The Kennebec River
Sea-Run Fish for Every Season
their severe diminution because of dams, pollution and over-fishing,
the 11 native sea-run fish of
the Kennebec River were well known to Native
Americans and European
settlers alike. Each species has its own unique
spawning behavior and growing
habits, and migration cycle. Below are thumbnail
sketches of each.
sturgeon: The largest
sea-run fish in eastern North America.
Atlantic sturgeon may reach
800 pounds, 12 feet long and live for 50 years
or more. They spawn in the
Kennebec River in late June and July at age 15
or older. Adults live along
the continental shelf at depths of over 600
feet. The species is
practically extinct in the United States except for
severely depleted populations
in the Delaware, Hudson and Kennebec Rivers.
Adults are often seen leaping
out of the water near Augusta in early
sturgeon: Much more
common in the Kennebec than the Atlantic
sturgeon, but listed as an
endangered species in the United States.
Shortnose sturgeon reach three
to four feet long and may live for 80 years
or more. Females do not spawn
until 20 years old and may stop feeding for
up to a year before spawning.
Unlike Atlantic sturgeon, shortnose rarely
travel beyond their home river
extinct from the Kennebec River and the United
States. Eight to 15 pound
Atlantic salmon spawn in lower Kennebec
tributaries near Augusta in
late fall and are observed leaping in the river
from late May to September.
The lower Kennebec holds the southernmost
population of wild Atlantic
salmon in North America.
bass: Because of its
large freshwater tidal estuary, Merrymeeting
Bay, the Kennebec holds the
only spawning population of striped bass in New
England. Stripers in Maine
have reached up to 67 lbs. They
feed voraciously on river
herring and eels in the Kennebec from spring to
late fall. They spawn in early
July in the river near Augusta and now have
free access to Waterville, 60
miles from the sea.
shad: The largest
member of the river herring family, shad can
grow to 10 pounds and over two
feet in length. The Kennebec once hosted a
run of a million or more shad,
which spawned throughout the drainage in
June. Adults spend up to five
years at sea before returning to their home
river to spawn. Dam
construction and pollution nearly destroyed the
Kennebec's shad population,
which is now being restored.
eel: Unlike most
sea-run fish, eels spawn in salt water, migrate
as tiny juveniles to
freshwater and live for 30 years or more in rivers and
ponds before completing their
lifecycle by returning to the ocean. They
grow to be three to four feet
One of the most abundant fish of the Kennebec River. Alewives are
born in upriver lakes and
ponds, migrate to sea after a few months in
freshwater and return three to
five years later in May and June as 10-14
inch adults. They are eagerly
devoured by striped bass, eagles, osprey and
great blue heron. The Kennebec
once hosted runs of over 6 million adult
alewives. Today, the run is
over one million and growing.
identical to the alewife in appearance, the
blueback herring differs by
spawning in fast-flowing river reaches instead
of lakes and ponds. They are
devoured in great numbers by stripers and
fish-eating birds during their
early summer migration up the Kennebec.
smelt: Enters the lower
Kennebec River in early winter to feed on
small fish and crustaceans;
spawns soon after ice-out in rocky stream beds.
Grows to one foot in length.
Rainbow smelt are subject to a popular commercial and
recreational fishery in
Hallowell, Randolph, Bowdoinham and Dresden.
The current population in the
Kennebec is estimated in the tens of millions.
A close relative to the Atlantic cod, except much smaller (rarely
over a foot long), with a life
history very similar to rainbow smelt.
Tomcod are called
"frostfish" because they appear in the Kennebec only after ice
to coat the river. They spawn
in December near or above head of tide and are
frequently caught by smelt fishermen in the lower river and estuary.
Juvenile lamprey live for up to eight years in freshwater, eating organic
debris, and live in saltwater for two years, attaching themselves to large
fish. They enter the Kennebec
to spawn in late May and early June where
they dig nests in shallow
gravel beds of the river. Like Pacific salmon,
sea lamprey die immediately
after spawning and their carcasses provide
nutrients to local stream environments.