Part Three: Exploring the North Maine Woods

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Our second day began like the first, with Jeff Reardon, Greg Ponte, and I boarding Matt Libby's floatplane at the dock at Libby Camps. Except this time our destination was one of Matt's favorite remote trout ponds, where we would fish from canoes stashed along the shore.

Nestled in a rugged height of land between the Allagash and Aroostook watersheds, it's officially classified by the state as a "native" brook trout pond, meaning it has never been stocked--either directly or indirectly through fish planted in connecting water.

We would be fishing for trout, Matt told me during the brief flight, that are the direct descendants of the fish that colonized Maine when the glaciers retreated north 10,000 years ago. Even better, he added, the shimmering pond now stretching out before us regularly produces lots of trout from 12 to 16 inches long, which are big fish wherever native brookies are still found.

Now, I like Matt. He has steered me to some terrific grouse covers, and I hope he will do so again. I also respect him as a hard-working guide who has logged endless hours in search of hidden honey holes for his guests. So let's just call his pet pond "Unnamed Pond," which it easily could be.

Maine has no less than 12 unnamed ponds that the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has identified as native brook trout fisheries. Remarkably, Maine has more than 300 such waters, which range in size from tiny ponds up to 4,260-acre Allagash Lake. Another 250 lakes and ponds are classified as "wild" brook trout waters, meaning they support self-sustaining populations and have not been stocked in more than 25 years.

That's incredible.

Jeff and Greg fished from one canoe, while I was paired with registered Maine Guide Rick Young, who had a soft down-east drawl and a wicked passion for brookies. As he began slowly paddling me about the pond in an Old Town canoe, he suggested I start out with a Black Ghost on a sink-tip line.

Like so many classic streamers, the Black Ghost was created in Maine, and it is sure to be included on any must-have list of brook trout flies. Before long I was tight to the first of what proved to be many trout, all of which were pond fat, hard fighting, and 11 to 14 inches long.

As the sun rose higher in the sky, mayflies started popping off the water sporadically, bringing trout to the surface and a change in our tactics. The hatch ebbed and flowed with the cloud cover--as did swarms of black flies--and the trout proved surprisingly hard to fool. But whenever I needed to get my mojo back, it was as simple as switching to a Ghost. After only a few casts, I'd hook another big, beautiful brookie.

Jeff and Greg did as well, if not better. After lunch, Greg caught the largest trout of the day--a heavy fish that probably would have gone 16 inches and well over 2 pounds. But we'll never know for sure. It slipped from his grasp just as I was about to take a picture.

The fishing was so good that for a while we were stalked by a large, aggressive loon with blood-red eyes and a black stiletto bill--a bird, it turned out, Rick has come to know well. It began shadowing our canoe, and he warned me it would try to steal our fish.

I didn't believe him at first, until I saw the loon swim directly under the canoe after I hooked a trout, its black-and-white back unmistakable even four feet below the surface. From then on, I played my fish as quickly as I could, while Rick splashed the net on one side of the boat as I led the trout to other.

Our strategy worked on all but one fish that I thought had wrapped me in weeds. But as I leaned back against my rod, I realized I was hooked into a pound of trout and more than 10 pounds of loon. To Rick's relief, if not the trout's, I was able to pull the fish free and release it none the worse for the experience.

"If you let him have one fish, we'll never be able to get rid of him," said Rick, who did not think much of loons in general and this bird in particular.

All too soon, Matt's floatplane appeared in the late afternoon sky, and we headed ashore to pack up our gear. As we did, I mentioned to Greg how the setting could not have been more idyllic, surrounded as we were by a vast, unbroken forest--albeit an actively managed one-- with the nearest town, industry, coal mine, or hydro-fracking gas well many miles away. Surely, I said, as long as we have ponds like this, we'll always have good brook trout fishing.

Not so, Greg replied. Brook trout in Maine are still at risk. Not necessarily from wholesale habitat destruction or pollution, but from biological threats. Invasive, non-native fish are increasingly turning up in where they don't belong, either from illegal introductions or agency-sanctioned stockings gone awry.

Muskies stocked in Lac Frontiere in Quebec now dominate the huge St. John River system across the border in Maine. Illegally introduced smallmouth bass have recently made their way into two of Maine's most fabled brook trout waters--the Rapid River and vast Moosehead Lake. Northern pike turn up in new lakes and ponds yearly. Even something as seemingly harmless as using live fish for bait in a flyfishing-only pond, like the one we just fished, can threaten its brook trout fishery.

Protecting brook trout waters, Greg said, takes vigilance, a role TU is determined to play. Toward that end, TU recently helped create a collaborative program that enlists volunteers to check remote, never-surveyed ponds where native brookies might still exist. Those with confirmed populations will be added to the Native list, so they will at least get the highest level of regulatory protection the state can provide.

It's a task I'd like to volunteer for, especially if it helps me find my own Unnamed Pond. Until then, I could only kick myself during our return flight for not bringing a GPS. If one got to know the local logging roads, it would be possible to drive within easy hiking distance of Matt's enchanting pond. If only I had a waypoint.

As I said, I like Matt. But that was one hell of a pond.