By Paul F. Thibodeau

Call of the Wild

Three unsuccessful angling trips to the spectacular West Branch of the Penobscot River this spring didn't deter me from driving north along Route 116 last Friday afternoon. On the previous fishing expeditions I'd made early morning trips to my favorite pools above the Abol Bridge. Because those trips had resulted in just one strike from the river's lethargic game fish, I decided to travel to the river later in the day and fish into the evening. When I reached Ambajejus and Millinocket Lakes 3 young anglers and an elderly fellow were exiting their vehicle in the parking area near the float-plane airport. All the youngsters carrying spinning rods were hurrying up over the embankment preparing to fish the Ambajejus Lake. One of the group turned and waved as I motored past and then onto the Golden Road.

The wetland that had wood duck nests posted on tall deadwood trees had been crimson earlier in the month but had turned to shades of browns now. When I reached the marshes near Compass Pond another angler had parked his red pickup near one of the streams and was preparing to cast his spinning rod. It was a relatively overcast day and the rapidly moving cumulus clouds shrouded the peaks of Mt. Katahdin. When I reached the steep incline before Abol Bridge, the sun's rays illuminated the lower portion of the mountain while the clouds veiled its crown. A flock of Purple Finches on the road exploded skyward and flew into the roadside hardwoods as I drove onto Abol Bridge. The scenic view of Katahdin Stream that confluences with the Penobscot River near that bridge, and the majestic mountain reflected in the slick liquid, is always an uplifting sight. Crimson buds on birches, maples, and other hardwoods, and the sunlight periodically touching distant hills and the road before me, heightened my awareness and enjoyment of spring as I reached a favorite portion of the river.

I'd simplified my gear into a new Orvis shoulder pack and had hooked my net to the pack's strap on the back. After pulling on my waders and boots, I toted my flyrod down the angled trail. Once again signs of spring were noticeable...the split-wood trail that had been almost buried in snow earlier in April was now clear. The softwood-decorated point that protrudes into the slick silvery liquid was intermittently touched by a gentle breeze.

As I waded enthusiastically into the sunlit river a loon yodeled in the distance. On a number of occasions on this portion of the fish-abundant river I'd experienced the large waterfowl surfacing just feet away. When loons are that close I'm always concerned that they might strike my undulating streamer fly.

Tying on a silver-colored streamer fly I quickly began to make relatively long casts towards a snaking foam line. On each presentation I'd pull out a few more feet of line and let the fly cover another section of the dark pool before stripping the fly back. Finally, after a few casts, the floating fly lay only a few feet away . A large pink fish suddenly rose, but missed the fly.
"Wow, a big trout!" I exclaimed as I roll cast instinctively and dragged the fly back again.

That time the bright game fish enveloped the fly as I raised the Silver Ghost's rod tip. My irritated adversary rolled on the surface and thrashed the amber water while I forced it towards me. After a few minutes I led the wild undulating brook trout into the landing net, and lugged it to the sandy shoreline, took a snapshot, and kept the 15-inch beauty for a fish-fry at home.
Quickly I returned to the pool where the wind had started to gust periodically to 20 m.p.h. After several minutes of casting that fly I changed to another brighter pattern, and turned facing upstream to utilize the rising wind while casting. 30 minutes later, as I stripped the brilliant pattern back, the rod tip bent as a hidden fish struck. With a 10-pound tippet I raised the rod and stripped line through the rod's guides until the silvery 'torpedo' exploded from the river just 10 feet away. While holding the rod high with my left hand I reeled with my right, and eventually controlled the slack line in the river. Finally I led the sparkling, silvery gamefish into my net, laid it on the beach, photographed it, and then released the thick 17-inch salmon.

Immediately I waded back into the water and presented the brilliant attractor pattern, all the while keeping one eye on an adult eagle that had landed in a tall pine on the opposite side of the river. Several times during my 60 years in Maine's great outdoors I've had crows, seagulls, eagles, and wild creatures make off with my catch. Just 15 minutes passed as I cast upstream and another salmon rose and slammed my bright fly! As soon as it felt the steel hook, that fish instantly went airborne, 'tail-walked' across the slick liquid, fell back into the rushing river, and charged downstream. Several minutes and leaps passed before I could direct the wild salmon into the net and wade to shore where I released the powerful 18-inch Penobscot River salmon.
At dusk, as I lumbered up the angled trail towards my car, loons called again. As I struggled out of the cumbersome waders, a Great Gray Owl's haunting cry reverberated across the river valley and made me rejoice at once again being in the wilds of Maine.

Paul Thibodeau poses with a 15-inch trout he recently caught. [Note the painting in progress of salmon behind the angling artist].

These 2 gamefish were caught on the West Branch on April 20th. [See Tea Pail]