Part Two: Exploring the North Maine Woods
__ In all my travels, I have never been anywhere like the North Maine Woods. About the size of Yellowstone,...
In all my travels, I have never been anywhere like the North Maine Woods. About the size of Yellowstone, Glacier and Yosemite National Parks combined, it is home to some of the wildest rivers and lakes in the East, including the 92-mile Allagash Wilderness Waterway. Yet it is neither park nor national forest.
Instead, the North Maine Woods is almost entirely commercial timberland, which is open to the public for a reasonable daily fee. It is a forested world unto itself and hunting and fishing paradise, even if while scouting for moose, deer or a promising place to cast, you must also keep a sharp eye out for logging trucks. Because they do, in fact, own the road.
It is so sparsely inhabited that most of the townships within its borders are named only by their coordinates, and there are no motels, stores, or gas stations. But there are hundreds of campsites to choose from, and countless sparkling lakes, ponds and streams to explore. Thoreau captured the essence of northern Maine best when he described the vista from Maine’s highest point, Mount Katahdin, as akin to looking at “a mirror broken into a thousand fragments, and scattered wildly across the grass.”
The North Maine Woods is also home to a rich tradition of north-woods guides and full service sporting camps that have been hosting hunters and anglers going back to a young Teddy Roosevelt. Places like Libby Camps on sweeping Millinocket Lake in Township 8, Range 9, which since 1890 has been run by five generations of the Libby family.
An assemblage of mostly small cabins made from peeled spruce and balsam fir logs cut on site, Libby Camps is rustic yet very comfortable. It caters to serious sportsmen, and its motto is “catch and relax.” I first traveled there three years ago for some fine ruffed grouse and woodcock hunting, but it wasn’t until early last June, when I joined Jeff Reardon and Greg Ponte at Libby’s, that I really came to appreciate northern Maine’s outstanding brook trout fishery.
I could not have been in better company. Jeff is the Maine Brook Trout Project Director for Trout Unlimited. Greg is an expert angler and past chair of the Maine Council of TU.
Our first morning we climbed into Matt Libby’s Cessna 185 floatplane for a 15-minute flight to Webster Lake on the border of 205,000-acre Baxter State Park, Maine’s largest public land. Had we traveled by truck and then foot, it would have taken us the better part of the day, which, Jeff told me, helps explain why brook trout still reign supreme.
Because northern Maine is so remote, it was spared the inevitable conversion to farmland that followed the cutting of virgin forests elsewhere, and which just as invariably wiped out brook trout by silting in streams and warming their waters. And because northern Maine’s many rivers provided an efficient way of driving logs to downstream mills, it remained largely roadless until well into the 20th century. It thus escaped the indiscriminate stocking of non-native fish that occurred across the country in the late 1800s and early 1900s, which hastened the demise of brook trout in other regions.
That is why even the largest lakes and ponds in northern Maine are still home to wild brook trout, Jeff said. Elsewhere in the East, brookies in countless waters were either out-competed or outright eaten by non-native fish, often decades before many of the roads in the North Maine Woods were built, such as the road that finally connected Libby Camps with the outside world in 1968.
Once we landed on Webster Lake, we taxied to its outlet, where we met Matt’s son, Matt J., who had arrived ahead of us in his floatplane. Matt took off to ferry other guests to their destinations, while Matt J. guided us on Webster Brook, a burly freestone stream with boulder-strewn pocket water stained brown by tannins from the surrounding softwood forest.
Webster Brook is an artifact of Maine’s logging past. Because it eventually empties into the Penobscot River, its’ flow was augmented in the 1800s by the “Telos Cut.” It diverted water from the north-flowing Allagash waterway into Webster Lake, which made Webster Brook more useful for driving logs south to the mills in Bangor.
Brook trout in the lakes of northern Maine move in and out of connecting streams to feed and spawn, and we were hoping to find Webster Brook full of hungry fish. But the water was still early-spring cold and we managed only about four or five trout apiece. Mine took dead-drift nymphs, while Jeff and Greg coaxed a few into eating dry flies in the flat water at the head of the stream.
According to Matt J., it was uncharacteristically slow fishing. Still, my largest trout was more than a foot long–bigger than the stockies in the rivers near my Vermont home–and every fish was as wild as a June day in northern Maine is long.
After lunch and some more fishing, we flew back to Libby Camps for dinner. With the sun still hanging low in the sky, we then took off on foot for nearby Millinocket Stream. Matt J. led me down a narrow trail pocked with moose tracks that ended at a long slick where the stream formed a huge pool.
We spotted a few soft rises along the far bank, so I tied on a White Wulff in the hope that I would be able to see it in the approaching dusk. After a couple of casts to get the range right, my dry fly disappeared and my light, 4-weight rod throbbed with life.
The fish stayed deep, so I knew it was not a landlocked Atlantic salmon, which are also found in streams across northern Maine and are apt to go airborne. Strictly speaking, landlocks are native to only a few Maine waters, but introduced stocks have replaced the sea-run salmon whose once great runs were wiped out by downstream dams.
Sure enough, Matt J. eventually netted an especially colorful fish that had the big, dark head and large, black mouth of a mature wild brookie. Its pale yellow flanks were covered with bright red spots surrounded by faint sky-blue halos and its belly was streaked with orange. As I released it in the fading light, it was like briefly holding the sunset in my hand.
In 1846, as Thoreau camped along the Penobscot River on his first journey into the “virtually unmapped and unexplored” woods north of Bangor, he dreamt of “painted fish” that rose to his flies the evening before. That night, so, too, did I.