Our third and final day broke with overcast skies that threatened rain. So we loaded our gear into rucksacks, threw them into the back of Rick's truck, and hit the road.
Northern Maine has few paved roads, yet is laced with private logging roads. They range from gravel highways like the fabled Golden Road north of Moosehead Lake to dirt two-tracks that require a four-wheel drive with good ground clearance. The North Maine Woods alone has 3,000 miles of permanent gravel roads, and thousands more that are not maintained. It takes time and a good map to learn them, but it's worth it. They lead to endless backwoods hunting and fishing opportunities.
Rick drove us down a series of logging roads that became progressively smaller and rougher until we came to an old log landing at the end of spur road. From there we proceeded on foot on an unmarked trail that took us over a low ridge and down to a small, irregularly shaped pond that covered no more than 20 acres.
It was wild and scenic and completely undisturbed, with huge white pines towering above its shore and delicate water lilies sprouting in its shallows. But what made it truly special, Jeff told me, was its regulatory classification: S-18.
Maine seldom employs catch-and-release regulations outside of the fall spawning period. Instead, it protects and promotes high-quality trout fisheries through special daily creel limits and minimum-size regulations. The most restrictive is S-18, which is code for one fish, 18 inches or longer. According to Jeff, it is only enacted on ponds that have shown they are capable of producing brook trout larger than 18 inches. Which is very big trout.
As we dragged two stashed canoes to the water's edge, Rick told me that if you wanted to catch a lot of trout, this wasn't the pond. But if you had your heart set on a trophy-size brookie weighing more than three pounds, you had as good a chance here as anywhere in the East. I told him to count me in.
Nothing was showing on the surface, so we paddled out to the deepest portion of the pond. Using sinking lines, we plied the depths with an assortment of streamers and Woolly Buggers. A gusting wind made control of the canoes difficult, however, even when anchored. After about two hours, we had only caught a few trout, which, while nice fish, were not the size we were hoping for.
The wind steadily built, the sky darkened, and soon lightning was flickering beyond the low ridge on the pond's western shore. Jeff and Greg sensibly paddled back to our launching point, but Greg and I lingered even as a cold rain began falling. The rain, he told me, might turn the fish on.
It was then that I finally asked him about his hat. It was embroidered with "Semper Doodle" and what looked like bass bug with a red body and a deer-hair shellback clipped short in the front.
The hat, he explained, was in honor of his favorite fly: the Doodle Bug. Like the Black Ghost, it is a Maine original, albeit a more obscure one. But my question inspired Rick.
Now, he told me, might be a good time to try a Doodle Bug. So I switched to a floating line and tied on one of the buggy, buoyant flies. Rick suggested I cast it out and steadily strip it back, so that it created a discernable V-shaped wake.
Two casts later, not even the wind and rain could conceal the boil of a good trout, and I was immediately tight to what proved to be a football-fat 13-incher. Three more casts and I had another good trout on. By now we were soaked, so we headed to shore for the hike back to the truck. The two trout, however, were the perfect capstone to my trip, because they left me wanting to come back for more--this time with a supply of Doodle Bugs.
But as Jeff later told me, there is no guarantee that I will find the enchanting little pond in the same condition in future years. Of the more than 550 lakes and ponds in Maine that have been identified as having either "native" or "wild" trout populations, only about half have some kind of conservation protection on their shorelines. The rest are on private land that can be developed, including the idyllic pond we had just fished.
Northern Maine is the largest undeveloped forested landscape east of the Mississippi. It covers more than 10 million acres and is home to a year-round population of only about 15,000 people. Yet it is a landscape that more than ever is threatened by changes in land ownership, Jeff said--changes that might result in either the loss of public access or subdivisions for camp lots and vacation homes.
In fact, the future look of the forest might be unfolding just north of Moosehead Lake. One of the largest private landowners in northern Maine is moving ahead there with a proposal that, even after being scaled back, would develop more than 800 house lots and create two resorts with more than 1,200 residential units.
That is why it is so important that the state and private conservation organizations should acquire conservation easements on the remaining unprotected ponds whenever possible, Jeff said. Development presents a real threat to the last, best brook trout fishery in the East, and stemming its tide is a high priority for Trout Unlimited.
Having barely scratched the surface of all that northern Maine has to offer, I sure hope they succeed.