January 03, 2016
By Kevin Tracewski
Leading up to the 1990s, Maine's native brook-trout populations were on the decline. New backcountry roads caused increased fishing pressure on the state's remote ponds, which in turn led to overharvest of fish. Today, however, the state's new regulations have brought life back to the ponds, which now hold good numbers of trophy trout.
Maine, the home of Carrie Stevens and the flies she designed and made famous, is one of thefew places in the Eastern U.S. that offers a chance to pursue trophy brook trout up to four pounds, but few anglers outside the state know it. That's changing now, though, as the state spreads the word about its brookie revival.
Exploring Maine can be intimidating. It's larger than all the other New England states combined, and access to most of its hundreds of trout ponds is by dirt roads or trails that don't appear on road maps. But if you are willing to do a little research, you can find exceptional brook-trout fishing in a pristine setting not far off the road. The key is to narrow your approach to a manageable area, then search for the signs of brookie habitat. A handful of parks provide easy access to good water, but if you want the ultimate remote experience, hire a guide or visit one of the fishing camps with private water. There are many possibilities.
The best way to find this fishing is by yourself or with a companion, driving the endless miles of dirt woodroads with map and compass or global positioning system (GPS) in search of that one pond or lake that is brookie heaven. Spring and fall, when the leaves are in full color, are the most beautiful times for these explorations. Nothing can compare with fishing silently in a canoe, floating on quiet, secluded water.
Where to Find Big Brookies
When you look for Maine brook-trout water, there are several factors—cold water, sufficient food, limited competition, and trout genetics—that can help you determine if a body of water can support big brook trout.
Cold Water. Trout need cold water to survive. It's critical to their metabolism, which operates efficiently at around 55 F., and provides sufficient levels of oxygen. But trout do not need large volumes of cold water to survive. During the dog days of summer, they survive by congregating around deep holes and coldwater spring seepages.
Sufficient Food. Food availability in a pond is influenced by several factors, such as water depth and clarity, types of organisms present in the food chain, and acidity. In Maine, the most important factor is the type of substrate on which a pond is located. There is no easy way to determine the amount of nutrients present in water. I look for two indicators to determine if a water is healthy and has fish-producing potential: the tall, broad-leaved water weed called Potamogeton and tiny, shrimplike scuds called Gammarus. Both can be sampled by towing a mesh net hung from a weighted line behind a paddled canoe.
Limited Competition. Remote ponds that only contain brook trout and baitfish, such as shiners or dace, produce larger trout than ponds with other spiny-finned competitors. If other competing species (perch, pickerel, and bass) are present, there is less food for the trout.
Keep in mind, however, that all "trout-only" waters do not produce big fish. In places with an overabundance of spawning habitat, for example, too many brook trout severely limits the size of individual fish.
Trout Genetics. Studies show that wild trout grow faster, live longer, and deal better with the rigors of life in a harsh environment than hatchery trout. Despite recent efforts by the Department of Inland Fisheries to improve the quality of hatchery fish, ponds with wild native fish produce the largest, most robust fish.
Fly fishing on Maine trout ponds starts after ice-out, which occurs from early April to mid-May, depending on the location and elevation. Brook trout are relatively inactive when early-season water temperatures are in the 30s and low 40s F., but you can take fish with sinking lines and streamers fished slowly. In small ponds like Jo-Mary and Cedar in the Katahdin Iron Works area, effective early-season flies include dragonfly nymphs, Wood Specials, and small bucktail streamers like the Black-nosed Dace. Marabou Muddlers, crayfish, salamanders, and leeches in various sizes and colors also account for many fish.
The coastal ponds are the first to ice-out and warm up, usually around April 1. When their water temperatures reach the 40s F., streamers cast to shoreline structure and rocky outcroppings take fish. Mount Desert Island's Upper Hadlock or Bubble ponds are good early-season spots, as well as Fox and Simpson ponds in Rogue Bluffs on Route 182 in the Downeast region. In April and early May, the best time to fish is during the comfortable part of the day, between 10 A.M. and 2 P.M.
Smelt are the main forage for early-season fish, especially on the larger waters. On Rum, Wilson, and Roach ponds in the Moosehead Lake region, use smelt patterns near inlet and outlet brooks, where the smelt spawn. You can cast from shore or wade along the pond's edge. For the rest of the water, local anglers troll single or tandem-hook smelt patterns like the Grey Ghost, Governor Aiken, or Barnes Special.
As the water warms, trout focus on insects, and by early June you can catch trout with dry flies. Some important early-season mayflies include Hendricksons, March Browns, and Blue-winged Olives. Several caddis species are also present. Good early-summer, easy-to-reach waters include Quimby and Beaver ponds near Rangeley in the western mountains. The region also has good remote dry-fly ponds that you can reach with help from guides at sporting camps such as Tim Pond Camps and Bosebuck Mountain Camps.
June is a good time to visit Baxter State Park, a 200,000-acre semiwilderness two hours north of Bangor. Twenty-five of the park's 100 ponds contain wild populations of large brook trout. All trophy ponds are fly-fishing-only and have increased size and reduced bag limits. Daicey and Kidney ponds are located in the park's southwest corner and provide fishing for 10- to 12-inch trout. Some larger fish (up to 16 inches) are taken in late evening when the Hexagenia limbata (Hex) hatch is on. Both ponds offer park cabin rentals (around $30/night) and canoe rentals ($15/day).
The cabins located on Daicey and Kidney ponds also serve as a base camp to nearby Rocky, Little Rocky, Polly, Celia, Jackson, and Lily Pad ponds. Most of these produce fish up to 16 inches and have canoe rentals ($15/day). Bucktail streamers, such as the Little Brook Trout and Warden's Worry, cast to shoreline structure are productive in Rocky, Little Rocky, and Polly ponds. Maple Syrup Nymphs, Hornbergs, and Woolly Buggers fished on sinking lines work on Celia Pond. Standard dry flies (#14 Adams) take fish in Jackson and Lily Pad ponds.
Nearby Nesowadnehunk Lake is also worth a visit. It's a larger lake and the only fly-fishing-only water near Baxter that allows outboard motors. The best fishing is during the calmer early morning and evening hours, and crayfish patterns fished deep at sunup can take a trophy.
At the end of June, Maine's premier mayfly, the Hex, produces the season's most frantic dry-fly action. Adult flies reach up to three inches long and are imitated by extended-body patterns with large, upright wings. The cream-colored duns appear after the sun drops below the trees, so the best fishing occurs at or just after dark. When the water is covered with flies, trout often lose interest in the adults but will take a yellow Hex wiggle-nymph fished slowly a few feet below the surface.
By August, water temperatures in most Maine trout ponds force fish to seek springholes and other coldwater refuges. From August through the end of the season, sinking lines and big, ugly flies take the most fish. Finding these coldwater spots is often difficult, especially in larger waters, and it pays to hire a guide or stay at a camp that can provide information on where to fish.
Northern waters in higher elevations offer better fishing during the hot summer months. Red River Camps, for example, located about 25 miles south of the Canadian border in the public Deboullie Preserve, contains 20 trout ponds within a 10-mile radius. All of the area's easy-to-reach, fly-fishing-only ponds (Denny, Upper, Island, and Stink ponds) stay cooler throughout the season. Others (Big Black, Little Black, and North ponds) are good, but harder to reach. Sinking lines and big nymphs and streamers are still the game, but the fish are less concentrated than in the southern waters.
With the approach of September and October, the water cools and fish emerge from their summer refuges. As the fall spawning period approaches (October into November), many of the larger trout become aggressive and respond to bright flies (Pink Lady, Mickey Finn, and Light Edson Tiger) fished with a fast, erratic retrieve. Fall dry-fly fishing is good, but sporadic. Small flies like #18 Black Gnats, Blue-winged Olives, and caddis take fish, as do Stimulators skittered across the surface.
I end most seasons either searching for that elusive five-pound brookie around the inlets of large waters such as Allagash or Chamberlain lakes, or fishing one of the dozens of ponds reached from Hal Blood's Cedar Ridge Camps in Jackman. And even when the fish don't cooperate, the spectacular colors and absence of blackflies makes late September an ideal time to be in the Maine woods.
Canoes are the best way to fish Maine's brook-trout ponds, though float tubes and kick boats are easier to carry in on your back during a long hike from the car. For equipment, I like a 9-foot, 4- or 5-weight for dry-fly fishing and a 5- or 6-weight for fishing sinking lines. My favorite line is Scientific Angler's full-sinking Hi-Speed Hi-D that I use for streamers, which is 90 percent of the fishing.
Maine's recent brook-trout population turnaround was aided in 1993 by a set of Quality Fishing Initiatives implemented by former Department of Inland Fisheries Commissioner Ray "Bucky" Owen. The initiatives placed fly-fishing-only, catch-and-release, or slot-limit regulations on wild-trout ponds to curtail the number of fish killed by anglers. Each pond is now managed individually, based on its ability to produce trophy fish. The Maine regulations booklet is now full of fly-fishing-only waters, and each are categorized by county. Start your search for trophy brookies with these waters.
Of course, strict regulations can only provide the desired results if quality coldwater habitats are protected. And, after witnessing the dramatic decline in wild populations of pond-dwelling brook trout in the Northeast, it is clear that the survival of Maine's native brook trout depends on the preservation of wild lands. Fortunately, with the positive economic impact that tourism has had on Maine's economy, it seems that maintaining forested refuges around natural attractions has become a priority.
If this trend continues, Commissioner Owen's dream of "providing all anglers in the state of Maine with a realistic chance to catch a four-pound native brook trout in pristine surroundings" will remain a possibility into the future.
When you catch a trophy brook trout, keep it in the water and revive it if necessary before releasing it unharmed, according to proper catch-and-release practices.
Planning a Trip
Finding brook-trout ponds on your own can be challenging, considering the vastness of the state's ever-changing maze of signless logging roads. The Maine Atlas and Gazetteer (DeLorme Publishing, (207) 865-4171) is the best resource and will help make sense of it all.
Many remote trout ponds are on private land outside the boundaries of public parks and preserves. Most of this land is controlled by Great Northern Paper Company (GNP) or the land management group North Maine Woods (NMW). Anglers are welcome, but these lands are managed primarily for timber harvesting. No bicycles, motorcycles, ATV's, horses, or oversize vehicles are allowed. More than 20 gates are maintained throughout and day use and overnight camping fees are charged.
A few on-line resources for planning a trip include the Maine Office of Tourism, www.visitmaine.com; the Department of Inland Fisheries, www.state.me.us/ifw (includes fishing regulations, license information, stocking reports, and links to sites, including L.L. Bean, Kittery Trading Post, Maine Professional Guides Association, and Moosehead Lake); and Fly Fishing in Maine, www.flyfishinginmaine.com (includes guides and fly shops and fishing advice).
The monthly Maine Sportsman magazine, (207) 846-9501, offers practical where-to and how-to information. And you should read Al Raychard's guidebooks Remote Trout Ponds in Maine, Fly Fishing in Maine, and Flying in for Trout (all Northcountry Press). Also, the book Carrie Stevens: Maker of Rangeley Favorite Trout and Salmon Flies (Stackpole, 2000) is a must-read that profiles not only one of Maine's most well-known fly tiers, but the Maine fishing life. Stevens created the Grey Ghost and other popular fly patterns.
Once you have selected an area to fish, your two options for lodging are to camp or stay at a lodge or commercial sporting camp. Camping within Baxter State Park (Millinocket,  723-5140) or the Deboullie Preserve (Department of Conservation, Ashland,  435-7966) should be arranged in advance. Campsites on Great Northern Paper and North Maine Woods land are arranged on a first-come, first-served basis when you pass through the gate. For campsite reservations and more information, contact GNP, 1024 Central Street, Millinocket, ME 04462, (207) 723-2116; or NMW, P.O. Box 421, Ashland, ME 04732, (207) 435-6213.
A list of sporting camps can be obtained from the Maine Sporting Camp Association, Box 89, Jay, ME 04239. There are two categories of camps: American Plan, where all meals are provided in a central dining area; and Housekeeping, where you do your own cooking and cleanup. American Plan camps such as the King and Bartlett Club (Eustis,  243-2956 or 926-4147), Tim Pond Camps (Eustis,  897-2100), Tea Pond Camps (Stratton,  243-2943), and Grant's Kennebago Camps (Rangeley,  864-3608) cost more (average $65-$100/person/day) than housekeeping cabins, which can be found for $25/person/day.
Housekeeping cabins such as Cedar Ridge Outfitters (Jackman,  668-4169), Frost Pond Camps (Greenville,  695-2821), and Bulldog Camps (West Forks,  725-4742) are a bargain compared to some of the full-
service lodges. Places such as Libby's Camps (Ashland,  435-8274) and Mt. Chase Lodge (Patten,  528-2183), which offer both American Plan and Housekeeping cabins, represent the best of both worlds.
Anglers driving up from the south can get fishing or camping gear at the Kittery Trading Post (Kittery,  587-6246) or L.L. Bean (Freeport,  221-4221), which are both located within a few minutes of I-95. There's also The Maine Guide Fly Shop (Greenville,  695-2266), the Rangeley Region Fly Shop (Rangeley,  864-5615), the Blue Dun Fly Shop (Medway,  746-3044), and Fly Fishing Only (Fairfield,  453-6242).
I believe guides and flying services work best if they operate hand in hand. Guides like Matt Libby, (207) 435-8274, Jack McPhee, (207) 528-2855, Hal Blood, (207) 688-4169, and Steve Coleman, (207) 668-4436, are either pilots themselves or have direct access to a float plane and can usually provide you with the best opportunities to catch quality trout. Of course, these fly-out, guided trips cost more (average $200/day), but for someone with only a day or two to fish, they are worth it.
Many people also hire flying services such as Folsom's Air Service (Greenville,  695-2821), Currier's Flying Service (Greenville Junction,  695-2778), or Scotty's Flying Service (Shin Pond, Patten,  528-2626 or 528-2528) to transport themselves and their gear into remote ponds. For two people traveling together, costs usually range between $50-$100/person (round trip), depending on the distance.
Dan Legere, (207) 695-2266, Don Dudley, (207) 528-2448, and a number of other guides that can be found by contacting the Maine Professional Guides Association, (207) 785-2061, www.midcoast.com/~guides, can also lead you to some great fishing without the added cost of the plane.
There are few thrills that equal finding your own brookie water, especially water with large, native fish. Maine's new regulations have made it possible, and for the do-it-yourselfers, there's no better place to get a trophy of a lifetime.
Kevin Tracewski is a biology instructor at the University of Maine at Orono. He lives in Old Town, Maine.