By Paul F. Thibodeau

West Branch Woes

I wonder if salmon have a biorhythm. Lately, that's the only conclusion I can glean from their feeding habits. Catching fish, for me, on nearly every trip to the West Branch the past few weeks, has been like pulling hens' teeth!
On May 31st my fishing buddy Ryan Stevens and I headed for that famous river, in a rush, around 4:40 in the afternoon. I'm always excited and wired to go to a new spot on that magnificent wild flow...especially when my guide had taken 6 salmon there the previous evening.

When we arrived at the parking lot 100 yards from our targeted pool around 5:00 p.m., we hurriedly pulled on our waders and fishing vests before trudging down the gated gravel road to the quick water. Ryan took position upstream and tied on a fly as I checked my vest for a favorite fly box...only to find it missing! That new $30:00 'trout skin' box was filled with $100 worth of my most effective flies. With Ryan's F-Cruiser keys in hand, I trotted uphill to the parking lot, and after checking the ground around the Toyota, searched inside the vehicle where my vest had been. Much to my dismay, the box had 'vanished'.

Upon returning to the rumbling river my mind was in a funk, and hearing my buddy yell that he'd caught a 20 1/2" salmon while I was away trying to locate my fly box, didn't improve my frame of mind.

Above the roar of the river I could hear Ryan's voice. "Boy, I've got another good one on, Paul," he exclaimed as his 7-weight Winston rod bowed and an irritated salmon ran downstream towards my position.

I perused the contents of a different fly box for alternative flies and was about to get out of the fish's way and scamper out of the river. Suddenly the silvery game fish broke the surface of the rolling water and went airborne. The proficient fly fisherman directed the 18 inch salmon to his net as the lowering sun's rays tinted the riverside rocks, vegetation, and anglers alike, with a blushing glow. Holding the fat salmon for me to admire, Ryan then freed the glistening game fish.

When we returned home around 10:30 p.m. we checked my front lawn for my missing fly box...to no avail. Once inside my house I discovered the box on my studio table. Getting older is a 'bummer'.

A week later, on June 7th, we were in Ryan's favorite June pool again. I was determined not to be out-fished on that trip...having actually remembered my fly box had given me confidence. I almost made the mistake of challenging him to a fishing derby. When we fish together, Ryan says it's not a contest...and I wonder what he means by that!

Anyway, same Friday night scenario...we got to the river and fly fishermen were lined up like combat fishing in Alaska when the salmon are running upstream. The hatching of thousands of caddis flies was stimulating salmon action, as well as my spirits.
"Wow! This is going to be easy," I thought as I tied on a smelt pattern with my shaking hands and cast to one of the numerous feeding fish.

We hadn't been there 10 minutes when 3 guys downstream all had salmon on. Stevens was making those 80-foot long graceful left-handed casts to the salmon all around him when suddenly his minuscule caddis fly imitation caused a fish to strike. Ryan instinctively hooked the salmon that immediately 'tail-walked' downstream, turned the river's surface to foam, and then, changing course, ran directly upstream towards me. Ryan's fly rod bent double as he turned the fish before it could run around me. The aggressive 16-inch landlock leaped and ran several times before the Lincoln sport used his rubber net to lift the thrashing salmon from the rolling quickwater.

As I snapped a photo, Ryan enthused,"Boy! I thought that fish was bigger than that. They really fight in this fast water. They're huge salmon everywhere!"

I was still twitching and changing my fly to a caddis pattern as most of the fish began to roll and leap...between Ryan and the next guy downstream from him.

"Wow! Did you see that fish rise a little ways below me, Paul? I'll bet it was 25 inches long and weighed at least 6 or 7 pounds!" Ryan called above the din of the rushing water.

I shook my head and continued tying on a little fly. Meanwhile the guys below us were hooking and netting even more fish as my line finally went taut. Well, it wasn't really like a fish was on. It felt more like I was bait fishing when I reeled the line up and a 4 inch golden shiner clung to my tiny fly.

As the light began to fade a bit, I found it even more difficult to distinguish my fly from the hatching insects, the undulating foam lines, and other debris in the dark tree-reflecting river. Not unexpectedly the 'karate kid' had hooked another wild salmon that did its 'ceremonial' dance around the river.

"This isn't a contest...ommm.....ommm," I thought as I took a deep 'relaxing' breath and 'beat the water to a froth' with my fly line once again. "Maybe squinting my eyes more will help me see that danged fly or maybe I'll turn on my headlamp. That might work," I contemplated.

Later, a lady fly fisher and her fishing partner walked into the pool behind me, and after going upstream about 20 yards, began to cast. Within a few minutes she had hooked a nice salmon and had her friend net it, while I continued to flail away.
Eventually, one of the thousands of rising fish mistakenly ran into my minuscule fly and became hooked. I proudly played the fish for a while and discovered I'd hooked the 'monster', a 10 incher, by the tail. I slyly released that salmon while the big fish continued to rise downstream where the water was peaceful and calm...and out of my reach.

"Ommm...ommm...ommm. Fly fishing isn't a competition."

If you want to find me in June, look for a guy sitting on the bank of the West Branch... cross-legged and meditating.

Ryan Stevens of Lincoln playing one of the Penobscot River's powerful salmon {See Tea Pail]