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Kennebec River Quietly Becomes Destination

The river, once known for its foul water, has transformed to become a recreational gem just a stone’s throw from downtown Waterville, Maine guides and others say.

Featured image
Shad, Kennebec River.
WATERVILLE — Willie Grenier remembers casting a line in the Androscoggin River in the Lewiston-Auburn area when he was 12 and hearing a toilet flush nearby, its contents flowing right through a pipe into the water.

That was before the Clean Water Act of 1972 was enacted when rivers including the Kennebec River were open sewers, he said.

“We’ve come a long way since then, but we have a long ways to go,” said Grenier, now 74, of Waterville.

Grenier has fished many years in Ticonic Bay on the Kennebec — the area between the Lockwood Dam in downtown Waterville and the rapids by Halifax Park in Winslow — taking hundreds of people to fish and enjoy the wildlife. Bald eagles can be seen flying overhead, sturgeon jump into the air and shad, or river herring, are plentiful in spring and early summer.

“If you sit on a park bench in Ticonic Bay in June or early July and look out on the river, you’re going to see sturgeon jumping out of the water and you’re talking 6-foot sturgeon,” Grenier said. “There’s bottleneck sturgeon that have come all the way from the ocean up to Waterville.”

The scene along the river is far different from the 1970s when people were warned away from the Kennebec. It is now a destination spot for fishing, boating, canoeing and kayaking in places below the Lockwood Dam and downriver, Maine guides and others say. The polluted history of the river is so ingrained in generations of people that many may not be aware of the recreational opportunities the Kennebec now provides in Waterville and Winslow, they say.

Until this year, when river levels were low, the shad were so plentiful a person with little skill could catch 30 shad in that area in three or four hours, according to Grenier, who said this year the average was about 15.

“In July, August and September the smallmouth bass show up and it becomes a great place to catch them,” Grenier said. “The reason that happened is that baby alewives and baby shad start coming down from where they were born and head out to sea.”

Like Grenier, Richard Behr also spends time on the Kennebec. Behr, a Registered Maine Guide and owner of Three Rivers Guide Service, fishes from about a quarter-mile below the Lockwood Dam downriver to Sidney. He launches his drift boat at the boat landing off Water Street in Waterville’s South End.

“I love the river and I spend a lot of time on it up in Waterville,” he said.

Like Grenier, Behr, a 62-year-old hydrogeologist, takes people out on the river for a view of the wildlife.

One day he and a client were eating lunch on the boat when they saw a bald eagle swoop down into a flock of squawking geese. As a second eagle appeared, out of the frenzy they saw a great blue heron take flight and the eagles flew after it, Behr recalled. Thinking the heron was on a flight path right to the boat, Behr stood up and waved his arms but the heron landed just off the stern and stood in the shallow water, knowing the eagles wouldn’t attempt to come near people.

“Those are the things that are so much fun to see, and that’s a memory that client’s not going to be able to shake,” Behr said.

He said he spends a lot of time on lakes and ponds, but the river is more alive with its changing currents and water levels, although people, particularly those who wade in the water, need to be aware of those changes, he said.

Jeff Reardon, Maine Brook Trout Project director for Trout Unlimited, says the Edwards Dam removal in Augusta in 1999 prompted the alewife population to explode. In the spring and fall, one can wade across the Kennebec from Winslow to Waterville and see the concentrations of shad and striped bass, he said.

Starting around May, the shad arrive and are concentrated from below the Lockwood Dam to the Donald V. Carter Memorial Bridge downstream, according to Reardon.

“It’s world-class shad fishing, probably the best in New England and 22 years ago it didn’t exist, ” he said.

Grenier said the dam prevents the shad and Atlantic salmon from going upriver to spawn. He and others support the removal of dams in the Kennebec from Waterville to Skowhegan.

“If we want to restore the Atlantic salmon to the Kennebec,” Grenier said, “those four dams need to leave or find a way that they can get to the Sandy River, or they’ll be extinct.”

A retired, 35-year teacher at Clinton Elementary School, Grenier notes that the concentration of shad below the Lockwood Dam would change if the dam was no longer there, as they would go upriver to their spawning grounds.

“I’m waiting for the day that I can no longer catch shad in Waterville,” he said.