Willie Grenier of Waterville shows off a nice American shad he caught on the Kennebec River on Tuesday, May 26, 2020. Grenier has been fishing for shad in the river for 20 years, and regularly catches more than 20 fish in a three-hour trip. Credit: John Holyoke

As soon as Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Augusta was removed in 1999, Willie Grenier of Waterville was among the anglers trying to figure out the new fishery that would result.

Some of his old haunts for brown trout fishing weren’t as productive, but other spots — and other species — quickly teemed with fish. Among the fish that flourished: American shad, which were suddenly able to swim into waters that they’d not had access to in more than 100 years.

For people like Grenier, who have spent time figuring out the habits of shad, the fishery provides the opportunity to tangle with dozens of hard-fighting 4- and 5-pound fish in just a few hours, as far upstream as Lockwood Dam in Waterville.

Yes, dozens. And Grenier, a 73-year-old retired teacher, likes nothing more than teaching others how to have fun catching and releasing a boatload of shad.

Ask for a secret and you’ll receive a self-deprecating answer. Then he’ll tell you exactly what he knows.

“I guess the secret is almost 20 years of fishing here. Trying different flies,” Grenier said, pointing at a collection of good, bad and downright ugly flies that he’ll deploy, as the situation calls for. “Those are just some of the flies that I’ve tried here in the past. Some of ’em work, some of ’em don’t.”

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On Tuesday, Grenier proved that 20 years of doing his homework has resulted in a master-level understanding of the river. We never changed flies, had constant action, and between the two of us we brought more than 40 shad to the boat in three hours of fishing.

That, I figure, counts as a far-better-than-decent day of fishing.

Grenier is a fly fisher, and has taught casting and tying. He knows the sport can be intimidating. And he said when it comes to shad, there’s no need for a beginner to worry.

“[I don’t want to] discourage anybody. If you’re not a good fly caster, it doesn’t really matter,” Grenier said. “If you have a seven- or eight-weight rod with a sinking line or a sink tip, all you have to do is make a short cast and strip out line, then let it stay there. The fish will hit it.”

Let me explain the tactic for those who have never fly fished: Pull a little line off the reel. Flip it away from your boat. Feed out some more line so the fly — I’d suggest a bright orange shad dart — is wagging in the current about 30 feet behind you. Now, wait. (Hint: You won’t have to wait long).

At least, we didn’t. Of course, Grenier knows this water well, and can tell where fish are likely to be holding. Here’s an example of the depth of his knowledge: Grenier says May 15 is “his day.” That’s the day he starts to target shad in the Kennebec. Every. Single. Year.

And May 15 is the day he always catches his first shad. Always.

Usually the return of alewives, a kind of river herring, let Grenier know that the shad, too, will be lurking. This year, the shad were a bit late in arriving and he initially decided to change his annual plan.

“I came here in the morning [of May 15], looked, and said, ‘[Alewives are] not here.’ I went fishing somewhere else. Then in the afternoon I thought, ‘I’ve got to go. It’s the 15th,’” he said. “So I came over here and started fishing. Within 10 minutes I’d caught a shad. Within three hours I’d caught 39.”

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Grenier said he figures there are about six diehard shad anglers who spend part of May and June targeting the fish on the Kennebec.

Up on the Penobscot, where river restoration is more recent, there probably aren’t even that many avid shad anglers.

The possibility of 20- or 30-fish afternoons could change all that. If, that is, anglers know that’s a realistic option.

Trust me. It is. Grenier convinced me of that.

It’s not all fun and games, of course. Grenier said his home river changes rapidly, with the water rising and falling unexpectedly. And boaters can get themselves into trouble if they’re not careful, as the water depth can vary from five feet to less than two feet in the area we fished.

Safety, and paying close attention, is key.

On the Kennebec, as on the Penobscot, there are places you can fish from shore. Or, you might get lucky and find someone like Grenier to show you the ropes.

“I like taking people out here who have never caught a fish before,” he said as we wrapped up our morning of fishing.

On Tuesday, I was his 12th guest of the year. And what did I get out of it?

The best morning of fishing of my life.

And lessons I plan to put to use on my own home river, very soon.

John Holyoke can be reached at jholyoke@bangordailynews.com or 207-990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke. His first book, “Evergreens,” a collection of his favorite BDN columns and features, is published by Islandport Press and is available wherever books are sold.

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...