We knew it was on with the first cast. Two brook trout came out of the water to flip, flop, and fight for the fly—a violent double strike that broke the stillness of a deep-woods Maine pond. I brought the winning fish to the boat quickly, to try to stifle the disturbance, leading the trout toward the stern of the canoe. Jason Bouchard, a registered Maine guide for 25 years, slipped the hot pink Royal Wulff from its jaws without lifting the fish from the water.
In the next 40 minutes, I landed 13 brook trout, lost two under the canoe, and suffered a handful of missed strikes. All before breakfast. Paddling back to Bouchard’s lodge at Fourth Musquacook Lake, I shook my head. “I could do this all day,” I said.
“That’s the plan,” Bouchard said. Ah, yes. The plan.
Spring to Action
Here’s my theory: In the calculus of good fishing days and poor ones, the slow days function as something of a savings account. In the lean times, we pile up the capital of should-have-been-here-yesterdays in a fund that will pay out a future windfall of unforgettable catches. Fishless evenings during the peak of the hatch, the days when your pals stack limits in the cooler but you can’t buy a bite—we shove them in that savings account, hoping that the fish bank one day returns a healthy dividend.
I’d come to Maine to cash out and catch a bit of lightning in a bottle: For a few dog-day summer weeks, brook trout in the North Maine Woods seek refuge around the cool subsurface springs that feed the state’s famed wilderness ponds. A single spring might draw 100 brook trout piled up like pickup sticks around the spring’s vent. The fishing can be legendary. The location of these spring holes is a hoarded secret, not only because of the crazy fishing, but because spring holes are as mercurial as Maine weather. They can remain in place for generations, or they can disappear and appear overnight. Bouchard knows it pays to have options. He has 27 canoes stashed at ponds around the North Woods.
“Actually, there are 28,” he told me, laughing. “I can’t remember where we hid one of them.” He found our pre-breakfast spring hole on his lodge pond just a few weeks ago. He marked it with a stick, but already the spring had shifted location.
Late July is typically the hot, sunny peak of spring-hole fishing, but I showed up on the heels of a week of fickle weather with lows in the 40s and 5 inches of cold rain—not the conditions that prompt trout to seek a break from the heat. The easy pickings at the Breakfast Hole were a tease. After that, the bite clamped down, and we had to work for nearly every fish.
These brook trout waters can be difficult to access, but we drove, hiked, and paddled our way from pond to pond. At Little Pleasant Pond, we fished four spring holes with no takers, despite bluewing olives death-spiraling all around us. At another narrow pond, we fished four more holes. I missed one strike and landed nothing. Next we drove 2 miles on a four-wheel-drive track, fording flooded narrow brooks, then hiked through dark woods littered with old trucks and rusting bedframes—the remnants of an old logging camp swallowed by 3 million acres of woods. It’s a secret and treasured spot. It gave up not a single fish.
I tried my best not to be ungrateful. It wasn’t like I was skunked. At one pond, I pulled 23 small brook trout from a single spring. Not a one was better than 7 inches, but they’re like potato chips: not the main course, but I’ll eat till the bowl is empty. And bite-size servings of Maine’s brook trout bounty was all I could produce anyway. We rummaged through the big woods for two days of fishing, and while we were catching, it was nothing like that first morning at the Breakfast Hole, nothing like I’d read and dreamed of; too cold, too much rain, and water that was too murky. We’ve all been there. And we all forget about the fish bank.
Striking It Rich
It was our last-ditch effort—the last spring hole and our last sunset of the trip—and we’d spotted the water dimpling against the bank from halfway across the pond. I caught the first trout on a Stimulator, and the bite never slackened. Fish after fish, cast after cast. A 12-inch brook trout…14 inches…15 inches. I led each fish to Bouchard, who released each brookie, then checked my fly. We worked in tandem, racing the sun. Even when I could barely see the fly on the water, the fish kept eating—gorgeous brook trout that smacked the fly so hard I set the hook when I heard the gulp. Ten brookies, now 15. Twenty. It never slowed down.
When Bouchard took a few moments to deal with a particularly ornery brook trout, it was a welcome chance to catch my breath and drink it all in. Loons cried from the far bank. I could see the dark bulk of a moose moving through the shallows. A lane of moonlight on the pond was so bright it made me squint. When Bouchard released the trout and my fly, he muttered a quick “good to go” almost as an apology for holding me up. I obliged with another cast toward the spring hole, just 20 feet from the boat. Twenty-five fish, now, from a single spot. One went better than 3 pounds, and still there were more, each one a wild trout, the heritage-strain brookies for which remote Maine ponds are famous, pure as the deep ice of a glacier.
In the dark, Bouchard pleaded for me to appreciate the moment. “It’s not always like this,” the Maine guide said. “Please understand: It’s not always like this.”
TIP OF THE MONTH: Gentle Touch
A splashy presentation with line slapping the water will put down wary fish, whether they’re spring-hole trout or pond bluegills. To control the line so it rolls out above the water and drops the fly as soft as a kiss, keep the casting stroke horizontal, and not aimed downward at your target. And remember to stop the rod tip at eye level and let the fly line straighten before dropping the tip. —T.E.N.