Fish America Week 1: Maine

Maine, for me, represents, in a lot of ways, the reason I took this trip. It was one of those places that I've always wanted to fish. Everyone's got his or hers. Get a handful of fishermen, and a 12-pack, and the lists start rolling out. And the funny thing is, you find more often than not that the lists, if not identical, are very similar. The conversations usually include a lot of "me too!"s. I've certainly got more: Montana, North Carolina, California, and on and on, but those are for another day. I always pictured Maine as a place where, driving northward, your cell phone signal and the pressure on the fish faded in inverse proportion to your latitude.
My first stop in Maine was Sebago Lake. The state's second largest lake that reaches depths of 316 feet, is renowned for its landlocked salmon fishery, but also has great fishing for bass and lake trout, or "togue" as they're called in Maine.
I was fortunate enough to fish with Captain Brooke Hidell. Hidell knows Sebago as well as anyone, and it's evident in the way he talks off the top of his head about specific docks, rock pilings, channels and holes. It doesn't take much conversation to discern that Hidell, a carpenter as well, is not guiding for the extra money. "Fishermen look at the water the way everyone else looks at the heavens," he tries to explain as we wait for a rod to go off. He loves the water and everything about it, and his enthusiasm for the fishing is almost tangible.
The type of fishing Brooke employs on Sebago was something I'd never tried, or even heard of. A technique called flat-line trolling employs flat, 8-weight fly line to troll flies with fly rods. Flat-line trolling is both advantageous and more fun than typical trolling. The longer fly rods create a wider spread, and the lighter gear makes for a better fight.
The locally tied tandem streamers Brooke trolls are tied in various patterns to imitate the rainbow smelt that constitute the main forage source for the salmon around his favorite passes and channels, where the salmon will congregate around structure. He explains that after ice-out, the fishing is typically the best, and the salmon are feeding most actively. This season, a mild winter and early ice-out made for some spectacular spring fishing, which starts to slow as the summer months approach.
But before long, we've got our first landlocked salmon of the day. The fish hits the outside streamer on a turn, indicating they're chasing flies being trolled at a slightly faster pace. The salmon are one of the more beautiful fish in the Northeast. Photos don't even do their bright silvery color justice. These fish, descendents of the Atlantic salmon that used to run out to the ocean, and up the rivers to spawn, still have the fight of a saltwater fish, and take to the air once hooked, making for a spectacular battle. They average around 17 inches, although fish as long as two feet are not unheard of on Sebago. I lost a few fish, including a nicer one, trying to get accustomed to fighting a fish the fly tackle off the troll.
On a hunch, Brooke trolled an Acme spoon as well, on a downrigger, and it paid off with a nice-sized lake trout midway through the day. The fish are commonly called Togue in Maine.
Though not as prized as the salmon, the togue grow larger and fight well. The one we caught had a nicer coloration, as some can be quite dark.
Brooke guides out of Migis Lodge in South Casco. With 35 private cabins tucked into the woods, right on the shores of the lake, the lodge has been in operation since 1916, and the place in a lot of ways felt very much like what I'd hoped Maine would be. To learn more visit www.migis.com. Or if you are interested in fishing with Brooke during your stay in Maine, visit mainelandlocked.com
From Sebago I wandered up the Maine coast along coastal route 1. I spent a night in the Jeep on Mount Desert Island. If you've got the time and are visiting Maine, Acadia national park on the island is a fascinating place to visit. Park Loop Road, which takes you around the park, careens along Maine's legendary rocky coast. While you're there, keep an eye out for peregrine falcons. The island's population was rebuilt after a precipitous decline, and these birds are fascinating. They can reach speeds of up to 100 miles per hour, and have been known to attack birds as large as mallards mid-air.
Route 3 off Mount Desert Island is lined with so many lobster shacks and shanties that I lost count. You can see the steam rising up from the boiling lobsters outside, and signs in the yards proclaim lobsters for sale every 50 feet.
Not being on a lobster budget, and having no silverware anyway, I let a lobster with my name on it swim (or crawl) for another day.
For $25 you can claim a stake of land in Eastport, Maine, one of the easternmost cities on the Mainland of the United States.
Being as close as you can to the sunrise in the morning is well worth the price of admission.
I finally made it to my second Maine fishing destination: Grand Lake Stream. Since reading an article about this remote fly-fisherman's paradise, I've had it stuck in my head, and the 4-hour drive up the coast was worth it and then some.
In Grand Lake Stream (GLS), there's fishing, and then there's everything else. The one corner grocery store is basically a fly shop with a few necessities for sale on the side. Every conversation seems to revolve around the hatch, or the bite, or the weather, as it relates to either the hatch or the bite. Cell phone service is spotty, with only a few areas in town offering good reception, and you'll often see cars parked around with people having phone conversations, but the fishermen lined up along the stream don't seem to be complaining.
The area, part of the St. Croix watershed, offers two unique styles of fishing. The stream itself is a gin-clear flow of water, chock-full of landlocked salmon in the spring and fall. The stream is fly-fishing only.
The surrounding lakes offer outstanding fishing for smallmouth bass. The preferred method of fishing on the lakes is in the traditional Grand Lake Stream style canoes, which are long, and built to accommodate an outboard motor on the back.
I was lucky to find a spot at Weatherby's Lodge in Grand Lake Stream. The lodge, run by Jeff McEvoy, offers the entire GLS package. Not once in my three days and two nights in GLS did I get in my jeep. The day begins with breakfast, announced by a bell at 7 a.m. From there, your guide, if you choose to use one, takes you either out onto the stream or one of the lakes.
Lunch is packed (or you can choose the shore lunch) and you're back by 5 p.m. (unless the bite is hot) just in time to clean up for dinner, which while I was there consisted of hot chili one night, and fresh lobster the next.
Cabins are stocked for ready-made fires and there's a complete fly-shop on the premises in case you run out of tippet material. And once you've got the lay of the land, you're a stone's throw from great stream fishing, in case you want to head back out after dinner.
Another plus is that the lodge is a 2-minute walk from the state hatchery, where you can see the entire process of the salmon stocking. Ask the guys about the four strains of salmon in the state. The one-year old fish, ready for stocking, are pictured here.
I should mention that my fly-fishing ability was suspect coming into GLS. You remember that time when, determined to become an ambidextrous baseball player, you resolved to play catch with a baseball with your non-dominant hand for an entire afternoon, certain that at the end you'd be competent with both throwing arms? And remember how, after a few throws that resembled that of a toddler learning to throw for the first time, that hit the ground 10 feet in front of you, with your buddy lying down in hysterics at the other end of the yard, you resolved never to use that arm to throw again? Well then, perhaps you understand my relationship with fly-fishing. For an entire summer I resolved to become a fly-fishermen. I had a 4-weight, a vice and visions of A River Runs Through It dancing through my head. But after only a few trout on the tiny stream I fished near my home that prevented all but roll casts, and more tangles, anger and frustration than my 14 years of fishing experience had brought beforehand, I went back to spinning gear.
I think it's safe to say that GLS re-converted me into a waver of the long wand, though. Watching a landlocked salmon come up from a pool to sip your fly off the surface is an amazing experience, no matter what kind of fisherman you are. And, amazingly enough, if you do stick it out through the afternoon throwing the ball with your left hand, or in my case, thrashing at the air with a fly rod, untangling tippet and missing hooksets, you will find a way to get your fly to a fish.
Grand Lake Stream did for me what all the fly-casting instruction in the world could not have. When you see a salmon sitting in a pool 15 feet in front of you, and you know you are on the stream only for the one day, you will find a way to get the fly in front of it. And for all the sophistication that surrounds the world of fly-fishing, it is, at the end of the day, the most efficient means of delivering an artificial presentation to a fish. And with a little help, and a lot of swearing and frustration, if you stick it out, you will figure it out. Just as you wouldn't be throwing 12-to-6 breaking balls with your left arm after one afternoon, you won't be delivering dry flies to pools at 50 feet, and the progress I've made as a fly-fisherman pales in comparison to the things I have yet to learn. But not walking away from the stream after that initial frustration is the most difficult part.
Our guide on the stream, Jared Koenigsfeld, had fly-fished in Montana and Iowa, and caught more than his share of salmon on the stream. He not only patiently taught me how to deliver a dry fly, but he kept up with the hatch all day, changing from mayflies to caddies to keep us on the fish and consistently spotted salmon hanging in pools that I could only pretend to see.
A solid day on the stream produced a handful of salmon. I was thoroughly out-fished by Charlie Shane who was visiting Maine from California, where he was attending college after getting out of the Air Force. Charlie served in Japan and Iraq, and I think fly-fishing is one of many things he would one-up me at if given the chance. But I couldn't have asked for a better person to share the stream with. Hopefully he will re-appear in a blog when I reach the West Coast.
I was convinced I'd gotten the opportunity to fish with one of the better stream guides in Maine, and that was before dinner. After we ate, he was patiently waiting at his truck, ready to take us back on the water, on his own time, just to get us more fish.
In a small pool below a waterfall, he predicted that the salmon bite would go off from dusk into dark. And he was exactly right. Long after last light, Jared was setting the hook on salmon only by listening in the darkness, and he netted two more salmon, while I blindly swung and missed as the landlocks slurped at my fly, as he'd predicted.
Many times throughout the stay, I wondered if Maine should have been saved for last. It will be tough to top lobster dinners and beautiful salmon rising to take a dry fly but I have to try. New Hampshire Vermont and Massachusetts are next.
If You Go… Grand Lake Stream: Visit Weatherby's Lodge, on Millford Road in Grand Lake Stream. Jeff McEvoy, who runs the lodge, has a long history of fishing in Maine, has a background in conservation work in the area, and is happy to explain this history of the fishery, which will add to your appreciation of the place. Sebago: Migis Lodge is South Casco has waterfront lodging and private cabins, and a variety of activities too numerous to list here. Brooke Hidell: Brooke will pick you up at your cabin at Migis if you want, and knows Sebago Lake as well as anyone.