Fly Fishing the Remote Northern Maine Ponds
They arrived at Libby Camps on a warm July day in the late eighties. They wanted to catch some trout on a fly and have some fun together in the tangled woods of Northern Maine. I was their guide and quite frankly, they had me scratching my head. Not that their request was that unusual but after all that oppressive heat of July had begun to ooze its way in and, to make matters worse, they had never fly fished.
The seaplane bumped up against the large weathered dock as Scott the pilot jumped out and secured the plane the best her could against the mid day swells.. As is the tradition when the seaplane arrives with guests at Libby’s everyone was there to greet them: Matt and Ellen, the kids, dogs, cats, the dock boy, other guests and of course the guides. Dave and his 17-year-old son Shawn stepped of the plane onto the crowded dock all smiles and eager for introductions and handshakes. I stood to the back of the crowd so I could size them up. After all I would be spending the next three days of my life trapped in a canoe with these two curious looking characters. I remember thinking about a sage tidbit one of my bright fishing buddies used to sermonize: “Never trust someone who is always smiling.”
My first act as guide after the hubbub died down was to assess the situation. I had to check their gear, go over our fishing options, evaluate their skills and of course introduce myself. Their gear was from Bean. It was fine. The ponds I offered struck their fancy, along with everything else I said. Their skills were awkward at best but it didn’t seem to matter what I did it was just fine. I knew almost for sure I was poised for a dunking.
They had wisely chosen a fly-out package. That meant that we would be accessing some of Northern Maine’s top shelf ponds in Libby’s newly acquired Cessna185. So after lunch two smiling guest and one suspicious guide jumped into the Cessna, fly rods in hand. A sense of “adventure” flooding the cockpit.. After a pre-takeoff check and a nod from the passengers we gave it the throttle and were shortly thrust high into a Maine most familiar to Red Tailed Hawks and the like. From 500 feet AGL, we were presented a world of greens, blues, and a foreboding grays. The cussed tangle of pine, spruce, and spotty hardwood was transformed into a soft carpet accented by shades of green. Dozens of oddly shaped lakes and windy rivers popped into view reflecting the brilliant blue sky that would dominate our weather for the next four days. The greens and blues seemed so friendly in contrast to the gray granite ledges of Katahdin to our south and Norway Bluff to our north. Shawn looked at his father with an inspired look on his face. His father glanced back. Without a word they appeared to communicate to each other the magic of the moment with greater deft than the poets.
It was a short fight. It wasn’t long before we started our decent. We dropped below the rugged hilltops around Beetle Mountain, snaked our way up an interesting dead water littered with ghostly fur trees fallen victim to the flood waters of old flat tail. Final flaps and idle power brought us into our destination pond with the short field capabilities of a black duck.
We tied the plane to an old dock. After a short hike accented by strange woodsy sounds and oodles of animal tracks we arrived. Our springy pond full of trout weed, reflections, and wild speckled scrappers was just like I left it the year before. It was now the time of truth. Would my short lived fly casting lesson back at camp pay off? Would my neophytes be able to cast without hooking the guide? Would the native trout just laugh at us thrashing the water with our bullwhips? Much to my surprise things went half-well. I don’t know how they actually caught some trout on wooly buggers. A couple of deer wandered out into the pond. A loon crash-landed on an aborted takeoff. Dave and Shawn actually got happier, if that is possible. The calm before the storm I figured.
As the trip progressed we dropped into a bunch of ponds, spent a few nights at out camps, saw some moose and bear, swapped some stories (some funny some serious) and caught more trout and LL salmon. My two happy fly flippers at this point were actually getting pretty cleaver converting their bull whips into delicate fish fooling wands (except when Dave tried to change directions mid cast to accommodate a hefty salmon slurping March Browns on the “other” side of his boat.) Anyway, they were ready, it was now time to give them a shot at something quite special.
Each year around the first of July a curious thing happens in Northern Maine. A big mottled gray/brown bug sneaks to the surface of many of our magnificent trout ponds. Once on the surface, in a spray of a yellow sulfur looking mist out of its case crawls a brand new being sporting magnificent tall light green wings and a large yellow body. The bug is the Green Drake. (Hexigena Efemerilla) and our timing was right. The stage was set to take my smiling friends to a very special place.
After a 45-minute hike (all up hill) we stumbled on to three canoes stashed under some stunted spruce. Reflecting through the limbs was our prize. The pond was glassy. There was not a rise to be seen. I was not yet concerned.
We dragged the canoes to the shore. As we rigged our rods our eyes analyzed the stillness. The almost transparent water revealed some crayfish skittering for safety. The pensive attitude of the pond was deafening. We were all in a state of anticipation. It was six PM. Dave and Sean were ready.
As we slowly paddled our three canoes into position we discussed our strategy. Because of the incredible clarity of the water the drakes don’t start until the sun dips below the tree line. This same clarity makes fooling these chunky drake-slurping beasts almost impossible. I told Dave and Sean that they would have to be on their best behavior. I told them that they would have to remember all the subtle treachery that they had been practicing over the past few days. They smiled. I winced a little but accepted that to mean “OK.”
We sat quietly in our canoes. Dave and I were anchored over an under water bar. Sean was anchored near shore by the leaning tree over some ledge features. It was very quiet…not a rise to be seen. I was starting to sweat. I had told Dave and Sean some wild tales about this place. I could tell that Sean was wondering just how wild were those tales? I looked at him. He looked at me and smiled. “Jeez I wished they would stop smiling.” My reputation was on the line. The sun was kissing the tree line. My eyes were darting across the mirror that had not a blemish in it. The evening shadow started its painfully slow trek from the western shore. The sun was bright in our eyes. We squinted into the shadow. There it was! I saw what looked like a bubble. I swear I saw I puff of yellow mist. Like magic the bubble doubled in size and sprouted wings, it had started. The hatch was on!
As the sun winked its good night behind some popple the pond was consumed in shade. The bright colors of day faded into an image much more wild and exciting. The pond came alive with the motion of feeding trout. I looked at Sean. He looked at me. I smiled.
The battle was on. We immediately went brain dead. Any hope for a subtle presentation…gone. The talk on fine leaders, clear water and delicate retrieves was completely overshadowed by big trout coming up all over the place. I started to hyperventilate when a heavy body emerged four feet from my canoe and took down a huge drake struggling to fry his wings before flight. I fought to keep a business as usual demeanor just in case Sean was looking. The battle raged. Every couple of minutes I could hear an “Oh…./?#@!!!” coming from the direction of Sean’s boat. Dave was, between tangles, casting with better precision than I when he wasn’t watching his boy. These guys had come a long way in four short days. I was still wondering what they were smiling at.
The trout were getting so brazen in the waining light we could have literally netted them beside our canoes if I wasn’t such a purist I probably would have suggested a baseball as a replacement for our fly-rods. Then it happened. His voice thundered. t echoed off the ledges. It took increase in volume as it smacked the glassy surface of the pond in its dusky silence. It was Sean. “I’VE GOT ONE!!!.”
Dave and I paddled close. I vowed to myself that I would not give advise. Sean’s startled trout streaked by me and headed under Dave’s canoe then for the under water ledge. “Keep him out of the ledges Sean! He will cut you off.” The trout sizzled Sean’s reel as its blurred shape shot under Dave’s canoe again then zigzagged back toward Sean. “Keep your line tight! He will split the hook!” Sean was a trooper. His intense focus was broken only briefly as he flicked a glance into his father’s eyes. “Watch’em Sean! He’s rubbing your fly on bottom! Get him out of there!” I don’t know who was in control for the first eight minutes or so. Was it Sean or was it the trout? In fairness to Sean I would say it was about fifty-fifty. The battle raged for a couple more minutes. The courageous trout tired. Sean emerged the victor. He brought the fat two pounder to net. The proud boy looked at the trout. He looked into his father’s eyes and uttered, “Dad, do you realize what I have here?”
We all caught a trout that night in the short forty-five minutes between dusk and dark. But as we walked through the blackness on the trail back to camp I began to catch on to something more than a trout. It finally dawned on me why Dave and Sean were always smiling. Mark Twain once remarked, “when a man goes fishing he may not realize it isn’t fish he is looking for.” Some how I think Dave and Sean understood that early on. In an ironic kind of way while stumbling through the darkness that night I wondered who was guiding whom.