One allure of Rangeley camp in northwestern Maine was bird life. The wild shrieking of loons at night brought vivid images from lakeside to the closeness of the tent. It was often accompanied by hoots and chortling of various owls, especially the screech owl. By daylight, a family of ovenbirds did warbler business, stepping fearlessly through the leafy carpet on our site. A northern parula was finally identified, the treetop singer giving me a classic strain of “warbler neck.”
South Bog Stream called me back to its “fly-fishing-only” waters. The dark, tannic pools and riffles, the great irregular rocks and boulders, kept me hopping for brook trout with a small 4-weight rod.
One morning, just after I began to cast, I heard a vehicle crunching to a stop where my wife had set up her lawn chair for some reading time. A storm of screams and shouting fell across the stream, the kind that even a raft of nesting loons could not approximate. Hoping that my wife wasn’t getting strangled at the lonely parking spot, I raced from the stream with figurative handgun cocked and ready to defend, only to find (thankfully) that an overly excited group of camp kids and their counselors were playfully preparing for a hike along a nearby trail.
Another time, I was well below this South Bog site attempting a delicate entry into a difficult, steep-banked pool. I lost my balance, slamming into rocks and water, banging fly rod, shoulder, leg, and elbow, then drawing blood for all the slim mosquitoes ready to feast on a fisherman’s mortality.
Regrouping and cleaning up the wounds, I found that the rod and body parts were probably okay despite the pain. Miraculously, the brook trout (several sizeable, alluring fish) forgave my splashy introduction to their darkened habitat and took the dry fly as if nothing else really mattered.
One morning I entered the fir-lined Kennebago River, musing on a question often posed by manic anglers: Does fly-fishing give meaning to a life, or does life give meaning to the act of fishing? Reason overtook me like a cloud of gnats. Obviously the water was low and warm and all too shallow. Trout and salmon had departed, migrating to cooler lakes and streams. Escaping the swarms of reason, I took refuge in aesthetics, happy to know that it didn’t matter. It was good enough to be here. My question had no either-or direction or solution…
Fishing can bring meaning if an angler focuses one-on-one with larger nature, if humility allows the self to be viewed as small– significant, but nonetheless diminutive within the cosmic order. Life experiences, too, bring “meaning” (however one defines it) to the act of fishing and to various outdoor pursuits. In any case, such riverine meditations seem a waste of time and energy unless there’s fun involved, as well.
Oquossic, Maine is Rangeley’s neighbor to the west. The village is home to the amazing Outdoor Heritage Museum, a showcase for the region’s history and its cultural distinction as a “fly-fishing Mecca.” My second tour of this Museum was even more rewarding than my first one four years earlier. Across the street, we enjoyed unparalleled dining at the “45th Parallel,” a fine spot for haddock, burgers and beer.
On a hot day in a different watering hole, Leighanne and I had lunch while talking with a pair of teachers doing summer work at Cupsuptic Lake. A customer entered and sat nearby at the bar. He sipped at a beer and did some drawing. He was quiet till my wife and I departed from the teachers and prepared to leave. He called me over, asking my name and how to spell the word “Lure.” He had overheard our conversations and drawn sketches for the teachers and myself. He gave me “Walt’s Lure,” a signed sketch, and told me that he wrote and illustrated books for kids. Yes, Kevin O’Malley has published more than 80 different whimsical books so far, and several have been New York Times bestsellers, too. A pretty cool crossing of the tracks, I’d say.
Throughout our visits to Baxter Park and Rangeley, I experimented with an old wet fly pattern known as the Orange Fish Hawk, a soft-hackle largely forgotten by modern fly-fishers but not by trout and salmon. The pattern served me well as a dropper underneath a floating Adams on the West Branch Penobscot and then on the cold Magalloway near Rangeley.
The Hawk was a favorite of Ray Bergman (Trout) and of tier Mark Libertone, my late friend from Wellsville, New York. An osprey, the “fish hawk,” flew above me on the big Magalloway as I caught and then released a chunky brook trout on a #8 Hornberg dry. The trout was followed by the largest creek chubs I have ever seen or handled (12 to 16 inches). Thinking of osprey, I tied a small Orange Fish Hawk, a soft-hackle dropper, underneath the Hornberg, hoping for the best.
With tandem flies drifting on a long cast, I took sudden flight– the old Orange Fish Hawk leapt up in the jaws of a silvery rocket, a landlocked salmon glimmering before its total break to freedom. I was hooked to the Rangeley district by a special lure. The Hawk seemed to hold me happily in place. Unlike the salmon, I would have no simple escape.