The Brookies of Summer
Brook trout run wild in Maine's pristine waters.
Show any trout fisherman a wild brook trout of 3 pounds or more and he’ll immediately ask where it came from and wonder if he can afford to go fish there himself. That’s because big, red-bellied, wild brook trout of the size measured in pounds instead of inches are dream fish. They have become so rare in the United States that most people think you have to spend a lot of money and go to a fly-in lodge in Canada to catch them.
Not so. Big wild brookies are still caught regularly in northern Maine where more than 400 accessible lakes and ponds boast wild brook trout populations that have never been compromised by the addition of hatchery fish. These lakes and ponds regularly produce outsize brookies-if you know how to fish them. The key to taking the biggest Maine brookies around the dog days is to locate the cool springs close to reliable food sources that attract big brookies at this time of year. Few understand this better than Jack McPhee, a Maine guide, bush pilot, and operator of Macannamac Sporting Camp on Haymock Lake in northern Maine. He commonly catches 3- to 5-pound wild brookies in the heat of summer, when most good fishermen catch few trout over 12 inches.
“A big trout is a boss trout,” McPhee says. “It’s bigger, so it gets its choice of places. If you know where the choicest places are, you’ll find the biggest trout.”
McPhee looks for spring holes located in relatively shallow water, say 20 feet or less. At that depth enough sunlight reaches the bottom to sustain an abundant growth of aquatic weeds that attract a plentiful supply of aquatic insects and small baitfish, and the water is cool enough to keep trout feeding actively. McPhee carries a battery-operated Lowrance fishing thermometer to help him find the 55-degree water at which brook trout feed most actively. It’s a device that weighs about 1 pound and has a long cable marked in feet. He attaches a 1-ounce sinker to the end of the cable, lowers it slowly overboard, and watches the temperature gauge. When it reads 55 degrees, he looks at the number printed on the cable; from that he can tell the depth where the active zone begins.
He also carries a portable, battery-operated depthfinder so that he can study the contours of the bottom. He keeps canoes stashed on lakes all over the north country where he knows the precise location of spring holes that attract the biggest trout.
Precise is the key word here. Often these holes are no bigger than a pickup truck. To find these perfect spots, McPhee crisscrosses a cool-water area in a canoe, taking temperature and depth readings until he finds the exact place where the cold water enters. Then, before he begins casting, he rests the hole just long enough so any fish that spooked when he initially paddled over the hole resume normal activity. I have fished with McPhee on several occasions when the spring holes paid off. Once we hooked and released a half dozen brookies that ran from 2 to just under 5 pounds. Late on one otherwise fishless summer afternoon last year, McPhee and his brother-in-law caught two brookies on two successive casts in a remote forest pond. One trout weighed 33/4 pounds; the other weighed 43/4 pounds.
Once you locate the fish, you also need to employ the proper tactics. McPhee has perfected a method for fishing spring holes that works not only on big brook trout, but on all other types of coldwater gamefish as well.
“You have to entice them,” he says. “Put a tasty-looking morsel right in front of them, at their level. Don’t expect them to move much to take it. They’ll often eat something that’s easy even when they refuse anything they have to chase.”
To reach the fish’s level, McPhee uses a sinking fly line. He lets it sink until he pulls up weeds, then shortens the sink time until the fly or bait comes back clean. “You want your fly or baiit to be just above the weed tops,” he says.
At this point he employs an unusual technique. He plunges his fly rod at a steep angle into the water before he begins the retrieve.
“Looks weird fishing with your rod stuck underwater like that,” I said when I first saw McPhee shove a $600 8-weight rod into the water almost up to the cork grip, then start stripping line.
“Takes the belly out of the sinking line,” he explained. “With my rod underwater I’m pulling the line straight. And when a fish hits I’m striking against the fish instead of against the sag in the heavy line.” Where bait is permitted, McPhee uses a fresh, dead, 2-inch shiner or minnow. He rigs it with a rod’s length of 6-pound-test leader attached to a tiny barrel swivel tied in about 12 inches above a No. 4 bait hook. He runs the hook through the minnow’s mouth and out the gill, then hooks it back through the shoulder so the minnow is slightly twisted. When retrieved slowly, the minnow spins in a manner so enticing that few big trout can resist its passage at their eye level. The swivel keeps the leader from twisting during the retrieve.
There is a trick to casting such a delicate bait on a sinking line without whipping the minnow off. You have to keep the bait on the surface as you power the rod and then sort of sling it softly, letting the flexed rod do the work.
McPhee’s method for catching big brook trout in the summer season does not guarantee big fish every time, but his success rate is higher than anyone else’s I know. His record proves that you don’t have to travel north of the border to catch major-league wild brook trout.