Wednesday, July 30, 2008

St. John River - Musky Madness

First day on Baker lake.

Since the 1970s my father has been running the North Maine Woods' St. John River. Back then, the St. John was deemed a trout heaven. The brook trout fishery was among the finest in Maine, with river trout reaching the 4-5 pound range.
In the late 80s, a Canadian feeder stream contaminated the river with muskullunge. It is thought that the fish were being stocked in a personal pond, which flooded during a storm. For those who are not familiar with "musky", they are closely related to northern pike, but are far more cagey. Within 10 years, the musky had a strong hold in the St. John and now there are no trout to speak of in the river.
The change in the fishery has been greeted with great distain, many don't fish the St. John at all any more. I never experienced the great trout fishing of the river and take to the new fishery with a rod and of coarse, a steal leader.
We start the St. John trip at Baker Lake, 110 miles up from our final destination - Dickey/Allagash. The first day of fishing comes with great success. In an afternoon I tied into 6 fish with a five inch red and yellow bucktail. Four of these fish were landed and fell within our normal range which is between 30 and 34 inches, with the biggest we've caught measuring 36 inches. People talk about some of the original establishing fish, which feasted on a seemingly endless supply of brook trout, reaching the 42 inch mark. Fish like that are considered a rarity now, due to the population increase and subsequent decline of the food supply.
We moved down the river with similar fishing luck, catching musky of good size all down the river. About midway through the trip, we ended up at a site once well renowned for its incredible trout fishery up until 10 years ago when all the trout disappeared. "Throughout this section of the river", my father recalls, "people would paddle off in the morning and come back with a stringer of 15-20 inch brook trout."
Travel days put us into sites around sunset, which is the perfect time for musky fishing. On this particular evening, the mosquitos were relentless and I could not bring myself to stand around and observe the dinner cooking process, so I grabbed my rod and headed to the water. I work my way upstream casting, no luck. I walk back toward the site and was really just wasting time till the dinner bell and it appeared that I had more time to waste, so I took to the shore to try a couple backwaters downstream.
I tromp through the grass, casting the shore along my walk, and arrived at the first backwater. The night was quickly descending upon me, but I knew that this was the prime musky hour. The inlet was small, about 20 yards across and 30 yards deep. I thought to myself as I prime for my first cast, "I'd like to see a musky try to work himself out of this hole." My bucktail splashed the surface, near the far shore, my retrieve was quick and my lure was not half way across the bogan when it happened. A huge swirl at the surface, largest I have ever seen in my pursuit of freshwater fish. My rod bent and I let out line, as I was on free spool. I have a 4 inch leader and 8 pound test line, so aside from short runs, I wanted to keep this fish from going wild, because I would have had little chance of landing it.
As I worked it to the surface I first saw its back and then this massive head. This fish was by far the biggest fish I had ever hooked or seen in the river. For the first two minutes, I stood on the shore while I could feel this fish shaking and pushing to the bottom. It was silent, by myself, a quarter mile down stream. I realized that I had no chance of landing this fish without help, but was I going to have it on long enough worth yelling up to someone? I half expected the lure to fire out of that fishes mouth and hit me right in the face. Wouldn't be the first time.
"HUGE FISH!" I yell repeatedly, "HUGE FISH!". My brother was the first to arrive on the scene, at this point I have had the fish on for five minutes and have had some good looks, it went on short runs and jumped almost completely out of the water with the notorious head shake, which haunts most anglers. This shake is were most fish are lost. I was a bit concerned, the line has become rapped around the fish's head and all I could see was my 8 pound mono coming up from behind one of its gill plates. I handed the rod off to my brother and waded into the weeds to see if we can make a quick landing before it had the chance to get off. The fish spooked easily and started to go on some bigger runs toward the middle of the river. I take the rod back and begin to work him with the current down stream and try to work it
closer to shore, it has been near 10 minutes and I have found out that you have a five minute window to land these fish before they get off.
I breathed a little easier when the fish came into shallow water and I could clearly see the lure in the conner of the mouth. The gravel shore was an ideal place to attempt the landing but it had to be done right. By now the whole family was there and my brother waded into the water and takes off his long sleeve shirt to throw over the fish. The fish spooked out a couple times and finally came into the shallows. The next few moments were a blur, but before I knew it, the fish had been pushed up into the gravel and the fight was over.

I ran over to the fish, held up the fish and said "Dad, I think I found all of your trout." The monster measured in at 42 1/2 inches and was in the 25 pound range. The fish was half an inch short of the derby winner in Dickey the year before, which was 43 inches and weighed in at 25 pounds with a $5,000 purse. After a few pictures, the fish was released into the water to torment once again. And it was at last, dinner time.

The 42.5 inch fish with a 30 inch fish caught earlier that afternoon.



Andrew Wilkie said...

Clark, phenomenal story.... I thought you had kept the great beast and consulted someone (biologist/warden) in Dickey, guess I misunderstood. Regardless, that was a beast. Glad you finally made the post!

Morrell said...

Wow man, sounds like a fun trip. Nice lookin fish. I guess theres no hope of reclaiming the river to its natural state so they just say put em back eh? Was there any flyrod action to be had for the fish of 1000 casts?

Jesse Lance Robbins said...

mr. winchell, phenomenol story is right. i'm glad you finally got that guy up there. i saw your drafts up but i held back and waited for the full post. that fucking fish is huge man you guys must've been freaking out. i bet the bottle flowed that night, ha!

did you fish at all with the fly rod? how big would the flies have to be? we gotta get together at least once this summer and fish man, let's figure it out.

Keith said...

Clark, great story and beautiful fish. I look forward to wetting a line and packing a lip with you. Are you in Mass this summer?