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The Holy Land of brook trout

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By MATT DICKERSON

It was about 6 a.m. on a cool morning on the last week of May. I was casting dry flies and nymphs to brook trout and landlocked salmon on Maine’s Rapid River, within sight of the famed cabin where former high school teacher and later acclaimed writer Louise Dickinson Rich (1903-1991) moved with her husband in the 1930s to raise their new family. From their Forest Lodge on the banks of the river, Rich wrote her national bestseller “We Took to the Woods” (first published in 1942 and still in print), describing her life and the raising of her children in Maine’s wild backcountry.

The area is still backcountry, and still relatively wild. It is reachable only by a long canoe ride across big lakes followed by a hike of two miles, or by a long drive down rough private lumber roads perhaps followed — as was the case with me — by a three-mile ride on a mountain bike. Still, from schoolchildren and book club members eager to see the old Forest Lodge where Rich wrote many of her dozens of books, to devoted anglers looking to cast a fly on the holy waters of brook trout, people make the difficult trek in.

Indeed, Rapid River is now perhaps as famous for its phenomenal brook trout and salmon fishing as it is for its wonderful literary legacy. For the past 50 years, the land on both sides of the river, including the Forest Lodge and a handful of some newer modest fishing camp buildings, have been owned and maintained by the legendary guide Aldro French, who has helped preserve its wildness and its literary legacy, without prohibiting nonmotorized access to this beautiful stretch of land and river.

In particular, Forest Lodge itself still stands (thanks in part to French) and has been well maintained as a historic site. French has also been actively involved in helping disabled veterans find new peace and healing through fly-fishing via the Healing Waters Project (www.projecthealingwaters.org).

And, more directly relevant to this story, Aldro has also helped tremendously with conservation efforts on the river, which have done much to preserve the fantastic fishing on Rapid River despite numerous pressures which have negatively affected trout streams around the country.

While I was casting on the north shore of the river, a hundred yards upstream of Forest Lodge near the ruins of the old dam known affectionately as Lower Dam — where I caught a handful of medium-sized brookies in the 10-to14-inch range and two nice salmon around 17 inches in length — just across the river and within sight of the porch of Forest Lodge, one of the anglers staying at the camp hooked and landed, and then released, a four-and-a-half-pound brookie. (One reason that Rapid River still has such excellent fishing is that it is catch-and-release only for brook trout and has a daily creel limit of one salmon. And to ensure that the released fish have a healthy chance of survival, it is limited to fly-fishing only since live bait and treble hooks result in a high mortality rate of released fish.)

And Rapid River is but one of numerous blue-ribbon-quality trout streams in the area. The river — which is only about 3.5 miles in length, and without going over any waterfalls drops about 800 feet in elevation in that distance — flows out of Middle Dam on the South Arm of Richardson Lake. Richardson Lake, in turn, is fed out of Upper Dam from Mooselookmeguntic Lake, which is the gem and largest lake of the region — a region that also includes Umbagog, Aziscohos, Parmachenee, Cupsuptic, and Rangeley lakes, and the Kennebago Ponds — even though collectively they are known as the Rangeley Lakes (perhaps because Rangeley is easier to spell and remember than Mooselookmeguntic). Upper Dam provides good brook trout and landlocked salmon fishing throughout the season, though how good it is at any given moment depends on weather and water flows — as I discovered when I followed an evening of incredibly hot and fast action highlighted by a couple brookies over 14 inches, with a morning in which I caught only two fish in three hours.

Mooselookmeguntic Lake, in turn, is fed by three major rivers: the Kennebago, Cupsuptic and Rangeley. All of them in their lower portions hold trophy fish at certain times of the year. They also have wild native strains of brook trout that are so pure genetically that the state uses them for its hatchery brood. The Kennebago and Cupsuptic Rivers, as well as the Magalloway to the east, flow south roughly in parallel, coming down off the ridge line that defines the U.S.-Canada border. Like many Vermont rivers, they start up in little springs and ponds over 3,000 feet in elevation, and gradually grow as they work their way down into the valley.

The higher stretches are very remote, and are still loaded with small wild brookies. Before visiting Rapid River, with the help of Maine guide Mike Warren (Clearwater Camps), who also helped me unravel the mysteries of Upper Dam, I spent some time tracing these rivers (with backpack and a little fly rod) up toward their headwaters — close enough to the Canadian border that we crossed paths with a border patrolmen on our way out. It is beautiful country, and refreshing to find streams that are still so wild and pristine. Indeed, they are in much better shape than they were a century ago when the area was heavily logged.

Overall, the region provides an incredible diversity of fishing experiences. It runs from very technical and challenging fishing on Rapid River, but with the thrill of fighting fish weighed in pounds in class IV rapids, to stretches of the Magalloway that are loaded with monster brook trout who willingly rise to abundant caddis flies — in one 30-minute period I caught three between 15 and 18 inches in the same pool. It is also loaded with anglers since access is very easy. There is also real back-country bushwhacking up small streams for trout that rarely exceed 8 inches.

It is less than five hours’ drive from Middlebury, and for the beauty, the fishing, and the history (literary as well as fishing) is worth the effort it takes to get there.

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