January 24, 2022
This article was originally titled "Rapid River Brookies" in the Oct-Nov-Dec 2011 issue of Fly Fisherman.
Brookies were the first resonant chord of fishing for me (See the chapter “Brookie Days,” in my book Becoming a Fly Fisher). And so it was for Bob Behnke, PhD, professor emeritus of Fisheries Conservation and Wildlife at Colorado State University in Fort Collins: “A boyhood impression indelibly fixed in my mind is the first trout of my life—a brook trout caught in the Rippowan River in Stamford, Connecticut. The elegant form and total beauty of the 7-inch fish in my hand induced such awe, wonder, and complete fascination that I ran home as fast as I could and placed the little fellow in a basin of water so I could observe the living fish and prolong my ecstasy. Undoubtedly, this imprint learning experience was a strong influence in determining direction in my life.” (From About Trout, by Robert J. Behnke, The Lyons Press, 2007.)
The Rapid River, flowing for eight miles between Lower Richardson Lake and Lake Umbagog in the Rangeley Lakes chain (which drains to the Androscoggin River) near Maine’s northwest border, has been called the best trophy wild brook-trout fishery in the U.S. It has earned its reputation, but what are your chances of taking a 3- to 5-pound brookie there? And when, where, and how should you approach the challenge? I went there to relive my youth and find out.
Some of the world’s largest trout occupy (at least seasonally) rivers that connect, enter, or exit large lakes (the Madison, the other Rangeley Lakes tributaries, and all the Great Lakes tributaries are prime examples). The reason is simple: Large (cold) lakes provide trout with abundant yearlong vertebrate and invertebrate food supplies, as well as coldwater refuges during the heat of summer. The connecting rivers, inlets, and outlets provide spawning grounds, rearing areas, and opportunistic feeding spots for baitfish, young trout, and hatching insects.
According to Whit and Maureen Carter, owners of Lakewood Camps, “It’s the fertile cold water flowing from the Lower Richardson Lake at Middle Dam that creates the Rapid River’s extraordinary trophy brook trout (and landlocked salmon) habitat. Without the relatively cold climate and water, it could not exist.” The lake/river ecosystem is also created by a smelt forage base, which thrives in the lake’s summer thermocline and feeds lake trout, salmon, and brookies to healthy sizes. They interact with the river both seasonally and symbiotically.
Rapid River Tour
The entire eight river miles (about 60 feet wide, except for Pond in the River and Long Pool) is reachable by foot, four-wheel-drive, or boat, and fishing is fly-only, catch-and-release, and barbless hook.
Many of the river’s 13 named pools are partially wadable (seasonally—late spring, summer, and fall, depending on dam water regulation), at least on their edges. But the heavily bouldered bottom, deep center channels, and strong, turbulent flows (falling 1,100 vertical feet in the eight miles) demand strong legs, sturdy wading staffs, and care.
River flows are managed from Middle Dam, and a loud horn announces when water flows will be increased. Flows can range in spring from 1,000 to 1,200 cubic feet per second (cfs) or much higher; summer, as low as 100 but normally a prime 800 to 1,000 cfs; and fall, as low as 100 and as high as 1,000 cfs. (2009 was the wettest, coolest summer on record, and 2010 was the hottest summer, with air temps in the 90s and water temps in the low 70s in August.)
A mile-long carry road follows the right bank downstream from Middle Dam to Pond in the River, and many anglers walk and fish river pockets and turbulent runs from the banks. (Wading is normally too dangerous.) A footpath parallels the river on the left bank, allowing bank dapping and single Spey casting down to Chub Pool, where there is safer wading and popular dry-fly fishing on relatively flat water, especially in the lower flows (before the brookies move into deeper, cooler water for summer) of late spring and fall.
When Rapid water temps reach around 70 degrees F. in July and August, brook trout migrate to Pond in the River seeking a thermal refuge in the deeper water. Fishing is closed there during those months. A quarter-mile brookie spawning stretch of the river from the remnants of Lower Dam to Long Pool is also closed to fishing from Sept. 15 to the end of the season, Sept. 30.
Middle Dam creates one of the most interesting—and easily fished—pools on the river, with three gate/sluices of rich, highly aerated water, and three accompanying seams. Two parallel concrete walkways allow casting or dapping of flies to the (often visible) trout and salmon lying nosed-up to the sluiceway aprons, awaiting drifting food from the dam flow.
According to retired guide and author Jim Krul (A Guide to the Rapid River, available from Lakewood Camps for $12), the pool is populated by large brookies and salmon throughout the late May to Sept. 30 season. The fish are there to feed on abundant aquatic insects and dam-spilled bait. The pool gets fished heavily, but thanks to catch-and-release, barbless-hook regulations, it can withstand fishing pressure.
Fly fishers and guides on the Rapid are polite and rotate pool positions. Limited wading on this pool is available only from the right bank (looking downstream). Throughout the length of the Rapid, landlocked salmon favor the fast whitewater, and brookies favor the slower pool currents.
Harbec Pool, just downstream and around the corner from the dam, is a large semicircular eddy with slow, deep water on its inside, and fast currents favored by salmon along its heavily bouldered and unwadable outside edge.
The Lower Dam Pool (above the old dam), about a mile walk downstream from Middle Dam, provides excellent dry-fly fishing, with long glides where brook trout hold and take a variety of hatching mayflies and caddis throughout the late spring and again in early fall.
Hatches & Timing
According to Bob Dionne (owner of Aardvark Outfitters Fly Shop in Farmington, Maine, and one of three primary guides at Lakewood Camps), the Rapid is at its peak during June, when morning air temps range in the high 40s and climb into the mid to high 60s by late afternoon, with all-day overcast skies creating ideal aquatic-insect hatching and superb dry-fly fishing. The river also has its best fishing flows during this period, allowing brookies and salmon to roam and feed freely throughout the river structure, rather than being confined to deeper pools.
The Alderfly hatches of June into early July provide the most popular dry-fly fishing on the entire Rapid system, and the Rapid River Stimulator and Rapid River Alder (#6-12) are designed to match it.
A rich variety of other hatches include early- and late-season (and occasionally midsummer) Blue-winged Olives, caddis, flying ants, and especially stoneflies. Fishing Stimulator/stonefly or Stimulator/Zebra Midge dropper rigs is deadly on this river. (Dionne says in July and August a large Eastern stonefly appears just at or after dark, drawing explosive rises from the fish.)
Size 22 CDC Emerger BWO imitations can be deadly on selectively feeding large brookies and landlocked Atlantic salmon. They can be fished alone or in a dry/dropper rig, using a small Stimulator or White Wulff ahead of the smaller point fly.
These small imitations provide the most challenging dry-fly fishing of the season for larger brookies and salmon on the Rapid. (Fly Fisherman contributing editor Dave Whitlock says this late-spring fishing is the most challenging and exciting he has ever had for salmon. The guides are the best sources of information on these imitations.)
Also include in your arsenal of flies: #4-8 Black Ghost and Grey Ghost; #4-8 conehead rabbit-strip leeches (black and white); #8 dark dragonfly nymphs; #14-16 green rock worms; #14-20 red or black flying ants; a variety of bead-head stonefly nymphs (#6-12 and larger); and #16-18 Pheasant-tail Nymphs. Drys should also include #18-20 Blue-winged Olives, #16-20 Parachute Adams, and #16-18 Elk-hair Caddis.
You can fish the Rapid by walking a mile, pool hopping, and exploring downriver from Middle Dam to Lower Dam and Pond in the River, or you can have a guide take you by four-wheel-drive vehicle to Pond in the River and fish by boat or wading.
You can also walk to pools 11 through 14 for wade fishing, alone or with guide. (Another option is to troll for lake trout and landlocked salmon on Lower Richardson Lake.) Most of the Rapid’s fishing is by wading, but there is boat fishing as well. (However, most of the upper river cannot be fished by boat.) For inexperienced or frail waders, boat fishing is the best bet, and is productive for dry-fly, nymph, and streamer fishing.
Wade fishing the Rapid is a nonstop adventure demanding one rule: Wade first, set your feet, then fish. It’s well worth the effort, for this river is loaded with fish of all sizes—brook trout up to 5 pounds, landlocked salmon averaging 18 inches, smallmouth bass (see sidebar), and the occasional lake trout. Each stretch of river must be fished in detail, from top to bottom, using techniques that demand a solid knowledge of casting and presentations.
For instance, if your target is landlocked salmon, you should be prepared to fish the fastest, most turbulent water because that is where the salmon lie—unless they are sipping Baetis emergers or chasing caddis pupae or emergers. You should be prepared to fish a heavily weighted stonefly nymph (or Stimulator/stonefly nymph dropper) upstream, making short casts close to the bank and stripping the line fast to keep up with the fly’s drift downstream.
A large strike indicator can make this presentation deadly. Strikes come extremely fast and hook-sets must also be fast. You’ll miss strikes, but when you hook up, be prepared for the most acrobatic fight of your life. The fish are strong, and they have the current to their advantage. You’ll often lose large fish.
Maine’s classic streamers (Black Ghost, Grey Ghost, Nine Three, and Little Brook Trout) are favorites for fishing classic downstream swings, especially in the early season. They can be fished on sinking-tip lines with short 3- to 5-foot leaders and fluorocarbon tippets ranging from 1X to 3X, depending on water type.
Working the bottom of salmon holding water brings jolting strikes, and the salmon are acrobatic dancers, leaping and cartwheeling repeatedly. They are a special experience on the Rapid—icing on the brookie cake.
The Rapid is ideal for a 10- to 11-foot switch rod that can be fished one-handed or two-handed. Spey-casting techniques can save the day here. Many of the banks have steep drop-offs, and there are trees or brush behind; a single Spey cast allows you to reach most of the water without a backcast. (You can also use this cast effectively with a single-handed rod).
The brookies usually lie in the slower water—inside bends, along side channels—and especially can be found while boat fishing or wading and casting drys into the slicks of Long or Lower Dam pools. This is where dry-fly fishing is at its best in June, when hatches pop all day on the Rapid.
Camp records show that five or six anglers per season catch brookies measuring from 24 to 26 inches on the Rapid. Most mature brook trout run from 18 to 21 inches, and weigh from 2 to 3 pounds.
What to Bring
A fast-action 5-weight or 6-weight (single- or two-handed switch rod) with reserve power is right for fishing the Rapid. Weight-forward floating lines allow you to fish drys, large or small nymphs, or dry/dropper rigs, with or without a strike indicator.
The upper Rapid has fast, heavy water; this combined with powerful fish can lead to hard strikes and fights. Include 130-, 200-, and 300-grain integrated heads for fishing streamers (the 200-grain line is balanced for 5-weight rods; a 7- or 8-weight can handle the heavier lines).
Reels should be of high quality, with smooth drags (carefully checked for 2- to 3-pound drag), and at least 100 yards of 20-pound Dacron backing. Bring 9-foot stiff-butt leaders tapered down to 5X. Your tippet spools should include 2X through 6X fluorocarbon and nylon monofilament for a variety of water types, from flat water to rapids, and nymph, streamer, or dry-fly fishing.
Essentials: If you fish in spring or summer, make sure you bring a good supply of DEET insect repellent. Keep it off your fly line and flies, and away from your eyes.
Also bring a stiff wading staff and rubber-sole wading boots with tungsten spikes for the tough Rapid wading. Clean your boots thoroughly—including the laces—with a stiff brush and a 10 percent solution of Clorox before your visit to prevent the spread of aquatic nuisances such as didymo, whirling disease, or New Zealand mud snails. A headlamp is essential for tying on flies in low light or hiking back to camp after dark.
Lakewood Camps offers all the classic Maine brookie and landlocked salmon flies at reasonable prices, including classic trolling flies for the lake, and the special Rapid River Stimulator, a favorite with guides and clients.
Loons laughing night and day are the ululations of wilderness. They laugh a lot here. The camps and lodge (lakewoodcamps.com) are located on the shore of Lower Richardson Lake about 400 yards from Middle Dam. Lakewood Camps describes itself as the oldest continuously operated sporting camp in Maine, dating from 1853. The camp’s black & white photos portray that history, back when Maine was heavily logged, and city sports trolled Carrie Stevens’s streamers (her Grey Ghost and others were originated here) for lake trout—called “togue” in Maine—salmon, and brook trout, and hunted moose and upland birds. The lodge has been owned and operated by the Carter family of Massachusetts for the past decade.
The 12 large wood-frame cabins, which face the lake, are rustic and homey: each with private bathroom, including tubs with hot and cold water and surrounding shower curtains, electricity from 6 A.M. to 9 P.M., and original Franklin wood stoves with seasoned softwood kindling and split hardwood for longer burning. The cabins come equipped with tables and lamps for fly tying, rocking chairs for reading, linens, blankets, and comforters. The long front porches have rod hooks and rocking chairs and are large enough to store waders, boots, and other gear. The windows have screens (important in Maine’s spring bug season). The camps can host up to 40 guests.
The Lakewood main lodge is modern and spaciously open-beamed with long, lake-facing picture windows. Excellent home-cooked American-style morning and evening meals are served with sweet, homemade Maine bread. (Meals can also be served to the cabins for fly fishers who want to fish late into the evening.) Hostess Maureen Carter runs the main lodge and bookings as a tight, friendly ship. Her husband, Whit, runs a similarly tight operation of the lodge’s physical plant, guides, fishing, and transportation. You reach the lodge in a 5-mile scenic run by 30-foot enclosed-cabin boat from the boat launch at the Lower Arm of Lower Richardson Lake, near Andover, Maine. Lakewood Camps is a very friendly operation.
Rates at the camps are: $160/day without guide ($300/day +10% tip for a guide). The Carters can be reached summer/winter at (207) 243-2959.
Will the intrusion of smallmouth bass (no one knows who introduced them) in the last decade to the Rapid system destroy the brook-trout ecology? Maine Inland Fisheries & Wildlife Fishing Division biologist Dave Bushee says ongoing Middle Dam flow-management techniques to disrupt smallmouth spawning and rearing seem to be working. “The smallmouth recruitment is currently in decline and the brook trout recruitment is up. Some of that may be due to recent ideal cool water temperatures that favor brook trout and disfavor smallmouth reproduction, but we are optimistic that our flow-management regimes are working.”
John Randolph is publisher emeritus of Fly Fisherman.