a four-foot section of monofilament with six or more dropper “flies” made from nylon, beads and processed fish skin tied to the line every six inches or so. A mackerel jig, flashy spoon or small sinker is snapped to the bitter end for weight.
The sabiki can be cast out and worked as you would a mackerel jig, or lowered vertically and jigged up and down. I’ve also had good luck slow-trolling sabikis along rocky shorelines or off points of land in 15 to 60 feet of water. This is a good way to locate a school. When a mackerel hits, shift the engine into neutral and reel in slowly. Very often other macks will follow the hooked one and may also bite, so you may be able to fill your live well in a hurry.
If the macks are uncooperative (it sometimes happens), lower a jig or sabiki to the bottom in 10 to 30 feet of water along a rocky shoreline and you’ll likely hook “harbor pollock”—juvenile members of the larger sea pollock found offshore. Harbor pollock run about the same size as mackerel, and serve as acceptable striper baits.
Fun with Flounder
Winter flounder are another inshore possibility. Flounder were decimated as bycatch in Maine’s commercial shrimp fishery back in the 1970s, but appear to be making a comeback.
These flatfish can be found over sand, gravel and mud bottom, with productive depths ranging from 10 to 25 feet. If you can work an area near where a freshwater brook or culvert empties into the ocean, so much the better. A two-hook “flounder rig” comprising a pair of No. 8 to No. 10 Chestertown hooks and a two-ounce bank sinker is ideal, and can be purchased at many local tackle shops.
The best bait is a two-inch section of live sandworm, although clams catch their share of flounder, too. Fish the rig right on the bottom with the line tight. When you detect the staccato tap-tap-tap of the flounder, let the fish take the bait for a few seconds then raise the rod slowly.
Flounder fight hard for their size, and if you catch a legal one of 12 inches or longer, you won’t find a better candidate for the frying pan! As an aside, there are numerous YouTube videos on how to fillet a flounder in case you’ve never done it before.
What about bluefish? Blues invaded the Maine coast every summer for several decades starting in 1973, but their numbers tapered off in the 1990s. They still make sporadic appearances along the southwest coast as far north as Casco Bay in late July and August, but are no longer as dependable as they once were. One bright spot seems to be the Saco Bay area.
Prospecting for summer blues, which range to 15 pounds, is best done by trolling swimming plugs on 20-pound-test line along shorelines and in river mouths. My favorite bluefish plug is a Bomber Long A in gold with a blue back, but the Rapala CD-18 and the newer Yo-Zuri Magnum Deep Diver also work well.
When you do hook a bluefish by trolling, hang on! These are strong, tough fish that seem to fight extra hard in Maine’s cooler waters.
Go Long for Groundfish, Tuna, Shark
Despite the depletion of Gulf of Maine cod noted earlier, these fish can still be caught, along with haddock (which have made a terrific comeback), pollock, cusk and redfish. The best fishing is currently found on offshore grounds such as Jeffreys Ledge and Plattes Bank in 150 to 400 feet of water, and a party or charter boat is the way to go for most folks since it can take a long time to learn these areas. For-hire boats are available from Kittery up to Boothbay Harbor, with Capt. Tim Tower’s Bunny Clark out of Ogunquit perhaps the best-known headboat for producing consistent groundfish catches.
Last but not least, Maine offers some fine big-game fishing during the warm-weather months. Dozens, even hundreds, of bluefin tuna from 75 to well over 800 pounds are taken during most seasons, anywhere from just a mile or two offshore out to 30 miles or more. Trolling plastic squid rigs can be effective, but most anglers and commercial rod-and-reelers anchor up and chum, with live herring or mackerel favored as hook baits.
Sharking has taken on a life of its own off the Maine coast during the past few years, with good-eating makos, porbeagles and threshers the primary targets. Blue sharks from 50 to 400 pounds often crash the party, yet in many cases blues are expressly targeted by fly fishermen and light-tackle buffs who favor catch-and-release. Again, if you’re new to tuna and shark fishing, your best bet is to charter a boat that specializes in offshore big game.
All in all, Maine offers some fine saltwater fishing during the summer months—good news for anglers who want to plan a family vacation along this scenic coast. The action might not compare to that found in other states, but the picturesque natural settings and uncrowded waters more than make up for it!
Quick Hits: More Maine Fishing Info
Maine’s Department of Marine Resources has a helpful website full of fishing information that’s easy to navigate. To access the site, CLICK HERE and click on “Recreational Fishing,” on the left side of the home page.
Is a saltwater license necessary? In most cases, the answer is “yes.” A saltwater license costs just $1 annually, and you can purchase one in just a couple of minutes on-line. No license is needed on a party or charter boat, or if you under 12 years of age. For more information on license regulations, go to the Recreational Fishing page mentioned above and click on “Who Needs to Register?”
If you are interested in booking a trip aboard a party or charter boat, go to the Recreational Fishing page and click on “Party & Charter Boat Business List.” You’ll find a complete directory with photos and information on all boats available, selectable by region.
If you want to know the size and bag limits for Maine’s marine species, go to the Recreational Fishing page and click on “Fishing Regulations.”
If you plan to trailer your own boat to Maine, a launch ramp directory, tide charts, marine weather link, information on identifying your catch, fishing reports and more are also available on the Recreational Fishing page.
— Barry Gibson