An annual rite of the Penobscot River sporting world brought a Maine angler and the year’s first Atlantic salmon to the president’s doorstep.
By Catherine Schmitt
Boston Globe news story
ON MAY 25, 1992, Claude and Rosemae Westfall drove their Buick south on Maine’s I-95. Claude was dressed sharply if atypically in a green suit jacket and white button-down shirt; Rosemae wore her best black dress and a pink blazer. In the back seat, a cooler of ice held an Atlantic salmon Claude had caught in the Penobscot River three weeks earlier.
On their way south, the Westfalls crossed the Kennebec, Androscoggin, and Saco rivers, all of which once had thriving populations of salmon. Every spring, for thousands of years, the rivers that empty into the North Atlantic Ocean turned silver with migrating fish. Tomcod and rainbow smelt swam out from beneath melting ice. Young eels found their way from the Sargasso Sea. Alewives and blueback herring surged upstream when serviceberry trees bloomed white in still-bare woods, followed by shad in June, then sea lamprey, striped bass, and sturgeon.
Among the crowded schools swam the King of Fish, the Atlantic salmon. From New York to Labrador, from Russia to Portugal, sea-bright salmon defied current, tide, and gravity, driven inland by instinct and memory to the very streams where they themselves emerged from gravel nests years before. They were fish worthy of story, myth, and legend; in North America, they provided sustenance to many and supported major commercial fisheries.
Hundreds of thousands of salmon used to ascend the rivers of New England. But by 1992, no adult salmon returned to the Kennebec River. Seventeen came back to the Androscoggin, and only eight to the Saco. Their banks were empty of salmon anglers.
On the Penobscot, the second largest river system in New England, Claude Westfall’s fish was the first of 2,386 salmon that would return to the river that year, more than 70 percent of the total returns along the entire East Coast, but only 2 percent of the river’s historic population.
AFTER TWO AND A HALF HOURS on the highway, Claude took the Route 1 exit and followed the signs to Kennebunkport. He drove on through the village of antique shops, art galleries, restaurants, and souvenir stands just opening up for the summer tourist season. White-fenced inns and yacht clubs overlooked sailboats in the harbor. Kennebunkport looked nothing like the worn college town of Orono, where Claude and Rosemae lived, on the banks of the Penobscot River.
Claude crossed the sparkling Kennebunk River and turned right on Ocean Avenue. Soon they came to a roadblock. Claude stopped.
“Where are you going?” asked a security guard.
“I have an appointment,” said Claude.
The guard scanned his clipboard.
“Oh, yes, Mr. Westfall. Go right ahead.”
Claude drove on, and from an overlook their destination came into view: a large gray-shingled home, buildings, tennis courts, and lawn, all neatly arranged on a point jutting into the sea. Claude turned right at the entrance and stopped before a tall iron gate flanked by stone pillars crusted orange with sunburst lichen.
More guards examined the bottom of the car, looked under the hood, glanced at the fish in the cooler in the back seat, and inspected the other gifts. There was a blue cap from the Veazie Salmon Club — one of the three clubs on the Penobscot that served as social networks for sport fishermen, provided access to the best fishing pools, and advocated for the restoration of Atlantic salmon and the Penobscot River. A carved wooden box held hand-tied salmon flies, including one Claude had tied for the first lady: wings of peacock sword feathers and fur from a squirrel’s tail, dyed a fluorescent green, wrapped on a lapel pin with silver, black, and green floss — the CZ Special. Claude’s namesake creation was one of many fly patterns he had developed in nearly 40 years of fishing for Atlantic salmon.
Finding everything clear, the guards waved the Westfalls through to the heliport, where they parked and were escorted to an outbuilding nearby. A guard carried the cooler and the other gifts to an office near the landing pad. The guard opened the cooler. The ice had begun to melt. The fish looked more like something behind glass at the seafood counter than 9½ pounds of flesh and bone that had muscled its way from river to sea and back again. Black spots peppered its silver back; its sharply defined dorsal fin revealed it to be a wild fish, not one that had begun life in a hatchery. Hatcheries had been supplementing Maine’s salmon population since the late 1800s.
The guard brought the cooler and gifts out to the lawn as President George H.W. Bush, Barbara Bush, US Representative Olympia Snowe, and John McKernan, Snowe’s husband and the governor of Maine, came down from the main house to join the Westfalls and Maine Commissioner of Marine Resources Bill Brennan in front of the cedar-shingled building. Millie, the Bush family’s springer spaniel, sniffed around the cooler. Claude gave the president the blue Veazie Salmon Club cap. At the photographer’s cue, Claude held up the slightly defrosted fish and handed it to the president, who grasped the fish by the line that had been looped around its tail.
President Bush turned to Claude. “Mr. and Mrs. Westfall, we have a little time left. Would you like to come up to the house?”
Thrilled, the Westfalls accepted the invitation.
The security guard took the cooler around to the service entrance of the main house. The party, trailed by Secret Service agents, walked along the shoreline path lined with red tulips, salt-spray roses, and security cameras.
Bush joined a long line of fishing presidents that began with George Washington, who made a profit netting sturgeon, herring, and shad from the Potomac at Mount Vernon. Chester Arthur once caught a world-record 51-pound Atlantic salmon (in the Cascapedia River in Quebec). His successor, Grover Cleveland, took fly rods on his honeymoon.
Although Bush had been salmon fishing in Canada, he did not claim to be a skilled fly fisherman. He was a troller, a spinner, a bait-caster, racing to ocean fishing grounds in his cigarette boat, Fidelity. He caught bonefish, tarpon, sailfish, mackerel, barracuda, stripers, but rarely ate them. Bush didn’t much care for seafood, much less where it came from. He usually threw back his catch or gave it to Secret Service agents.
SINCE 1912, SALMON ANGLERS had been giving the first salmon caught in the Penobscot River each year to the president of the United States. But by the early 1990s, the presentation of the Presidential Salmon was a token, an opportunity for political posturing, a symbol of both the tenuous status of the species and the promise of renewal that had infused the Penobscot River for as long as the river had been abused.
In the spring of 1992, several years of high energy prices had prompted new federal legislation to deregulate electricity producers and allow them access to the nation’s power grid, including hydroelectric dams. Tax breaks and new laws that required utilities to purchase power from renewable sources had infected developers with dam fever.
In Maine, Claude Westfall and his fellow salmon club members had just defeated a proposal to reconstruct an old dam on the Penobscot River in Bangor, and now they faced yet another dam proposal upstream in nearby Orono.
In his 1988 campaign, George H.W. Bush had promised to make amends for the Reagan administration’s crimes against nature and to be the environmental president. While he advanced policies to reduce acid rain and improve water quality, Bush advocated a national energy strategy that included more hydroelectric development, making it easier for developers to license them by reducing the ability of federal wildlife officials to intervene in the process. At the same time, his administration was taking steps to weaken the Endangered Species Act.
Just one week before receiving Claude’s salmon, Bush had waived protections for the Northern spotted owl to allow logging in the Pacific Northwest. He would soon proclaim, “It’s time to put people ahead of owls.” These words echoed across the country and throughout the Penobscot River watershed, where logging giant Great Northern Paper owned 10 percent of all the land in Maine, employed thousands of people in the woods and mills, and operated the nation’s largest private hydroelectric system on waters home to dwindling numbers of Atlantic salmon.
Bush was about to make opposition to the Endangered Species Act a centerpiece of his 1992 campaign. He would call the act a broken law that would not stand. When the act threatened to block a dam project in Bush’s home state of Texas, Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan urged that the law be weakened. Lujan, a man who said he couldn’t tell the difference between a red squirrel and a black squirrel, was not shy about his attitude toward the “too tough” law.
Lujan delayed designating critical habitat for the threatened spotted owl, and instead planned to allow the owl to become extinct in areas of Washington state. Owls would be captured and moved south to other federal lands so that logging could continue around the parks. On the Penobscot, industry put forth a similar plan that would trap salmon and truck them upstream so that dam construction could move forward.
On that May day in 1992, the Westfalls ate doughnuts and chatted with the Bushes and the other officials for about an hour before leaving for the long drive back to Orono. On the way, Claude and Rosemae discussed their time with the president.
“I think we really hit it off,” said Claude, who couldn’t believe the whole thing was over. It all went by so fast.
Upon returning home to Orono, Claude wrote President Bush a letter, thanking him for the visit and inviting him to go salmon fishing on the Penobscot. The president politely declined “due to other pressing commitments.”
Claude Westfall had no idea he would be the last fisherman in an 80-year tradition to present the first wild Atlantic salmon caught in Maine’s Penobscot River to the president of the United States.
One year after Claude Westfall delivered the first salmon to Bush, his son Scott caught the first salmon of 1993. New rules restricted anglers to keeping one fish per season. Scott put his fish in the freezer and waited for the politicians to organize the presentation. Three months later, he was still waiting. Tired of the runaround, Scott declared, “I’m going to eat the fish.” He defrosted the salmon, cooked and ate it, sharing some with his dog.
Salmon had become, as one biologist said, a thing on paper rather than an animal in the river. A procession of salmon task forces, boards, authorities, working groups, and committees marked the end of the 20th century, ultimately landing Atlantic salmon on the Endangered Species List.
Claude Westfall and the others successfully defeated the proposals for new dams, ushering in a new era of restoration and cooperation on the Penobscot River. One major dam came out in 2012; another in 2013. Salmon have access to more habitat than they’ve known in nearly two centuries. And this spring, like every spring before, some will return to the Penobscot River, to their home waters.
From the book “The President’s Salmon” by Catherine Schmitt. Copyright © 2015 by Rowman & Littlefield. Used by permission of Down East Books, rowman.com.