Two Gates and a Gravel Road (Part One)

I originally planned to write this post about preparing for a trip. Then I got lazy, and the trip I was preparing for came and went. Thanks to some careful preparations that I will likely share at a later date, this trip was perfect. When I say perfect, I truly mean it. Other than by adding more hours to the day, I can think of few ways this adventure could have been improved upon.

Allow me to preface this post with some background information. For decades, my grandfather has owned and co-owned a couple camps in the western Maine woods. I often get embarrassed telling people this, because in all honesty, I’m not trying to brag or make my family seem rich, because we’re not. The cabins are very modest; not to say they’re complete dumps, but they aren’t what anyone would call a “lake house”. The lights and stoves run on propane, the water is unsafe for drinking, and the beds are old Navy bunks.

The real draw of these camps is their location. When my great-grandfather built them in the 50’s, he chose locations with the best fishing and most beautiful scenery. Luckily, those two aspects have been preserved (with some slight changes), but the world has evolved. One of the camps would have been in the middle of nowhere years ago, but now the area is known as the fishing mecca of western Maine: Rangeley. This camp is by far the easier of the two to get to, but that’s not to say it’s a cakewalk. The ride in still requires a two-mile jaunt over rarely-graded gravel road. Still, its location seems to become more popular by the minute for visiting recreationalists, so there is rarely a time when there isn’t a car or two on the road.

The river next to one of my family’s cabins.

The other camp is a bit more remote. After traveling further north, you turn onto a fairly well maintained gravel road, and continue on that for twenty more miles. Yes, twenty miles of car-shaking, teeth-rattling, dust-covering dirt roads. Along the way you encounter two gates designed to keep the 20 residents in a 50-mile radius from getting too far in on the private roads.

One interesting thing about this area is that it is all privately owned. The largest of these landowners are typically logging companies, which still do extensive work here; however, there are other private landowners that control much more land in this region than most people see in their entire life. Others yet are lodges that control the land around their fishing and hunting areas. Then there’s my family, who own comparatively little land around just our camp. Still, it gives us access to some pristine fishing waters that would otherwise be unreachable by the public.

Frankly, the trip began quite uneventfully with my grandfather and I driving four hours to our camp in Rangeley. When we stopped for lunch at The Farmhouse Beer Garden in Farmington, it began to pour; the only rain we experienced the entire four days. By the time we arrived at camp, the rain had seized and the setting sun lit the way for us to unload.

That evening, I strapped on my waders and headed down to the river to do a little fishing. This river is very much a seasonal fishery. At ice-out, brook trout and landlocked salmon ascend from the lakes to gorge on the spawning smelt. A few stick around another few weeks to feast on the sucker eggs, but then they return to the stillwaters. Around Memorial Day, I experienced the fallfish spawn, during which time large fallfish get very territorial and will readily smack any fly that aggravates them. During the late spring/early summer, some small brook trout and salmon can still be caught before they depart for the cooler waters of the tributaries. Then the fishing dies down until the fall, when the large trout and salmon once again ascend the river to create the next generation.

When we arrived on Saturday night, the fishing was at its worst. Chubs and perch could still be found throughout the river, but the fish were small and hardly put up a fight. I knew going into it that if I was trying too hard, I was doing something wrong.

Starting with a streamer, I worked my way through a pool and then down to the run beneath it. Biteless, I switched to a soft hackle. Then a dry fly. I began to get aggravated. Those darn chubs shouldn’t have been that hard to catch!

Then I started to notice some rises. They were infrequent yet rhythmic, subtle yet informative. It was obvious these fish were keying in on emergers, something I didn’t bother to tie before heading up north.

Soon I saw little white and olive midges flying far away from the wrath of the hungry chubs below. I’m not going to try too hard to catch these darned fish! I told myself, and quickly started the walk back to the cabin to avoid the selective chubs. The last glimpses of burnt-orange sunlight glowered at me, taunting my inability to catch the most gullible of fish.

The next morning, my grandfather started our drive in to the more remote cabin. We’d start by driving to a fishing and hunting lodge along the same logging road that we’d be posting Native Fish Coalition (NFC) signs at.

It was smooth sailing until the tires touched gravel, at which point every foot felt like a miniature earthquake. Still, the roads were in relatively good condition thanks to the ongoing logging operations along it. Since we were traveling on a Sunday, we encountered numerous unmanned logging trucks, trailers, and equipment left in the logging yards until work began again the next day. At one point, we even encountered a yard that stored all of the trees cut in the past week. I kid you not, the pile must have been at least as tall as a two-story building, dwarfing me as I stood beside it for a picture.

This log pile was huge! Photo credit: Jim Kelley

Eventually we made it to the lodge, where we met the incredibly accommodating manager, Buzz. He invited us to sit down on the porch, which offered a stunning view of the lake and surrounding mountains. We chatted for a while, discussing his time spent as a guide and manager in other fascinating places, like Colorado, Alaska, and the Bahamas. He mentioned his love for the West, but also remarked that the pristine landscape of his home state caused him to move back.

We also talked about NFC’s mission to preserve the native, wild fish in the area, namely brook trout. As a lover of Maine’s native char, Buzz said he fully supports their efforts, and appreciates the impact they have on the region’s fishery. I showed him the signs, featuring a gorgeous picture of a brook trout as well as information about how their populations are being hurt. Our goal that day was to post the signs on three ponds on the lodges property. All three have thriving populations of native, wild brook trout, as do many others in the area. Our hope was that by posting the signs, anglers would be informed of the rules and suggestions in place to protect these fish, as well as to inspire them to take action to ensure they’re here for future generations.

Native Fish Coalition’s sign.

The first of these signs would be posted at the lake we were looking at. I assumed I’d have to find one of the trees scattered around the waterfront to use, but when Buzz offered the waterfront shed, I couldn’t refuse! Up went the sign, and the same occurred with my smile.

After a few pictures, we were on to the next one. With four-and-a-half hours until sunset, we figured we’d have plenty of time to put up the next couple signs and arrive at camp at a leisurely pace. Buzz directed us down a side road, and off we went.

It took us thirty minutes to find the second pond. Before long, the road turned into a grass path, and the weeds in the middle scraped at the car’s belly as my grandfather continued at snail pace. We did arrive at a pond we thought may be one on our list, but upon a closer examination of our map, we found this to not be the case. With the use of a non-LTE requiring GPS app on my grandfather’s phone, we did eventually find the first pond. Problem was, there was no visible trail. Looked like we would have to do some bushwacking!

The walk into the pond wasn’t easy! Photo credit: Jim Kelley.

We pushed aside shoulder-height brambles as we traversed the ground littered with ankle-breaking boulders and sticks left over from logging. My grandfather, obviously an older guy, did surprisingly well in a place where I struggled to even take a step without twisting an ankle or getting stuck by a thorn. Finally, we emerged through a stand of spruce to the pond. Nearby, a loon swam, likely searching for a brook trout for lunch.

After a couple minutes of work, our second sign was up. When we turned around, though, we noticed something that both made us chuckle and feel nauseous at the same time; a small road, hidden by some overhanging brush and a boulder blocking the entrance made for an easy access to and from the pond. The problem was, it hadn’t be maintained for years because of the lodge’s inactivity. Out we went on the hunt for the next pond, which promised to be just as difficult as the first.

When at last we found the final pond, we noticed something similar to the previous: a small path, barely visible from the vegetation that had grown in and around it made for an easy access point for those that could find it. Trouble was, it took us a while, and by the time we were done, the sun was beginning to sink behind the trees. We quickly made our way out of the lodge’s property and back onto the main logging road, where we continued for another 10 miles before finally arriving at camp.

That night, as we watched shooting stars and satellites streak across the unpolluted night sky, I pondered the impact those signs might have. Although not directly helping any fish, the message might encourage a budding angler like myself to take better care of the native fish they catch, and to become active in local conservation groups. In the meantime, I can only imagine the pride that lodge must have in managing some of the most immaculate fisheries in all of the nation.

Part two to this post will be published next week. It will include many more fishing stories, if that’s what interests you. Bear with me as I recount this incredible trip I took; while it may not be the most informational, it was something I was truly passionate about, and I hope that the stories inspire you to take your own journeys well off the beaten path.

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