Being on a lake at the brink of night while watching the sun set in the northwest part of Maine is truly marvelous. The further north you go the longer the sunset lasts. Evening twilight hosts golden yellow, creamsicle orange, and salmon pink skies that eventually turn to a reddish-pink and purple and morph into dark purple and eventually fall into an abyss-like black. The colors reflected on a still lake expands the horizon blending sky and water into a pallet of colors that cannot be accurately mimicked. During evenings like these when the air is still and all mostly quiet, occasionally punctuated with loon laughter, life seems nearly perfect. These moments are singular and displace sad times found in all of our past lives. And these are the times that we must lock into our memories to help us through difficulties that may lie ahead.
Aziscohos is a lake found in northwestern Maine about twenty miles west of Rangeley and 20 miles northeast of Umbagog on the Maine/New Hampshire border. The lake is actually an impounded section of the Magalloway River that was created about a hundred years ago as flood control for the lower sections of the river. The name, I assume, is borrowed from the nearby Aziscohos Mountain which means “covered in mud’ in the Abenaki language. This area is relatively remote and is surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of forest. In the immediate vicinity of the lake the soils are glacial outwash sand and gravel. Black spruce, balsam fir, poplar, and white birch, dominate the forest and open areas of understory contain bunchberry, winged sumac, and labrador tea. The area is rich with peat bogs and open water wetlands. It is moose country at its finest.
On this mid-June evening my two best buddies and I were trolling for brook trout and landlocked salmon. The action was slow as compared to the evening before when we had caught a nice two and a half pound brookie and a two pound landlock. We trolled with flashers, copper Mooselook wobblers, and dead smelt on heavy line and downriggers. The fish weren’t that interested because the mayflies were hatching big time and both trout and salmon had been gorging for more than a day. We came with the same spinning and trolling equipment that had been remarkably successful last year but we would have been better off this year with fly fishing rods and reels and a few select wet flies. There was no energy lost on the lack of biting fish. Large mountains loomed over the lake, the sun was going down in a blaze of glory, and we were content to enjoy the ever changing painted canvas as night approached.
The native brook trout that adorn these beautiful lakes in Maine are unique. These “trout” are technically char, along with lake trout, one of the other native “trout” in Maine. They spawn in the autumn by running up rivers, brooks, and streams. They sometimes spawn in the lakes in gravelly beds. Brook trout are very sensitive to their environment. Healthy conditions with ample food and space can produce brook trout up to five pounds by time they are four years old (the world record is a 14.5 pound brookie caught in Canada). Smaller streams and brooks may produce only an eight inch fish that weighs five or six ounces in the same time frame. Brook trout are certainly one of our most beautiful fish. They have a dark green and black worm patterns on their back and the front sides of the fish. The flanks have red dots captured within blue ringlets and the fins are orange with a white stripe at the tip of the fins and often with a triangle of black on the rear of each fin. Occasionally the belly is red during mating season which is simply spectacular to witness in bright sun.
Brook trout like structure so they look for old stumps, logs, rocks, flooded stream channels, and gravel bars along the lake bottom. In the summer you may find them at 85 feet deep and in the early spring right near the surface of the water. They can be voracious eaters when they are hungry but wouldn’t touch the trout version of filet mignon when they are full. These fish are legendary in the north woods and sought after by some of the best anglers that North America has to offer. They are excellent eating, with very few freshwater fish rivaling their pink meat and delicate flavor. There is nothing else quite like them.
The land locks in Aziscohos are fairly small. Technically landlocks are Atlantic Salmon that do not have access to the ocean and stay in the lake year round except for the breeding season when they also run up the brooks. They typically breed in the spring. To make matters more confusing Atlantic Salmon are not technically salmon. They are trout. Go figure! There is the occasional twenty-eight inch salmon in this lake but most are between twelve and twenty inches. Their head to tail silvery body with dark spots is a dead give away as to their identity to all who may be lucky enough to catch these fish. Some anglers prefer landlock Salmon to trout for eating. There is no question that I would rather angle for and eat brook trout.
Jeff was at the helm of our small boat, an old sixteen foot fishing boat aptly named the Fishound. Smitty and I worked the back of the boat as we are both experienced anglers and operate the equipment efficiently. We landed the occasional brook trout and landlock salmon and kept a few of the larger fish. As we moved slowly around the lake keeping one eye on the depth finder and the other on the fish finder we had ample time to talk. Given the three of us have known each other for many, many years there are a lot of memories from our youth that get batted around. This is one of the only times the three of us get to visit together at the same time. It certainly is precious. This is our twelfth fishing trip and it has become an annual tradition. Over the years we have fished over much of Quebec and for the last two years in Maine. This trip was a little different for me. A bad back injury suffered last fall was still inhibiting me from standing in a still position for more than a few minutes and so I did as much as I could from a sitting position. I had considered not going but realized I would be much happier keeping my mind off of the constant pain. I never once regretted this decision.
The weather menu of the week had been cold and cloudy with a large side of black flies. This had been our only sunny day. It was warmer with a good amount of humidity but the wind blowing over the cold water was like being in the midst of a giant air conditioner and the mild heat did not slow us down one bit. And on this evening, with the sun slowly sinking towards the horizon while playing peek-a-boo behind billowing white and gray clouds large thunderheads could be seen far to the north.
We came to a place where we were cruising along part of the old Magalloway River stream channel at the bottom of the lake. The old channel is sinuous and has a lot structure. The fish were starting to hit some of our hardware and the action was picking up. As we focused on the increased activity we failed to notice the dark clouds closing in from the north. Only when Smitty noticed a dull bolt of lightening hidden behind the thick black clouds in the distance did we start paying attention to the impending thunder storm. Being caught in an aluminum boat ten miles from camp in a thunder and lightening storm is not an optimal situation. After the third or fourth roll of thunder we decided to bring in our gear. The storm was now looking like it was very intense and just as we unloaded the last downrigger a bolt of lightening and simultaneous boom of thunder let us know that the storm was almost on top of us.
The Fishound is not equipped with big powerful motors as some boats are. It has a 40 horse power Mercury two stroke for motoring around and a 9.9 two horsepower two stroke motor for trolling. We decided to start them both and run them together to see if we could stay ahead of the storm. We powered up both motors to three quarter throttle and skipped along the top of the choppy water in a southern direction at about twenty four miles an hour. Full speed with both motors on this old boat is about twenty eight miles per hour but given the almost dark conditions and the white capped waters caused by the high winds we felt more comfortable at a slightly slower speed. Typically we move around on the lake at about ten miles per hour but this was cause for more serious headway. As we cruised south lightening struck the mountains on both sides of the lake. The water was getting really rough and the darkest clouds were breathing down our neck. We managed to cover the entire distance back to the main camp in about twenty minutes where we arrived at our slip. The heavy rain caught up to us about two or three minutes from shore but the bimini cover and our rain suits kept us fairly dry. It was a bit of a chore tying up the Fishound to the dock as it bounced up and down in the choppy water. We put out the hull bumpers, gave the dock rope a little slack, wished the Fishound good luck and headed for our camp.
Back at camp we had an adult beverage or two and reminisced about adventures on previous fishing trips. For three guys on the door step of our seventh decade we were still adding a few modest adventures to our list. And to make matters even better I managed to forget about my ailing back for a few hours. Not bad. Mission accomplished.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in June of 2011.