Brook Trout In Maine's Wilderness
January 12, 2015
Growing up in Massachusetts, my first exposure to trout was fishing for stocked rainbows in suburban warmwater lakes. I later found my way to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where I fished for stocked brook trout and rainbows in a relatively unspoiled and wild setting. While I managed to catch the occasional "red belly"—a local reference to wild or holdover brook trout—most of what I caught were fin-worn, cookie-cutter stocked fish.
As I pushed deeper and deeper into the forest I started to encounter small wild native brook trout in tiny mountain streams. I found a compelling difference between these beautiful wild fish and their genetically challenged hatchery cousins.
While shopping for flies at a sporting goods store outside Boston, I befriended a transplanted "Mainer" who told me vaguely about the wild brook trout ponds located deep in the backcountry of central Maine. As we became closer, he suggested we take my 1976 Jeep Cherokee up to what he called the "10,000 Acre Tract" for a long weekend of brook trout fishing on his favorite pond.
Four hours after leaving Massachusetts we turned off the pavement just short of Jackman, Maine. The road looked like a dirt highway. Each turn found us on a road narrower and in worse shape than the last one. Open sky turned into a slot in the trees, the slot turned into canopy, and the canopy turned into paint-scratching alders. The road changed from washboard to bumps and potholes; then to ruts, rocks, and deep puddles. We forded several small streams.
Four-wheel-drive was not a luxury as it often is today—it was a necessity. After nearly two hours of pushing my truck harder than I had done before, we arrived at the shore of Round Pond—the finest wild brook trout pond I have ever found. Thus began my fascination and appreciation of wild, pond-dwelling native Eastern brook trout.
Maine's self-sustaining Eastern brook trout lakes and ponds hold the nation's largest inventory of wild native salmonids living in natural stillwater environments. In a world where nonnative, stocked, hybrid, and genetically altered fish are commonplace—along with man-made or heavily manipulated tailwaters, reservoirs, and spring creeks—angling for wild native fish in a wild, unaltered setting is something rare and special.
There are close to 6,500 lakes and ponds in Maine. Roughly 1,200 are referred to as Principal Brook Trout Fisheries by the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife (DIFW). This means that you have a good chance of catching a brook trout there. Approximately 660 have not been stocked in ten or more years—they are by default self-sustaining. This represents roughly 285,000 acres of water. Of that number, roughly 335 of Maine's wild brook trout ponds have never been stocked. These represent some of the last genetically pure, pond-dwelling brook trout in the country.
To put this in perspective, neighboring New Hampshire has just three formally designated Wild Trout ponds. While others exist, the actual number is less than 5 percent of that found in Maine. In Vermont the situation is not much different as evident by this quote from the Vermont Fish & Wildlife website: "Most of Vermont's brook trout pond fisheries are supported entirely by stocking."
Even the fabled Adirondacks in New York pale in comparison to Maine when it comes to pond-dwelling wild brook trout. As you push south and west, the situation only gets worse.
Maine's wild brook trout lakes and ponds range from just over an acre to sprawling 16,000-acre Mooselookmeguntic Lake in historic Rangeley. The largest never-stocked water is 4,200-acre Allagash Lake in northern Maine. Over 40 percent of Maine's brook trout ponds are less than 25 acres and just 10 percent are over 500 acres.
Approximately 120 of Maine's wild brook trout lakes and ponds are classified as "remote" by the Land Use Planning Commission. This means there is no development—including permanent roads—within a half mile of the shoreline. In most cases, even unimproved roads are blocked, making them some of the most remote trout ponds in the East.
From a regulatory standpoint, approximately 165 of Maine's wild brook trout lakes and ponds are restricted to fly fishing only. The largest is 1,700 acre Kennebago Lake—purported to be the largest fly-fishing-only water east of the Mississippi. Just over 30 are managed under what the DIFW refers to as trophy regulations: 17 of those are restricted to catch-and-release, the rest have a one-fish, 18" minimum. These stringent regulations help protect what is one of Maine's most precious natural resources, and ensure that the best native brook trout fishing in the lower 48 will be around for future generations.
Ponds in Maine greater than 10 acres are open to the public for the purposes of "fishing and fowling" under the Great Ponds Act. This guarantees overland and fly-in access in support of those pursuits. Other activities fall under standard trespass laws.
While most of Maine's brook trout ponds are on private land managed for logging (northmainewoods.org), some are on public land such as Baxter State Park (baxterstateparkauthority.com); land owned by individuals such as philanthropist Roxanne Quimby (katahdinwoods.org); and land owned by conservation groups such as Appalachian Mountain Club (outdoors.org/lodging/lodges/lyford) and areas like the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area owned by The Nature Conservancy (nature.org).
The majority of Maine's wild brook trout lakes and ponds are in the western, central, and northern parts of the state. They are located off a network of unmarked and often unmaintained dirt roads. Even after a long, bumpy ride, many require some hiking anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours to reach the water. It goes without saying that the longer you are willing to walk, the better the fishing will be.
Most of Maine's wild brook trout lakes and ponds are located off the power grid. Gasoline, food, retail, lodging, restaurants, hospitals, and other services we often take for granted are usually miles, and even hours away. Cell phone service is spotty, so you'll have to learn to truly "get away from it all" on a Maine trouting excursion.
While this can present a logistical problem for some, many waters are located near sporting camps (search for them at mainesportingcamps.com) that offer lodging, meals, guides, boat rentals, and float-plane service. Some have satellite connections for those who need access to the outside world. For many, this is the most practical way to enjoy this resource.
Maine's wild brook trout ponds are open to fishing April through September, but practically speaking, the season starts at ice-out in early May. Hatches start soon afterward and continue right into the fall. Mayflies such as Black Quills come first. These are followed by caddis, including large Traveling Sedges. Also important in the early season are flying ants, aquatic beetles, dragonflies, and damselflies. The giant Hexagenia—the Northeast's answer to the Salmonfly—hatches in early July, and many fly fishers plan their trips to coincide with this aquatic event. Throughout the season trout also feed on leeches, minnows, crayfish, and in the fall, midges.
Fishing Maine's brook trout lakes and ponds usually requires some type of watercraft. In most cases the forest pushes right up to the shoreline, making it difficult to cast. The bottom is often (but not always) muddy, making wading all but impossible.
Float tubes, pontoon boats, canoes, kayaks, and small boats can all be used. In most cases distance from the road dictates what type of watercraft is most practical. Some of the larger lakes have formal boat launches. Others have informal launches that offer carry-in access. Most sporting camps maintain canoes on local waters that are available to their customers. Some waters allow motors—some do not.
Red Belly Tackle
As for tackle, I prefer 9-foot, fast-action rods when fishing from a canoe or boat. When fishing from a personal watercraft I prefer a longer rod—9'6" to 10'. I fish a 5-weight with a floating line and a 6-weight with a density-compensated full-sink line such as a RIO InTouch Deep 3 or Deep 6 depending on the lake and the season.
The floating line should be capable of handling a broad range of fly sizes, from size 20 midges to size 6 Hexagenia imitations. Lines designed to cast long distances can be helpful as well, as they allow you to cover more water.
For dry-fly fishing I use 12-foot, 5X leaders for size 12 flies and smaller, and 9-foot, 4X for larger flies. I prefer fluorocarbon leaders and tippet for subsurface fishing.
Maine's pond-dwelling wild brook trout can reach 20 inches in length, and those are the ones everybody is after, but most are between 8 and 12 inches. Most ponds tend to have lots of small fish, a moderate number of midsize fish of around 16 inches, and a few large fish. The best way to catch the large trout is to target them. This means concentrating on the ponds with a reputation for producing large fish (see sidebar) and probing the depths with a sinking line is your best option.
When they do feed on the surface, the largest fish tend to cruise in a relatively straight line along the shoreline rather than staying in one area, so you need to constantly be on the lookout for the telltale signs of an approaching large fish. You'll likely just get just one shot at each passing fish. The biggest dry-fly fish are caught during aquatic beetle hatches, flying ant drops, and Hexagenia hatches.
Although I have provided a short list here of Maine's "best" trophy brook trout ponds, it's a subjective judgment based on experience, designations by the state as "trophy" waters, and by protective regulations. However, with more than 650 in the state, there is much left to explore.
Fly-fishing-only waters are a good place to start, but focus on ponds with trophy regulations if you are hunting specifically for larger trout. Distance from the road—as in the state's list of remote waters—can offset liberal bag limits in some cases. And of course there are exceptions where a body of water fishes well in spite of liberal regulations or easy access.
Maine's wild brook trout lakes and ponds offer a level of remoteness not easily found in the bustling Northeast. That they are located within a few hours of downtown Boston and a day's drive from New York City, Hartford, and Providence is actually quite amazing.
These waters are home to loons, ducks, beavers, otters, deer, black bears, and the symbol of the Maine woods—the majestic albeit awkward moose. As for the trout, there is nothing more beautiful than a wild Eastern brook trout—especially in its fall spawning colors.
Protecting Maine's Heritage
Unfortunately, Maine's pond-dwelling brook trout face many threats. With climate change, invasive fish, logging, development, road building, angler exploitation, poaching, and state-sponsored stocking, they are being pressured from many sides. Maine does not have a comprehensive and consistently implemented wild trout program. While the Heritage List program prohibits stocking and live bait on "wild" brook trout lakes and ponds, more than 60 self-sustaining waters were omitted for political reasons such as interspecies stocking programs and ice fishing. Live bait is allowed on over 50 waters, leaving them a bucket away from disaster. Nearly half the waters are open to worm fishing—many with a 5-fish, 6" minimum. What is needed is a program that protects all wild brook trout waters from live bait, angler exploitation, and stocking regardless of pressure from special interests.
Sadly, Round Pond, where I first fell in love with native brook trout, has suffered from the introduction of invasive golden shiners via the illegal use of live bait. The pond is now overrun with shiners, the wild trout population is crashing, and the once-unmatched hatches have taken a hard hit due to heavy predation on nymphs by this exotic schooling minnow. The shiners have now worked their way downstream into Horseshoe Pond—an above-average wild brook trout fishery that has not been stocked in almost 50 years, imperiling what was one of the last intact wild brook trout watersheds south of Moosehead Lake.