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Salmon and Lobster
Maine’s Moosehead Lake region
My aim on this trip was to explore and flyfish several rivers in the Moosehead Lake area of northwest Maine, about 50 miles from Quebec. Moosehead Lake is 40 miles long and 20 miles across at its widest. Area rivers, several of which flow into or out of the lake, hold landlocked salmon, large brook trout, and mammoth smallmouth bass.
This was my first trip to Maine, and I was intrigued by the prospect of fishing for exotic inland salmon. While these fish are not large (18 inches is a big one), they are known as acrobatic fighters. I also looked forward to the brookies and smallmouth, my two favorite fish back home in Michigan. My game plan for the trip was to first fish with a guide to learn what I could about the fishing, then explore on my own the rest of the time.
AUGUST 25, Travel Day
I had a direct afternoon flight from Detroit to Bangor, Maine, arriving about 4:00. On landing, I picked up a rental car, a white Impala (more on this later), and drove 70 miles to my headquarters for the trip, Greenville, Maine, which has a population of about 1,000.
The terrain in the Moosehead Lake region consists of heavily wooded rolling hills with occasional mountains in the 3,000 foot range. Naturalist writer Henry Thoreau camped in and wrote about this area during the 1850s. Later, direct trains from Boston and New York brought well-off vacationers here for the summer. So the area is both wild (populated by bears, moose, eagles, etc.) and civilized (e.g., several resorts and good restaurants).
As I neared Greenville, I saw a sign for Appalachian Trail access. I pulled off the road and hiked on the trail for a few minutes. Another achievement for my resume! That night I enjoyed a good dinner of broasted chicken at a locals’ hangout.
AUGUST 26, Kennebec River, East Outlet
I had arranged in advance through the local flyfishing shop for a guide to take me down the Kennebec River in a drift boat. We would go down the “East Outlet” of the river, one of two branches coming out of Moosehead Lake. I showed up at the flyshop as planned at 1:00 and told the guy at the counter (Joey) that I was there for my trip with the guide Matt. Matt, in his late 30s and about my size but very fit, appeared from the back room where he was finishing a sandwich and introduced himself.
The trip got off to a somewhat awkward start. I’d paid the flyshop a 50% deposit in advance, and Matt suggested I pay the remainder to Joey before we go. This puzzled me since usually you don’t pay the balance until the end of the trip (in case the boat sinks, I guess). Then I figured that the shop might be closed when we got back, so that’s why they wanted me to pay now. Meanwhile both could see I was hesitating. So to cover myself, I blurted, “But what if I don’t catch any fish?” They both laughed and Matt replied, “If you don’t catch any fish I will throw you out of the boat in the rapids and then you won’t have to worry about bills or anything else.” My kind of guide! I paid up.
We drove to the river in a Jeep trailering a drift boat. Both outlets of the Kennebec (which ultimately flows more than a hundred miles to the Atlantic Ocean) have dams where they originate out of Moosehead Lake. This creates rapid whitewater environments for the first 5 or 10 river miles down from the lake. We went in below such a dam on the East Outlet. The river was wide, maybe 50-75 yards, 3 to 8 foot deep, and very rapid, with a slightly rancid tailwater odor.
The drift boat was essentially an oversized rowboat (no motor) that Matt expertly commanded in the swift water using only oars. To cast the flyrod, I stood in the front bow, where there were leg braces cut into the wood that I could lean into for balance. The boat had an anchor on a pulley, and Matt would drop it to fish a section for 10-15 minutes, then move us maybe 20 yards downstream (or sometimes cross-stream) to fish the next section.
Matt had three rods rigged with different flies that he promised to hand to me as needed, “just like a golf caddy.” The chief fly though was a streamer, used to imitate smelt struggling in the current. I began casting across and letting the streamer tumble down the current before stripping it in. Within 10 minutes I landed a feisty 12-inch salmon. Another 10 minutes, and I caught a strong 15-inch salmon. The salmon fought gamely with many acrobatic leaps and are quite strong for their size, no doubt helped by the rapid water they live in. Matt joked, “If my cell phone worked here I’d call Joey and tell him to process your credit card payment since you caught some fish.”
As I understood it from Matt, landlocked salmon are a form of Atlantic salmon that spend their lives in fresh water rather than migrating to the sea. This is due to a genetic difference that has evolved, setting them off from ocean-run Atlantics. Even where there is access to the ocean, as in a number of Maine rivers, the “landlocked” variety remain in the fresh water rather than heading out to sea. They are not literally “locked” inland.
Steady action continued all afternoon (mostly sunny, mid-60s). I fought, caught, and released more than a dozen salmon and several good-sized brook trout. Matt was a good coach providing useful, manageable tips on casting and presentation. He observed that I have “good catching skills,” rarely missing a strike, while other clients regularly missed some of the action due to lack of attention or poor rod handling. I was able to teach the fishing guide something (which might even be true). That is, when you are getting a lot of strikes on a stretch of water, why does the action sooner or later suddenly shut off? The answer I’ve heard is that fighting fish throw off stress chemicals that build up in the water until feeding stops.
At the very end of the trip around 6:30, I caught the biggest fish of the day, a 20-inch salmon, and we quit on that note. We had not traveled far as the crow flies, and Matt jogged back for the Jeep and returned with it in about 20 minutes. The sun was beginning to set, an hour earlier than in Michigan even though sharing the same time zone.
During the ride back, I asked Matt about area restaurants and he recommended a seafood spot in town. He said he ate whole lobster in the shell “all the time, like cheeseburgers,” but I should be aware it was a production to take apart a lobster.
I then asked about fishing opportunities for the rest of my trip going out on my own. Matt made a quick comment that dispensing such advice may not be good for a guide’s business, but then was very helpful. He confirmed my impression that the Roach River would be a good spot and suggested I see Joey in the flyshop in the morning since he tied special flies for that river and could advise on access points. He also had several other good suggestions, and added that if I had any problem any time on my trip I should consider the flyshop guys as friends.
The seafood joint that night was a cramped roadhouse advertising “live lobsters.” I started with outstanding seafood (haddock) chowder, then a whole 1 ¼ pound lobster. Good stuff! It was indeed a production to disassemble the lobster, but well worth the effort.
A couple in their 60s dined at a nearby table. I had the impression the woman was looking at me as if she thought maybe she knew me (little chance this far from home), but maybe it was just that the tables were so close. They left the restaurant a few minutes before I did. When I got outside, I was surprised to see them trying to get into my car! She was pulling on the passenger door and he was by the driver’s door pushing buttons on the key fob. No wonder she had been eyeing me – they were planning to steal my car!
Then I noted another white Impala across the lot with the headlights flashing whenever the guy tried his keys. I approached the couple by my car and said, “Excuse me, I’m driving a rental car that looks something like this one, why don’t I try my key?” My key worked right away. They realized their error and were quite embarrassed, saying their car across the lot was a rental too. Then I learned why the woman had been looking my way inside. “Say, how was that lobster?” she asked.
AUGUST 27, Roach River
I checked in with Joey in the Greenville flyshop for information on the Roach River, a Moosehead Lake tributary about 15 miles north in the town of Kokadjo (“Population: Not Many”). Joey said there were several major Roach pools worth fishing for larger salmon in the 18-20 inch range. To reach the first one, I should hike back on the snowmobile trail through the woods behind Kokadjo, for maybe 2/3 of a mile. Then I should look for a VW bug ruin in the woods. At the VW, turn left down very faint trail through thick brush; it looks intimidating, but the river is near. Joey sold me a couple of his special streamers for Roach River salmon and I headed out.
Joey’s directions were right on. I came across the VW wreck in the woods, turned left and struggled through thick brush, and found myself in a 50 yard stretch of knee-deep rapids leading down to the pool. Compared to the strapping Kennebec, the Roach was small, narrow, and enfolded in deep forest. Wading in the rapids was tricky since the river bottom is covered in slippery, moss-covered rocks the size of footballs. Fishing carefully down toward the pool (and wishing I had better wading boots), I picked up several small salmon and brook trout on Joey’s streamer. It was interesting how similar the two species were in terms of where they hung out in the stream and how they hit the fly. I couldn’t tell if it was a salmon or brookie until it leapt or I had the fish almost in hand.
As I approached the pool, another angler was just leaving it. The pool was quite deep and still, but action was slow. Perhaps the fellow before me had put the fish down, or maybe this spot was better later in day. I saw a few rising fish upstream, which led me to put on dries (small tarantula, then Adams) and hike back up the rapids. I had decent action on the dry flies – several more brookies and salmon, including a foot-long salmon that was the largest of the afternoon.
AUGUST 28, Kennebec River, West Outlet
In the morning, I took a break from fishing and caught the tourist ferry in the town of Rockwood over to Mt. Kineo, which is a700-foot crag suddenly jutting out of Moosehead Lake. I hiked around (but not up!) the very steep mountain, impressed by fit youngsters scaling the bushy cliffs more or less on their hands and knees.
That afternoon I fished the West Outlet of Kennebec River. This branch of the river is known for its monster smallmouth bass. A gorgeous stretch of river flows downstream from the highway access, leading out into a pond in the distance. I hopefully waded down the very likely looking water using a large muddler minnow, but was surprised at getting no action at all. I did not even see a fish, a bad sign. I thought perhaps this stretch is heavily fished since it’s so close to the highway.
When I reached the mouth of pond, I decided to try a different color fly, so I switched to a large white marabou streamer and cast into the pond. On the second cast, a monstrous 5-pound smallmouth smashed the streamer. And he did not stop thrashing and crashing for close to 15 minutes as I struggled to bring him in on my suddenly wimpy-seeming 5 weight flyrod (fortunately I’d used a stout leader). This fish didn’t seem to tire, but somehow I got him close and released him. He was very dark, almost black, and glared at me with angry red eyes. A few casts later and bam! The exact same thing. Another furious, two-foot smallmouth battling like crazy, then angrily slapping his tail in the water upon release. These fish were scary.
But that was it for the mouth of the pond. Perhaps the two brutes had staked out this area for themselves, or the commotion of our battles had scared off other fish. Fishing back upstream toward the highway, I was surprised when an 8 inch brookie slammed the large streamer. The aggressiveness of the smallmouth in these waters seemed to be contagious—perhaps a case of eat
and grow bigger, or else be eaten by bigger fish.
Toward evening I stopped back at the East Outlet where I fished with the guide a couple days previously. It was much easier in the boat – this deep and rapid river presented tough, dangerous wading and I could not get very far out into the river. On top of it, I was quite tired. I functioned poorly and caught zilch, but at least stayed on my feet. One other wading angler fished a ways off in the middle of the river up toward dam (where there must’ve been some sort of sandbar or shelf to permit wading). He seemed to know what he was doing, hooking and battling several leaping salmon in short order.
AUGUST 29, Piscataquis River/Travel Day
In the morning, I packed up and headed back to the airport in Bangor. About half way there, I stopped on the Piscataquis River in the town of Guildford. Several folks had recommended fishing here by the “covered bridge” (a local landmark) over the river, which holds brookies and brown trout. This is a pleasant stretch but also tricky to wade due to slippery rocks. After an hour of fishing, with only a couple of lookers, it was time to get going to make my flight. As I was leaving the river, back down by the bridge, a decent trout took my streamer but got right off. So I didn’t catch any fish at this spot, but this was still way better than my usual trip to the airport!