Old fishing spots are in some ways like old girl-friends. It's usually better not to go back because nothing will be as good as you remember it. That's why I had as much trepidation as tackle in the pickup as I made the long drive to extreme southeastern Maine early last September.
It had been more than 40 years since I'd fished the storied smallmouth bass lakes of Washington County. The truck droned along an interstate that didn't exist years ago, and the miles brought memories. Those were family camping trips back then, and my two brothers and I were small enough to fit in the middle of an 18-foot canoe with a parent at either end trying to control the chaos. An abundance of bass and pickerel and the occasional landlocked salmon did little to calm things down.
There would be no leaky canvas tent on this trip. I split my week between two of the region's old-time sporting camps—Weatherby's and Wheaton's Lodge—and in the end, the fishing was not as I remembered it at all. It was better.
Guide Mac Hurd pulled in behind Weatherby's to meet us on our first morning, towing a big square-stern canoe behind his truck. The canoe was a Grand Laker, 20 feet long, beamy enough for comfortable fishing, and sporting a 10-horsepower outboard. It's a style of boat that originated here at the southern end of West Grand Lake in the 1920s.
Grand Lakers are long enough to span the choppy waves on area lakes when the wind kicks up, making for a smooth ride, and yet they are also agile enough to be paddled by a guide through fields of underwater boulders where modern bass boats fear to tread. They're still the craft of choice for Downeast fishermen.
It was a snotty, gray morning, so my wife, Martha, and I readily took Hurd's suggestion of spending the day on a broad, slow section of the nearby St. Croix River that offered some protection from the wind. Most area lakes and streams feed this river system, which eventually forms part of the boundary between Maine and New Brunswick.
We kicked back in thickly padded seats on the canoe's bottom as the boat trailed spray and a long, white wake over the river's black surface. Hurd finally stopped at a narrows marked by underwater rocks the size of small cars, around which the current spilled gently into a big, dark hole. The bigger bass would still be deep, he explained, while rigging a split shot and a lively shiner on Martha's spinning rod. Having heard the drill, I rigged a 3-inch green-pumpkin tube on a ¼-ounce leadhead and checked the drag on my baitcaster.
Within a few seconds, Martha's shiner was skittering across the surface, unsuccessfully trying to escape the big smallmouth hot on its tail. Turning to watch, I missed a violent yank on my own lure as it sank. But the bass or another like it came boiling up next to a rock to inhale the tube as I started to retrieve, and we had a double in short order. It was easy fishing, thanks to Hurd, and huge fun.
Eventually we noticed a bald eagle watching us from a shoreline white pine tree. "He's waiting for us to release a cripple," Hurd said. "Watch this." He quickly rigged a small worm on another rod and just as quickly caught a big chub. Crippling the chub with a whack to its head, he tossed it into the current where it flopped feebly and drifted downriver. The eagle spread its wings and dropped to the fish with a long glide, then disappeared around a bend with its lunch. We broke for lunch, too, and soon heard the joyous bubbling of bass fillets hitting a frying pan full of hot oil over a roaring fire.
We finished the afternoon by drifting slowly back downriver as Martha tossed a small spinning-rod popper toward the bank and I worked a fly-rod bug. Not every cast brought a bass, but we had at least a swirl or a strike for each second or third attempt.
Dinner in Weatherby's dining room was subtly elegant, and we gave glowing reports on the day to Jeff McEvoy and Beth Rankin, the young couple who bought this century-old lodge in 2003. Then Martha and I put our waders on for Act Two. Down a short hill from our cabin, Grand Lake Stream flowed frothing and churning from the outlet dam on West Grand Lake. It hadn't changed since I was a kid, although as I'd gotten bigger the river had somehow gotten smaller. There is still a gorgeous pool below the dam, and in the last light of evening the landlocked salmon were rising. I wound up coaching my wife through hooking a bouncy salmon on a small Rusty Spinner dry and releasing it back into the smooth, clear water of the tailout. The 3-mile stretch of river between West Grand and Big Lake has long been famous for its spring and fall salmon fishing, now to the point of occasional crowding, but enough fish are in the river even in late summer to make an interesting nightcap after you spend a day on the lakes.
The village of Grand Lake Stream has a sporting tradition that stretches back to the horse-and-buggy days. With only a few hundred local residents to draw from, the area's sporting camps have generally been family affairs, each one with a genealogy as complex as the people who ran them. Back around World War II, for example, the late Woodie Wheaton was a legendary guide working out of Weatherby's. In 1951, Wheaton struck out on his own and purchased a camp at East Grand Lake, hard on the New Brunswick border. The business has stayed in the family, and I wanted to check it out. The next morning we followed Woodie's old tracks about an hour's drive to the northeast.
Forest City is a quiet joke. Though there's a small cluster of homes in addition to Wheaton's Lodge near the outlet of East Grand Lake, don't look for a city. I was still smiling at the idea when guide Andy Brooks picked us up at Wheaton's camp after breakfast, his own Grand Laker canoe in tow, and we made the short drive down to Spednic Lake. It was gray and cool with little wind and a persistent, gentle rain—not a bad day for salmon, which might be coming to the surface again in the cooling fall weather. Brooks started us out trolling streamers with fly rods and floating lines.
The gentle putt-putt of the outboard was hypnotic, all the more so after a big breakfast, and I was half asleep when I saw a surface swirl in the distance. Eyes wide open now, I saw a second swirl near the first. "Say, Andy, it looks like some fish breaking over—" A violent yank on my line interrupted, and I happily watched a fat land-locked salmon leap end-over-end in the air as it felt the hook. After a couple of hard runs and the usual wild thrashing near the boat, an 18-inch fish came to net. "That's lunch," Brooks announced. We passed the morning catching and releasing more salmon, although none larger than the first, which Brooks eventually split and set to grill before a blazing noon fire that was especially welcome in the rain.
There was cowboy coffee (its grounds settled by adding an egg), onions, and potatoes, all topped off by fresh apple pie from the camp kitchen. Brooks cooked, ate, and cleaned with the skill of long experience, and one of the best meals I can remember was over too soon.
Back on the water, Brooks asked what we might like to do next. I said I'd like to catch one of everything, knowing there were bass, pickerel, lake trout, and white perch as well as other fish in this lake. "Anyway, Andy, every guide loves a challenge, right?" I said, with an evil grin. But he rose to the occasion, as did the first bass, which we had within five minutes. Catching a pickerel took another 15 minutes, and between the two, I managed a small yellow perch.
Meanwhile, we could still see salmon swirling occasionally in the lake's open water. The swirls were so compelling that we gave up on the excellent bass fishing and went back to trolling. We had a slow pick of fish through an afternoon spent changing flies and twitching rod tips to entice strikes from salmon that were feeding on juvenile smelt.
All the while I marveled at how few summer camps marred the shoreline of this long, generally pristine lake. Brooks explained that a local land-conservation organization—the Woodie Wheaton Land Trust—had just finished locking up the rights to most of the lake's developable shoreline. The lake will remain as it is today, which is very good news for both fish and fishermen. Similar projects are under way on other area lakes, often through the Downeast Lakes Land Trust (downeastlakes.org), with which Jeff McEvoy at Weatherby's is also actively involved. In the long run, area residents, lodge owners, guides, and visiting sportsmen will all benefit enormously.
Back at Wheaton's, we stepped into our lakeshore cabin to find that someone had thoughtfully started the woodstove. We draped our soggy rain gear over chairs near the heat, took turns with a hot shower, and made ready for battle with yet another generous dinner in the lodge's dining room.
Dale Wheaton, one of Woodie's sons who now owns the lodge with his wife Jana, was making the table rounds over dinner. He's a consummate guide and angler—one of the best I've ever fished with—with a rapier-like sense of humor. Unless you listen very carefully, you're apt to get zinged and never know it. He also wrote a small, wickedly funny book, Observations From the Stern, about a lifetime of guides and guiding. I'd picked up a copy, so when he made it to our table I was ready for a little revenge.
"You know, Dale," I said, straight-faced. "Martha had a terrible time sleeping last night."
"Really?" His face wrinkled in concern.
"Yes," I said, all the while gently setting the hook. "So I gave her a copy of your book."
Wheaton raised his eyebrows, furthering the question.
"Worked like a charm," I said. He just about tipped his chair over laughing. The evening pie was pretty good, too.
When fishing with a Maine guide, stories are part of the experience. One of my favorites was told by veteran guide Mac Hurd as he steered his Grand Laker canoe to a remote lunch spot with a picnic table on the St. Croix flowage.
"That table has some history to it," he said, smiling. "I was guiding a couple from down below one day, and I'd started fixing the noon meal. I set three places at the table. Then the lady announced that she had a problem. So I asked what it was, and she allowed as how she wasn't accustomed to eating with the help.
"'Well, that's fine,' I told her, and started moving their plates and things down to some boulders near the water.
"'I don't understand. What are you doing?' she asked with a puzzled look.
"'Lady,' I said,' I carted the lumber in here for that picnic table, and I built it myself, and I am, by God, gonna eat my lunch on it. Where you eat your lunch is up to you.'" Hurd said, laughing. It was a quintessential Maine moment. —JOHN MERWIN
Fly to Bangor, Maine, which is the closest major airport to both Wheaton's and Weatherby's. By car, Bangor is about three hours from Boston and seven from New York City. Take Interstate 95 north from Bangor to Lincoln (exit 55), then take State Route 6, 40 miles east to Topsfield. To reach Weatherby's, take U.S. 1 south from Topsfield about 16 miles to Grand Lake Stream Road. Turn right and go 10 more miles. To reach Wheaton's, turn left (north) on U.S. 1 at Topsfield, and drive 8 miles to Brookton, where you turn right on Forest City Road for another 12 miles to Forest City and the lodge.
Lodging and Guides
Both lodges have very reasonable day rates that include lodging, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Neither has a bar (bring your own), although Weatherby's did have some wine available at dinner (at additional cost). Accommodations are in small, comfortable cabins (with baths), and meals are served in a central dining room. Rates per person per day are $127 at Weatherby's (207-796-5558; weatherbys.com) and $105 at Wheaton's (207-448-7723; wheatonslodge.com). Guided fishing from either lodge is a fantastic bargain at about $170 per day for two people. This includes boat, motor, and gas, along with a traditional shore lunch. Reservations are essential because prime months fill early.
Tackle and Fishing
Landlocked salmon fishing in the lakes starts at ice-out, usually in early May, and near-surface action typically continues through early June. It picks up again with cooling surface waters in September. Bass fishing extends from mid-May through September and follows the typical northern pattern: topwater action in June, working deeper for fish in July and August, and some resurgence of shallow-water action in the fall. Grand Lake Stream, an easy walk from Weatherby's, has a special catch-and-release season for fall-running salmon (flyfishing only) October 1–20.
Flyfishermen can use a 9-foot, 8-weight outfit for both salmon trolling and casting for bass. Bring a 6-weight for stream fishing. Spinfishermen can cover all the bases with a medium-weight outfit spooled with 8-pound-test monofilament. A quality rain-suit is a must, as is insect repellent in late spring. —John Merwin