Gone Fishing

To Read Tagewahnahn is to journey to eastern Maine's Grand Lake Stream

  • By: Paul Doiron

Dennis Labare’s Tagewahnahn: The Landlocked Salmon at Grand Lake Stream (www.glssalmon.com; hardcover; 216 pages; $65) is definitely a love letter. The question is: to what? In a narrow sense the book is a paean to a specific river (a mere 2.75 miles long) that flows from West Grand Lake into Big Lake in the wilds of easternmost Maine. But it’s also a tribute to the historic and enchanting village of Grand Lake Stream itself. More broadly, LaBare celebrates a vanishing way of life— of fishing guides and famous“sports” like Ted Williams and Buffalo Bob Smith journeying into the North Woods with fly rods in hand. Ultimately, though, Tagewahnahn is probably best described as an ode to a fish.

Not just any fish, though. Grand Lake Stream achieved its fame by being one of the best places in the world to fly fish for Salmo salar sebago— landlocked salmon and Maine’s official state fish. The word Tagewahnahn is the Passamaquoddy Indian name for salmon, and as LaBare explains, the river once teemed with them. Then in the 19th Century logging and other man-made modifications played havoc with the salmon’s habitat. LaBare tells the story of how fisheries biologists have worked ever since to make Grand Lake Stream one of North America’s premier angling destinations.

If ever a book of science could be called deeply personal, it’s Tagewahnahn (and yes, the name is a mouthful). Dennis LaBare is an experienced environmental scientist and stream ecologist. Plus, he has the advantage of having spent his boyhood summers in Grand Lake Stream, roaming every inch of the river and soaking up stories of river drives and legendary Registered Maine Guides. LaBare’s own history— and outright obsession with fly-fishing— accounts for his book’s encyclopedic quality. Tagewahnahn ranges from highly technical information about fish hatcheries management (Sample sentence:“Eggs are checked for size to calibrate the volumetric‘pig trough.’”) to pictures of Grand Lake Stream’s esteemed visitors (Bert Lahr, the Cowardly Lion, once made a stopover). It offers detailed advice for the angler about which bugs hatch when and which flies to use where. (The map of the river is worth the price alone). And it shines a spotlight on everyone from the owners of the local store to unsung biologists who have worked behind the scene to create great fishing memories for thousands of visitors. Literally, by the time I finished Tagewahnahn, I couldn’t imagine what more there was to say about either landlocked salmon or Grand Lake Stream, river and village. The word definitive here is truly an understatement.

LaBare’s grand ambition and all-consuming enthusiasm might lead some to worry about the book’s readability, but in fact he is a fluid writer, especially when he moves away from the scientific jargon. And I would be remiss if I didn’t praise Tagewahnahn’s illustrations and layout. This book was beautifully designed by Geraldine Milham: a model for publishers everywhere.

Who should read this book? Habituees of Grand Lake Stream certainly and professional fisheries biologists. Fly fishers will learn just about all they need to know to catch landlocks here or anywhere else. But I suspect there is a broader audience of people who would find this macroscopic look at a Maine village fascinating for its own sake. As I read along, I found myself wishing that similar encyclopedias existed for other unique Maine communities. Monhegan comes to mind, with lobsters playing the role of salmon.

In the end you can’t help but be won over by LaBare’s passion.“For all who love this river, this place,” he writes in his epilogue,“for each of us there is a special something— that scent of pine, loons in the night, wood smoke, the roar of the falls, waves on the shore— that no matter where we are, when we experience them in our mind’s eye, we are transported here, and it’s always about‘getting back.’”

I recognize the emotion, and I bet you do, too.

Paul Doiron is a fly-fisher and editor-in-chief of Down East magazine.