RAPID RIVER PRIMER
August 28, 2014
It is hard to imagine what it was like walking along Carry Road in the dead of winter, especially during the winters of the late 1930s and early 1940s when Louise Dickinson Rich wrote her chronicle of life in rural Maine, We Took to the Woods. But during the spring, summer, and fall, Maine is magic for fly fishers, and the Rapid River is the epitome of that experience. The Rapid is perhaps the best river in the United States to catch 3- to 5-pound brook trout, and it is also considered one of the top rivers in Maine to fish for landlocked Atlantic salmon that average from 16 to 18 inches but can be as big as 5 pounds.
The Rapid River is part of the Androscoggin River system. Not counting the big pool at the Upper Dam, the river flows approximately 31/2 miles to the inlet of Lake Umbagog and gets its name because of its steep drop (about 40 feet per mile). The Androscoggin River (see sidebar) begins as the outflow of Lake Umbagog and twists and turns its way through New Hampshire and back into Maine near Bethel, before joining the Kennebec River. As part of the Androscoggin River system, the Rapid played a crucial role carrying logs from the Richardson and Mooselookmeguntic areas to the Androscoggin and ultimately to the paper mills in New Hampshire and Maine.
Protected and managed by the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust, the Rapid River is accessible to all but requires some hiking, boat travel, or biking to reach the water. This difficult access helps preserve the quality of the experience. The river has three distinct areas: Upper Dam, Middle Dam, and Lower Dam. Where to Fish Upper Dam. While some don't consider it part of the Rapid River, Upper Dam Pool between Lake Moose lookmeguntic and Upper Richardson Lake is worth the approximately half-mile walk from the gate on Upper Dam Road off of Route 16.
On your hike, you'll travel in the steps of Carrie Stevens (1882-1970) who lived at Camp Midway, near the dam, with her husband Wallace and created the Gray Ghost, Carrie's Special, and other Rangeley Lakes flies. While Carrie Stevens's house is privately owned, you can still view it from a distance. The brook trout and landlocked Atlantic salmon in Upper Dam Pool take traditional streamers as well as some local favorites like the Brown Owl. The bigger fish often hold in deep water, so fish streamers on sinking-tip or full-sinking lines with 3- to 4-foot leaders tapered to 3X. Middle Dam.
The stretch between Middle Dam below Lower Richardson Lake and Pond in the River is dominated by pocketwater. A road over the river at Middle Dam provides access to the south side of the river, where there is a well-worn trail. Pheasant-tail bead-heads (#12-18), large black and golden stonefly imitations (#2-4), and Hare's Ears (#12-16) work well for trout and salmon in this stretch. Swinging streamers such as #4 to #10 Brown Owls and Hornbergs or #8 to #10 Muddlers and Conehead Woolly Buggers through the deeper pockets is also effective. Appproximately a half-mile downstream from Middle Dam is Pond in the River, 512 acres of river backed up from Lower Dam. According to Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Biologist Dave Boucher, Pond in the River "provides important habitat for certain life stages of Rapid River trout. Pond in the River provides a thermal refuge for adult brook trout during the hottest part of the summer (July through early September).
The pond also serves as a major over-wintering area for Rapid River's adult trout." Anglers can access Pond in the River by Carry Road on the north side of the Rapid, but Carry Road is mostly used to hike around the pond to get to the more productive water below Lower Dam down to Umbagog Lake. Lower Dam. This area is where Louise Dickensin Rich lived and wrote. The Summer and Winter houses still sit on the banks just downstream of Pond in the River. The Summer House is now the headquarters for Aldro French's Rapid River Fly Fishing (see sidebar.) Most of the fishing on the Rapid takes place in the approximately 21/2 miles of pockets and pools between Lower Dam and Lake Umbagog. This area is not as accessible or as well known as Middle Dam, so there is less fishing pressure.
The brook trout grow as big or bigger here, and the salmon are as plentiful. Like the rest of the river, pocketwater dominates this stretch, but some pools hold big brookies and salmon. Big brook trout and salmon prowl the flats of Pond in the River just above Lower Dam feeding on emerging insects and baitfish. Stalking a big brook trout feeding on emergers in the early morning and evening is a heart-stopping experience. Wading carefully so you don't push too much water is a key to success on this calm water. Even when everything goes well, you may only have one opportunity to put the fly in the right place. The flats lead to the old lake channel that fed the dam, which is now just a minor obstruction (more of a small waterfall) to the downstream path of the Rapid. Blue-winged Olives, caddis, and Light Cahills hatch here during the early morning and evening from about early June through early July. I carry a large selection of gray, olive, and brown Klinkhamers (#14-20) as well as some Elk-hair Caddis (#14-18) to cover these hatches.
The big fish leave the flats to seek deeper water as the sun rises higher in the sky. The pace of the river picks up as it nears the dam, but the small pools and pocketwater around the old dam remnants (rock pilings and dam bottom structure) also hold fish. The structure of the old dam house, an icon of the river, was removed during summer 2005. Brook trout, some in the 5- to 7-pound range, swim in the pool below the dam. They are hard to fool, but if you fish before first light with 6-inch-long sucker imitations such as weighted white or gray Double Bunnies or Matukas tied on #1/0, extra-long-shank hooks, you can sometimes catch one of them. Anglers consistently catch trout and salmon in the fast water on the north side and downstream of Lower Dam by drifting nymphs along the current seam.
It is also worthwhile to drift a soft hackle out in the current and then lift it as it swings downstream like an emerger struggling to the surface.Approximately 11/2 miles below Lower Dam, Smooth Ledge provides a class III rapid for kayakers and an excellent run worth nymphing. Shortly after, another rapid called S-Turn, has some moderate-size rock pools and holes in the fast water. Wading can be treacherous here, but careful going and a wading staff can get you to some great fishing. Also, don't overlook the pockets along the shoreline.The final set of rapids, known to kayakers as the Devil's Hopyard, has more pockets to pick. Any of these rapids have ample resting and ambush areas for the salmon and trout. Upstream from the wide, slow area where the Rapid enters Umbagog, a terrific pool holds some big brook trout. Hatches are iffy, but the brookies are always willing to hit streamers fished deep. Between Lower Dam and Umbagog, look for insects hatching on the quieter water. Fish hold in the cushion in front of the many boulders and in the quiet water behind the rocks. Swinging a streamer or soft hackle in front of a boulder can bring violent strikes. Through the Seasons Spring and fall are the best times to fish for both salmon and brook trout. Salmon are more likely to move into the Rapid during periods of higher water after releases or rainstorms. High water in May can make the salmon active in the river. For the latest water-release schedule call (800) 557-3569 or visit www.americanwhitewater.org/.
The Rapid doesn't begin to fish well until the water warms a little from the cold Maine winter. Suckers spawn around mid-May, and Rapid River brook trout and salmon actively feed behind them. Purple and black Egg-sucking Leeches (#4-6) can be effective this time of year. Orange egg patterns (#10) with a red blood spot are also effective. I fish these on an indicator to help see subtle takes and drift my fly anywhere I think there are spawning suckers. Hendricksons (#12-14) begin hatching mid May and Blue-winged Olives (#18) in early June. Big brookies cruise the flats of Lower Richardson, Pond in the River, and the water just before the Rapid enters Umbagog looking for emergers and adults. To catch these fish, you often need 12-foot leaders with at least 2 to 3 feet of 6X tippet (it's difficult to play these fish on anything lighter). Rabbit-foot emergers, flush-floating CDC patterns, and sparsely tied, low-riding dun patterns work well for these spooky fish.
The next best time to fish the Rapid is between the first week of September until the season closes on September 30. Streamers catch trout feeding heavily before winter. Olive and black Woolly Buggers, Brown Owls, Hornbergs, and Mickey Finns in sizes 8 to 12 are worth a try. Regulations There is a one-fish daily bag limit for trout and salmon for Upper Dam Pool. It's fly-fishing-only, and trout have to be at least 12 inches and the salmon have to be at least 18 inches. From Middle Dam to Lake Umbagog, the Rapid is catch-and-release for all trout, and the limit is two landlocked salmon over 12 inches. There are no limits on bass. Access On your trip to the Rapid, a Maine Atlas and Gazetteer is essential. There are many ways to get to the different stretches of river and you need a detailed map.
To reach Upper Dam, take Route 16 east from Errol, New Hampshire, through Wilson's Mills. About 61/2 miles from Wilson's Mills you'll see Upper Dam Road on the right. Follow the road to the gate. It is about a half-mile walk from the gate. To reach Middle Dam and Lower Dam, follow Route 26 south from Errol, New Hampshire, for about 13/4 miles after the Maine border. Turn left on East B Hill Road. Follow East B Hill Road approximately 2 miles to the gate on the left. Turn left and go 9 miles on the dirt road to the trailhead that leads to Lower Dam and Pond in the River. To reach the area just upstream from the inlet at Lake Umbagog, continue on the loop another 41/2 miles and turn right. The trailhead is beside the camp. These access points put you on the opposite (east) side of the river from Carry Road. Reaching Carry Road requires wading the river at Lower Dam, which you can do under most conditions except in high water.
You can also reach Carry Road by water from the public launch at South Arm on Lower Richardson or by shuttle, which is offered by South Arm Campground or with your lodging at Lakewood Camps (see camping sidebar). Another way to reach Carry Road is to drive into the gate at Middle Dam and bike around Lower Richardson to Middle Dam. You can bike Carry Road, accessing the lower Rapid from several trails that lead off of the road. Finally, you can reach Middle Dam and Carry Road from Route 16 east of Wilson's Mills via Fish Pond Road. It is over a mile from the gate to Middle Dam. David Shirley teaches at New England College. He lives in Cape Neddick, Maine.