T3, R11, Maine — Before the hiking (and the sweating and swatting of flies), and before the fishing, Jay Robinson of Woodville prepared for a trek into one of his favorite places, a trouty water he would prefer to be called “The Pond Behind the Rock” rather than by its real name.
“I can’t guarantee we’ll catch any fish,” the 64-year-old registered Maine guide said. “But we’ll have a nice ride and see some sights.”
And we would fly fish the hatch that trout anglers around Maine spend months dreaming about. Many call these flies “green drakes,” or “drakes,” and referring to the large mayflies by that name is the quickest way to start an argument among the most finicky of fly fishers. Some will pull out Latin words you’ve never heard of and say your ephemera guttulata are actually ephemerella invaria, or even hexagenia limbata.
For our purposes on this night, we’ll just leave the Latin to the scholars, call the flies generic “drakes” and leave it at that.
Picture an inch-long, inch-tall mayfly that sits atop the water looking like a sailboat, and you’ve got the idea. Or, picture it from the trout’s point of view, with a human’s menu preference: When a true hatch is on, it’s like hundreds of juicy cheeseburgers are floating on the pond’s surface.
“I like this hatch,” Robinson said, summing up the midsummer ritual that takes him deep into the woods near Baxter State Park three or more times a week when the drakes are hatching. “It’s the best time of the year to fish for trout.”
There are only two problems. First, drakes start hatching right around sunset, making for a late night of fishing. Second, the ponds that Robinson and fishermen like him prefer are not near roads and cannot be accessed easily.
If you want to fish where he fishes, you have to earn the opportunity.
That requires hot, humid trudges on narrow trails that squadrons of mosquitoes guard fiercely. After the fishing is through, you will stumble your way back out the same trail in the dark, trying your best to avoid roots and rocks. If you’re lucky, that two hours of round-trip hiking offered you the opportunity to experience fishing nirvana for 20 minutes or so. Maybe.
Late last week, not far from Mount Katahdin, Robinson led the way to one of his not-so-secret secret spots, a pond littered with canoes that had been stashed on its banks by other fly fishermen in search of wild trout.
“The pond we’re going to is really pretty,” Robinson had promised earlier. “Good views. It’s a traditional place to go for us. We’ve been going there for a long, long time. A lot of memories.”
Among those included in his “we”: His dad, legendary Maine guide Wilmot “Wiggie” Robinson, who first took his son to the pond more than 50 years ago. Wiggie died 12 years ago at age 85 but is still part of his son’s fishing expeditions and merits the plural pronoun.
Along the trail, Jay Robinson stops periodically to tell a story about a rock, or a tree, or a mushroom. The tales always involve his dad, a lesson learned, a memory savored.
They often fished together, although separately, Robinson said.
“A lot of ponds we each had a canoe because we didn’t really like to fish together,” he said. “He was right-handed. I was left-handed. Which was fine with me. [I could be] independent.”
After spending more than an hour on the trail the view was spectacular, as promised. Katahdin dominated the eastern sky and the pond was mirror-flat. A pair of loons joined the fishing party within minutes, to Robinson’s frustration.
“That loon is trained. I think they’ve been feeding it down on the coast in the wintertime,” Robinson said. “So if you get a fish on, he’s gonna come around and try to get a free meal.”
Robinson said he has six or seven canoes stashed on various local ponds and hikes in to fish when conditions are right. On this day he took a box full of flies in the canoe, but knew he was only going to fish with one.
“The bigger the fly, sometimes, the better. You’ve got to be able to see that fly in the dark, late at night. I like the white Wulff. No. 8,” he said, pulling out a bulky, hairy fly that would resemble a meaty mayfly when he cast it onto the pond’s surface. “You throw it out there and let your line tighten up. Twitch it a little bit. Try to get it near some fish that just rose. And then figure out where they’re gonna rise next.”
When the drakes are hatching, the outcome can be pleasingly predictable. The hatch will begin around 8:30 p.m. or so and last for 20 minutes or half an hour. When it’s going on, the trout will sometimes engage in a feeding frenzy, rising and splashing as anglers scramble to put their flies in the right places.
Drake hatches begin in “Katahdin Country” sometime in late June and can last for two or three weeks. Last week, three full weeks into the month, the hatch was not as dramatic as it had been earlier in the month, but it did occur.
“It should have happened by now,” Robinson said at 8:30 p.m. as a solitary (but tasty-looking) mayfly sat untouched on the surface of the pond. “Let’s try one last spot, and then we’ll leave.”
Then, it happened.
While anchored at that “one last spot,” fish started rising 100 yards away. First one. Then five. Then a dozen. Robinson quickly paddled toward the commotion and began casting.
Over a few short minutes, he caught two nice brook trout and just missed a few more. The hike, justified. The trip, a success.
After the long, dark hike back to his truck, Robinson set course for home and reflected on a day when we had seen nobody else on the trail or at his special fishing hole.
“I’m a dying breed,” he said, sounding a little sad but also proud. “Back when the mill was running, there were all kinds of guys doing what I do. Not anymore.”
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