September 15, 2016
By Dave Sherwood
For the majority of fish in Maine, September means three things: migrate, spawn, and eat.
It's an explosive combination that brings the best fishing of the year to Maine.
From the seacoast, where striped bass and bluefish begin their migration south, to the great north woods and western mountains, where trout and salmon feast and spawn ahead of the impending ice and snow, there's something here for every angler. It's a happy coincidence that it coincides with one of the very best—and most scenic—times to visit Maine for vacation, so convincing your spouse, family or friends to join you shouldn't be a problem.
These are the trips that get you through the winter; the last hurrah to ensure no regrets.
For anyone heading north to Maine in September, your first stop should be online, at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife website. Everyone over 16 will need a fishing license, and the agency's website is a handy place to look over fishing regulations—some rivers and streams have strict rules to protect spawning trout, though fishing in most places continues through September and sometimes even October and November. Leaf-peepers—anglers or otherwise—would be well advised to check in with Maine's Office of Tourism for maps and driving information—plus plenty of extracurricular activities that Maine is well known for.
Foliage reports can be found at www.mainefoliage.com.
And finally, consider hiring a Registered Maine Guide. A registered Maine Guide isn't just any guide—they pass a rigorous, hands-on examination that ensures they can find you fish at any time of year. Fishing in the fall can be outstanding—but Maine's wild brook trout and salmon keep no schedule and make no promises. A guide helps to take the guesswork out of it on your precious—and always too fleeting—days on the water.
THE PERFECT STORM
Maine is near the northern limit of the striped bass' migratory range, the top end of an annual back-and-forth route that takes them north from the Chesapeake Bay in April and May then south again in September.
The migratory itch of the striped bass coincides with falling temperatures, fall colors and the outpouring of young-of-the-year herring from Maine's rivers—a perfect storm that all but guarantees explosive fishing in a picture-perfect setting.
This time of year, mobility is key. There are several locations along the Maine coast that put you within striking distance of the fishiest river mouths, beachfronts and rocky surf.
The northerly fringe of the best fall action is the Kennebec River. Find it on a map and run your finger along the blue line that runs from Merrymeeting Bay to the sea. This stretch offers some of the finest fishing for striped bass, particularly in the fall, when juvenile herring school en masse and begin making their way downriver to the sea.
Top-water lures designed to imitate small baitfish fished early and late—and when the blitz is on, anytime of day—are the ticket. Try small, 3- to 5- inch poppers on light tackle. Fly fishers should try folded foam poppers and gurglers on floating lines. If you're not getting hits, move on until you find the birds—which will often lead you to the fish. This applies to both shore-bound anglers along beaches like Popham, and those with access to watercraft.
The greater Portland area is another ideal launching pad for forays into Casco Bay, a mosaic of hundreds of islands and fishy water, rips, granite shores, and rivers. Blitzing fish are as common here in fall as lobster buoys and sea gulls. Again, look for the birds, then find the fish. Try to get on the water early and late. Several beaches and rocky waterfronts—Two Lights State Park and Crescent Beach, south of Portland, for example, as well as Winslow State Park in Freeport, offer easy shore access and fast fishing when stripers are migrating past.
Further south, the coast from Old Orchard Beach south to Kennebunkport, Kittery and York begins to empty out this time of year, leaving behind just fish and fishermen to prowl the beaches. In fact, every single striped bass in Maine has to transit this stretch of coastline on its way south, and at any moment, any beach, rock point, river or creek mouth can—and often does—become a hotspot. There's no better place, or time, to combine a relaxing beach vacation with fishing.
FALL IN THE COUNTY
There are plenty of good reasons to fish Aroostook County in September: Stunning scenery, lack of crowds, unparalleled variety of lakes, ponds and rivers, large native brook trout and landlocked salmon in their most vivid spawning colors.
But two reasons in particular stand out. First, the "county's" northerly latitude means the water, here, cools earlier than almost anywhere else in the country. That means the target species—big, hook-jawed brook trout and landlocked salmon—begin spawning sooner, too. As the fish begin mating, they become aggressive—so the bite turns on here even as doldrums persist elsewhere in New England and points south.
Second, the vast majority of trout in this neck of the woods are native, or at least, wild fish. That means they were born near where you catch them, not in a fish farm or hatchery. These fish are naturally more beautiful, more aggressive and often, more abundant than fish in places that depend on a stocking truck.
Yet like all fall fishing for trout and salmon, it can be hit or miss. A good Registered Maine Guide can help you find fish faster. But persistence and adhering to a few general rules will help improve your odds, too.
Remember that spawning fish are looking for moving water. You should, too. The biggest fish will be found at the inlet or outlet of the largest, deep-water lakes. The Allagash Lakes—Telos, Chamberlain, Churchill and Eagle—and adjoining streams and rivers all offer fast fall fishing. So does the Fish River chain of lakes—Eagle, Square, Cross and Long—farther north.
Fall fish are partial to brightly colored lures or flies. Brook trout prefer red or orange. In the fall, when instinctive, aggressive strikes are the norm, matching the hatch is not necessary. Put something big and bright colored in front of a fish—brook trout or salmon—and a hit will follow. Be persistent. Change lures or flies often.
The most important piece of advice is to stay nimble: For example, following a good slug of rain anytime in September, wait 24 hours then head to your favorite river, stream or lake inlet. Heavy rain is a siren call for trout to begin moving towards their spawning grounds. If you're in trout country and the conditions are right, have faith, the fish will be there.
The Allagash Wilderness Waterway. One of Maine's crown jewels, this 100-mile long stretch of pristine river and lakes is little used in the fall, but takes you into the wild heart of one of the country's least populated counties. The fishing, sightseeing, moose-watching and of course, paddling, is world-class, but campsites and rapids are empty. The best fishing spots—most accessible only by water—make for great pit stops as you paddle. Two-, three-, four- and even seven- day trips are possible. For detailed trip planning and campsite information, see the Maine Department of Agriculture and Forestry's website.
SKI COUNTRY FISHING
Maine Lakes & Mountains Region in the western part of the state is big trout country. Think hook jaws, sunset bellies, fins trimmed with ivory. There is no prettier fish, and no prettier—or more storied—place to catch them. Many of the same rivers share salmon slashing at streamers in deep, tannin-stained pools with a mosaic of brilliant fall oranges, red and yellows draping the hillsides.
But western Maine is also ski country—and for anyone who enjoys fishing plus all the off-season bargains and activities ski mountains provide in the shoulder seasons, September here is as close to heaven as it gets.
Maine has several smaller ski areas, and two larger ones. From north to south, they are, Sugarloaf Mountain in Carabassett Valley, and Sunday River in Newry. Coincidentally, a timeshare, condo, bed and breakfast or inn near any of these mountains in September also puts you within striking distance of much of Maine's best trout water. A single vacation could combine all three—or focus on covering the fishy water surrounding just one.
From south to north:
Further south and west, Sugarloaf Mountain is located just a few miles east of the storied Rangeley region. This region is the birthplace of New England brook trout and salmon fishing, and still among the best. Fly fishermen should try the Rapid, Magalloway, Kennebago and Rangeley Rivers to name just a few. Remote trout ponds in this region—some a short hike along the Appalachian Trail, which crosses the top of Sugarloaf Mountain can also offer fast fall fishing. And fishermen won't miss the Rangeley Outdoor Heritage Museum.
Sunday River sits near the headwaters of Maine's sprawling Androscoggin River, south of Sugarloaf near the New Hampshire border, offering a most unique and unusual fishing opportunity for browns, rainbows and even smallmouth bass in a pristine mountain setting. Several guides and outfitters can put you on fish here—or help set you up for a float trip (canoe, kayak or driftboat) to take advantage of the beautiful meandering Androscoggin, its well-known fall foliage and abundant fish. Large brown trout and rainbows to 18 inches or more are possible here, and smallmouth bass grow as big here as they do in better known—but more heavily fished rivers elsewhere. Cooling water temperatures ahead of winter turn on the fish and the action is often fast and furious.
A smaller ski area of note is Big Squaw in the Maine Highlands Region, which is east of the Lakes & Mountains Region. Big Squaw Mountain overlooks Maine's largest and arguably, fishiest lake: Moosehead. The fall fishing frenzy here focuses around three rivers: The East Outlet of the Kennebec, the West Branch of the Penobscot, and the Roach River. These three rivers are all are an easy day trip from the condos, camps and chalets around Big Squaw. Here, as elsewhere, brightly colored flies—and especially red—fished on floating or sinking lines draw vicious strikes. The Maine Guide Fly Shop in Greenville offers good advice and guided trips.
The "Fishy" Lighthouse Tour Maine's most popular venues Portland's Old Port restaurants and breweries, Casco Bay's lobster shacks, sailboat charters and cruises and regional lighthouses are much less crowded in September than during the peak summer season. To take advantage, combine Maine's explosive fall fishing with a tour of any three of the southern Maine coast's stunning lighthouses.
From south to north, the following are the most fishermen- and family-friendly lighthouses in Maine: Nubble Light beside York Beach in York, the Portland Head Light at the mouth of Casco Bay in Portland, and Seguin Lighthouse, which can be viewed from Popham Beach State Park. All are within easy reach of a great lobster roll, cold beer and often, a seaside port—but close enough to prime striped bass territory to allow you to keep one eye on the water. Maine's Office of Tourism website offers great tips and directions for visiting the lighthouses.
Leaf Peeping Nirvana. The foliage is beautiful everywhere in Maine, but the mountain flanks along the state's western border make it all the more dramatic. Sunday River and Sugarloaf both offer stunning fall colors and all the creature comforts that are the hallmark of ski country lodging and dining. Any hike in the region is likely to be eye-popping gorgeous this time of year; so is the golfing and mountain biking that have made both mountains favorite off-season destinations. Check their websites for chairlift hours of operation—and start your trip with a birds-eye view of some of the country's most beautiful foliage (and trout water.) The nearby foothills are also well-known for their apple picking in September. Click here for a list of regional orchards.