The West Branch

SportingLife West Branch

And, musings on the meaning of beauty strips.

By John Gierach
Illustration by bob white / whitefishstudio.com

Jim Babb, his guide friend, Danny Legere, and I pulled out of Greenville, Maine with two canoes strapped to the boat rack on Danny’s pickup—a 20-foot Old Town Tripper and a 21-foot Mad River Grand Laker—along with so much gear and provisions it looked like we’d be gone for a month instead of five days. It was raining lightly and the chilly morning air was almost too thick to breathe. A day earlier I’d flown from the arid high elevation of Colorado into this dense, humid weather, and just as Eastern visitors to the Rockies sometimes suffer from altitude sickness, when we Westerners approach sea level we can begin to feel like we’re drowning in too much atmosphere.

After two hours on the kind of tire-eating gravel roads where logging trucks have the undisputed right of way, we put in at a bridge that crosses the upper West Branch of the Penobscot River. At first I didn’t think the mountain of gear we piled on the bank would fit in the canoes, but Danny had done this hundreds of times, and when we followed his directions the load went together as neatly as a Rubik’s Cube. The Old Town was packed solid and rode low in the water like a barge, while the Mad River had just enough space for Danny to run the outboard. Jim was in the bow seat with a square foot of leg room, and I was nestled amidships in a pile of dry firewood. With the Old Town roped on behind, we ducked under the bridge and motored downstream.

For the first few miles the river was shallow, wide and placid, with no discernable current to give away the shape of the bottom. Mixed woods grew right to the water’s edge here, with solemn white pines and black spruce punctuated here and there by the surprising reds and golds of oak and birch. The overcast hung just above the treetops and a misting rain came and went, the droplets not so much falling as floating in the air like gnats. Late September: Nights were getting longer and colder, the moose were into their rutting season and it wasn’t much of a stretch to picture all this buried under snow.

The current picked up around Thoreau Island and the West Branch began to look more like a proper salmon river with defined channels, tighter bends and fishy-looking riffles, runs and pools. There are 10 established campsites scattered through this stretch of good water, each with its own rough pine picnic table and outhouse. On this Tuesday morning some spots were already occupied by hard-core regulars Danny knew by name, but there were still some vacancies, and we moved into Smart’s Camp with its small clearing overlooking a pretty confluence pool.

I had two things in mind for this trip: One was to fish with Jim again and the other was to catch landlocked salmon. Jim and I had first fished together years earlier on a junket to Labrador. I’d known him before that as a writer and editor, but it was on that trip that we discovered we fished at the same pace, shared the same sense of what passes for humor among fishermen, and figured out that we were distantly related and began half-jokingly calling each other “cousin.” Since then we’d traveled and fished together when we could, but Jim is now semi-retired (which is sort of like being a little bit pregnant) and his travel budget has shrunk accordingly, so we hadn’t seen each other in several years. In the meantime, the phrase “while we still can” had begun to insinuate itself into our fishing plans.

As for landlocked salmon, I’d caught a few on previous trips to Maine—never enough to say I’d really gotten into them, but enough to want to. These fish are favorites in the regions where they’re found, but not high on the life lists of those from elsewhere, even though they’re genetically identical to the sea-run Atlantic salmon anglers will fly all the way to Iceland or Russia for. The catch is, landlocks, or “lake salmon,” are usually smaller (though not always, as local fishermen may point out).

These fish spend their summers and winters in lakes and run up the rivers in the spring to feed, and again in the fall to feed and then spawn. You can troll for them in the summer or ice-fish in the winter, but for many it’s hard to think of landlocked salmon as anything but river fish. Jim describes them as, “Atlantic salmon that bite for reasons you can understand,” and in my limited experience that had rung true. The few I’d caught on dry flies and nymphs had held in recognizable lies eating aquatic insects and might as well have been brook trout—at least until they were hooked and went airborne.

But this time we fished for them with streamers, and that made them seem more inscrutably salmon-like. Our successes came often enough that week, but always in isolated flurries as the fish lit up for a while and then turned off again depending on the precise but unfathomable alignment of time, weather, temperature, place, depth, action and fly pattern that would be familiar to anyone who chases anadromous fish. Trout have their passing moods, but salmon seem prone to something more akin to manic depression: violent one minute; catatonic the next. You can see this tendency in the streamer patterns. Many that are still in use are approaching a century old—a whole roster of traditional featherwings, each with its own origin myth—and even some of the newer ones still share the unlikely color combinations, exotic materials and Victorian flourishes that are reminiscent of full-dress Atlantic salmon flies, suggesting a fish that often leaves those who try to catch it scratching their heads.

The two canoes’ worth of gear made for a comfortable but not overly elaborate camp with roomy tents, wood-framed canvas cots, a two-burner stove, a reflector oven, and wicked good suppers prepared in advance by Danny’s wife, Penny. He bragged that she’d often be in the kitchen at two in the morning rustling up spaghetti sauce and a couple of pies for a trip before working the fly shop in Greenville all day while Danny was off guiding. There’s no doubt that fishing guides are an energetic breed, but it’s less widely understood that their wives sometimes put them to shame behind the scenes.

There were even some small, propane-fired space heaters that went by the brand name of Mr. Heater, which we thought sounded like someone’s pet name for their Glock. You didn’t dare leave one of these on all night for fear of waking up shrink-wrapped in your nylon tent, but the nights got into the 20s and I was sleeping in a borrowed 30-degree bag, so it was an uncommon luxury to warm the tent before bed and again in the morning before getting up. I developed a cushy predawn routine of waking at first light when I heard Danny lighting the Coleman stove, reaching over to flip on Mr. Heater and then lying there in the sleeping bag until the tent was warm and the coffee was made.

I slept beautifully in this camp. The pre-warmed tent helped; so did the uncomplicated tiredness that comes after a day of fishing, plus a stomach full of good food and the river music of current a few yards from the tent flap. The only exception was the night two moose started carrying on romantically across the river. I woke up disoriented by the commotion. The bull was grunting, the cow was bleating and moaning and for an instant I thought I was overhearing a porn film through the thin walls of a cheap motel room. When I figured out what it was, I listened pruriently for a few minutes, wondering if this was foreplay or if they were actually closing the deal, and then promptly fell back to sleep. I thought maybe this soundtrack would trigger a hair-raising erotic dream, but no such luck.

When he was arranging it, Jim had said this trip would put us on some of the best landlocked salmon water in the region at the best time of year with one of the most experienced guides in the state: not exactly a guarantee of success, but a real promising proposition. And in fact by the time we knocked off for supper that first day out, I’d boated as many landlocked salmon in a few hours as I had in all my previous attempts. Danny had all the right streamers and the fish were up from Chesuncook Lake right on schedule with a sweet tooth for forage fish. It was a simple case of being in the right place at the right time with a guide good enough to remove the bulk of the guesswork, but I was pretty proud of myself anyway, and the fly rod that can be such a dumb stick some days had begun to feel like a powerful but friendly animal.

I caught some of my salmon on a fly pattern Danny swore me to secrecy about for professional reasons—no one on the river uses it and he wouldn’t mind keeping it that way—while most of the rest came on Black Ghosts, Blue Streaks and Montreal Whores. Being from Colorado, I was given a pass on the pronunciation of that last pattern (in the proper Maine dialect, “whore” becomes a two-syllable word pronounced “ho-uh”) but Jim, with his editor’s penchant for accuracy, couldn’t help pointing out that “A ‘banger’ is an unpleasant English sausage,” while “‘Bangor’ is a town in Maine.” I stood corrected.

As with any species, the trick with these salmon was the revolving fly du jour combined with some particular subtlety of manipulation. Sometimes it was the down-and-across-current, tight-line swing you’d use for steelhead or when wetfly fishing for trout; other times they wanted a retrieve ranging anywhere from a slow pull to the fastest strip imaginable. But the fallback was always the traditional steep, downstream swing with the rod tip jigged up and down to make the fly dart like a minnow in the current. There are endless variations on this, from a constant, deep pumping of the rod to the occasional short lift, always bearing in mind that trying to catch a salmon is like playing with a cat: The rules change without notice and your problem is often nothing more than a failure of imagination.

These were handsome small salmon that hit aggressively when they were biting and might as well have been nonexistent when they were off their feed. You could think of them as miniature landlocked ocean fish making the best of things in fresh water, or as a distinct gamefish in their own right on the order of a deluxe trout. Take your pick. They were strong fighters and every last one I hooked jumped repeatedly, including the occasional five-inch dink I wouldn’t have thought would be strong enough to pull the sink-tip line all the way to the surface.

My biggest were in the 18- to 20-inch range—a size that’s considered to be a nice enough fish—but I knew they sometimes came bigger and one afternoon we talked to a man who, two days earlier, had hooked, played and lost a salmon he described as “at least 28 inches long and thick as a canoe paddle.” He was still wide-eyed when he told the story, amazed that he’d had a close brush with such a fish. He was naturally heartbroken, but also saw it as an adventure in possibility, so he’d been fishing with that vision in mind ever since, not really believing he’d hook that same fish or another one like it again, but not entirely resigned that he wouldn’t either.

That guy was with a large party camped downstream from us who were following the oldest good advice in salmon fishing, namely, keep a hook in the water and put in your time. I think there were eight of them. Their camp looked like a small, unruly village and they otherwise seemed like a pleasantly rough bunch, so I assumed they were locals. Mainers somehow manage to fly-fish without becoming overly impressed with themselves, and in fact they say that if you see a snazzy fisherman in Maine, he’s probably from Connecticut. These guys had been camped there so long that the last time Danny was down here they’d asked him to bring them a newspaper on his next trip in. It takes a long time out fishing to start missing the news of the world.

We were back in camp for lunch one day when a friend of Danny’s poled over to say hello in an ancient 20-foot Gerrish canoe. It’s not unheard of to see a wooden canoe on the Penobscot, but this venerable old boat was an actual relic from the turn of the last century, and as the man leaned casually on his setting pole and talked about the fishing, I went all mushy inside at the sight of a 100-year-old canoe still in use in a world where a two-year-old smartphone is obsolete.

E.H. Gerrish isn’t exactly a household name, but he was among the first of the boat builders who sprang up hereabouts in the 1880s to fill a growing demand for canoes. It was the same commercial boom that produced recognizable names like Morris, White, Carleton, Kennebec and Old Town, continued on into later generations and included our campsite’s namesake, Myron Smart. These canoes were modeled after the birch bark canoes that were built by the people of the Penobscot Nation, who had been living and fishing here since before the Roman Empire, and it’s said that these craftsmen adopted wood and canvas not because it was better than birch bark, but because by the late 1800s mature white birch trees big enough to strip for canoes were already getting scarce.

The sports who came up from the cities to fish from these canoes with curmudgeonly Maine guides brought along now-classic bamboo fly rods by makers like Payne, Leonard and Edwards: rods that were then just good fishing poles, but are now museum pieces too valuable to bring to the river. And Fred Thomas’s workshop was just downstream in Bangor, where the great F.E. Thomas streamer rods were built within sight of this river.

And then there’s the whole Thoreau thing. Henry David Thoreau floated the West Branch twice in the 1850s and wrote about it in his book The Maine Woods. He may have understood—or at least hoped, the way writers do—that he’d be remembered, but I wonder if he foresaw that Warren Island would be renamed Thoreau Island in his honor or that his other stops would become landmarks on the kind of sentimental canoe trips one local outfitter refers to as “soft adventure.” Or, for that matter, that he’d spawn an entire tourist industry that draws what are known to some as “Thoreau people” and to others as “earth muffins.”

The accumulated bitter-sweetness of nostalgia seems unavoidable here, and it’s easy to sit poking your campfire and imagining a past when the fish were bigger, life was simpler and everyone was off the grid because there was no grid. But it’s harder to put a finger on exactly when that would have been. Even by the time Thoreau came along and described this country as “grim and wild,” a robust logging industry had already been going on for 20 years—leaving behind it that industry’s distinctive form of wreckage—and ownership of the land was already largely sewn up. Way back in the 1780s, when this region was still part of Massachusetts, most of what would later become the state of Maine was sold off in township-size parcels to private owners who could do what they wanted with it and, then as now, one of the things they wanted was to sell off the valuable saw logs.

Much of the north Maine woods is now privately owned by a consortium of logging companies, and although the legal and financial arrangements that provide access can seem incomprehensible to an outsider, Jim said it boils down to people being allowed to hunt, fish, paddle and camp here as a concession to the famously irascible character of Mainers who would hunt, fish, paddle and camp whether they were allowed to or not, so why fight it? Behind that offhand comment, you sense generations of hard feelings.

The woods along the West Branch now are the kind of old second-growth forest that looks primordial to a casual observer, but that’s a calculated illusion because the state has negotiated 500-foot easements—called “beauty strips”—along both sides of the river where logging isn’t allowed.

When I first learned about that I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The romantic in me wanted a backdrop of absolute wilderness instead of a narrow stage set for recreation, but then to be really upset about it I’d have had to be more surprised than I am that some things aren’t exactly what they appear to be. On the other hand, my practical side found it hard to argue with any compromise that lets an extractive industry stay in business while leaving a wild river intact. If nothing else, it provides some with a livelihood and avoids the kind of all-or-nothing fight conservationists usually lose.

I can’t say I spent a lot of time brooding about this; the fishing was too good for that and I also understand that if you chase perfection too far down a rabbit hole you can end up growing your beard down to your belt buckle and carrying a sign that reads “THE END IS NEAR.” Still, the 21st Century temptation to peek behind the corporate curtain can be almost irresistible, and on our last evening in camp I did think about walking 500 feet into the woods to see if I’d emerge into a moonscape of clear-cuts. But without actually deciding not to, I never got around to it.

The next day we broke camp, and the day after that Jim and I hiked down the East Outlet of Moosehead Lake, bushwhacking through the underbrush after the fisherman’s trail petered out. The fishing was slow, but we managed a few small salmon and I landed the fattest, prettiest 16-inch brook trout I’d seen in a long time. No trip to Maine would be complete without a brook trout.

John Gierach’s latest book is All Fisherman Are Liars (Simon & Schuster).

John Gierach
About John Gierach 8 Articles
John Gierach's latest book is All Fishermen Are Liars (Simon & Schuster).

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