Memorial Day Weekend at Rangeley

There’s something so magical and serene about breathing in the crisp mountain air, surrounded by spruce trees and Canada jays that there truly aren’t words to describe it. Rangeley, Maine is one of the most enchanting places to wet a line on this planet, and it holds a special place in my heart. My family has owned a cabin on one of the region’s most famous rivers for decades, and I can’t even express how grateful I am for it. As soon as I learned to fly fish a number of years ago, I was coming up to the fabled waters of the Western Maine mountains, hoping to score one of the monstrous brook trout or landlocked salmon the area is known for. Even before that, I recall standing on the shore of the storied Steep Bank Pool watching fish quietly dimple the surface during an evening hatch. At the time, not yet having fished the Kennebago River to understand its seasons, I believed these risers were brook trout, a species I was already fascinated with. More likely, they were probably the numerous chubs that populate the river during the summer, but they still inspired a fierce longing to return, this time with a fly rod in hand.

The serenity of a Rangeley river. Photo credit: David Belson.

During Memorial Day weekend last week, I was lucky enough to return once again to Rangeley. After numerous trips over the past few years, I’ve become fairly well acquainted with the fish and their seasons. I hoped I could expand my knowledge of the area this trip by visiting at a time of year I hadn’t been before. Typically, my grandfather and I choose the worst possible weekends to take the trip. Whether it be high-90 degree heat, thunderstorms, fear-inspiring mosquitoes and black flies, freezing temperatures, or a combination of them all, you can always expect the conditions to go awry. This weekend, unfortunately, looked as though it would be no different. The forecast called for highs below 50, a serious shock to the system when reading the forecast on an 85-degree day. In addition, unsurprisingly, a storm seemed to be making its way east, predicted to arrive just as we did at camp.

Not wanting to go unprepared, I packed everything but the kitchen sink (we already had enough appliances to install), including more fishing tackle and flies than you could imagine. On Friday afternoon, my parents picked me up from school to drive to Gray, Maine, where we would meet my grandfather. My grandfather is the one who introduced me to Rangeley, and really, to fly fishing itself. I owe so much to him, and I’m beyond pleased at his willingness to take me on these trips.

This trip, however, it wouldn’t just be my grandfather and I heading north; my dad would also be joining us for this adventure. My dad is undoubtedly much more of an indoors kind of guy than a hardened outdoorsman, but he frequently steps up to the challenge. In addition to my grandfather, my dad has supported me in countless ways, namely through transportation, photography, and sending me innumerable articles about fish and fishing (I have to believe his search suggestions have started to become increasingly skewed towards my interests rather than his as time goes on).

At the Park and Ride, we tested out a couple of my grandfather’s recent additions to his new Jeep. Thanks to a cargo hitch, we were able to fit all my gear in the relatively small trunk. Also, a roof-mounted rod tube made the ride much more enjoyable as we did have nine-and-ten-foot poles jabbing our shoulders at every bump in the road. Funnily enough, later in the trip, we saw another angler with the exact same rig on their jeep. A first in a long line of “what are the chances?!” during the trip.

The ride from Gray to Rangeley would be about 3 hours, plus the time it would take to stop at Roy’s in Auburn for a burger. At Roy’s, somehow unsurprisingly, my grandfather’s best friend just so happened to be walking back to his car. Despite living quite far from the store, despite not communicating a lick, despite the possibility for us to stop at any restaurant along the route, we still ended up connecting. I had a feeling this trip would be full of surprises.

Once at camp, our first task was to fix the woodstove that would be keeping us somewhat cozy while the temperatures plummeted overnight. One thing I’ve learned about owning camps is that the maintenance never ends; whether it’s burst pipes, a leaky roof, or an empty propane tank, you can always count on something needing repairing or replacing.

That night, I went to bed with images of wild brook trout and landlocked salmon dancing through my head.

The next morning, I immediately got to business. The temperature was chilly-in the high 30’s-but I had already decided I would be doing some small-stream fishing at an inlet of the river our cabin is on. I slipped on my waders, in addition to about four other layers and wool gloves, and started my walk along the old railroad track. Along the path, just past the stream, I noticed some moose prints imprinted in the now hardened gravel. Although I’ve spent a fair share of time in the north woods, I’m yet to see a moose up-close-and-personal, but I have seen one from a distance in a car.

Stealthily, I stepped into the ice-cold water. Our cabin is in a fairly mountainous area. In fact, it’s actually already at 1,500 feet of elevation, and there are many mountains around it that rise far higher. Notwithstanding, the brook was a fairly slow, meandering one, unlike the tumbling high-elevation stream I had in mind. The basic makeup of the brook is beaver dam-shallow pool, repeating for as far as I could travel. I’m sure there were plenty of brookies in there, but I was having no luck. Not only did I not see a single fish, I couldn’t see any signs of them either, never mind a strike. Feeling somewhat defeated, I trudged back to camp for breakfast.

This stream had a far different composition than I pictured. Photo credit: David Belson.

Later that morning, my grandfather, dad, and I made the trip into downtown Rangeley. My first stop, of course, was the Rangeley Region Sports Shop, the local fly shop. There, I made the mistake of not having a plan as to what to buy. This left me vulnerable to purchase half the items in the store, which luckily, I refrained from doing, but came pretty darned close. Brett, the owner in addition to his wife, gave me his usual spiel: (I’m paraphrasing) “Yeah, the river you’re staying on isn’t fishing very good, but rivers x and y are pretty decent right now if you’re willing to withstand some crowds”. So far, I’m not sure I’ve been up when the river a few steps from our camp is fishing well (it’s very seasonal). Nevertheless, the other rivers he mentioned weren’t too far from the cabin, and I was always willing to experiment.

Before leaving, I asked Brett one final question: “I looked at the dealer maps for the large mass-produced fly distributors like Umpqua and Rainy’s, and noticed you aren’t on any of them. Did they just forget to include you, or do you really get your flies from elsewhere?”

Smiling, he responded, “Actually, all our flies our tied locally. When the two guys over there (he pointed to the other half of the store) aren’t helping customers, they’re tying for me. And, of course, you’ve seen me tying before.” I was shocked that such a large operation could still be doing things the old-fashioned way. And for every fly to be of such high-quality and consistency was quite incredible. You can really tell the fine folks at the Sports Shop love their jobs, which makes me more than happy to support them.

Later that afternoon, we went to one of the two rivers Brett suggested. Expecting a big river, and hopefully big brook trout, I brought three rods-five weight with a dry fly, 10′ 3 weight with a euro nymphing rig, and a seven weight with a streamer-to hopefully have a shot at covering multiple types of water.

When I got there, however, the river was much more like a super wide mountain stream. Most of it was shallow riffles with some pocket water here-and-there. Immediately I knew I could ditch two of the three setups and stick to my favorite method, dry flies.

Unlike the previous stream, this was much more like small-stream fishing than I expected. Photo credit: David Belson.

Noticing a small but steady Hendrickson hatch thanks to the warmth (it was now about 55 degrees and mostly sunny), I tied on a rust-colored Klinkhammer, a favorite of the area. Small fish occasionally splashed at the surface, obviously taking the numerous mayflies coming off. I assumed they were small chubs or shiners, by when I brought the first taker to hand, I noticed the white-lined pectoral fins and square tail that could only mean one thing: brook trout! The tiny 6-inch fish glistened in the flowing water, and I could already see more in the pool just ahead. I popped the barbless hook out if its jaw and quickly casted again. I counted down until the fly reached the slack water behind a boulder, and at the count of 4, a miniscule creature poked its snout into the air to inhale my offering. I couldn’t believe my luck! Why travel to a small stream like I did in the morning when you could experience the same fishing with much more water to explore, and plenty of backcast room? I was content for the rest of the afternoon, working my way upstream of the massive bridge and catching trout after trout along my way. Eventually, my fly got so beat up that I had to switch to another one of the patterns I tied in preparation for the trip, a parachute red quill. This was some of the finest brookie fishing I’d experienced in all my trips to the area.

Pleased with my results, I was willing to get off the river early to grab some dinner. On the way back to the car, my uncle mentioned he saw some old friends along the path paralleling the river. Again, what were the chances!?

For dinner, we took a trip to Furbish, once again in downtown Rangeley, which was a new restaurant for us. Much like that day’s fishing, we were all thrilled with the results. Not only was the food good, but we also enjoyed watching a brave soul practicing their kite surfing on the shore of Rangeley Lake.

That night, I decided I’d do a little fishing at the river next to our cabin. My goal was to catch at least a fish on a mouse fly I had been experimenting with for this adventure. Little did I know that goal was about to be blown out of the water.

The gorgeous view that evening from the river.

In order to ascertain whether or not there were actually any fish in the pool, I started out with a confidence pattern, the blacknose dace streamer. Before long, I felt like I was snagged, but once I felt head shakes, I knew I was hooked into something big. About ten seconds into the fight, not having made any progress, my line went limp. I was devastated, especially since I didn’t even know what species it was. For all I knew, it could have been a four-pound brook trout. I casted again, hoping whatever it was would come back. And it did, but not for long. After the second missed fished, I figured something must be wrong with my hook. I took out my hook file (a must-have tool for any angler) and quickly touched up the point.

Once the fly was back in the water, I was feeling pretty confident. I knew there were fish right in front of me, and I had a freshly-sharpened hook that would hopefully keep them pinned. When the strike came, I was ready. A strong strip-set later and I was hooked up! The fish bulldogged for the bottom, putting a hefty bend in my seven-weight. I finally got the fish within my range of sight, and, whadaya know, it was a fallfish, and a big one at that. Once in the net, I pulled out a tape and got a measurement while the hefty 16-inch male complied. Yes, 16 inches! Who says fallfish don’t get big, never mind fight hard?

Monster fallfish like this one were stacked in the pool.

Now confident that there were fish around, I swapped rods in favor of the mousin’ stick (which was really just my five-weight with a short 5′ 15 pound test leader). I wasn’t sure if the fallfish could fit the large topwater fly in their sucker-like mouths, but I was sure willing to try.

The fish quickly put my worries to rest. Not two seconds after my fly first hit the water, a massive fallfish came up and engulfed. Struggling with buck fever, I attempted to calm my nerves and tried not to strike too quickly. I succeeded, and was elated to find the mouse firmly stuck in the upper corner of the fish’s mouth when it finally rose to the surface. Boy, did these things put up a fight on my dinky trout rod! This big boy measured 18 inches when it made it to my net. It was truly a spectacle to behold.

The fallfish were all over my Morrish Mouse.

As the night got darker, the fishing just got better. I caught fallfish after fallfish, each one bigger than the last (to a certain extent). Best of all, I had this typically busy stretch of river to myself. Once it began to get seriously dark, it was hard to force myself to stop. When I did finally call it quits, crossing the river was quite daunting. I had easily made it across earlier when sunlight made it easy for my polarized glasses-covered eyes to judge the depth, but now I was relying on prior experience. And my prior experience hasn’t always been great here. In the past, my friends and I have taken a couple short swims after misjudging a sharp dropoff. Slowly but surely, I inched my way across the stream bottom, the water’s surface getting far closer to the non-waterproofed pocket of my waders than I care to describe. Eventually, though, I did make it, and I skipped back to camp to recount my glorious fishing adventure.

On our final day up north, I woke up early to try to squeeze in some last-minute fallfishing (yes, this is now a verb). When I took a look at the thermometer outside the cabin, the mercury read 34 degrees! Cold weather fishing was nothing new to me, but I hadn’t been out in temps this cold since March! Still, I couldn’t give up the chance to catch some chunks, so I trudged down to the rocky river bank, foregoing my waders. Surprisingly, the water temperature was a balmy 51 degrees, a testament to the heat-holding ability of H2O. My first cast with my streamer yielded a nice colored-up male fallfish, followed by a few more silvery females. I fished until I could no longer feel my fingers, at which point I returned, yet again jubilant, to our woodstove-warmed cabin.

The chilly temperatures the last morning of our trip.

After a hearty breakfast and a sweat-inducing project involving axes and electric saws, I was once again on the river. This time, for the first time all weekend, I had some company. Not wanting to compete with the numerous anglers fishing the pool and the run above it, I waded down to a run below the pool where I have caught brookies in the past. Using the same Klinkhammer I had the day before, I quickly landed a small fallfish and a few gorgeous common shiners in their spawning colors. I had hopes of salmonids in my mind, but I had a feeling it was a lost cause

Despite the very little fame they have, common shiners are some of the prettiest fish you’ll catch.

As I continued down toward the next pool, the water got shallower and shallower, but I started to see more rising fish. Finally, after walking a good 30 yards downstream, I took another cast, scanning for signs of life just below the surface. Suddenly, a little fish launched itself out of the water, annihilating my fly. “Another shiner,” I thought dismally. But when it got closer, I realized I was wrong; I had a tiny landlocked salmon on the other end of my line. I couldn’t help but chuckle as the little ouananiche wriggled under my rod tip as I skated it into my hands. Some people may have prized this fish far more than the monster fallfish I had been catching, simply because of its status as a salmonid; however, why would one fish for miniscule, weak, non-native fish when they could target massive, powerful, native fish? The hierarchy of salmonids over all other species still baffles me.

The little landlocked salmon.

Wanting to close out the trip with a few brutes, I worked my way down to a deep pool where I caught some more of the beefy fallfish. There, I met up with my father and grandfather before walking back to the now-packed-up camp.

Just as we shut the doors on the car for the final time, raindrops began to patter across the dry earth. Our timing was impeccable; even though the weather had looked unforgiving before the trip, we had just enjoyed some of the best I had ever seen in Rangeley. The cool temperatures kept the mosquitoes and black flies to a minimum, but the afternoon heat allowed for small mayfly hatches that made for terrific dry fly fishing.

Once again, I relished every second in the Western Maine mountains, and I’m already dreaming about the next trip. No monster trout or salmon were caught, but I did find solace in some of the hardest fighting “trash fish” I’d ever caught.

The fallfish fought spectacularly, hugging the bottom until the last seconds of the fight. Photo credit: David Belson.

One final note: I was one of the winners of the Maine Sportsman Youth Writing Contest this year, an honor I am more than grateful to have received. I was considering posting my winning entry on my blog last week while I was in Maine, but I’m going to wait to see if they put it in the magazine. If it does get published, I’ll be sure to post the issue here.

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