I’ve caught everything from giant King Salmon in Alaska to huge Brown Trout in Montana to 23 species of fish in Florida, but brook trout are my passion. It saddens me that we haven’t done more to protect, enhance, and cherish Maine’s native brookies.
While I am very happy to catch a brook trout of any size on any tiny Maine brook or remote pond – and especially on Sourdnahunk Lake where I have a camp – I’ve been privileged, three times, to fish in the place I call Brook Trout Heaven.
In my new book, A Life Lived Outdoors, published by Islandport Press, I’ve included a story, written after my second trip, about this heavenly place. Because I always fished it in mid-to-late July, I’m thinking about this river and providing the story to you today. Every brook trout angler should put this on his or her bucket list.
Brook Trout Heaven
As an old brook trout fisherman, I can only hope heaven is as good as this place. When death darkens my door, perhaps my eyes will suddenly open on the Leaf River, with only an eternity of fishing ahead. Hallelujah!
Because I’m an outdoor writer, associated with a TV production company and a travel agency, and executive director of Maine’s largest sportsmen’s organization, I’ve been blessed with many free trips to Alaska, Montana, Quebec and Labrador. In fact, I’d been to the Leaf in 2005 on a free trip to produce TV shows with Harry Vanderweide, host of Northeast Journal.
Normally I don’t return to a place, because there are always new places available, for free. In fact, I’ve never paid for a fishing trip out of state before. But this year, I returned to the Leaf – and I paid for the trip. That’s how much I love this river.
If trout fishing was an Olympic event, the Leaf River is where you’d hold it. This big river in the northern tundra is a world-class venue.
Let me tell you about one morning when we fished “the funnel,” perhaps my favorite place on the river.
Our excellent and experienced guide, Serge, put us ashore about 200 yards below this spot where the river narrows sharply, a mountain of water rushing through and over huge boulders, quiet deep pools of fish along the shore.
I hiked to the top of the funnel, passing a complete set of caribou antlers, weathered on the shore right where the animal had dropped them.
The Leaf gives you a lot more than fish. Migrating caribou trot across the tundra, then swim the river – often right where you are fishing. One morning we saw a beautiful silver wolf – swimming across a very wide place in the river. We boated up to him for photos. What a thrill! Musk ox and even black bears are sometimes seen beside the river.
But of course, it’s the fishing that brought me back and this particular morning at the top of the funnel will tell you why.
A ripple of water flowed about five feet from shore and I casually cast a muddler in brook trout colors. Pow! A huge trout burst through the surface and grabbed the fly.
The fight was on, and he took me well into the backing as my 5-weight rod had all the fish it could handle.
When the trout was finally at my feet, I lifted it with my boga grip to check the weight: a hefty 3 ½ pounds.
It is no exaggeration to say the next seven casts caught seven trout between 1 ½ and 3 ½ pounds. They all rose to take the muddler on the surface.
Stepping up river about 20 yards to check out the quiet pool at the top of this run, I gasped. Huge trout lay all over the pool.
Switching to a dry fly, a large Royal Wulf, I was astonished to see, as soon as it settled on the water, three gigantic trout rise to fight over it.
That pool produced 50 trout for me in about 2 hours of heavenly angling – none smaller than 1 ½ pounds. Many were 2 ½ to 3 ½ pounds. One was more memorable than the others.
He looked big when he splashed to the surface to gobble my fly, and he took me down river in the rapids very quickly, breaking my tippet and stealing my Royal Wulf – the only one in my fly box.
Forced to try other flies, I found a few that attracted these trout – but none as successful as the Royal Wulf.
About a half hour later, another huge trout rose to take a large Stimulator, and he too headed quickly into the rapids. But this time I skipped along the shore and kept up with him.
After a ten minute battle, he was at my feet – the biggest trout I’d seen in this river – and I carefully photographed him lying in the water, then used the boga grip to check his weight: 4 pounds!
While his weight and girth were surprising, the biggest surprise came when I grabbed the fly to remove it from his jaw. As my fingers reached for the fly, I stared at it in confusion. I was looking at my Royal Wulf – not the stimulator I’d cast! It was the Royal Wulf that I’d lost about a half hour earlier!
On one side of his jaw was my Royal Wulf, and on the other side, the Stimulator. This was the same fish I’d broken off earlier.
I reattached the Wulf to my line and got back to catching trout on every cast.
One other fish in that pool was memorable. A large lake trout could be seen in the pool – and it chased the trout on my line quite often, sometimes grabbing my trout and fighting for them.
Finally, I tied on a large green bass fly and tossed it into the current. On the first drift the laker grabbed it, and the fight was on. I landed him about ten minutes later. He weighed six pounds.
Although the Leaf is famous for its brookies – what they call “speckles” – the river also offer the challenge of lake trout – a tough, strong fish that will give you all the fight you can stand. One day I broke off four big lakers.
If you catch a smallish trout – 2 pounds on this river – oftentimes a laker will grab it and fight you for it.
I won’t soon forget one of these lakers. He chased a small trout up to my feet, grabbed it before I could, and took off across the river, as I struggled to stop him. About 150 yards out, he actually broke my line. He wasn’t hooked. He just wouldn’t let go of that brookie.
After landing six lakers from 6 to 7 pounds, and breaking off four larger lakers, I can tell you that some of your most remarkable fish will be lake trout.
Yes, There Are Salmon
I’ve never been an Atlantic salmon angler – too many casts required to catch too few fish. Too many fishless weeks.
But the Leaf River holds salmon and occasionally we’d spent time in specific pools trying to catch one.
We began my last day on the river in just such a pool – actually several pools alongside a short but ferocious run of rapids. I’d picked up only a few brook trout in the upper pools and got to the final pool at the tail end of the rapids with vastly lowered expectations.
When I felt a tug on the line and picked it up, I knew I had a big fish, and I was thinking lake trout when the salmon leaped high out of the water. I shouted and my fishing partner across the river, Herb Morse, says I was jumping up and down. I don’t remember. Too excited.
After a 20 minute fight ant six breath-taking leaps, the 6-pound fresh-from-the-sea bright silver salmon lay where I’d placed him in shallow quiet water near shore. For ten minutes, I sat with him, as happy as an angler could hope to be, until he swam away to continue his journal home.
Now, I’m an Atlantic salmon angler.
A Walk Along the River
I love to hike a river, searching for fish, and the Leaf offers the best hiking I’ve ever experienced.
It’s those isolated unnoticed unfished pools that can surprise you with memorable fish.
On a cold blustery morning, I’d already hike a caribou trail along the river for about two miles, fishing small pocket water and catching some real nice trout, when I gazed down at what I thought looked like an ideal pool: a ripple of water flowing over a cluster of large boulders, water about four feet deep.
I snuck down over the bank, took a position behind a large boulder, and carefully cast a muddler about ten feet out. As it settled to the surface, there was a vicious splash as a large brookie grabbed it. He took me into my backing three times, and when finally brought to shore, he topped 3 pounds, a fish of beautiful colors.
I set him in quiet water to get his strength back, checked my fly and line, and cast to the same spot. Bam! Another big one. As I brought this trout into the quiet water, trout #1 pulled out. This is how it went for about a half hour.
When the guide called me to a delicious shore lunch (fish, of course), I’d hauled seven huge brook trout out of that small boulder-strewn pool, all larger than 2 pounds including one 4 pound bruiser.
One had taken my fly deep into his mouth so he got to keep it – I cut if off rather than risk killing the trout to remove the fly.
After lunch in a quiet cove with a beautiful sandy beach, where we spotted fresh wolf tracks, I hustled back to the same pool. My dry fly caught one more 3 pound trout. Then I switched to a heavy bass fly to catch two more very memorable fish – another 4 pound brookie, and the tenth and final fish, a big surprise, a 6 pound lake trout.
One pool, ten fish, 2 to 6 pounds, a lifetime memory, discovered on my morning walk along the Leaf River.
What I Like About the Leaf River
Experienced guides, large brook trout, strong lake trout, magnificent Atlantic salmon, a big noisy river, walks along the shore searching for pools of trout, migrating caribou, a wolf swimming the river, lots of hearty food for breakfast and dinner, delicious shore lunches of potatoes and trout, jet boats skimming over huge submerged boulders, barren rocky tundra as far as you can see, northern lights, comfortable cabins, hot showers, flush toilets, but most of all – the fish and the river that holds them.