A Fish Story: Grand Lake Stream is a village in the woods surrounded by big water thats thick with salmon and bassand its teeming with tradition, too
One thing to know about Grand Lake Stream, the men are telling me after dinner, is that “a fair number of guys on the stream smoke cigars.”
Several of us are sitting on the long porch at the sporting lodge Weatherby’s, which is set on a hilltop in the village of Grand Lake Stream (population 109), about 30 miles west of Calais and the Canadian border. I see a waft of smoke and smell sweet tobacco. Cigars, the men say, help thwart the biting flies.
Red-headed lodge owner Jeff McEvoy is in one of the chairs, and his English cocker spaniel, Curly, is curled up in another (or is she Bridget? McEvoy keeps three of the hunting dogs). Dogs, cigars, wine, and books are the night’s after-dinner topics.
A doctor who comes up from Massachusetts several times a year for the fly fishing is on the porch, along with an investment advisor who’s got a photo of his poodle on his iPhone screen, which he’s showing around. One of the guests is part-owner of a winery. Another just finished a novel with a Jekyll and Hyde–type storyline. I’m the newcomer to the group, and happen to be the only woman arriving at the fishing lodge today. A three- generation family with a young granddaughter left just this afternoon, McEvoy tells me.
Weatherby’s lodge and cottages was operating as a traditional Maine sporting camp by the early 1900s— the first in the region. When I arrived this afternoon, I nosed around the lodge and looked at the wood-paneled walls and shelves arrayed with grouse feathers, fishing books, and canoe paddles, and I saw framed black-and- white pictures taken when there were fewer trees on the property, making it appear even nearer to the famous salmon-fishing waters of Grand Lake Stream.
For now, however, our view into the dark night of conversation is of five or six cabins of different sizes under tall trees. The Wren cabin, a cozy one-bedroom lodging for two people, is nearest. In all, Weatherby’s has 15 vintage, rustic cottages—each with a porch, woodstove or fireplace, and beds with extra blankets. It’s the kind of place that still makes home-cooked meals for guests in a breakfast, lunch, and dinner “American Plan.” That includes offerings like the very good biscuits and kale and chickpea soup with lemon that we had at dinnertime.
Before I go to sleep, a chilly rain falls, and I use some of the provided wood and kindling to light a fire in the huge hearth of the cabin where I’ll be spending the weekend.
THE DAM POOL
In the morning I’m joining McEvoy and photographer Peter Frank Edwards for a day of fishing. Guests can use gear from the lodge’s stock, and I borrow a pair of chest waders and boots with a tread for gripping on the rocks underwater.
Once we’re suited up, we walk for a few minutes to the stream, which is known for its native landlocked salmon. These are known to have originated from sea salmon, but no longer migrate to and from the ocean. Instead the fish migrate between two freshwater lakes, West Grand Lake and Big Lake, on this connecting stream, which has a rocky bottom, is as wide as a football field or two, and has water that flows absolutely clear.
From the bank I can see a handful of people already fishing. I’m not sure if it’s because of etiquette or common sense, or because people need room to cast, but everyone is spaced out just far enough from each other in the stream. We move closer to the actual dam pool. That’s “dam,” meaning the stone- and-timber-based dam built across the stream to regulate water flow, which creates a perfect habitat for the salmon. And since 1903, the fishing here has been restricted to fly- fishing only. That’s what makes it so special, according to McEvoy, who began guiding in college in the 1980s on East Grand Lake in the upper St. Croix watershed, and bought Weatherby’s in 2003.
McEvoy watches the water and runs his hand across a bush to see what flying insects he stirs up. “We had a mayfly hatch last night,” he says. The flies we’ll use as fishing lures are designed to “match the hatch” in a tied-to-a-hook arrangement of feathers and beads and string intended to look (to a fish) like whatever fly or bug or minnow is naturally hatching in or on the water. McEvoy shows me the flies he’s got on his vest, including the “One-Eyed Poacher,” popular on Grand Lake Stream and made with tinsel and a red dot for its one “eye.” I think the streaming, colorful flies look like art or jewelry.
All of us step into the water to cast. Peter Frank brought a Japanese-style tenkara rod (no reel) that I want to try and I start with a fly that’s been on the line since he fished in the Carolinas in the spring. No luck, but just to be in the water with the salmon, and to watch McEvoy and others fishing, is amazing. It takes concentration to adjust your eyes to see them, but once I make out the first long, spotted figure facing upstream, I start to see salmon in the clear rushing water all across the stream. Some of the fish must be 20 inches long, and they’re lined up or swimming side by side. Some look close enough to tap with the end of my fishing rod. I imagine a sure- footed, long-legged man could walk across the stream by stepping on the backs of these salmon. Yet we don’t catch anything here. This morning, the fly-savvy salmon just aren’t biting.
McEvoy suggests we go out on West Grand Lake to try our luck and we head for the village boat ramp. It may be an overstatement to say that the long, square- stern Grand Laker canoe is the only kind of boat in this part of Maine, but it sure looks like it when we get out on the lake. We leave the narrow cove for the open lake in a nearly 20-foot-long canoe that was built by McEvoy and Bill Shamel, who’s been crafting the boats in Grand Lake Stream village for decades. The conditions are choppy but the canoe cuts through easily, and there’s lots of water—the lake is grand in its mostly undeveloped shoreline that’s green with trees, along with its size, over 14,000 acres. A good 20 minutes later, we’ve made it to a distant shoreline, where there are already three other canoes. We meet another Maine Guide, Steve Schaefer, who says he moved to Maine from California in 1971. He’s leading two other Weatherby’s guests, who tell us they’ve been catching and releasing smallmouth bass on the lake all morning. “I love how they explode out of the water,” one of the men says. “It’s like dancing.”
Schaefer has already got a fire going in the stone hearth of an old camp. McEvoy joins him and they quickly get food cooking. I’m ready for the shore lunch. After bouncing across the water and getting some lake spray on the sun-filled but chilly day, it’s sure to be restorative. The guides heat water and set out jars of homemade pickles, along with plates and utensils. When the fire’s hot, they cook hamburgers, pork chops, boiled onions, potatoes fried in lard in a cast iron skillet, and saucer-sized peanut butter cookies. We are miles from the lodge and the village’s general store and all else but woods and lake, yet the guides provide everything we need, including metal cups of just-boiled camp coffee. All we have to do is relax and take it all in.
After lunch, we’re energized for some catching. McEvoy takes us to West Grand Lake coves that are sheltered from the wind and he points out nests in the flat water when he sees them. He’s talking about fish nests, not bird nests. We cast toward the underwater shelters of smallmouth bass and it doesn’t take long before we all start to feel the thrill of hits on our lines. Soon we’ve reeled in more than a dozen “bronze backs” in less than a half hour. Now we’ll have fish stories, too, I think as we motor back to the landing.
I’ve been admiring the smooth ride of the canoe all day, and before we return to the lodge, McEvoy takes us to visit Shamel, the canoe maker, who’s working near his sheds of boats when we drive up. Beside the tidy vegetable garden at his family’s house, he explains that he learned this craft from his father-in-law, a master canoe builder named Pop Moore who’s known to have built as many as 1,000 of the hemlock and pine canoes. It’s a sturdy boat built to last and to cross the sometimes wind- frothed lake, Shamel explains, but it can also be built out with “eye candy details” like mahogany half-ribs. He says he still uses Moore’s mold when he bends the wood into place, and he does most of that work in winter. “I’ll be in there alone,” Shamel says, pointing to a small boat shed. “I work beside a big wood stove, and it’s perfect.”
At dinnertime in the lodge dining room, everyone sits again at the same table they first chose. The tables are near enough for people to talk between them about the lodge or the fishing that day. “I’m not sure I used the right surface fly,” I hear one man say. “We went straight to the lake today and caught plenty,” says another. There will be talk of dogs and wine too, I’m sure. Just after someone lights a cigar.
Wait, the day’s not over. In the final hour of daylight, several in the group want to walk to the stream to try once more to catch the landlocked salmon. More people than I’ve seen anywhere all day—at least a dozen—are already fishing in the stream near where there was once a thriving tannery in the village. It’s now the site of the fish hatchery. I stand on the side to watch. Fishermen and women are slowly, rhythmically casting and reeling, and at first no one is catching anything, but it’s a peaceful dusk scene. A mother duck threads through the group with six or seven ducklings following. Then, something magical happens, and those fish I saw calmly waiting on the bottom start to strike the lures. Upstream and downstream, I see people pulling in lines with salmon attached. The limit is one per person per day, but that doesn’t seem to be the goal. Rather, it’s the fishing itself.
It’s been an unforgettable couple of days at Grand Lake Stream. The fish were biting the flies, and the flies were biting, too. I didn’t try the cigar smoking tactic, and I’ll be going home with a few insect bites. But hey, each one reminds me of a fish story to tell.