ST. JOHN VALLEY - Anglers looking to wet a line in open water have finally gotten an opportunity, after a long, if relatively easy winter. With the opening day of April 1 in the northern part of the state now come and gone, fishermen have been seen at places such as Soldier and Daigle ponds and on the Fish and St. John rivers.
As they have done for many generations, these men and women will be keeping an eye on water levels, weather and what sorts of bugs are hatching and when.
Fish and hunting have been a big part of the way of life for Maine families for many years, and for some the harvesting (illegal at times) has been a matter of economic necessity.
Gary Pelletier, a Maine Game Warden for 30 years and retired since 1996, recalls stories of people setting out nets at night and collecting fish in the morning, especially on Fridays.
“They were poor. There was no income for many of these guys, like today,” Pelletier said during a phone conversation and while chatting at his kitchen table, from which visitors can see numerous photos and items from his time spent in the Maine woods on display.
“Around Long Lake, men would come down from the farms to catch some fish and then go back the fields.”
Along with this type of subsistence fishing, Maine and the St. John Valley also have a more legitimate fishing and sporting heritage.
In the late 1800s, a person could find any number of sporting camps in the Maine woods, catering to wealthy clients from downstate or out of state. With limited access at that time, people had to rely on an outfitter or guide to provide the comforts of home as well as lead them to good fishing and hunting spots.
By the time Pelletier started as a warden for the state of Maine in 1966, the big sporting camps had largely given way to car campers and tents, he said. An extensive network of roads, passable by most vehicles, had opened up the woods.
Before becoming a warden, Pelletier had spent his youth growing up in the woods with his family, including his father Leonard, who was also a warden.
Between 1941 and 1950, Pelletier said his summers were spent at Nine Mile Bridge on the St. John River and his winters at St. Pamphile station, where his father worked. Trips from deep in the woods to school in St. Francis at that time were made either by train or plane, Pelletier said.
Pelletier grew up with his brothers Melford, Roland and Lenny. Both Lenny and Roland were game wardens as well, and Melford spent many years as a teacher in Fort Kent.
“As young guys, we would pole up river and paddle back down, catching fish,” he said, adding that growing up they only ever went fly fishing.
“We never heard of a spinning rod,” he said.
Then a major league baseball player his father had met in New York came up north with some spinning rods, which was quite a change.
Pelletier recalled a different sort of outdoorsman and fisherman, who would go walking deep into the woods with the barest of supplies, making lean-tos to sleep in at night, spending several days looking for streams and hidden ponds to fish in.
Pelletier said that among his best fishing memories was one day on Ross Lake, with his 5-year old son. While ice fishing in February for whitefish, they caught a “hell of a lot fish,” he said. That family time is part of what Pelletier said he values about Maine’s outdoor sporting heritage.
“I lost my best fishing buddies when they moved out,” said Pelletier, of his sons.
Although he has largely given up fishing, he said due to a lack of friends with whom to go fishing, Phil Soucy of Fort Kent is still concerned about the health of the fisheries in the area.
Soucy is a past chairman of the Fish River Lakes Water Quality Association and former member of the Maine Board of Environmental Protection.
When he was younger, Soucy said he would often fish for lake trout, also known as togue. Square Lake would be crowded with anglers fishing for the long-lived and very large trout, he said.
But, Soucy said that when the state introduced landlocked salmon in the area lakes 150 years ago, and continued stocking them, it eventually ruined the togue fishery. Even this newer salmon fishery has suffered of late, though, as Soucy said he recalls many more large salmon being caught years ago around the Long Lake Sporting Club.
Today, Soucy’s concerns are economic and environmental. Along with his involvement in the development of the Fort Kent Muskie Derby and promoting that fishery, he also expressed concern about proposed mining in the backcountry, which he thinks would have negative impacts to the native trout brook populations.
“Probably one of the best on the East Coast” is how Dean Paisley, 81, describes that brook trout fishery in northern Maine.
Paisley, who spends his winters in Florida, has been guiding fishermen and hunters in the St. John Valley since 1979. He currently has a small set of camps on the Fish River, just off of Sly Brook Road.
Maine is still well known and sought out as a premier native brook trout fishery, Paisley said during a phone conversation on Sunday. He had been taking a break from some warm-water angling in Florida to talk about Valley fishing.
When he first came up here from Delaware as an outdoor sportsman in 1964, Paisley said the local lakes were holding more big fish then they do today, regularly giving up five-pound fish and larger.
“That has slacked off a bit,” he said, but the fishing for salmon, brook trout fishing on smaller rivers and streams, as well as backwoods ponds is great.
Among the popular and productive spots years ago, and still today, was Paradis Pool on the Fish River, where Paisley said he used to fish with “old man Paradis” 25 years ago.
Years ago Paisley said he also fished with Freddy Lamarre, along with others he referred to simply as “the old standbys.” Lamarre was an avid fly fisherman, and Paisley said he has collected most all of Lamarre’s handmade flies.
“It’s quite a collection,” he said.
Pelletier recalled times years ago in some of the best spots, right after dark, when they would catch 20-40 salmon on fly rods.
In the past, some of the brook trout streams had bountiful fish, which got the better of some people. Pelletier recalled one day when he came across someone who had 526 brook trout more than the legal limit.
“Those guys were the poachers, the thieves,” he said. “They were stealing from the real fisherman.”
“The headwaters of the St. John was as good as anyone could get,” Pelletier said. At one particularly good fishing spot near Fall Brook, Pelletier said the trout were always “beefy.”
“If it was 12 inches it was a pound, at least,” he said.
Pelletier said that years ago, Long Lake was known for its large salmon, while Square Lake was known for a consistent number of salmon, especially at a spot known as Beaulieu Bar.
The spring fishing on Square Lake in the 1970s and 1980s was “just awesome,” Pelletier said, with 300-400 boats out on the water.
Pelletier said that among the notable sporting camps in the area were the Austin, Fraser, and Yerxa camps. Most of these were located on Square, Eagle or Long lakes.
In the first half of the 20th century, these familiar names, many of whom were wardens or retired wardens, were part of the landscape for sportsmen who would travel from downstate to fish local waters.
Paisley said that he has had administrators from Harvard University and presidents of major corporations, as well as Air Force colonels and the president of Habitat for Humanity fishing in the area and tying flies at his camp.
“They would bring back small rocks from the river, with bugs on the bottom, and try to replicate them,” Paisley said, with various yarn, wire and materials spread all about.
“Sports” have flown in to fish the area from all over the United States and as far away as Germany. One friend who has been coming for the past decade will be bringing his 84-year old mother this summer, to do some fishing, said Paisley.
These days Paisley said that his friends and clients, who often fish in groups of two or three, will catch 20-25 salmon a day, although they may only keep one to take back to cook at camp.
Paisley said the fishing on the Fish River in 2011 was probably the best he has seen in the past 25 years. Last summer, one “sport” extended his planned two-week trip to six week to keep fishing.
Ben Tucker, a consultant and outreach coordinator at Maine’s IFW department, has started a community on Facebook aimed at capturing the state’s outdoor sporting heritage. Tucker said that the page, located at www.facebook.com/mainesportingheritage, is an official IFW effort.
He said he started the page, along with Emily MacCabe, also at the IFW, as a way to preserve images and stories of hunting and fishing in Maine between 1870 and 1970.
His fear is that many family photo albums and scrapbooks are being lost or discarded, with nothing left to show.
“All that history is going to be lost,” Tucker said.
Tucker said that it is a lot fun for him to share images from his own collection. The site is public and Tucker invites anyone to join in and submit pictures and stories.
“There’s some wonderful images tucked away in family albums up north and in the County,” said Tucker.