Holy Water

Holy Water

Matthew Dickerson, May 2012


It was late Wednesday afternoon, May 23. I was wading knee deep in a small New England river. All afternoon, caddis flies had been coming off the water in steady numbers. Though not breathtaking, it was certainly a decent hatch by any standards. I had already caught three nice brook trout, all wild and over fourteen inches. I had also lost three more, one of which was twenty inches or more and fought me for several minutes in a very deep pool cut by whitewater.

Then, around 5:00pm something changed. Whereas most of the afternoon there had been dozens of caddis flies visible skittering along the surface of the water, or hovering in groups in the bushes—and in brief little flurries of activity they had appeared in the hundreds—suddenly they started coming off the water so thick it was like fog. The numbers of caddis flies that were soaring upstream a few feet above the water went from dozens or hundreds up to thousands and even tens of thousands. I have caught trout in twenty-five states on some deservedly famous rivers and have never before witnessed a caddis fly hatch to rival this one!

The river I was fishing was the Magalloway. Its headwaters flow off the ridgeline on the Maine-Canada border in northwestern Maine in the Rangeley Lakes region, an area of several large, deep, remote, wilderness mountain lakes many of which are ten miles long or more. These are the holy waters of brook trout fishing in the United States: waters still containing wild brook trout that have never been bastardized by stocked brood. Mooselookmeguntic is the largest of these, and most famous for its huge brookies, but there is good trout and landlocked salmon fishing throughout the region’s lakes and rivers, which include not only the Magalloway River, but also Rapid, Cupsuptic, Rangeley, and Kennebago rivers, as well as several smaller but still notable streams. And, of course, the numerous lakes and ponds.

Coming off the high ridges, the various branches and headwaters of the Magalloway soon meet in the remote Parmachenee Lake, out of which they flow through a short stretch of woods and into Aziscohos Lake. At this point, the Magalloway has picked up about all the water it will get. It spills out of a small hydro dam on the Aziscohos and plunges through a few short wooded miles of whitewater down to the town of Wilson Mills, Maine. There the river suddenly slows, changing from kayak water to family canoe-trip water, and wanders another dozen or so miles through big meandering S-curves along the border of Maine and New Hampshire through wilderness preserve loaded with moose and waterfowl before it flows into Lake Umbagog and becomes the Androscoggin River.

It was in that short stretch between the Azicohos Dam and the famous Wilson Mills bridge, and the few hundred yards just downstream of the bridge, that I spent two days fishing with my friend Rich Warren whom I knew from the New Haven River Anglers. Rich Warren had just recently retired from many years teaching at VTC, and was celebrating with the second of several fishing trips. I was happy to take part in the celebration by spending a few days with him chasing wild Maine brook trout. Though water was running high—the measurement at the dam was about double the cubic feet per second of water that I would have considered a good amount for that stretch—it was the ideal time of year and weather was good, so we were expecting some good fishing. I just didn’t know how incredible the caddis hatch would be.

I had fished that stretch of river a few times in the past. I had seen some pretty good caddis hatches in mid-June fifty miles south on the Androscoggin. In fact the previous day we had fished the Androscoggin in the afternoon, and I had landed eighteen trout. Rich landed quite a few also. But they were mostly stocked, and they were only in the ten to fourteen inch range. We were looking forward to some larger and wilder brookies on the Magalloway. Most of the day on the Magalloway was challenging technical fishing. Like most rivers in the area, it is designated as fly-fishing only with very restrictive creel limits. This protective approach to management has resulted in a blue-ribbon fishery that attracts lots of fly-fishermen. The fish see plenty of flies in their lives, and they are leader shy. Sloppy casting or the wrong flies put the fish down pretty quickly.

But when the air temperature on that late May day rose up into the eighties, it apparently created the perfect storm conditions to stimulate a caddis hatch for the ages. For the next hour, the fishing was fantastic. When the hatch began I lost about fifteen minutes of time moving several hundred yards down river avoiding other anglers, and some stretches of river that looked either less promising or less accessible in the high water. Then I finally found a nice patch of water that I had to myself. I proceeded then to land three brook trout in thirty minutes, doubling my take for the day.IMG_1071 All of them were over fifteen inches, with dark healthy skin and bright red and yellow spots. All took my fly hard, and fought like the strong well-fed wild fish that they were. The hatch, and the flurry of trout activity, was incredible. Then it was over and the fish stopped biting.

We returned to the same stretch the next afternoon, expecting a similar hatch. A few caddis flies came up. Enough that had we not been there the previous day we might have said it was good hatch. But it was nothing compared to what had seen. Indeed, we might never be in just the right place at the right time again to see what we saw. Fishing was slower too. We fished from 3pm until 7pm when we had to start the four hour drive back home to Vermont. I landed only two trout, with my consolation being that the larger of the two was just short of twenty inches—among the best brook trout I have ever landed.

For most Addison residents, the drive to Wilson Mills is under four hours. This holy water is probably the closest place you can go to catch wild brook trout that will routinely top fifteen inches. Well worth the trip. Bring a friend.