In July 1988, I spent a morning in Bangor on the Penobscot River with members of the Penobscot Salmon Club, learning about the problems dams create for fish. I also learned about the tradition of presenting the U.S. president with the first salmon caught each year. But I don’t remember them telling me that the president that same year actually had received the second one. As Catherine Schmitt recounts in “The President’s Salmon,” the first fish was hooked by a logger who refused: “President Reagan just cut my income in half,” he said. “He didn’t need my salmon, too.”

These annual offerings to a selection of presidents give a book on salmon restoration an interesting backbone. Alternating chapters begin with a vignette that combines angling on a still-wintery Penobscot – the season originally opened April 1 – with the prevalent tastes and preoccupations of the White House’s incumbent. They segue nicely into the epoch’s socioeconomic and political issues as they affected fish and river.

The Maine tradition started in 1912, when Bangor Republicans had just rallied behind the re-election of William Howard Taft. “Sending the eleven-pound, silvery-coated fish to Washington,” they decided, “would ‘contribute to the city’s need of honor and respect.'”

The custom ended with a botched attempt to present the first fish to Vice President Al Gore. After three months of bureaucratic runaround, it was eaten – in Bangor, not Washington – by the angler and his dog. Two years later, only catch-and-release was allowed on the Penobscot, and after the Atlantic salmon was listed as endangered, no fishing at all.

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Even when the salmon did reach D.C., the ceremony did not always go as planned. Schmitt regales us with some comic examples. Before the formalities could begin in 1929, his over-enthusiastic cook had already decapitated Herbert Hoover’s salmon. It was reconstituted with cotton and needle and thread, but as the photographers snapped away, “the cotton kept oozing out of the fish.” Sixty years later, then-Governor Joseph Brennan found himself struggling to hold on to a “wet and thawing fish” while its “watery blood” dripped onto the carpet of the Roosevelt Room.

Interspersed with the politics, chapters – named for different stretches of the river as it descends from headwaters to the sea – explore more ancient history and ecology. Schmitt demonstrates a pretty turn of phrase. I will never again think of freshwater mussels as anything but “peeling bronze coins half-buried in mud.”

Her twin narratives branch out into a plethora of fascinating accounts. Besides the history and effects of damming the river, the reader gets a brief primer on, for instance, fly-fishing (“a gentle art”); other first-fish traditions (I had no idea that “Westminster Abbey is rooted in salmon fishing”); and the canning industry, pioneered by Mainers initially on the West coast canning Pacific salmon.

As a measure of the author’s research, “The President’s Salmon” includes 40 pages of notes, not to mention five pages of bibliography. However, the accumulation of so much information comes at a price. From time to time, the sheer quantity overwhelms the book’s flow and, therefore, the reader. As with all things environmental, there are no easy dividing lines, and in this case breaking them up into antiphonal sections often creates confusion.

Schmitt also has a tendency toward over-arching statements that ring curiously hollow. After the Water Quality Act of 1965 (Ed Muskie’s signature achievement), she writes, “the real clean-up had to wait; for the rest of the decade, federal attention was turned to the jungles of Southeast Asia.” But that decade ended in Earth Day, 1970, and Southeast Asian jungles continued to loom well into the next.

And one can only wonder in what way the tradition of the president’s fish “kept alive a vital connection between people and the surroundings that sustain them.”

“The President’s Salmon” comes to a surprisingly abrupt end. Most of the old Bangor anglers “doubt they will ever fish again.” So crucial in fighting the dams, this constituency parted company with conservationists over listing the Atlantic salmon as endangered; exploration of that divide would have been interesting. As it is, the 10-year old Penobscot River Restoration Project, surely the river’s last best hope, gets remarkably short shrift. It is certainly not Catherine Schmitt’s fault that success on the Penobscot remains elusive, but I wish she had left a clearer sense of where, for better or worse, she sees the effort headed.

Thomas Urquhart is a former director of Maine Audubon and the author of “For the Beauty of the Earth.”


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