January 30, 2012
By John Randolph
In the firmament of fishes, American brook trout are the most colorful exclamation. Piscatorially, it's as if God paused in creation and ran a banner up. Thoreau (The Maine Woods, 1864) described them as "the painted fish". Winslow Homer captured their beauty on canvass. But to experience them sparkling, cold and slippery in hand is a special fly fisher's delight.
I wanted to recapture that delight at a newly restored remote place in the Maine woods that Thoreau might have admired: 25 wild ponds and lakes, located in the Appalachian Mountain Club's 66,500-acre Maine Woods property (part of the Maine's 100-Mile Wilderness at the northern tip of the Appalachian Trail), 20 miles from Greenville near the eastern edge of Moosehead Lake. I wanted to recapture it fishing dry flies when wild brookies wear spawning colors and the earthy smells of autumn spice the clean, crisp air.
The AMC Maine Woods Initiative
In 2003 AMC purchased Little Lyford Pond Camps (circa 1873), adding the 300 acres and 2 ponds to its 37,000-acre Katahdin Iron Works land acquisition the same year. The 100,000-member AMC–the nation's oldest (1876) conservation and recreation organization–hopes, with the cooperative help of large landowner Plum Creek Logging Company, Inc., conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy, state agencies, and private financing, to forestall the impending subdivision of relict Maine wildness into recreational-home lots.
AMC hopes to create its first large land-ownership base, to create a nonprofit "recreational corridor" and preserve traditional uses on a 100-mile stretch of previously logged woods, ponds, and logging roads. It will do it while enhancing forests through long-term, science-based conservation management that includes ongoing timber harvests, road upgrades, native-species fisheries preservation (brook trout, landlocked salmon and lake trout) and a nonnative hybrid, splake. Its recreational opportunities include public canoeing, fishing and hunting, full-service summer/winter recreational opportunities (including over 70 miles of cross-country ski routes and hiking trails) with professional instruction in fly fishing by registered Maine guides.
In 2009 AMC completed its purchase of 29,500-acre Roach Ponds Tract from Plum Creek that connects with its Lyford Pond and Katahdin Iron Works Tract, including Medawisla Wilderness Lodge and Cabins on Second Roach Pond, Little Lyford Lodge and Cabins near Little Lyford ponds and Gorman Chairback Lodge & Cabins on Long Pond.
AMC says: "For decades the 100-mile Wilderness region, so named for the final, remote stretch of the Appalachian Trail (AT) has been anchored by Katahdin and Baxter state Park. The only other protected land in the area was the narrow AT corridor, which snaked through a vast industrial forest. In recent years much of that forest changed hands: Between 1997 and 2007, 6 million acres of forest–more than a quarter of Maine's land–changed ownership. This rapid turnover within the largest forest system east of the Mississippi River made the "100-Mile Wilderness" an area of focus for state-based and national conservation organizations.
"When the AMC, The Nature Conservancy, the Forest Society of Maine, and Plum Creek announced in 2006 a plan to conserve nearly 400,000 acres in the Moosehead Lake Region–part of a larger concept plan presented by Plum Creek to Maine's Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC)–it included the right for AMC to purchase the Roach Ponds Tract upon the plan's approval. (AMC later negotiated to be able to complete the purchase regardless of whether the LURC decision is appealed.)"
The AMC investment in its Maine Woods Initiative exceeds $45 million, and it is working to raise another $7 million to achieve its $52 million fund-raising Campaign for the Maine Woods (see www.outdoors.org/donations/mwi/index.cfm).
Lodging and Recreation
Some waters in the 25 ponds on the AMC conservation land also contain fishable landlocked salmon, lake trout, or splake. Many have canoes for guest use and most are drive-to, mountain-bike-to or hike-to on well-maintained logging roads or trails. The AMC operates three wilderness lodges–Little Lyford, Medawisla, and Gorman Chairback–with traditional sporting-camp hospitality, including excellent home-cooked meals.
At Lyford and Gorman Chairback, restored rustic log camps have cold running water, gas and kerosene lights, wood stoves, and outhouses. Meals are served at the central lodge, and hot showers are available year-round at a large, modern (divided) male/female shower/restroom building. At both Lyford and Gorman Chairback, a comfortable co-ed bunkhouse can accommodate groups up to 12. As for all the lodges and cabins (except for Gorman Chairback, where they are provided), you should bring your own washcloth, towel and linens. (Four new cabins are planned for Gorman Chairback, each with private bathroom and shower.) Smoking is not allowed in or near any wood structure at the camps and lodges. Credit cards are accepted.
Medawisla Wilderness Lodge and 7 private modern self-service cabins are located on "pet-friendly" Second Roach Pond and operates in the summer/fall season (with self-service meals) from early May to hunting in mid-November (see winter schedule online). It puts all the Roach ponds within easy fishing reach, either by car, mountain bike, or boat (see pond species below). Excellent home-cooked meals are served in the main lodge, and several ponds have free boats or canoes. Adult (2012) nonmember daily rates average $56/person.
Daily rates (2012) for Lyford nonmember adults (w/ 3meals/day) are $84+tax, and $134/day (w/3 meals/day+tax) at Gorman Chairback. There are also 3-day and 5-day package rates.
AMC cautions that driving on their rough dirt roads should be slow and with care: They are still used by large logging trucks and crossed by moose, deer, bear, and other wildlife. Spring roads are usually rocky, rutted, and muddy. Four-wheeled vehicles are a good bet for reaching some remote ponds, and should especially be used for winter cross-country skiing visits. Pets are not allowed at Little Lyford Lodge or Gorman Chairback, but are allowed with pre-arrangement at Medawisla.
The Maine Mountain Guide includes an area map (Gulf Hagas) with trail descriptions, and the AMC Southern Piscataquis Regional Recreation Map and Guide shows other nearby trails, put-ins and natural and cultural features. Both are available at the AMC online store (see amcstore.outdoors.org/maps) or by calling 800-262-4455.
In June AMC offers two-night fly-fishing and lodging packages at Little Lyford and Medawisla Wilderness Lodge to help anglers build their skills, with fly-fishing workshops led by registered Maine guides. Prices (2012) start at $372 for adult nonmembers and $328 for members. For 2012 rates and details see www.outdoors.org/lodging/.
The Katahdin Iron Works (KIW) property is part of the Ki Jo-Mary Multiple Use Forest (open to the public), which charges a gate fee of $10 per person ($6 for Mainers) for access (May through October) at Hedgehog Gate and KIW Gate checkpoints (6 A.M. to 9P.M. daily). All other AMC waters have open free access and fishing. (A Maine fishing license is required and Maine fishing regulations apply. The AMC offers mountain-bike rentals at each lodge as an alternative to car access to the lakes, and it offers fly-rod rentals by pre-arrangement. Its programs emphasize quiet recreation, and waters are fished by nonmotorized craft (small outboards are allowed on some of the larger lakes).
The largest AMC ponds include: Long (657 acres: landlocked salmon, wild brookies, lake trout); Houston (679 acres: landlocks, brookies, lakers); Second Roach (970 acres: brookies, landlocks, splake); Third Roach (570 acres: brookies, landlocks, splake); and Fourth Roach (266 acres: brookies, landlocks, splake). Virtually all the small ponds have large populations of healthy wild brook trout, except on the Roach Tract ponds–Beaver, Trout, Long Bog, and Penobscot–which have stocked brookies.
First and Second Little Lyford Ponds are reached by paths and bog, wood foot bridges. Many of the other ponds are reached by unmaintained paths and Second, Third, and Fourth Roach ponds by rough roads. Sturdy water-proof boots, light raingear, a high-DEET insect repellent (and in spring a headnet), a 4-wheeled-drive vehicle, and a detailed local map (see/print the AMC Recreation and Conservation Area Summer Trails map) are essential items for these fishing treks.
I began my first brookie fishing using a #8 Mickey Finn streamer, and that fly remains a standard wherever brookies exist. However, on this trip in the last week of September I used exclusively a #8 Muddler with an orange head from Danny Legere's flyshop in Greenville and caught and released somewhere between 30 and 50 (4- to 7-inch) brookies on First Lyford Pond without moving the boat.
Brookies are not selective: If the fly is bright and relatively small (with red, orange or yellow, or all three, in it), you're in business. Deer-hair flies that can be fished dry or wet are the ticket. Any of the classic Maine streamers work well on spring landlocked salmon. All the AMC wild-brookie ponds are loaded with brook trout, and, when the surface waters are cool, the fish are up and on the grab.
As with all New England brookie ponds, the cool waters of spring and fall provide the best dry-fly fishing. When summer arrives and pond surfaces warm, the trout seek deeper spring-hole refuges. However there are spring/summer caddis (June-August), March Browns (May-June 15), Blue-winged Olives (sporadically, but especially spring and fall), Eastern Green Drakes, and Hexagenia (July 1-20 evenings).
My dry fly prances on its tips on the black surface of a calm wilderness pond as the evening sun gilds crimson swamp maples. A moose dips its head beneath the surface to feed, then lifts, sending sheets of silver, backlit water through its antlers. It looks, cold-eyed, my way. My fly disappears in a swirl. I lift and feel a jiggle. I'm in my good place.
If you need a registered Maine guide, and I recommend them, they are available through the AMC contacts when you register or by emailing or calling the following outfitters located in the Greenville region. Contact them early, for they are normally booked solid during spring and fall.
Northwoods Outfitters, Greenville
Danny Legere, Maine Guide Fly Shop
Wayne Plummer, Northern Pride Lodge