Two Gates and a Gravel Road Pt. 2

This is the second post in a two-part series about an incredible trip my grandfather and I took to western Maine for conservation and fishing earlier in August. If you haven’t read the first part, give it a quick look before returning to this post.

In case you forgot what happened during the beginning of the trip, here’s a quick recap: my grandfather and I drove to our camp in Rangeley, where we stayed over that night. Then we headed north and posted Native Fish Coalition signs at three ponds on a sporting lodge’s property. From there, we continued down a long logging road to another cabin, where caught a few precious glimpses of shooting stars before hitting the hay.

The following morning, Monday, I had only one thing on my mind: fishing. By the time my alarm went off at 5:25, I was already wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, dressed in my warmest sweatshirt and pants. As I stepped outside the cabin, the crisp morning air tickled my face, removing any last grogginess from my caffeine-free body.

It was a chilly but beautiful morning in the western Maine mountains.

I speedily hiked from the southern end of the lake its nearby dam, where the stream I would be fishing began. Having inexplicably damaged my seven-weight a few weeks earlier, my five-weight rod would be the weapon of choice for the river smallmouths I’d be targeting. In years past, you may have just caught brook trout (big ones at that) and the occasional fallfish in this river, but due to legal and illegal stockings, other fish now inhabit the watershed. Salmon came first, dumped here by Maine IF&W to increase gamefish variety. Unsurprisingly, this had an adverse effect on the native brookies, but like in so many other parts of the state, the species learned to coexist. Now, invasive smallmouth bass thoughtlessly brought to the area threaten the very existence of both species. I’ve grappled with the presence of these fish in the past, and even wrote a prize-winning piece about it for The Maine Sportsman’s Youth Writing Contest. Still, through it all, brook trout persist, and once in a while if you’re lucky enough you may just happen to run into a couple.

The pool below the dam, however, is a terrible indicator of the resiliency of the coldwater species in the river. Immediately I began catching bass after bass, some large and some small. At first, the fly of choice was a wood duck heron streamer, but soon I began experimenting with some other smallmouth-oriented patterns. Whatever I threw, they didn’t seem to care, and feasted with abandon.

One particularly impressive catch came on a Morrish Mouse, the same fly I used to catch countless 18-inch fallfish earlier this year in Rangeley. At first, I wasn’t getting any hits on the mouse, the only fly that hadn’t worked so far. I shot a long cast out into the river to begin reeling in my excess line to change flies, but before I had the chance, WAM!! A big smallmouth sucked the fly under, barely giving me enough time to strip in the slack and set the hook. The fish put a deep bend in my five-weight, frequently going on long, powerful runs to the opposite bank that I simply couldn’t stop. During the fight, it jumped not once, not twice, but three times, each time with more violent headshakes than the last.

The largest smallmouth bass of the trip.

Luckily I was using straight 15 pound test leader, so it didn’t take a century for me to land the fish. When I finally saw the size of it, I had to wonder if there were any baby brookies stuffed down its gullet. Whatever the case, it certainly got lucky as it soon kicked off and joined its invasive buddies back in the swirling pool.

Although I found that the population of smallmouth had only grown and strengthened since my last visit, I knew I had to look at it with a glass half-full mentality; if it wasn’t for them, I might be moping in the cabin otherwise fishless due to the high water temperatures and low water levels. Despite the nearly flooded rivers back home, the waterbodies up here were begging for water and were nearly too warm to support the meager salmonid populations. I had to take what I could get, and if that meant large, aggressive smallmouth bass, I was content. Still, I felt the need to at least see some sign that the trout were holding on.

After my fishing outing, I got suckered into making some pancakes for my grandfather before we got to work. Before we started, he explained to me that the incessant chores are just part of owning a camp. He told me that if I ever earned enough money, I should just visit lodges and pay them to do the upkeep. In my head, though, I begged to differ. What’s a little work if it means you get to enjoy some of the most beautiful country in the world? Besides, if the tasks get me outside and in the fresh mountain air, isn’t that why I traveled up here anyway? To be fair, I’m still young and don’t know a thing about owning a camp, but I like to imagine I will someday.

Once the work was completed, lunch was devoured, and then it was fishing time. We carried a couple kayaks down to the lake shore and pushed off to have an afternoon adventure. While my grandfather paddled around the main lake, I picked my way along the shoreline casting a crayfish-colored streamer. This fly got the nod after I flipped numerous rocks and found protein-filled crawdads hiding under nearly every one.

I started by the dam, where I quickly hooked and landed a teeny smally. On the next cast, I hooked up with another small fish, but this one looked a little different. It was far more streamlined in shape, and its sides were covered in yellow and red spots. “Paka!” I shouted (Paka is what his grandchildren call him). “I have a trout!” My grandfather just chuckled, and replied that I didn’t have it quite yet. Just after he said that, I proceeded to lose the fish, and along with it any evidence that there were still brookies in the lake.

The lost trout drew flashbacks to a chilly May afternoon I spent fishing from shore on Sebago Lake. Using a ned rig, I expected to hook one of the many smallmouths that inhabit the rocky shoreline in the warmer months. The first fish that bit, however, was a landlocked salmon, Salmo Salar Sebago. Noticing my grandfather standing on the dock, I shouted “Paka! I have a salmon!” Similar to my experience with the trout, my grandfather knew that the fight wasn’t over yet, and let me know. As I swung the silvery fish over a rocky barrier to land it, it gave one final headshake and shot back down to the depths of the lake. To make matters worse, I had recorded the entire fiasco on my GoPro camera, so I would watch and grimace many more times as the scene played out.

After the trout escaped, I noticed what was easily a four-pound bass patrolling the bottom for food. I just hoped it hadn’t eaten the poor squaretail!

As I continued down the shoreline, I caught plenty of bass, but none of much size. The best part about the paddle were the views. No matter which direction you faced, a towering, spruce-lined mountain was always in sight. They simply served as reminders as to how lucky I was to be spending time in such an incredible area.

As I neared the end of my time in the kayak, I paddled to the opposite shoreline to work my way back to the cabin. When I was just about to take my final cast, a pod of juvenile smallmouth exploded from the shallows, and a huge tail flicked to track them down. Whether what I witnessed was a cannibal bass or large togue feeding in the shallows will remain a mystery.

Later that evening, my grandfather and I took a trip to my favorite pool on the river. It was here that I caught my first ever salmon, as well as what remains the largest wild brook trout I have ever caught. While these memories are certainly special, my favorite part about this pool is that my grandfather typically joins me in fishing. While he is always willing to accommodate my angling wishes, and will frequently follow me to my spots, my grandfather doesn’t always wet a line on our trips. When he does, though, it makes that moment sweeter because it is an experience we both shared.

Fishing with my grandfather makes the trip all the better.

The weather that evening was stunning. A smattering of clouds dotted the darkening sky, and a crisp breeze tickled the hemlock boughs. I rigged up my confidence pattern for the weekend-the wood duck heron streamer-on a sinking poly leader to get down to where the fish would presumably be feeding. My grandfather went in the other direction, tying a Dave’s hopper on the end of his tippet.

We traversed the shallow inlet to the pool and began casting from a convenient gravel bar. Before long, I was hooked into a little bass, and we both laughed as it squirmed at the surface in an attempt to escape. I continued catching bass for a while, and was surprised to not even catch a fallfish to diversify the group.

As the sun dipped even further below the trees, dimpled rises dotted the surface. Fish of all sizes quietly sipped flying ants that met an unfortunate fate. A fallen tree beckoned to be cast to, so I tossed my streamer between its fishy-looking branches. As I stripped, I felt a strong take, and slack was knocked into my line. Unfortunately, the fish didn’t hold on, so I continued to pull in the fly. Then, I felt a similarly powerful take, but this time my rod bent and my line straightened. I strip-set and began tugging on the creature at the other end, glad that it decided to come back for a second helping. As the fight continued, I noticed it fought different than the smallmouth I had been catching,opting to dive deep to the bottom instead of taking athletic leaps. Finally, the fish came close enough to answer my confusion-it wasn’t a bass; “Paka, I have a trout!”

Lucky for me, the conclusion to this fight was a fish in the net, not disappointment in losing a hard-to-come-by salmonid. This squaretail was lanky, but I wouldn’t have cared if it was just about anorexic-it gave me hope that there is still hope for the native trout of western Maine. The very fish that I had traveled all this way to protect sat glimmering in my net, its haloed spots burning an image in my brain. With this fish, the trip somehow felt complete. Almost. There was still one towering, brown, awkward thing missing.

A gorgeous Maine brook trout.

While it was a special moment, I knew the high water temperatures would soon have an affect if I didn’t get the fish back quickly. I brought it to some riffles in the main stem of the stream and supported it gently, allowing precious air to return to its gills.

I’d like to say that once the trout returned to the river I had to sit down to allow the moment to settle in, but who am I kidding; I got right back to casting and catching dink smallies. Up to this point, my grandfather hadn’t had any luck. That changed, though, when a fish came up and crushed the hopper. My grandfather waited a second and then reared back, hooking his first fish of the trip. When he guided it into the net a few seconds later, we noticed he too had caught a trout, just without the thirty additional smallmouth to go with it. This speckled trout was particularly colorful. Its back was nearly purple, and its spots shone like a rainbow across its flank. It was slightly smaller than mine, but still a nice fish by any means. In fact, none of the trout we’ve caught in this river have been like the four-inch small stream brookies you typically encounter; they all have a little bit of heft to them.

My grandfather’s trout had some unique purple hues along its back.

We fished for a while longer, but didn’t encounter any more trout. Eventually the topwater bite turned on a little more, and I joined my grandfather in fishing hoppers. A short while after the sun dipped below the horizon, we rode back up the dirt roads to our cabin, thoroughly exhausted and ready for the long trip back home.

The next morning, I made one final trip down to the dam. While a mink crawled up on the bank and a heron hunted for breakfast, I took in the scenery and relished my last moments up north. There’s something about being so far removed from civilization and stress that gives you a sense of fulfillment. I knew as we traveled back down south later, that feeling would start to dwindle, but my memories of this journey never would. I whispered a quick “thank you” to each bass that bit my golden retriever that morning, hoping I would soon return to catch them again.

Once the car was packed, we began the long slog to to the highway. I felt completely satisfied with the trip, but in the back of my brain there was something nagging, telling me there was still an important piece missing missing.

Then, along the side of Route 16, we saw the missing puzzle piece: a cow moose, quietly sipping water from a roadside puddle. The midday sun was lost in her coffee-brown coat, and she appeared careless of the presence of our car. After we observed her majestic beauty for a while, she got tired of all the staring and ambled off into the evergreen forest.

Seeing the queen of the Maine woods completed our trip.

Now our expedition was really complete. We had checked all the boxes, seen all the sites, and caught all the desired fish. Never had I been on a trip that had went so smoothly, especially not with my family who is notorious for having some sort of mishap. And yet we did it, a full five days of exploration and excitement in the woods of western Maine.

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