Maine Backcountry Trout Ponds
Author: KEVIN TRACEWSKI

Reprinted from Fly Rod and Reel Magazine

Maine Native Brook TroutI know that Roderick Haig Brown didn’t have a remote Maine trout pond in mind when he said, “Sometimes, the least important thing about fishing, is the fishing.”  But occasionally, when I’m sitting in my canoe watching a mature bull moose forage along a shoreline draped in brilliant fall colors, or listening to the haunting call of a loon cut through the stillness of a foggy morning, I think that he very well could have.  Fly fishing for native brook trout in such a setting is a grand experience no matter where the location.  But doing so in Maine is extra special, because this is one of the last few remaining places in the eastern U.S that anglers still have a chance to pursue trophy trout under such pristine conditions.

Many people never get to enjoy such an experience, however, because the logistics of putting together a trip is just too intimidating.  After all, Maine is larger than all the other New England states combined, and most of its hundreds of trout ponds can only be accessed from dirt roads or trails that don’t appear on the roadmap.  But for anglers willing to do a little research, finding your own little corner of paradise is really not that difficult.  The key is to narrow the scope of your investigation down to a manageable area.

The easiest way to do this is by browsing through magazines like the Northwoods Sporting Journal or the Maine Sportsman, or a guidebook like A Fisherman’s Guide to Maine.  Then, once you have identified a few ponds or a region that sound appealing, you can write or call fly shops, guides or sporting camp operators who serve that area to get more detailed information.

Physically getting to the specific pond you are interested in can be a bigger challenge,  considering the vastness of the ever-changing maze of signless logging roads you’ll need to negotiate to get there.  Nonetheless, most people who leave town armed with the maps contained in the Maine Atlas and Gazetteer, and a full tank of gas, eventually arrive at their intended destination.  Because getting lost is a real possibility though, many newcomers to the Maine woods often stay at one of the many sporting camps that are located directly on remote trout ponds, or visit places that are easy to locate, such as Baxter State Park and the Deboullie Preserve.

THE FISHERY

Maine Fly CasterMainers are notorious masters of understatement, so when Greenville area guide Danny Legere told me, “I’ve probably heard of more large trout being taken from local ponds this year than ever before,” it made me stop and take notice, especially considering that up until a few years ago, the trend had been slipping steadily in the opposite direction,

The principle reason for this dramatic turn-around was a set of Quality Fishing Initiatives which was put into place by recently retired Department of Inland Fisheries Commissioner Ray “Bucky” Owen.  An avid fly fisherman himself, Owen had witnessed first-hand how encroaching roads and increasing fishing pressure had been contributing to an overharvest of trout in remote ponds statewide.  So to remedy the situation, he implemented regulations that utilized fly-fishing only, catch and release, and slot limits to severely curtail the number of fish killed in many wild trout ponds.   His ultimate goal was to manage each pond individually, based on its ability to produce trophy fish.  And currently, the Maine fishing regulations booklet, which has reached nearly 70 pages, comes pretty close to doing so.  In fact, the regulations are so fine-tuned now that many people identify good places to fish simply by browsing through the county-based inventory of ponds and picking out places that are FFO, or that have other special regulations.

Of course, stricter regulations can only provide the desired results if quality cold-water habitats are protected.  And, after witnessing the dramatic decline in wild populations of pond-dwelling brook trout in most other parts of the Northeast, it has become absolutely clear that the survival of native brook trout in Maine will ultimately depend on the preservation of wild lands.  Fortunately, with the positive economic impact that tourism has had on the Maine economy recently, it seems like maintaining forested refuges around natural attractions such as trout ponds is finally becoming a priority.  Hopefully, if this encouraging trend continues, Commissioner Owen’s dream of , “providing all anglers in the state of Maine with a realistic chance to catch a four-pound native brook trout in pristine surroundings” will remain a reality into the foreseeable future.

GOOD TROUT PONDS

Remote Maine Trout Pond“What makes for a good trout pond?” is an age-old question that has been debated around campfires and fly-tying benches by generations of Maine fishermen.   And although there really isn’t one perfect answer, by examining a few of the factors that influence the survival and growth rate of brook trout in Maine ponds, I think anglers will be in a better position to choose the waters that are most likely to hold quality fish.

Most anglers know that trout need cold water to survive.  This is partly due to their metabolism, whose enzyme-driven processes operate most efficiently at temperatures around 55oF, and partly due to the simple physical fact that cold water can hold more oxygen than warm water.  Fishermen hunting for new ponds, however, should keep in mind that trout don’t always need large volumes of cold water in order to survive.  In fact, my experience has shown that during the dog-days of summer, trout in many of the best ponds in the state often become confined to just a few limited areas around deep holes or cold-water spring seepages.

A second, more difficult factor to understand is productivity.  In basic terms, productivity is a measure of a pond’s ability to produce food for fish to eat.  It can be influenced by a number of different parameters such as water d epth and clarity, types of organisms present in the food chain, and acidity.  In Maine, the most important factor is often the type of substrate that a pond is located on.  Generally, ponds found on loose soils that contain limestone and other unconsolidated geologic deposits almost always have a wider variety and greater abundance of insects and baitfish, and thus produce faster growing trout and better fishing, than ponds found on bare bedrock or granite.  This is because the nutrients needed to support biological productivity are easier to dissolve and leach out of these softer substrates than from solid rock.  In acid rain prone northeastern states such as Maine, the acid-buffering capacity provided these more soluble substrates also contributes significantly to the species diversity and overall health of these ponds.

Of course, unless you are a geologist or chemist, there really isn’t any easy way to determine the amount of nutrients that are present in the water.  So I use two simple biological factors, (1) the presence of the tall, broad-leaved water weed Potamogeton, (2) tiny, shrimp-like scuds, Gammarus, as indicators to help me judge the fish producing potential of a particular pond.  Both can be sampled by towing a mesh net hung from a weighted line behind a paddled canoe for 5 minutes.  And over the years, I have found that in ponds where both are present, trout fishing is usually good.

Competition is a third critical factor that influences the size that a trout will reach.  That’s because all of the insects and minnows that are eaten by non-forage competitors such as perch, pickerel and bass, is food that is not available for consumption by the trout.  Thus, remote ponds that only contain brook trout and bait fish, such as shiners or dace, almost always produce larger trout than ponds that also contain spiny-finned competitors.

Keep in mind, however, that all ‘trout-only’ waters do not always produce big fish.  This is because in places that have an over-abundance of spawning habitat, competition for food among the brook trout themselves can also severely limit the size of individual fish.  According to University of Maine biologist Terry Haines, the importance of such intraspecific competition is perfectly illustrated by looking at several pristine ponds that lie within a few miles of each other along the Appalachian Trail in Piscataquis County.  West Chairback is a healthy pond with adequate spawning habitat and a good survival rate for juvenile trout.  Each year, it provides anglers with excellent fishing for 10-12” trout, but rarely produces a fish over 15”.  East Chairback is marginally acidic, which means that during some years, large numbers of young trout are killed by acid rain.  Each young trout that survives, however, has much more food  to eat, thus the size of an average fish is much bigger in East Chairback.  Cloud Pond is located a few miles away from East Chairback and is so acidic that no fish can survive in it at all.

The final factor influencing the size that brook trout will reach is the genetics of the fish themselves.  A number of studies have shown that wild trout tend to grow faster, live longer and deal better with the rigors of life in a harsh environment than trout produced in a hatchery.  Therefore, even though the Department of Inland Fisheries has recently made a commendable effort to improve the quality of their hatchery fish by introducing two new strains of trout, ponds that contain only wild, native fish will still produce the largest, most robust fish.

SEASONAL ANGLING STRATEGIES

Native Maine BrookieFly fishing in all Maine trout ponds is strongly influenced by the seasons, and depending on location and elevation, ice-out can occur anytime from early April to mid-May.  With water temperatures in the 30’s and low 40’s, brook trout are not very active, and action is not usually very fast during this time of year.  Many of the largest fish of the season , however, are caught at ice-out by persistent anglers using stout rods and sinking lines with slow retrieves.  In small ponds where insects and small minnows make up the bulk of the trout’s diet, dragonfly nymphs, Wood Specials and assorted small bucktail streamers like the Black Nose Dace are usually very effective.  Marabou Muddlers, crayfish, salamanders, and leeches in various sizes and colors also account for many fish.  Since coastal waters always shed their ice and begin to warm-up first, I usually begin my season casting to shoreline structure and rocky outcroppings on Mount Desert Island’s Upper Hadlock or Bubble Pond, or travel farther Downeast on Route 182 to Fox Pond or Simpson Pond in Rogue Bluffs.

Probably the most important lesson that I have learned about early season fishing is that you don’t have to get up early to be successful.  In fact, after years of dealing with iced-up guides and frozen fingers, I’ve found that during April and early May, you will actually catch more fish if you concentrate your efforts during the most comfortable part of the day.  This sentiment was confirmed last spring by a Jackman area game warden who shared the following advice with a couple of friends and I as we thawed-out in a coffee shop after spending a fruitless, early-season morning out on Rancourt Pond, “I’ve been watching you guys since daybreak, and noticed that you didn’t have any luck.  This time of year, the fish bite best between 10am and 2pm.  Tomorrow, why don’t you sleep-in and try it again then.”

In larger bodies of water, plankton often form the base of the food chain and smelt make up a significant portion of the trout’s diet.  Thus, early season efforts in places such as Rum, Wilson and the Roach Ponds (all near Moosehead Lake) should center around  inlet and outlet brooks.  This is because smelts typically spawn in such tributaries just as the ice is going out, and at times, nearly every fish in the pond is drawn to these areas to feed.  Trolling with single or tandem-hook smelt patterns such as the Grey Ghost, Governor Aiken or the Barnes Special is by far the most popular way to pursue early season brook trout in these larger waters.  But casting from shore or wading along the edge of some ponds can also be productive, especially if you can work your fly directly into areas where moving water enters the pond.

As the water warms, insects become of more interest to the fish, and usually by early June anglers begin to catch trout fairly consistently with dry flies.  Long-time Bangor Daily News columnist Bud Leavitt always used to say, “if a fly fisherman only had one week of vacation a year, he should take it in June, because at this time of year, there is something available for everyone.”  In the western mountains, you can fish a number of relatively easy to reach places such as Quimby or Beaver Pond by staying at a motel in Rangeley, or by camping out at Rangeley State Park.  A variety of sporting camps such as Tim Pond Camps and Bosebuck Mountain Camps can also provide more exclusive access to some of the remote ponds in this region.  Many other FFO ponds such as Horseshoe, West Branch and the Lyfords can also be reached from sporting camps in the Moosehead Lake area.

June is also a perfect time to visit Baxter State Park, which is a 200,000 acre semi-wilderness located two hours north of Bangor.  About 25 of the 100 ponds that lie within its boundaries contain wild populations of trophy brook trout.  All trophy ponds are FFO and have increased size and reduced bag limits.  Daicey and Kidney Ponds are located in the southwest corner of the park and provide great fishing for trout in the 10-12² range.  Both offer cabin and canoe rentals at a reasonable cost, and provide you with an excellent opportunity to see a moose up close.  Because of their accessibility, they are probably the most heavily fished ponds in the park, yet both contain a surprising number of large trout.   Most trophy fish are taken in late evening during periods when hatches are occurring.

September Brook TroutThe cabins located on Daicey and Kidney ponds also serve as a convenient base-camp from which anglers can strike off to nearby Rocky, Little Rocky, Polly, Celia, Jackson or Lily Pad Ponds for a day of fishing.  Most of these outlying ponds produce fish up to 16², and have canoes that can be rented from park personnel.  It takes a while to learn all the tricks needed to catch fish consistently on any of these places, but generally, casting bucktail streamers such as the Little Brook Trout and Warden’s Worry, to shoreline structure is productive in Rocky, Little Rocky and Polly.  Maple Syrup nymphs, Hornbergs and Woolly Buggers fished on a sinking line are good choices for Celia.  And most standard dry flies, especially a #14 Adams will consistently produce fish in Jackson and Lily Pad.

While in the area, anglers should also try to spend at least one day on nearby Nesowadnehunk Lake, which is often referred to as the “trout factory” by the fisheries biologists.  This is a large lake and the only FFO water around Baxter where outboard motors are allowed.  Because of its size, Nesowadnehunk often gets rough when the wind kicks up during the middle of the day, so most experienced anglers confine their efforts to early morning and evening.  I’ve found that working a crayfish pattern along the bottom right at sun-up is perhaps the best way of catching a trout in this lake.

The premier hatch on most Maine trout ponds is the Green Drake, Hexagenia limbata.  It usually occurs from the last few days of June into mid-July, and always produces some of the most frantic action of the season.  Adult flies can reach up to 3² long and are best imitated by extended-body patterns with large, upright wings.  Because of the Green Drake’s great visibility, and the willingness of trout to actively hunt them down, this is a fairly easy hatch to fish.  Essentially, all you need to do is locate some surface activity, cast your huge fly out there, and wait.  One complicating factor is that the cream-colored duns usually don’t begin to hatch in any significant numbers until the sun has dropped below the trees, so frequently the best fishing occurs right at or just after dark.  Toward the end of a hatch period, or when there are tremendous numbers of flies on the water, trout seem to become disinterested in the floating adults.  Big fish can still be caught during these times by slowly working a yellow Hex wiggle-nymph a few feet below the surface.

By August, water temperatures in most Maine trout ponds have risen to a level that requires fish to seek out springholes and other cold-water refuges in order to survive.  So from now through the end of the season, I usually switch back to using sinking lines and big, ugly flies for the majority of my fishing.  Since trout are difficult to locate and nearly impossible to reach in large bodies of water that become thermally stratified, most veteran fly fishermen focus their attention on spring holes in smaller, shallow ponds at this time of year.  For newcomers, trying to locate these hotspots in unfamiliar waters can be frustrating.  So hiring a guide, or staying at a sporting camp that can provide you with reliable information, may be necessary to help you get started.

Red River Camps is located about 25 miles south of the Canadian border in a large block of public land (called the Deboullie Preserve) that contains 20 trout ponds within a 10-mile radius. Due to their northern latitude and fairly high elevation, these camps are an ideal place to stay during mid-summer, because fishing typically holds up much better here than in many of the waters farther south.  Denny, Upper, Island, and Stink Ponds are all FFO, trophy brook trout ponds that are easy to reach.  Big Black, the Little Blacks and North Pond are harder to get to, but at times, can offer better fishing.  Generally, Zug-Bugs, Tellico Nymphs, Woolly Buggers and the Warden’s Worry fished on a sinking line will all produce fish at this time of year.

As the season progresses and the water begins to cool down, fish emerge from their summer refuges and become active again.  In fact, as the fall spawning period approaches, many of the larger trout get downright aggressive and respond well to bright flies like the Pink Lady, Mickey Finn or Light Edson Tiger fished with a fast, erratic retrieve.  I usually end most seasons either searching for that elusive 5-pound brookie around the inlets of large waters such as Allagash or Chamberlain Lake, or fishing one of the dozens of ponds in the Jackman area.

PLANNING A TRIP

Maine Native Brook TroutMost remote trout ponds in Maine are located on private land that is outside the boundaries of public parks and preserves.  Much of this private land is either controlled by private timber companies or a land management group called North Maine Woods (NMW).  Although fishermen and other recreationalists are welcome on these lands, you should be aware that this is a working forest, managed primarily for timber harvesting.  For safety reasons, no bicycles, motorcycles, ATV’s, or over-sized vehicles are allowed into this area.  To control visitor access, more than 20 gates are maintained at various locations throughout the region.  Day-use and overnight camping fees are charged.