Penobscot River Smallmouth

Find abundant, aggressive smallies by floating one of Maine's most iconic rivers.

Smallmouth aren’t native to Maine. These voracious fish arrived thanks to bucket biology and are thriving in the Pinetree State. Even though bass are the second-most sought-after game fish in the state, they don’t receive the same level of positive PR. Because Maine’s pride and joy are native brook trout and landlocked salmon, many anglers view bass as a threat. They spawn at much higher rates, competing for the same resources as the preferred cold-water species. Although you can find them anywhere in the state, the best smallmouth fishing tends to be in clear lakes throughout northern Maine, such as Rangeley, East Grand, and Schoodic. However, Penobscot River smallmouth provide some of the best bass fishing the state and region offers.

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The Penobscot River

For various reasons, the Penobscot is legendary and is arguably the most complex river in Maine. Formed by four branches in north-central Maine, it meanders 264 miles to Penobscot Bay on the coast.

The home waters of the Penobscot People (all islands from Old Town north) are the sovereign land of the Penobscot Nation. The river and associated tributaries are ancestral highways the Penobscot once used to travel from inland wintering grounds to coastal summering grounds. They relied on the river for travel, sustenance, and trade.

During the logging boom throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the river was dammed and used to float timber from log yards to mills. Cities like Old Town became thriving industry hubs, taking advantage of the newfound commerce centered around the logging industry.

The Penobscot River has a rich history between its use for travel by the people of Penobscot Nation, and as a timber highway for the logging industry.

Although the river played an important role in progress and economic development, its commercial use—dams and paper mills—along with climate change, took an undeniable toll, chief of which was the Atlantic salmon. Their numbers dwindled to nearly zero before state and federal agencies began restoration efforts.  The Penobscot is the final stronghold of Atlantic salmon in the United States, with more than 1,500 returning to the river in 2023.

Aside from salmon, the Penobscot River is home to many other native and non-native fish species, like brook trout, black bass, alewives, sturgeon, and pike. Because of the enormity of the undeveloped river north of Old Town, the water body teems with forage and habitat without the angling pressure that many rivers of similar size are subjected to.

Penobscot River Smallmouth Bass

Although not native, smallmouth bass thrive in the Penobscot. When I started at Old Town Canoe, I discovered the smallmouth gem steps away from my office, even though I had grown up in Maine.

I have fished my whole life. By nature of what I do for a living, I have the great fortune of wetting a line all over North America. I still haven’t found a smallmouth fishery quite like the Penobscot.

Penobscot River smallmouth
A bent fly rod in an Old Town canoe is iconic to Maine fishing, and as more anglers adjust to the proliferation of of smallmouth in the Pine Tree State, they are enjoying the aggressive, hard-fighting nature of the species.

Smallmouth fishing on the Penobscot is a game of numbers rather than size. Even though I caught my personal-best smallmouth from the river in Old Town, it’s the excitement of catching many fish during each outing in a picturesque setting that draws me back.

The smallmouth season starts in May, remaining strong through late fall. The fish spawn in early June, offering epic topwater action that persists throughout the summer months—all hours of the day—unlike anywhere else I’ve fished for smallmouth.

Tackle

Forage is plentiful for Penobscot River smallmouth: alewives, shad, herring, and smelt. No matter the season, white is the color.

In the spring, pre-spawn to post-spawn, I take a few medium- or medium-heavy-action rods with me. One rod for white swimbaits or jerk shads and another for a topwater spook, focusing on the top of the water column. When fly fishing, I run a 5- to 7-weight rod with a weight-forward shooting line for various streamer flies that emulate shad or herring.

Penobscot River smallmouth
With abundant fish feeding in shallow water, Penobscot anglers have a great opportunity to catch smallmouth on the fly.

In mid- to late summer, I broaden my approach, introducing a few more lures into my repertoire to target various depths. I’ve had great success with white flukes at the surface and finesse baits around submerged or deeper structure, and in eddies and the downstream side of islands and shoals. When fly fishing, I take two rods with me—one with floating line for dry flies and poppers, and another with sink-tip line for bulkier streamer flies.

Proven Winners for Penobscot River Smallmouth

Soft Plastics

Z-Man MinnowZ
Z-Man Hula StikZ
Z-Man Big TRD

Flies

Deceiver (white)
Gray Ghost
Wooly Bugger (white, off-white)
Bass Popper (white or black)

Access

One of my favorite aspects of fishing for Penobscot River smallmouth is the lack of fishing pressure they receive, particularly from the stretch between Howland and Old Town. Most angling on the river is wade fishing toward the headwaters for trout or at the mouth in Penobscot Bay for striped bass.

Although there are several boat ramps along the Penobscot, few people operate motorized boats north of Old Town because there is some risk to boating on the river. There are dramatic depth and current changes, shoals, and subsurface obstructions.  Most boats I see out on the river north of Old Town are experienced Maine guides who know how to navigate it safely.  For that reason, one of the best ways to fish for smallmouth on the Penobscot is by kayak or canoe.

Penobscot River smallmouth
Joe Cermele with one of countless smallies brought to hand during a summertime float.

I prefer to fish from a pedal or motorized kayak, which keeps my hands free for fishing. In my Old Town Sportsman AutoPilot motorized kayak, I can cruise up or down the river without exerting myself, using GPS Spot-Lock to hold my position to fish current seams and structure. Between Howland and Old Town, there are a few boat ramps that make accessing the Penobscot easy and allow me to customize the length of my outing.

Indian Island Loop

For a shorter trip, I enjoy launching from 4th Street Park and fishing around Indian Island in Old Town. Depending on how slow or fast you fish, the 3.3-mile trip can take two to four hours, considering your fishing craft and river conditions. Be advised that no matter how you circumnavigate the island, you must travel upstream for half the journey. Using a pedal or motorized kayak helps lessen that burden, but in high-water conditions (spring runoff or after major rainstorms), this is ill-advised, unsafe, and nearly impossible.

The northwest side of Indian Island is the most remote and scenic. You’ll likely encounter many bald eagles. Watch out for float-plane traffic in the summer, as this area is the seaplane base for Old Town Airport. On this side of the river, fish ledges and eddies, where smallmouth stack up in the darker water.  On the south side of Indian Island, the fishing is best along the grassy shore, around bridge abutments, and along the bank under dense overhanging oak trees.

Penobscot River smallmouth
Dramatic depth changes, shoals, and subsurface obstructions make kayaks and canoes the ideal platforms to pursue Penobscot River smallmouth.

The most productive fishing I’ve found on this loop is along the eastern shore of Indian Island in eddies and seams that are in and below the light rapids. In average water levels, the rapids are runnable in a pedal or motorized kayak, but I recommend navigating them with your drive in the stowed position to avoid rocks.

Greenbush or Costigan to Old Town

For a more extended day-long trip, launch from Greenbush or Costigan and float to Old Town. This trip takes two people and a little coordination, but the extra hassle is worth it. When guiding a smallmouth trip, this is my preference. The wide, slow-moving section of the river is scenic and sprawling, offering a wide range of fishing opportunities. The river remains easily navigable, becoming slightly more technical just north of Indian Island.

For this trip, leave a vehicle at the 4th Street Park boat ramp so that you can retrieve it at the put-in. Pack a cooler with plenty of snacks and water because the float from Greenbush may take up to eight hours if you fish it slow, with Costigan taking as long as 6 hours. I have done each trip in half that time, but it requires fishing while moving at a steady pace to the take-out.

Penobscot River smallmouth
There are a number of different floats, ranging from a few hours to two days, that anglers can plan along the Penobscot.

Passadumkeag to Old Town

For an even more remote multi-day smallmouth trip, I highly recommend this two-day, 19-mile adventure. Much like the Greenbush and Costigan trips, the river meanders at a mellow pace with boundless fishing opportunities.  To do it comfortably, target midsummer to early fall, and pack a light tent and sleeping bag with enough food and drink for two days on the water. A primitive campsite at River Billy’s Retreat is situated close to the halfway point of the journey, adjacent to Foster Island on the western shore of the river. 

A Guided Experience

For the ultimate experience, consider hiring a registered Maine guide. Several offer full or half-day smallmouth trips on the river from boats or canoes. A guide takes over the burden of planning and knows where to go on the river to provide the best experience possible. To find a guide, visit the Maine Professional Guides Association website.

» WATCH: The author and Cut & Retie Podcast host, Joe Cermele, lose count of the smallies they catch during a day of fishing the Penobscot. 

Greatest Smallmouth River In the Country?

I struggled with whether to write this article or not. For years, I’ve kept my smallmouth honey hole in my back pocket, almost as a party trick for visiting friends and media to WOW them with the best smallmouth fishing they’ve ever had. Back in August 2022, I hosted my friend and long-time, well-traveled fishing media personality, Joe Cermele, for a day on the river. He couldn’t get over the quantity of fish we caught that late August day, stating that “This may be one of the best smallmouth rivers in the country.” It was then I realized that Maine’s best-kept bass secret must be shared. After all, there are enough fish to go around.

Ryan Lilly is a registered Maine fishing and hunting guide and is on the marketing team for Old Town Watercraft. He’s a multi-species angler, fly angler, and big-game hunter. He lives in Hampden, Maine. 

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