A Day in Maine

William H. Friedman, M.D.

To me, every moment spent outside Maine in July and August is a waste of time; just as summer fishing Maine for trout instead of smallmouth bass is a waste of time. Before a horde of Mainiac troutphiles burn my house down I admit that decent dry fly fishing in the Rangeley Lakes area, the Mcgalloway river, and the wilds of the West Branch of the Penobscot just below the Ripogenus Dam in Northern Paper Co. territory yield lots of brookies and landlocks almost as big as the blackflies that inhabit those areas in summer. So let me indulge in a little piscine relativism and simply write that as good as the trout fishing is in Maine in the summer, you’d have to be crazy to go there for trout. GO THERE FOR SMALLMOUTH BASS! It’s the best there is.

How do I know that smallmouth fishing in Maine is better than anywhere else? Because our late, beloved Ozark Flyfisher friend and guru Henry Reifuss said so. No one knew more about smallies than Hank, and none loved them better. Five years ago, when Hank was in his prime, before there were any symptoms of the pancreatic cancer that ultimately quenched his fire for fishing and all things natural, Hank, Dick Ryan, Lee Trapp, Hugh Biller and I ventured to the Penobscot River above Old Town, Maine (where they still make canoes) and tore ‘em up. Eighteen, twenty, even twenty two inch smallmouth were plentiful. The happiest I have ever seen Hank was on that trip, late in the afternoon on the Penobscot. He had jumped out of the boat in his swimming trunks and T-shirt, casting big white poppers with his eight-weight in four to five feet of fast water, tiptoeing through an unwadeable break in the rapids simply because he wanted to be in there with all the fish. And he did catch them.

Each year since then I have fished for smallmouth on the Penobscot at least once during July and August. There are other attractions; summertime boating among the islands of the Down East coast, fishing the salt for stripers and blues, glutting lobster , and just sitting on the porch enjoying the symphony of ocean sounds, the seagull and osprey shenanigans, and the passing sailboats. Still, smallmouth fishing is a must; a magnet that draws me away from the coast, northeast to the inland woods and meadows strewn with glacial stones, to the mighty Penobscot, Maine’s aquarium for bronzebacks.

Smallmouth expert Charlie Bowe seemed surprised when I called him at nine pm one night last August. “Bill Friedman? You mean the doc from St. Louis? How you been, doc?”

Charlie is a hunting and fishing guide when he isn’t hunting and fishing, and lives in Waldo county, about two hours north of my cottage on Southport Island, Maine. I’ve fished with him several times since that first trip with the fish heads on the Penobscot. At about six-two and two sixty, with a weathered fiery pink complexion and a white handle bar moustache to go with a full head of white hair, Charlie is formidable; handling bird dogs, dropping his jet boat in the water like it was a toy, or telling me to pull my head out of my ass when I lose a smallmouth because I forgot to tie on with an improved clinch knot.

“Charlie, I need the smallmouth! When can we go?”

“Geez, Doc, I’ve only got one free day for the next three weeks, and that’s my birthday!”
“What’s wrong with fishing on your birthday?” I asked.
“ Well, nothin’ if I can get it past my wife,” Charlie replied.
“O.K. If you can make it, when’s your birthday?”
“Tomorrow, Doc; you probably can’t be ready that quick anyway,” Charlie rasped, throwing down the gauntlet.
“Try me,” I replied, trying to sound like Clint Eastwood.

Twenty minutes later, Charlie called back, and the trip was on. In the meantime, I had spoken to my buddy Logan Wallingford who said he’d like to fish if it was happening, even if he had to get up at four AM the next morning . Which he had to, because I wanted an early start and would be too gunny to lie in bed when we could be on the road early to smallmouth country.

The next morning I picked Logan up , about a mile from my place, at his house on Newagen Harbor, protected by the Cuckolds, a towering mid coastal Maine lighthouse, warning sailors of the shoals at the south end of Southport. We steered the Tahoe through the chilly morning fog along the island road between the spruces and firs which blanket Southport island, onto the bridge to the mainland at 5am. Speeding north on 27 through Boothbay Harbor we crossed the Sheepscot River, picked up Hwy 1 from Wiscassett following that coastal highway across the Kennebec River through the shipbuilding city of Bath. At Brunswick we wheeled the big SUV onto 95 and headed North for the Penobscot.

After three and a half hours we made Enfield, about eighty-five miles north of Bangor, passed through some rocky farmland and arrived at Charlie’s Enfield fishing camp directly on the Penobscot river. Charlie runs cast and blasts from this house on the river, and with the help of his Brittany Spaniel, Buddy, can hunt grouse, pheasant or quail in the morning and fish for smallmouth in the afternoon.

Charlie had his boat, a 19 foot Roughneck with an 80 horsepower Johnson outboard jet drive, all set up on the trailer behind his pickup. Logan, who is more flexible than me, climbed into the backseat, Charlie and I piled into the front and we rumbled north from Enfield on the River road to Winn, where Charlie backed down a ramp and we put the boat in at the access just below the Winn Rips (rapids) of the Penobscot River.

The Penobscot is a mighty stream running north and south for over two hundred miles, more than half the length of Maine. The trout and landlock salmon fishing starts at the Ripogenus Dam above Millinocket where damming the river created Chesuncook Lake, third largest in Maine. The Penobscot’s West Branch flows from there through the most technically challenging white water rapids in Maine ninety miles southeast to Mattawamkeag where it veers West forming the East branch, Smallmouth country. Smallmouth abound for another hundred miles all the way down to Bangor. Below Bangor, stripers, sea run browns, and the occasional Atlantic Salmon mingle in the migratory effluemt where the river finally empties into Penobscot Bay as a deep water estuary just northeast of Belfast, Maine.

Charlie skillfully navigated through a rock strewn stretch of river that made us a little nervous in the 55 degree mid August patchy fog that hadn’t yet burned off at 10AM. Logan looked at me skeptically when Charlie shouted above the engine noise, “I dunno, Doc, with this fog it might not be safe to run up the rapids. I need to see where I’m going up there.”

“I would have thought you needed to see where you’re going down here, and we’re doing just fine,” I argued. “Hell, I’ve navigated through worse in the Gulf of Maine.”
“Yeah,” replied Charlie, “but you cheat. You use radar.”
Good point. The river was grey, everything looked grey, what we could see of it.

The fog lifted suddenly revealing a quarter mile wide stretch of river, gleaming bronze through a valley of muted green forests now brilliant in the breakthrough sunlight. Boulders rising as high as five feet above the water were arranged randomly so that a straight pathway up the rapids was impossible. The jet boat screamed as it twisted and turned through the shallow torrent sometimes only eighteen inches deep, Charlie now nonchalant, and Logan and I trying to look unconcerned. This maze of shallows with rapid cold water running over gravel between giant boulders is the famed spawning ground for smallies and extends some eighty miles , all the way down to Old Town. In Spring, sight fishing for spawning smallmouth on these gravel beds is a lot like steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania. The Smallmouth, averaging between two and five pounds, aren’t as big as steelhead; but you need an eight wt. for the smallies, not the customary seven weight for Pennsylvania steelhead.

At eleven a.m. the sun was up, the typical August Maine sky a surreal blue, so bright you can hardly look up. But who was looking up? We had traveled about twelve miles from Winn, the Mattaseunk Dam was now in sight upstream, and Charlie was throttling back. The river was calm there, clear and tea colored, five or six feet deep with sharp dropoffs at the shorelines and lots of boulders on the bottom, hideouts for smallmouth bass. There were no other fishermen, and we had seen no boats on the ride up through the rapids. It was pristine.

After a careful selection from my flyboxes, I had tied on a huge white popper that Tommy Hargrove had made for me five years before.
“That won’t work, Doc, they’re taking yellow,” said Charlie as he shut down the engine and started our downstream drift fifty feet from the shore.
Logan was already casting his spinning rod off the stern of the sturdy little boat.

Quickly switching to a little yellow sneaky pete, I secured the fly to 4x tippet, stood up, and let fly towards the tall pine trees at the water’s edge, aiming at the passing shoreline. The fly landed twelve inches from shore. In less than a second, an explosion of water burst where the fly had been. That’s all there was. The fish was off, and I had missed my first strike of the day. It had been a big one.

Logan, fishing away from the shoreline, had a strike, and his rod was bent double as he frantically reeled the fish in. It made a little jump, swam under the boat, and it too found its way back to freedom

“Not as easy as you thought, huh,” said Charlie, grinning.

Five minutes into the drift I caught my first fish, a nineteen inch smallmouth that reminded me why I come back every year. He (she?) exploded on the little yellow sneaky pete, headed for the weeds at the shoreline, then tried to circle the boat. After reeling in, while Charlie tried to net him, in full view, the fish dove suddenly, jerking the line down, bending the eight weight Thomas and Thomas five piece into a semicircle. Charlie took the obligatory picture as I proudly held numero uno up and kissed it like those idiot bass fishermen on ESPN.

The fishing stayed hot for three hours. The day continued to brighten, as if that were possible. Bald eagles, in pairs, took turns circling above us and flying on. We caught big fish onshore and smaller fish the further offshore we cast. It seemed like the monsters had chased the little guys out of the shallows, but Charlie assured me that wasn’t the case. Besides , the smallest fish we caught was fourteen inches, and even these little guys fought like they were on steroids.

“Why is that, Charlie? Why do these fish seem so much stronger than our smallmouth in Missouri?”
“Well,” he replied, they’re probably a lot bigger than your average Missouri fish. Besides, it’s August. They don’t fight this hard in April and May when they’re spawning. They’ve got other stuff on their minds, then.”

That seemed reasonable. I remembered the indifferent battle the spawning browns on the White river put up when we disturbed them in late fall. Not steelhead and salmon though. They get really pissed off when you interrupt their mating ritual and seem to fight harder than ever. Maybe the salmon and steelhead have to work harder for it, all that upstream ladder climbing and all, and resent it more than the smallies do when you come along and give them a spawnus interruptis.

In any case, these smallmouth thrilled us, snapped off our tippets, actually broke a few wooden poppers, and tried to break our arms with every hook up. I ended up fishing a tattered old yellow spider that Charlie had tied, about three inches in diameter, because I had either lost or worn out my supply of suitable yellow lures. The old spider was the best fly of the day, landing a twenty-one incher for me.

At three-thirty the fish went off the bite, so we paused and wolfed down the roast beef sandwiches that Charlie’s wife had made for us. Charlie pointed to a boulder, dark and moist three inches above its waterline.

“They’re holding back water at the dam. Fish won’t bite now. River’s down about three inches,” Charlie explained.

That must have been it, because we only caught a few small fish from three-thirty to five o’clock, and decided to call it quits. We had each caught more than twenty big smallmouth bass. A great day. We put in, hauled out, and drove back to Charlie’s camp where we thanked Charlie and said our good byes (Charlie’s phone no., if you want to call him, is 1-800-948-2116).

Driving back, Logan and I could talk about two things only; how many fish we’d caught, and if we’d be able to hold out for dinner in Boothbay Harbor. We both wanted to eat at China by the Sea (The China Diner) there, one of the best Chinese restaurants in Maine. We didn’t make it, settling for o.k. Szechwan seafood at a little joint outside Augusta.

We were a little tired when we finally made it back to Southport. We were sure to sleep soundly with visions of smallmouth dancing in our heads.
Just another day in Maine