Matthew Dickerson, September 2017
I recently had a chance to fish for a day and a half in one of those small New England streams that holds surprisingly big trout. I was staying with my brother for a couple nights in the newly opened Medawisla Lodge, in a 75,000-acre conservation area run by the Appalachian Mountain Club. It sits in a land of many waters in the space between Moosehead Lake and Baxter State Park where the Appalachian Trail ends (or begins) at Mount Katahdin.
To get at why the trout in that stream are surprisingly big, I need to back up. Among the species of the cold-water salmon family (Salmonidae)—a family which includes the Atlantic and Pacific salmon as well as the fish we refer to as trout and char—there are many different possible life cycles. Populations of fish that spend their entire lives in rivers or streams are called fluvial. Most of the brook, brown, and rainbow trout I catch in my rivers of Addison County are fluvial fish. By contrast, fish whose entire life cycle is spent in a lake are referred to as lacustrine. A lacustrine trout may occasionally move into a stream to feed, but it is a temporary visit. They even spawn in the lake. Lake trout are one of very few salmonids that are truly lacustrine. The vast majority of trout and salmon need to spawn in flowing water.
Anadromous fish live their adult lives in saltwater, but when it is time to spawn they swim up a freshwater river or stream—usually the same one in which they were hatched—to lay their eggs. The juveniles therefore begin life in the flowing fresh water before moving out to sea (hopefully) to grow really big, and then swim back in to lay more eggs. Pacific and Atlantic salmon as well as steelhead trout are anadromous. Some biologists will further divide this category. A truly anadromous fish will head out to sea and not return until it is time to spawn. Some fish, however, will continually move back and forth between salt water and fresh, never going too far out to sea, following the food supply and enjoying the abundant life in estuaries.
The fourth category into which salmonid populations may belong are the adfluvial fish which divide their life cycles between lakes and rivers. They spawn in running water, but live their adult lived in lakes. The dynamic is not unlike that of anadromous fish, except instead of moving downstream to an ocean for adulthood, the young fish will swim down only as far as a large lake.
Within the same species of fish, there are often many strains with different life cycles. This is true of many species of trout, and that genetic diversity within a species is an important survival trait for the species. The Dolly Varden trout species—which is actually a species of char, and thus a cousin of the brook trout—is a good example. In Alaska, I have fished for dollies in numerous places and caught fluvial, adfluvial, and anadromous, as well as coastal dollies.
Which brings me back to that stream in Maine and my stay at the Medawisla Lodge. One reason I went to the lodge is that is sits only a dozen to three dozen miles from a couple of those famous Maine trout streams. One in particular, in addition to a year-round population of small fluvial brook trout, also has populations of both adfluvial brook trout and landlocked salmon that move up out of the lake into the river every fall to spawn. It is these adfluvial fish that grow really big—that are measured in pounds rather than inches. Often there are two windows each year during they will leave the cold and safety of the lake depths to risk life in a shallow river. The first is in May when they come in to dine on the abundant food supply of spawning smelt, or the eggs of spawning suckers. The second is in the fall when they come into the river to do their own spawning. The state of Maine does a good job protecting these adfluvial populations in the handfuls of streams around the state where there are famous runs. Fishing is restricted to catch-and-release with single hooks—sometimes fly fishing only—and they close the rivers to fishing in October when the spawn is in full swing.
Unlike Pacific salmon which have already begun to die when they spawn, brook trout may spawn multiple times and therefore they remain both healthy and hungry when they enter the rivers in the weeks leading up to their spawning runs. Or at least we hope they are hungry. When months earlier I planned a late September trip to northern Maine, I expected to be fishing in waders, a fleece jacket, gloves, and maybe a wool hat. I found myself fishing in shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals, with temperatures in the upper eighties. And because the run of big trout is famous, I also found myself competing with several other anglers for the good holes.
Fortunately, a rainy late spring and early summer had left the lake levels in good shape despite the hot and dry fall. At the start of September, a dam upriver was opened and water flow was increased enough to bring the trout into the stream to start their spawn. When my brother and I arrived at the parking place near the dam, we had barely stepped out of the car when we saw somebody landing a rod-bending trout in the dam pool.
That was one of only three or four fish we saw that afternoon. At the tail end of one famous pool, there were dozens of visible big bright brook trout as well as landlocked salmon hugging the bottom, and a couple anglers taking turns drifting flies past their noses. In the hot air, the fish weren’t budging. One angler had landed a twenty-three inch brook trout that morning, and we saw somebody else land one in the mid teens. But at dinner-time we gave up and headed up to the lodge for a luxurious meal before settling into our cabin.
The next day we decide to work a little harder and get away from the crowds. A drive of a few miles down a gravel lumber road, followed by a twenty-minute hike through thick woods, brought us to a beautiful stretch of river that we had to ourselves. The extra worked paid dividends. Drifting small weighted nymphs along the bottom below a strike indicator, I managed to hook dozens of rocks and small logs. I lost at least a dozen flies. Bending over to unhook one fly from a rock in thigh-deep water, I apparently had a fly box fall out of my pocket and lost forty or fifty flies at once.
More importantly though, drifting bead-head nymphs along the bottom I also hooked and landed two large landlocked salmon, one eighteen inches long and one twenty inches long, as well as a fat brook trout about fourteen inches in length, and I briefly hooked a fourth fish but was able to release it from farther away without having to get my hands set. My brother landed two brookies both much bigger than mine: a male nearly as big as my large salmon and as brightly colored as the maple tree that hung over the pool, and a female only slightly smaller than his male but which fought every bit as hard.
Now that I know the river a little better, next fall I’ll likely return and enjoy another stay in the lodge and another day of fishing. And I’ll make sure my fly boxes are better secured in my pocket.