Matthew Dickerson: Big boat, small lake

It’s the day before my birthday. I stand on the bow of my brother’s new boat. Since he moved from Alaska back to coastal Maine a few years ago, he’s been looking for a motorboat for Casco Bay. Something he and his wife could use to hop among the bay’s numerous islands — there are 200 or so of them, depending on who you ask and how you count — when they want to get around faster than their tandem sea kayak will take them. I’m also hoping it’s something he and I could use to chase striped bass on Casco Bay.

He finally found his boat over the winter. It’s a center console boat with 115 horse outboard motor. He texted me pictures of it over the winter to get me excited about striper fishing. Now I’m on the boat with him. But we aren’t in saltwater, and we aren’t chasing stripers. I have a fly rod in hand, but it’s my 5-wt trout rod and not my saltwater rod. My brother hasn’t yet acquired emergency towing service for his boat, or fully acclimated himself to the boat’s GPS mapping and the tidal navigation. He’s not yet ready to take it out on Casco Bay. Instead, we have just zipped across a small New England lake. When I say “small” I mean less than 300 acres. I’ve seen marinas on Casco Bay that look bigger than this lake. The lake feels a bit small for the boat (which gets us across to where we want to fish far more quickly than the canoe I usually fish from).

It’s also a lake that my brother and I have been fishing together for more than 40 years. And yet, despite its small size and my familiarity with it, my brother has led me to a small cove where I’ve never bothered to fish for trout with a fly. It looks like pickerel water to me. And, indeed, I’ve caught pickerel in this cove in the past casting spoons and spinners. He tells me, however, that trout have been rising there for the past two weeks!

So I stand on the bow with my 5-wt fly rod and a mayfly tied on. Sure enough, as soon as the boat comes to a stop and the waves from our wake settle down, we see fish starting to rise. Forty years into fishing this small lake and I’ve just learned something new — though I’m not yet completely sold on the spot.

We also see a phoebe perched on a shoreline tree, making frequent short loops out over the cove and back. This is another good sign (in addition to rising fish) that insects are hatching. And we see a loon cruising the area, which is a good sign of abundant fish. I get a strike on my fly on the second or third cast. That’s an even better sign. But I miss the strike. The fish swims off.

A few more minutes pass before I get a second strike. This one I manage to hook. I bring in a small landlocked salmon. As gently as I can, I release it from the fly and send it swimming off.

Putting my hand in the water to release the salmon, I also notice how warm the lake is. It’s mid-June, but the water feels more like it’s July. My brother guesses 70 degrees. I think somewhere at least in the mid to upper 60s. Then I reflect on what he had just told me: that trout have been rising steadily for the past two weeks. I ponder how much earlier that is than the historic norm. Thirty-five years ago, the trout didn’t really start rising in earnest around my birthday. This year had an unusually hot spell in late spring, of course — record setting in some parts of New England. But this early season isn’t an aberration. Summer has been getting gradually warmer and earlier for years.

I try not to think too hard about this, though the reality is a bit hard to shake. I keep casting. A few minutes later, I land a brook trout. Although the lake has a small amount of natural trout reproduction up one of its four small tributary streams, this trout looks the size and duller color of one of the several hundred that the state stocks each year. I will release many more than I keep in the coming few days, but this one I put in a creel for my father to dine on.

The next fish I land takes me by surprise. It is another landlocked salmon, but 17 inches long instead of seven. I can tell from the moment it starts fighting that it’s a bigger fish. That state also stocks landlocked salmon. Most of them get caught through the ice in the winter. This one survived until spring. I land it and admire it. By the time we are done fishing, we have caught six trout or salmon between us, and kept three for the pan. Now I am sold on the spot. I have to acknowledge that my older brother has once again taught me something new.

Two nights later — the day after my birthday — I head out on the lake again. My brother is gone. I have no motorboat. I’m alone in the canoe. It’s a small lake, as I noted, but my canoe paddling feels suddenly slower. Not just slower than the motorboat, but slower than the canoe used to be. I must be a year older. Yet I appreciate the quiet, and the fact that I am not burning fossil fuels. I don’t go all the way across the lake to the spot my brother took me. It’s too far without the boat. The lake really isn’t that small after all. I stop at a favorite gravel bar off an island only halfway across. I land six stocked brook trout. I release all but two. Then I paddle back. A great blue heron flies past me. The loons are still hunting. I wonder if either the heron or the loon were as successful. They are not catch-and-release fishers.

I’m appreciating what a wonderful evening it was. But I also confess that I’m looking forward to standing on my brother’s boat casting my 8-wt rod for stripers in Casco Bay.

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