Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Out in the Williwags

John McPhee writes that a bush pilot once described the Maine back country to him as being “out in the williwags,” adding that a williwag “is a place so remote that it can reached only by first going through a boondock.”

I always associate fishing with a summer visit to a small lake in southern Maine.  Usually this means tossing various jigs and lures from our pier here on Sabbathday Lake.  There are some pretty good size bass in this lake, and I have watched anglers slowly trolling for trout.  I have also explored the shoreline with my fly rod, throwing nymphs and small poppers along the edge of the weedbeds, and I have brought to hand some respectable bass and bluegills.  But most of what I catch are the little guys you would throw back anyway; nothing big enough to tempt one to keep it for the frying pan.  Occasionally I have loaded my gear into the rowboat or canoe and made my way across the lake to fish deeper water around some downed trees along the shore line.  It was a pretty good place to catch fish until the winter ice gradually scoured away all that wonderful structure.  The fishing can be slow and tedious most days and I will end up spending a few minutes tossing a line out in the mornings, and again in the evenings near sunset, satisfying myself that nothing of consequence is biting and call it a day.   

My fishing in Maine through the years has occasionally included visits to other waters; fishing for bluefish and stripers (we call them rockfish back home in Maryland) in Casco Bay off Bailey Island; off the rocks along the Lubec Channel which constitutes the international boundary separating Maine from Canada’s Campobello Island; and jigging for mackerel off the municipal wharf, in Eastport.  Yet one particular outing sticks in my memory for it involved a pond literally teeming with native brook trout (brookies or specks in the local lingo).  I am not talking about the more pedestrian bass and panfish found in my home waters in southern Maine; this was a trout pond in every sense of the word.  Unfortunately for you (but fortunate for me and the few others that might know about this pond), I am sworn to secrecy and so I can’t tell you exactly where it is or how to find it.  Frankly, without a good topographic map or a GPS device, I seriously doubt I could find it again myself.  But I can tantalize you with the more salient details of my outing.  You will just have to be satisfied with that. 

This particular fishing adventure was launched one summer while my wife and I were spending a vacation here at the True’s Point cottage, on Sabbathday Lake.  During that time we had an opportunity to visit our friends Bruce Guernsey* and Victoria Woollen-Danner who have a summer place about an hour north of here, in Bethel, Maine.  Sally Ann and Victoria are both artists and jewelers, so while they drifted off to talk shop, Bruce and I, as is our want, discussed the state of modern poetry and fly-fishing.  Bruce had been after me to go fishing with him and so we finally made plans to meet later in the fall before he and Victoria headed home to central Illinois for the winter.  The plan was to float the Androscoggin River as it flows past Bethel in the mountains of western Maine.

We returned to Maryland in late August while Bruce and I agreed to meet again in October during my annual autumn trip to the Connecticut Lakes region in far northern New Hampshire.  When I arrived at Tall Timber Lodge a few months later, I contacted Bruce to arrange our outing.  Unfortunately there had been quite a lot of rain and so the fishing was less than ideal along the Androscoggin.  We had to make quick, alternative plans.  Bruce invited me down to Bethel regardless, for some good eating and drinking and we would figure something out.  One can always find a place to fish.

The next day I drove south, passing Lake Umbagog and over Grafton Notch, arriving in Bethel shortly before noon.  In the meantime Bruce had come up with a plan and so I quickly loaded my gear into his rig while he attached the trailer with his beautiful antique wooden fishing boat.  Wherever we were going to fish, and Bruce definitely had a place in mind, we were going to be fishing in style.  Soon we were heading out of Bethel on a road to that secret place I was telling you about.  We stopped in a small village along the way and stocked up on sodas and sandwiches before leaving the macadam highway and heading deep into the puckerbush.

After a few miles of unimproved gravel road we shunted onto an even more primitive  logging road as we bounced and tossed about as Bruce navigated back and forth over deep ruts and oversized rocks.  We steadily gained elevation as we ticked off miles driving deeper into the williwags of western Maine.  Bruce assured me he knew where we were going, and since I was raised to always give a friend the benefit of the doubt, I stared out the window at the autumn foliage and tried to stay firmly in my seat.  “I think we are almost there,” he affirmed.  “We are getting close.”  I asked Bruce if he had ever fished this spot before.  “No,” he confessed.  “I have never been here before.”  OK, I thought.  Benefit of the doubt time.

After a couple more miles we turned into an overgrown two-track terminating at a small,  primitive cabin.  Just beyond it was a pristine circular pond, its dark waters cupped in a shaded hollow of a gradually sloping hillside covered with birch and maple in their glorious autumnal colors.  The beauty of this spot alone was worth the jolting ride we had just completed.  We parked and walked out on the rickety pier extending several feet into the pond to survey the water.  We stood slack jawed as we watched with wonder in our eyes as native brook trout rose to dimple the surface in every direction.  Lots of them!  These were not large trout, certainly not anything that would take your line into the backing.  “Nice fish,” I said as I took a deep breath.  “Yeah,” Bruce grinned.  “And we are going to catch a lot of them today!”

We were anxious to get on the water as we tried to figure out how we might best maneuver the trailer close enough to the water to launch the boat.  Frankly, we could have cast to so many fish by simply standing on the pier, but since we dragged the boat this far, we were going to launch it to insure that we covered ever inch of this honey hole.  Once the boat was afloat (an adventure in itself), we strung our rods and stowed our gear and we were soon cajoling it into the middle of the pond while casting our bugs in every possible direction.
As each small fly gently alighted on the pond’s surface film, the nearby water bulged and roiled as the fly disappeared in a discreet slurp. Lines tightened and reels clicked as rod tips dipped and gracefully followed the flashes of color as they zig-zagged across the surface before dimming into the pond’s depths.  Fishing evokes some kind of primitive joyfulness.  Making a connection - one life to another life.  A passion that never abates.  Craig Mathews describes a wild trout as “total innocence.”   This is Man vs. trout regardless of size.  With a gentle effort we guided each trout back to the surface and into a waiting net.  Actually, these trout were small enough that we really did not need a net unless we were trying to preserve the allusion of bigger fish.  Their size is nothing to brag about but they were the food of dreams.  The size of the fish was not really important in the grand scheme of things.  It is the natural beauty of the fish, and the artistry in how it was attracted to the fly and captured.  This is all that really counts.  We admired the golden copper bellies of each fish caught, their greenish black flanks covered in blue and yellow rondels, before releasing it back into its secret watery lair.  Bruce was right.  We caught a lot of fine fish that afternoon.  One could almost compare it to the proverbial shooting fish in a barrel although we both wanted to think that our efforts were not quite so prosaic, that a certain degree of proficiency and skill came into play.
Being October, the afternoon was unfortunately far too short and we had to allow time to finesse the boat back onto the trailer and make our way back down that bone-jarring tote road before it got too dark to see what we were doing.  We made it back to Bethel in good order and I was treated to the wonderful dinner and drink Bruce had promised while Victoria was polite in listening to our raves about the day’s fishing as we talked about repeating the adventure the following day.  There is something about having that secret place all to ourselves, that special fishing hole deep in the williwags and far from the maddening crowd.  I spent the night and dreamed of that pond and all those little brookies.
The following morning we arose to dark gray skies and a steady drizzle.  Over coffee we decided that a return to that pond would probably not be the wisest idea and instead I followed Bruce and his boat back over Grafton Notch and to Davis Landing, on the south end of Lake Umbagog, in New Hampshire.  The rain stopped by the time we arrived and we had a much easier time launching the boat.  Unfortunately, however,  
the wind was gusting and we found it difficult casting.  We gave it our best shot but it was just not a good day for fly fishing.

We loaded the boat back on the trailer and called it a day.  Bruce returned home to Bethel and I headed back to the lodge and some more good fishing on the upper Connecticut River.  We promised we would return to that secret pond one of these days hoping to replicate that special afternoon.  It hasn’t happened yet, but the pond is still there and Bruce, who has been back there without me, assures me that the fish are awaiting our return.   Soon.
*   Bruce Guernsey is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Eastern Illinois University.  His essay, “A Line in Still-Cold Water.” was recently published in Astream: American Writers on Fly Fishing. Edited by Robert DeMott.  New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2012.

1 comment:

  1. Its nice to go fishing sometimes with nobody around. It gives the feeling like its your very own lake.