The first in a three-part series that I’ll call the “Maine Special.” I’ve recently returned from an eight-day camping tour across the Downeast Woods and would like to share some black and blue reflections (fishing and otherwise) with you. Unfortunately I forgot to pack the bigger camera for this trip, so we’ll have to deal with some pedestrian images taken with my point-and-shoot, but hopefully you’ll enjoy.
1. It had been a long day’s journey into potholes, corrugated mud and rock, then the sweetness of river music at night. We’d driven 13 hours into northern Maine, left a frontier village for yet another hour’s drive over gut-wrenching, white-knuckle roadway used by lumber trucks and recreational vehicles, but finally settled to the task of setting up our tent beside the dark, brawling river.
The next morning I would note that we had passed the night just 20 feet from the edge of the West Branch Penobscot River, with no one else around as far as I could see. And I’d probably never slept a sounder sleep.
Our backcountry site, reserved for us by the Chewonki Foundation’s Big Eddy Campground, was located near the gateway to the Allegash Wilderness and near the shadow of Mt. Katahdin. I had been here once before, with wife and kids, but this time we were really digging in. We would also visit Baxter State Park and Acadia National Park, followed by another camp-out in northwestern Maine, at Rangeley.
2. Good fishing was just a cast away from our grill site built from natural granite and river stones. It was good fly-fishing-only water, at least potentially. Wild brook trout and landlocked salmon swam among the deep currents and backwater eddies pouring from the Ripogenus Dam a couple of miles upriver. Fishing was slow because of late summer conditions but fast enough to keep things interesting. I considered it a treat to find wild brooks and salmon taking everything from a streamer to a dry fly.
From our tent site I could look upriver and become absorbed by morning mist rising off the Class IV and V white-water in a section of Penobscot called the “Cribworks.” I could look downstream past the rapids to the world-class salmon fishing hole referred to as “Big Eddy.” Bald eagles, ravens, osprey, and various gulls flew between these river sites or perched with hungry anticipation on a great white pine or balsam fir.
3. Our first morning at the site was warm and sunny. I fished a little eddy near the tent and caught a couple of nice brookies and a small salmon there. Several groups of whitewater rafters floated through, and it was amusing to watch some of the occupants get thrown into the drink and then be rescued after a lot of shouting and swimming toward the boats. Their passage through the campground was swift and hardly intrusive.
In the afternoon, Leighanne and I buckled up and drove down to the entrance of Baxter State Park but, due to weather conditions and the late hour, plus the $14 entry fee, decided not to enter the wild country on the Tote Road. Instead, we would eat our picnic lunch in the solitude of Togue Pond and its “laughing” loon, with broad-shouldered Mt. Katahdin leaning on eternity just north of us.
That evening I night-fished the Penobscot at our tent site but the moon rose and reflected gorgeously on the river caps and pretty much put the squeeze on any fish potential. The next morning I did better.
4. Leighanne had cooked another great breakfast, this time consisting of scrambled eggs, hot biscuits and coffee, and I was ready to tackle the misty river. Stripping in a Black Ghost streamer, I got a hit from a large fish right in front of me, a hundred feet from camp. The rod bent deeply and I called out to L. to come and watch the antics.
Landlocked salmon are incredibly powerful fish, and even the little ones, when hooked, will sometimes leap to amazing heights above the water. This one fought me hard but stayed on long enough for me to see its silvery flash and golden tones, well over 20 inches in length, and rich enough to leave a powerful imprint in the memory bank.
5. It rained on our final day at the Penobscot (the name has been translated from Native American to mean “place of descending rocks,” for damn good reason) and poured through my evening work with the rod and reel. I was switching my tackle so quickly that I made a fool of myself, committing a wilderness faux pas that a loon could laugh about for hours…
I’d been casting into the driving rain for at least 10 minutes, making graceful shots with the old “Maine Special” bamboo rod, before deciding to check on how the fly was doing… Uh, what fly? No wet fly… no streamer on, no nuthin’! Nothing more than the beauty of the act itself, the madness of an old guy casting into the wind and water at dusk when no trout or salmon in the history of the art had yet to bite on a tapered leader that has no hook.
I can say this now because, before and after that non-event, I did catch lots of salmon up to 15 inches and some pretty brook trout, as well. I caught them on emergers, dry flies and streamers. Not bad, considering that the water was seasonally warm. (The new corporation that owns the upstream dam, unlike the previous owner, doesn’t seem to care much for anglers, and releases top and bottom water when it should be releasing only from the bottom of the lake).