Sports Column: Trout and ghosts at the upper dam
I just returned from an annual fishing trip to cast flies on the Androscoggin River and its famous headwaters in Maine’s Rangeley Lakes region. The reputation of the region is rooted in its trophy-sized wild brook trout. It is one of the last bastions in the U.S. of a pure strain of S. fontinalis: the species of char most commonly known as brook trout. The population is not only self-sustaining, but most of the waters have never been stocked with brook trout and thus remain unadulterated by hatchery strains. Even the Androscoggin from Gilead down to West Bethel, though it is hatchery-supported, is a great fishery and a wonderful place to visit in part because of its story: A horribly fouled river in the 1970s, it now holds healthy populations of brook trout, trout, and rainbow trout, and also landlocked salmon and bass.
Joining me this year were Bob Hyams from Charlotte and Dwayne LeClair from Rochester, who heard about the trip through the New Haven River Anglers Association. Though neither is a regular member of the NHRAA, Bob is a board member of the Vermont River Conservancy, which has partnered with the NHRAA on past conservation projects. Our plan was to spend one day fishing the Androscoggin, one on the Magalloway, and one on a more remote water. And it all looked very promising, too. Five days before we departed, the Androscoggin was at a perfect level. The Gorham USGS river gauge showed the flow of water had been dropping all week and was below 2,500 cubic feet per second (cfs). That meant very wadeable conditions, with great opportunities to get to some good water, and even a likelihood of early season dry fly fishing.
Then those late May torrential rains set in — the same that caused floods and ripped out roads and bridges in northern Vermont. By the time we arrived in Maine on Sunday evening, the flow had increased more than fourfold, and was still going up. On Monday morning, the gauge read over 13,000 cfs. That effectively put an end to fishing the Androscoggin. Time for Plan B. I called the dam on Aziscohos Lake at the head of the Magalloway River to find out what their flows were. It was operating at 1,900 cfs. Now that is a whole lot lower than the Androscoggin, but just as unfishable, for the Magalloway is a much smaller river channel. A flow of 1,200 is considered high there, more suitable for white water kayaking than fly-fishing. A flow of 1,900 means water over the banks and no chance of wading.
Plan C? Between Mooselookmeguntic Lake — the largest and most famous of the trophy brook trout waters — and Umbagog Lake where the Androscoggin River officially begins, there were once three dams creatively named Upper Dam, Middle Dam and Lower Dam. The last remains of Lower Dam were destroyed in 2005. The gates at Middle Dam were wide open, leaving Rapid River as unfishable as the Magalloway and Androscoggin.
Like everything else in the area, Upper Dam was also running very high and fast; the level of Mooselookmeguntic Lake was at the peak of allowable levels, so the power company had a lot of gates open to keep the lake from overflowing. Still, unlike Middle Dam, Upper Dam drains not into a river but simply from one lake into another. And so the fishing below the dam was less affected by high water levels and the associated swift current. At least that was my hope. And the reasoning behind my choice for Plan C.
We were not the only anglers to draw that conclusion. After a three-mile drive on private gravel lumber roads, and a half-mile hike, we arrived at the dam to find more than a dozen other fly-fishers already there. Fortunately, there is plenty of water to fish and almost all of the anglers were on the north shore. The three of us crossed the dam and spread out along the heavily wooded south bank, and by 9:30 a.m. we were waist deep casting flies into a strong and cold north wind.
Part of the history of Upper Dam involves an innovative and self-taught fly-tier named Carrie Stevens, the wife of a Maine fishing guide. In the 1920s, Carrie invented the Grey Ghost streamer fly, one of Maine’s best known patterns for imitating smelt. The story is that Carrie created the fly, and decided to test it out herself before giving it to her husband or his clients. On her first cast in the current below the dam she caught a six-pound, 13-ounce brook trout.
Carrie’s cabin still sits in the woods not far from the dam, with a plaque in her honor. Inspired by her ghost, I tied on one of my own creations, and also gave one to Dwayne. Dwayne had not been in the water five minutes before a brook trout took his fly right at his feet. He caught a second one a short time later, and within 20 minutes I also hooked and released a pair of brookies under the bushes along the flooded banks.
After that, fishing slowed (to a complete halt) until Bob joined us. After the three of us fished streamers for a while without any more success, Bob switched to a pair of nymphs, and caught two brook trout on his next two casts.
After our lunch break by the edge of the dam, we saw the “crowds” across the river began to clear. We crossed back over and fished the north bank. The wind coming off the lake made for tough conditions, but also kept away all insects. We would later learn that just a few miles away the black flies had been ferocious all day. Thanks to the wind, we did not see a single one. Wading out into chest deep water, I turned and started casting back to shore, and from one spot I managed to land five fish in a short amount of time: three trout, one salmon and a huge chub. I turned the spot over to Bob and he soon landed his first salmon. We then all took a break to watch another angler play and land a 21-inch lake trout in the deep eddy right below the dam.
The sun was dropping low over Richardson Lake before we started our steep hike back up to the car. My face was chapped from wind and sun. And we had not caught any six-pound brook trout. Nor even any three-pounders, for that matter. But none of us had been skunked either, as we would likely have been on any of the other local rivers that day. Nor had Maine’s notorious black flies made even a cameo appearance to ruin the fishing. I was ready to head back to the cottage for supper and bed. But I was also ready to plan the next trip back to the waters of Carrie Stevens’ famous ghost.
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