Dickerson: Of May, mud and moose in Maine
The first moose was a big bull. It stepped onto the road a hundred yards in front of my car and began to saunter across, without consideration of my need to decelerate quickly. Starksboro resident Rich Warren and I were driving Maine Highway 26 through Grafton Notch north toward the Magalloway River. Over the next 45 minutes he and I would see nine more moose. Most were yearlings — the moose equivalent of teenagers likely just kicked out of home so that mom could make way for a new arrival.
Now, 10 moose in less than an hour is quite exciting and memorable. But it was not what I had come to western Maine for. I had come to fish the Magalloway first in order to catch some big wild brook trout in a beautiful spot, and second with hopes of writing a humor column. Not wanting to leave humor to chance, I invited Rich to join me. I’ve known Rich for several years through the New Haven River Anglers Association. This was our fourth trip together. And funny things happen when Rich is around. Just this past January, for example, I invited him to join me steelhead fishing in Oregon, and he managed to trap his foot inside his drift boat while stepping out to land his first fish. He tumbled unceremoniously into the river, and still somehow landed the steelhead while sitting on his wallet in the water. So I invited Rich to join me in Maine in hopes that that humor would happen again.
Unlike Rich, however, big bull moose are not especially funny. They are impressive, and at close range seen through a car windshield frightening. But not funny. Hitting a moose is definitely not funny. One of the young yearlings did border on humorous when he started jogging in front of our car with his legs-splayed-to-the-side ungainly gait. But it was the sort of funny you need to see. More awkward and almost pathetic than funny.
Eventually, we arrived at our destination: an unmarked roadside pull-off where an access trail leads a hundred yards through the woods to Magalloway. There were already four cars there, and two more pulled in immediately after us. Having six other cars at your “wilderness” fishing location is also not humorous. We spent the morning politely vying with about 14 anglers for perhaps 10 good fishing spots. Rich caught a couple trout. I hooked two and on both occasions successfully executed long distances releases. Fishing all morning without landing a fish is also not humorous. So I kept an eye on Rich, with my camera at the ready, in case humor happened.
The crowds cleared in the late morning, likely because the fishing was slow. We took a lunch break at the car, which now shared the pull-off with only two other vehicles. My hopes rose. At least I’d be able to choose from multiple good locations. Except that just about the time I walked the 200 yards back to the spot I wanted to fish, and waded through swift thigh-deep current to a beautiful run where I have landed 18-inch trout in the past, I caught a flash of lightning out of the corner of my eye. The thunder followed barely three seconds later. Sound travels through the air about one-fifth of a mile in a second, meaning the lightning had struck a little over half a mile away from where I was standing thigh deep in the water with a 9-inch graphite conducting rod in my hand. Getting struck by lightning, like hitting a moose with a car, falls in the category of non-humorous. So with the same adrenaline rush I felt when seeing that moose step on the road, I waded as hastily as I could back to relatively safety of the wooded shore.
Over the next two hours, three more thunderstorms moved through, one with pea-sized hail. Every time one ended, and I’d start wading out into the river, another rolled in and I’d have to start back toward shore. Finally the sky cleared. However I had barely waded out and taken a half dozen casts when, almost instantaneously, the water turned brown. I’ve never seen a river get so muddy so quickly. One minute it was running clear with just a bit of leaf-debris. The next it looked like coffee with cream.
We packed up and drove 30 minutes to another local fishing spot: Upper Dam at the outlet of Mooselookmeguntic Lake. I figured the outlet of a lake would not be muddy from a thunderstorm. The road into the dam is a rutted, partly washed out, essentially unmarked, gravel road about three miles long. I turned onto the wrong unmarked gravel road. Had we not, by good fortune, met two lumberjacks on their way out, we would have gotten lost. Getting lost on Maine lumber roads could be very humorous, but it is the sort of humor you only appreciate 15 years later. We made it to the dam and fished another two hours. Rich saw two big trout, but didn’t land either. I landed one very small fish.
We returned the next morning, seeing only one moose on the drive. The temperature was up and skies were clear. Black flies emerged. Black flies in Maine in May are not at all humorous (though attempts of anglers to avoid them can be). We went downstream of where we’d been the previous morning. I hiked to a beautiful hole and gravel bar where I once landed three brook trout over 16 inches in an hour. The water was too deep to ford at that point. As I stood on the bank contemplating whether to hike upstream or downstream in search of a place to cross, two other anglers emerged from the bushes across the river and started fishing directly across from me right where I knew the fish were. While I watched, they caught three trout. It was not humorous.
My luck would change in the afternoon, however. Several hatches started coming off the water: at least three mayflies in a variety of sizes, yellow stoneflies, and midges. I landed one salmon and five brook trout. The largest three trout were over 15 inches, caught in three successive runs. Two of the bigger ones took a streamer fly I tied to imitate a small trout. The largest hit on a nymph imitating a small caddis fly.
Sometime late in the afternoon, I found Rich fishing a deep pool behind a massive boulder. He was standing almost waist deep in the water, working the seam between the calm water and the swift flow where the current raced around the boulder. All of a sudden he lifted his rod, and it bent down hard with a nice trout. I got out my camera. It was time for something humorous. Rich had plenty of opportunity, too. There was a tree over his head to wrap his line around, deep water on both sides of him that he could accidentally step into, a hat that could fall off his head into the water, and all sorts of creative other things he might spontaneously come up with.
Instead, he just calmly played, netted and gently unhooked his largest trout of the trip: a fat brookie with dark green sides, the sun-bright red and yellow spots, and enough red on the underbelly to indicate a male. After he’d released the fish, we decided we’d had enough success for the afternoon and started our four-hour drive westward, intent on getting home before midnight. Despite the lack of humor, that one perfect afternoon of wild trout fishing made up for a lot of mud, lightning delays, hail, black flies, long-distance releases, and even for the indignity of other anglers taking my spots. It’s funny how fishing works that way.
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