Denis Dauphinee (left) and Pete Douvarjo fish for shad on June 10 on the Penobscot River in Old Town.

Last week, I saw the light. Honestly, I did. Thanks to a longtime angler with a boat and a plan (and plenty of accumulated knowledge), I learned that catching American shad was simple. Easy, even.

Then, on Tuesday, I headed to my own home river to try out the lessons I’d learned from Willie Grenier.

Caught bottom. Snarled my leader. Never caught a thing.

Back to the drawing board.

Realistically, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Aside from that glorious day on the Kennebec, when Willie and I caught and released about 40 shad, I’ve never had much luck catching the species.

OK. Honestly, I’ve never had any luck. None.

Still, there I was, wading into a favorite spot on the Penobscot River, not far upstream from Bangor, to try my hand.

No, I’ve never caught a fish there, either. But make no mistake: This stretch of river is still special.

This was the spot where a group of friends, all conservation-minded, gathered to celebrate the completion of the Penobscot River Restoration Project back in 2016, when shad and striped bass were finally able to swim this far up the river after more than 150 years of butting their heads against dams that had finally been removed.

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Some shad were caught (by others) and some stripers participated in our outing as well. Stories were told, laughs shared, and each of us spent plenty of time sitting on rocks, watching the water flow by, and enjoying each others’ company.

A year later, we returned, vowing to do so as often as possible, to renew those bonds and rejoice about a river that was rapidly returning to health. By then, we had much to discuss, as life had changed for most of us. Still, we fished, and smiled, and laughed, in spite of our various misfortunes.

Those gatherings were social events, to be sure. Tuesday’s trip to the river wasn’t. Instead, it was a solitary, nearly solemn occasion.

Life is different now, of course, with the COVID-19 pandemic changing social habits and making simple fishing trips more complicated. Carpooling is a thing of the past. So, too, are the handshakes and hugs that used to mark our reunions.

And sometimes, those old friends just aren’t available to join in.

That was the case this year, as I returned to the river for what has become an annual tradition of trying (and failing) to finally catch a Penobscot River shad.

All signs pointed toward the possibility of success. Typically, we’ve fished this piece of river in mid-June — a couple weeks later — after the shad have begun to show up in high numbers. This year I decided to strike earlier after reading a Maine Department of Marine Resources report that sent me scrambling for the appropriate fly rod and gear.

According to the report, the shad were in. Man, were they in. As of May 23, just five shad had been counted at the Milford Dam’s fish trap. A week later, that total jumped to 784 shad.

Shad are notoriously shy about entering man-made fish passage facilities — none had entered the Lockwood Dam on the Kennebec all season as of last week, but that didn’t stop Willie and I from having a banner day of fishing — so I suspected that the Penobscot was packed with fish.

Contributing to my calculation: A year ago, about 2,500 shad were counted in the Penobscot in the entire year. The fact that 779 were counted in a single week had to bode well for a fishing excursion.

I’d love to tell you that it did. I’d love to tell you that I put all of Willie’s tricks to use and tired myself out catching fish. As you already know, that wasn’t the case.

But it may not have been all my fault.

A day later, one of those old fishing friends traveled to the river from his home in southern Maine. This time, it was my turn to beg off — I had other plans that I just couldn’t break.

That pal, I’ll admit, is a much better angler than I. He can catch fish in a bathtub, as the saying goes.

Last night, I received his report, and chuckled. No fish. Not a one.

But one thing is certain: We’ll be back. Individually, or collectively. We’ll sit on rocks. We’ll watch the river flow by. We’ll celebrate a more healthy Penobscot.

And we’ll fish. Whether the shad participate or not.

John Holyoke can be reached at 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.

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...