During the night in Jim Lepage's camp on Caribou Lake, I dreamed of trout fishing, just as Thoreau had at Abol Stream.
This was no surprise, considering I was almost six weeks into my Storied Waters fly-fishing adventure. I’d love to report a fantastical dream about a huge enchanted trout that dragged me down into a gorge, but like many dreams, nothing specific happened, just a strange and disorderly mish-mash of me wading in a river and trout jumping from the water to take my fly.
When I awoke, I shook out the cobwebs, made coffee, and admired the sun rising across the lake as I planned my day, hoping to turn my fishy dream into reality.
First, I wanted to get out on the lake in a canoe to troll a streamer in the traditional Maine manner. The view of Mt. Katahdin was spectacular. My canoe adventure didn’t last long, as the wind was already picking up, so I didn’t want to paddle out far from shore. As a result, my fly snagged several times on rocks and logs. After losing my fly altogether, I put the canoe away and headed to the river where I would be more in my comfort zone.
The West Branch of the Penobscot is a powerful river noted for big trout and landlocked salmon. Oddly, I had never fished it before. My excuse is that there is so much water in Maine, it would take a lifetime to fish it all! My one time on the West Branch was 30 years ago on a whitewater rafting trip with Cheryl and our friend Steve Richardson.
Driving east from camp, my first stop was the spectacular Ripogenous Gorge, where I saw a fisherman working the big water from the far shore near the mouth. I found no good places to wade on my side so I continued driving downstream.
My friend Chris Ricardi had suggested I try fishing above Telos Bridge, but there were a couple cars parked there, so I kept going, past Big Eddy campground, looking for an unoccupied access point. Not far from Big Eddy, I found a boat access between Little and Big Ambejackmockamus Falls where a slim back channel of the river re-enters the main flow, creating a seam with a small eddy. Nobody else was there. A perfect spot to wade safely.
The Big A
I’ll take a moment here to note that, had the “Big A Dam” been built at Big Ambejackmockamus Falls, as proposed by Great Northern Paper Company in the early 1980s, the place where I was putting on my waders would now be under 50 feet of water. This entire section of a spectacular wild river - a world-class fishery and whitewater destination- would have drowned under the impoundment.
I was working at Maine Audubon at the time that the fierce legal battle raged over permitting for the dam, although I played no direct role in it. I am grateful, though, that my colleagues and other members of the coalition of environmental groups fought so hard to save the river, arguing that investments in efficiency and demand reduction should take precedence over blindly building more power plants, especially when public resources, like the West Branch, and the environment were at stake.
Ultimately, the staff at Maine Department of Environmental Protection refused to issue a water quality certification for the dam. Despite attempts by the Governor and the Legislature to weaken Maine’s water quality standards to allow the project, the damned dam was cancelled. Thank heavens.
Dream Come True
I waded out to a convenient rock in waist deep water, and climbed up onto it. This allowed a full circle for casting with no need to worry about my back cast. Now if the fish would just cooperate.
Starting with a Black Ghost streamer, I soon had a couple hearty tugs, but no takes, by a fish of decent size, which gave me confidence the fish were where they were supposed to be. Soon, a trout rose right on the edge of the eddy, also just where you’d expect one to be. Then, a salmon leaped clear out of the water, and soon another, “describing a bright arc” against the dark spruce shadows on the smooth, fast flowing water. Mayflies and caddis swarmed in small clouds here and there.
The next four hours were a dream come true. Just a few miles from where Thoreau had his late-summer-night’s dream, I caught more than a dozen salmon and brook trout of various sizes, while a dozen more slashed at my flies as if they were playing a game, simply to test my reflexes.
As the bright afternoon softened to evening, the light on the river became more spectacular by the hour, while the fish continued to rise and splash across the entire width of the river. By 8:00, I was content to pass on the last hour of daylight, and retreat for dinner and a cold brew.
Yes, I know that the bigger fish feed later and it was probably foolish for me to leave, but I was smiling all the way back to the car, looking forward to the next day on the Kennebec.
On my way back to the cabin, I had to stop to see what was happening at Big Eddy, the most famous pool in the river, notorious for big salmon. I had had a smaller eddy all to myself (with smaller fish perhaps), while here a dozen boats and two or three waders were wedged into an area not much bigger than a tea cup. I hope someone caught a whopper.
But not my cup of tea at all.
Dud Dean Country
I don’t think I dreamed of trout that night, and I was up and out of the cabin quite early, with a long drive through Greenville and Monson (where I crossed paths with Thoreau again in the literary time/space continuum) and on to The Forks to meet Jeff Reardon, the conservation director for Maine Trout Unlimited.
As I drove through Bingham, I recalled that this was Dud Dean country.
Before my trip, Jeff had suggested I get a hold of some of the Dud Dean stories by Arthur MacDougall, published in Field and Stream in the 1930s and later in several volumes of books. MacDougall was a minister from Bingham and a fly-fisherman who wrote fabulous stories about the Kennebec River and surrounding rivers and ponds that captured a time and place that is gone forever. Some of the places are literally gone beneath Wyman Lake when the Wyman Dam was built in 1930.
Dud Dean is one of the most colorful characters in fly-fishing fiction – a Maine
Guide from Bingham who was full of wit, wisdom and insightful observation of people of all types. The genius of the Dud Dean stories is the brilliant rendition of a Maine vernacular that hypnotizes the reader, transporting us to a time when automobiles were scarce, and the trout were as big as we imagined them to be. Many readers were convinced Dud was real.
MacDougall could create entire characters and scenes in a single sentence. A few examples:
“Henry Gates was the mildest spoken man that ever took anythin’ to pieces with his bare hands.”
“Dud, it has been revealed to me that youth passed me some time back, and it wasn’t going my way, either.”
“When I remember sech times, I feel it’ll be all right if they don’t let me inter heaven. I know what it’s like.”
“This leader I’ve got on is as thin as a guess an’ a maybe.”
“I saw Dud struggle to smooth out his own face, which, of course, was of a mind to laugh.”
MacDougall’s writing is magic. It’s too bad Dud Dean, like the eccentric gang in Corey Ford’s Lower Forty Club, is sliding from our collective consciousness. These stories and characters are a part of American fly-fishing culture. They deserve the same immortality that Paul Bunyan and John Henry enjoy. We owe it to them.
It was a bright, blue sky day, so Jeff (a character himself, though not quite as colorful as Dud Dean, but just as knowledgeable about all things Kennebec and trout) suggested we forego the main stem of the Kennebec and instead fish a smaller tributary, Cold Stream, where TU had worked hard to conserve this important nursery water and summer refuge for Kennebec trout. Later that evening, he said, he’d take me to one of the remote brook trout ponds nearby that TU has been working hard to survey and protect.
I’m not sure if I could find the spot where we parked in Jeff’s truck, but if I didn’t
know better I would say I was in Montana or Wyoming. Cold Stream flows through a steep valley that has a distinct Rocky Mountain feel. This was small water fishing at its best, with wild brookies in the plunge-pools and undercut banks.
I lost count at a dozen, and am confident Jeff and I caught well over 20 fish combined, none over nine inches, mostly on an elk-hair caddis or a Hornberg fished both dry and wet. Plenty of fun on a gorgeous, sunny day!
Toward dinner time, we headed back to Rt. 201 and north toward Jackman. This time I followed Jeff in to the pond in my own vehicle, as I planned to (finally!) camp for the night – the last chance of trip!
While I pitched my tent near the pond, Jeff cooked steaks to perfection on his
portable grill. We sat down to an amazing dinner pondside, watching trout rise all across the pond, trying not to hurry through our meal.
Finally, we packed up the dishes and climbed into Jeff’s canoe, just in time for the rises to abate, from steady to occasional. We had the entire pond to ourselves and
spent the next hour, as the sun set, chasing rises from one end to the other. Jeff did a masterful job of steering us toward the nearest rise rings, with each of us casting near and far.
I managed to land one nice fat brook trout and lost a couple more. Jeff fared better, landing a trio or more, all about 12 inches or larger. These were healthy and vigorous fish. A lovely way to spend the last evening of my six week adventure!
As darkness approached, the mosquitoes attacked in small squadrons. We loaded the canoe onto the truck, shook hands, and said our goodbyes. Alone deep in the Maine woods, I retreated to my tent to enjoy the sounds of the frogs and owls that serenaded me to sleep.
Where Flows The Kennebec
The next morning I arose at first light – about 4:30 am - to a soft rain. Not wanting to get thoroughly soaked on the final day of my trip, I quickly packed up my soggy tent as the rainshower passed, and loaded the car. I figured I would get coffee in The Forks, fish for an hour in the Kennebec (if the rain stayed light), and be home by noonish.
Jeff had suggested a good place to fish the Kennebec just below the Forks. I later determined that I was just a short distance above where Dud Dean guided Olivet Bumpus, an English professor at Durum College, and her beau, Atterly Dumstead, in “The Way of an Old Maid.” A delightful tale.
The pressure was on for me to end the Storied Waters tour on a good note. I didn’t want to get skunked on the last day!
The drizzle stopped now and again, as I waded out from the boat launch where rafting trips come and go. The water was a perfect 58°F. My first spot yielded no signs of life, so I moved downstream, looking again for a seam in the current. I found a big rock just breaking the surface and waded out slightly downstream of the rock within casting distance.
I was relieved to see a salmon leap at my fly at the end of a long drift, clearly stimulated by my Stimulator, even though it missed it on the way down. But “now I knew that I knew where a fish was,” to quote my friend Phil Odence.
After a few more unsuccessful casts, I switched flies to a Hornberg, having seen a few good size caddis flutter by, despite the rain. I couldn’t get a good drift downstream, so I threw the fly up behind the rock. I managed a good drift – one, two, three – before the fly disappeared with a lazy slurp. I could tell right away it was a brook trout, not a salmon, by how it moved, heavy and slow in the current.
Now I had to bring this baby in! Worse than being skunked would be to lose a good fish, and THEN be skunked! I didn’t dare try to take video of the fish on my line, but kept pressure on the fish in current and worked it carefully to my feet and into the net. A nice, stout 14” wild Kennebec squaretail, another dream come true.
End of An Odyssey
I did one of those little victory jigs right there in the river as I released the fish, watching it swim away in the clear water. Even so, I couldn’t resist making a few more carefree, greedy casts before deciding to end the trip on a high note.
I waded to shore, stowed my waders and rods for the last time, and pointed the car south toward New Gloucester. I was happy to be headed home. My Storied Waters odyssey was over.
Yes, my dog April recognized me. So did Cheryl. And, no, I didn’t have to kill any suitors.