Matt Dickerson: The balm of brook trout
It began with a trip to a river I have been fishing since I was 13 years old: the Little Androscoggin.
My school career began with kindergarten in the little Maine village of Bryant Pond, whose two thriving lumber mills helped support a population of 1,000, spread out over three villages in the town of Woodstock. Our house was just over the tracks and a good outfielder’s throw from the Little League field with the classic wooden grandstand that my fellow Independent sports columnist Karl Lindholm, who grew up less than an hour away, still remembers.
The Little Androscoggin begins its career as the small outlet stream flowing out of the lake also known as Bryant Pond. It plunges at once into a thick, undeveloped — and, in the summer, mosquito-infested — woods. Paralleling an old railroad track, it flows through a few unnamed ponds and swamps, and gradually increases in size as it picks up the outlet streams of two neighboring lakes, one other mountain stream, and several small springs. Still, even with these confluences, when it flows out of the wild and into the nearby town of West Paris, it is still just a small (but biologically rich and diverse) stream, easy to wade in most places. And perfect for a six-and-a-half foot 3-wt. rod. Not until it approaches South Paris and turns toward Karl’s old stomping grounds near Lewiston and Auburn and its confluence with the Androscoggin River does the Little Androscoggin really begin to look like a river.
I didn’t do much fishing when I was in kindergarten. But when I was a teenager, my brother and I spent countless hours fishing the Little Androscoggin with worms and spinners, starting in the morning at the outlet of the lake and fishing all the way to the next road crossing a few miles away, where our father would pick us up around lunch, or later. When we reached the stretches too boggy to fish, we’d hike up to the railroad tracks, skirt around and then head back to the water.
When I got older, and took up fly-fishing, the trips into the mosquito-infested, swampy small upstream portions became less appealing — despite the fat wild trout we’d find in relatively unfished waters. Instead I began exploring further downstream where I could still escape crowds, but without so much bushwhacking. The other change in my older age was that, after years of stocking brown trout, the state fisheries department began to stock the river with brook trout once again.
So there I was, celebrating the end of the school year and submission of grades, with my good friend David O’Hara, with whom I had written a book, “Downstream,” about Appalachian brook trout — and with whom I’d spent many hours on that river over the past two decades. Three mornings of fishing the Little Androscoggin at all of our favorite places: the in-town bridge we could drive right up to and fish above and below, the scenic waterfall at the highway rest stop, and, best of all, the stretch we had to climb down into after a hike along the railroad track.
All were full of brook trout. We caught a fair share of them, too. And a few odd browns as well. Most were stocked; the clipped fin was a telltale sign. But they were still fun to catch, healthy-looking and as brightly colored as a wild fish. And knowing they were hatchery fish meant we had no qualms bringing home one or two each to share with our wives, both of whom enjoy fresh trout but not the act of catching. For Dave, who grew up chasing brookies in the Catskills and spent a decade casting for them in the streams of Vermont, and who now lives in the flat, trout-less prairies of South Dakota, fishing for brook trout — even stocked ones — in a quiet Maine stream was a balm.
• • • • •
Later on the same day that Dave and his wife, Christina, left for Middlebury for their 25th college reunion, my brother Ted and his wife, Susie, arrived in Bryant Pond from a 5,000-mile drive across the country. This is the same brother who, 35 years earlier, had spent all those hours fishing the Little Androscoggin with me — and many other Maine rivers as well. They had just packed up their belongings, and after eight years living in Alaska were moving back to New England to be near family again.
Alaska is a tough place to leave for a couple who love fishing, hiking, kayaking, camping and the outdoors in general. The balm for their souls, I thought, would be a couple days fishing for wild brook trout in the Maine wilderness.
About a dozen years ago, the Appalachian Mountain Club began acquiring a large parcel of land in Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness just south of Baxter State Park and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Three purchases and a decade later, the AMC had 70,000 acres including all the headwaters of the West Branch of the Pleasant River and dozens of remote ponds holding either native brook trout (populations known never to have been impacted by stocking) or at least wild brook trout (populations that hadn’t been stocked in at least a quarter century), both of which are a step above hatchery fish. On the property is the rustic but beautiful Little Lyford Lodge run by the AMC.
Which is where we took my brother and sister-in-law for two nights and three days. We spent mornings and late evenings fishing the West Branch or some amazing beaver ponds on small tributaries. The second of the beaver ponds was far and away the best I’ve ever fished. Absolutely loaded with plump, wild brook trout. During the two full days, the four of us hiked into three remote ponds. The ponds were loaded with native brookies and we had nonstop action catching (and releasing) them on both dry flies and streamers, fishing from canoes the AMC keeps on the ponds for their guests.
And there was not a single other angler to be seen, except at night back in the lodge. There we feasted on steak and potatoes, pasta with fresh local sausage, and amazing deserts for dinner, and pancakes with bacon and maple syrup and fruit for breakfast. The cabins had no electricity or plumbing, but they were clean and comfortable with gas lights, a small sink with running cold water, and wood stoves. Showers (with hot water) a short walk away proved a enjoyable luxury the second night.
But mostly we were there for the wilderness. And the balm of Maine brook trout.
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