I received some very disheartening news today: the water levels in many of my local rivers are too low to even support stocked trout this fall. Massachusetts limped through one of the worst droughts on record this summer. As the seasons turned, it seemed some autumn showers would replenish our lakes and rivers. Yet even after some healthy rain, water levels remain lower than any time in recent memory. For waters too be too low to support even a fish who’s purpose is to be caught and kept speaks volumes about the current state of MA’s fisheries.
Luckily, other waters in New England are faring far better. In a complete reversal from last year, the Rangeley region of Maine actually got more than enough precipitation throughout the summer to support healthy water levels into the fall. The early autumn trout and salmon run in Rangeley is an angling opportunity like no other, and unlike the stocked trout back in Mass, these fish are all wild. With conditions as prime as they were, I couldn’t miss out.
The weekend, as with any other spent in Rangeley, began with a fairly lengthy drive from my home in northern Massachusetts. As houses thinned, amenities grew further apart, and altitude climbed, the sun dipped below horizon, leaving my grandfather and I in the eerie darkness of the Maine woods. Though I didn’t say anything as to not jinx it, I couldn’t help but think this was prime-time for wildlife viewing.
Nearing Height of Land, I noticed what seemed to be a dark spruce tree moving on the left side of the road. The late hour may have been making me a little drowsy, but I was conscious enough to know that trees don’t move! Upon squinting, I made out the immense figure of a cow moose ambling down the conifer-covered mountain. “Moose!” I shouted. “There’s a moose!” A brief moment of recognition flashed in my grandfather’s eyes as he glanced to the left, but we quickly sped past. Item number one on the Maine bucket list: check!
On Saturday morning, I groggily awoke at 4:30 AM to the sound of a truck rolling down the river road beside our cabin. From my grandfather’s anecdotes, I understood the popular pools along the Kennebago could get crowded this time of year, but I hadn’t counted on competing anglers arriving this early! Brushing these hardcores off as a one-off, I returned to the warm comfort of my sleeping bag.
Less than an hour later, my alarm sounded, signaling the beginning of what promised to be a long day of fishing. Shimmying out of my sleeping bag, the frigid temperatures of our unheated cabin tickled my cheeks. A quick peek at the thermometer revealed an air temperature right around 32 degrees – surely nobody else was crazy enough to go out in these conditions! Donning three layers on the bottom and four layers on top, I scarfed down breakfast, strapped up my waders, and started for the river wielding my trusty 9′ 05 Helios 3D.
With sunrise still a half-hour away, I fully expected to be the first one on the river. As so, I was shocked to find a couple cars already parked next to The Pool, and their owners waist-deep in the river below. One fellow even had a camp chair set up, so I knew it might be a while before I had a shot at the prime water.
Undeterred, I continued downstream to a pool I knew my great-grandfather had caught fish in many decades ago. The first frost of the year coated the edges of the streamside vegetation. Despite a forecast for heavy winds, the river was still as could be, with a light fog rolling off its chilly waters. That was, until the salmon started jumping.
It began with a solitary fish, porpoising like a dolphin in the open ocean. Then it was joined by others, each leaping higher and higher. Soon, a flash of silver shot through the air and landed with a CRASH every few minutes, sending shock waves in all directions. The fish were here. It was only a matter of time.
Moving a little further downstream, I came to a deep pool at the base of a short set of rapids. After several unsuccessful casts with my Wood Duck Heron, I set my rod down and shoved my hands deep into my pockets. My fingers were numb to the bone, but I knew some action would get the blood pumping. With the dexterity of an elephant, I struggled to tie on a Golden Retriever, hoping the added weight would get the fly into the strike zone.
On just the second drift, I felt the unmistakable tug of a fish before a chrome salmon came shooting out of the water, my streamer stuck firmly in the corner of its jaw. For those who have never caught a landlocked salmon, their fight is like no other fish; they jump like a tarpon, dig like a smallmouth, and have the stamina of a brown trout. After numerous runs and stunning leaps, the salmon surrendered to my net. My shivering seemed to cease immediately, replaced by intense euphoria. What a fish!
Pleased with my conquest and growing tired of the repetitive cast-swing-strip, I withdrew to the cabin, which was now filled with the smokey warmth of a wood stove fire. Passing The Pool, I noticed the river lined with even more anglers, a cacophony of voice flowing from their lips.
“These damned fish!” one exclaimed, angered by the salmon that had leapt just a few feet in front of him.
“Water’s too cold for any bug activity,” another chimed in. “No use in even trying.”
It felt good to have the upper hand, but that advantage didn’t last long. As I unbuckled my laces and untied my boots, I could make out the cheering of the crowd, undoubtedly pleased with the landing of a fish. A few minutes later, the ovations rose again. It seemed I wasn’t the only one finding success.
Once my hands had finally thawed and the mercury rose a few degrees, my grandfather and I packed up the car and headed to a nearby river. I’d fished this river plenty of times before, but never the section I intended to fish today. I planned to intercept the fish as they staged to run up the rivers with the upcoming rain and cooler nights.
The spot looked promising and my spirits were high, but alas my plan didn’t pan out as I had hoped. Still, it was a beautiful piece of water, and one that I’ll keep in my arsenal for a future return.
Arriving back at the cabin, I was disappointed to find The Pool still occupied. I plied the downstream pools again, but couldn’t find another fish that was willing to bite.
Before bed, I checked the forecast to see what would be in store for the morning. 5 AM: rain.; 6 AM: rain; 7 AM: even harder rain. It seemed as though things might get a little soggy. Secretly I hoped this might drive some of the crowds off the water, but if Saturday morning had been any indication, it was unlikely a few raindrops would scare the diehard fly fishers off.
6:00 on Sunday morning came sooner than I would have liked. Thoughts of the impending storm made me curl tighter in my sleeping bag. Still, I had overslept, and there were (presumably) fish to be caught.
By the time I arrived at the river around 6:15, the rain had yet to start, but The Pool was already filled. This time I was determined to work into the rotation, and was rewarded when a light sprinkle drove the last remaining anglers out of the river about a half an hour later. So much for hard-core!
For the first time all weekend, I had the entire river to my self. Nobody was there to witness my wind knots, missed hook sets, or missteps. Unfortunately, when I hooked the brook trout of a lifetime, that also meant there wasn’t a soul around to witness it.
Swinging a wooly bugger through the pool, I felt my streamer stop suddenly. At the business end of the line, the fish erupted, darting downstream with no intention of slowing down. I scrambled to follow it, anxiously fumbling in my wader pocket for my phone at the same time. With one hand desperately clinging to the rod and the other holding my phone to my ear, I prayed my grandfather would answer my call.
“Kennebago Photography Services,” he answered wittily. Obviously he understood the assignment.
With all my energy concentrated on landing the fish on the end of my line, the words to explain my situation didn’t come easy. “Umm . . . I have . . . fish!”
Five minutes of forearm-burning, nerve-wracking, back-and-forth fighting later, I held up my personal best brook trout for a picture. He was in full spawning colors: belly ablaze with deep orange, flanks speckled with vivid haloes, cheeks tinged with metallic bronze. Best of all, the fish was wild; all 17.5″ of it were natural and native, not synthesized in concrete tanks. As I released the fish, my grandfather and I shared a moment of jubilance and appreciation. I imagined my grandfather and his father, standing on the very bank where I now stood, once shared these same emotions after catching a forebear of the trout I just released.
Over the next hour, I enjoyed catching three more brook trout: one male and two females. Though none were as big as the first, each one was uniquely Maine sized; in other words, bigger than any wild, native brook trout you could catch anywhere else in the country. The same glee overcame me with every catch, and I was beyond thankful for the continued health of this incredible fishery.
As we shut the car doors to begin our journey south, a heavy rain fell across the mountains. The downpour would likely send a wave of fish upstream, creating more chances at fresh fish until the river closed at the end of September. With the unique fishing opportunities present in this region, it’s a wonder the fishery doesn’t disappear entirely from overuse.
In my opinion, the continued health of Rangeley’s rivers and streams is owed to the conservation ethic present in the anglers who visit them. Though The Pool was fished morning, noon, and night, those who plied its tannic waters in search of the fish of a lifetime did so ethically. Maine is a special place with special fish. It’s not a given these opportunities will always be here for us to enjoy. If you choose to fish for wild, native brook trout in Rangeley, or any native fish in any location for that matter, take a page from the fly fishers who shared The Pool this weekend and have a conscience for the future. The environment, the fish, and your fellow anglers will thank you.