April 19, 2022
Conventional wisdom holds that landlocked salmon are descendants of some Atlantic salmon that were trapped by geological upheaval about 10,000 years ago. That event stranded them from going to sea, so they just carried on with what water they had. Fish nerds call them “glaciomarine relicts.”
However, the newer, enlightened thinking is that perhaps some of the fish just didn’t want to bother to run to the sea. Rather than follow the crowd, these mavericks said,
“Forget that, I am good here. Lots of smelts to eat and no giant sharks or other sea critters trying to eat me. Besides, all that swimming is just exhausting.”
No matter, landlocked salmon are a northeastern fish and there is no destination with more mystique and allure than Grand Lake Stream, Maine. No matter if you troll the area’s lakes or cast a fly in Grand Lake Stream itself, the landlocked salmon draws fishermen from all over the world.
Although scientifically the same, landlocks are different fish than Atlantic salmon, and it’s different fishing. I remember one buddy coming back from a week-long trip and saying, “It was the best Atlantic salmon trip ever. I almost caught a fish this time.” I have fished for sea-run Atlantic salmon several times and can confirm it’s not a high-volume event. That said, landing an 18-pound salmon on a fly rod in a roaring tidal river was one of the top two best events of my angling life.
Landlocked salmon have all the same fighting ability of the sea-run fish, but they don’t get the size. It takes a pretty good one to hit 6 pounds. The best I have seen is 8 pounds. But, they are abundant and willing in the good waters. While I once spent two weeks to catch three Atlantic salmon in the rivers of New Brunswick, that’s a so-so morning on good landlocked salmon waters.
I have trolled for landlocks for years in Vermont, but I had not fished the legendary waters of Maine until last spring. Maine is also well-known for its bear hunting, and that’s how I got turned on to the salmon fishing there. My buddy Dean Wetherby booked a bear hunt with Eagle Mountain Guide Service run by Matt Whitegiver. I thought a bear hunt sounded good, so I booked one, too. It worked out well and I took a nice boar last September.
Bear hunting in Maine is typically an evening-only thing, so I asked Matt about fishing in the mornings. Matt pointed out that a huge part of his annual guiding business is fishing. One thing led to another, and I ended up booking some time on the water with him. My buddy Bob Rose and I arrived at Matt’s Wilderness Lodge in late May, too early for black flies, just right for fishing.
“We have great salmon fishing,” Matt told me. “There is also some world-class smallmouth bass fishing. Let’s plan to do both. I expect that we will probably catch a few lake trout as well. We’ll call it a Down East Hat Trick.”
On the Pontoon
The traditional craft for fishing the local lakes is the Grand Laker canoe. It can be paddled, but with a large, square stern it’s typically pushed by a small outboard motor. There were several of these at the at the access point for West Grand Lake as we prepped Matt’s boat for launch.
Matt showed up with a 24-foot Bentley pontoon boat that was designed for fishing. He calls it the “Bentley War Machine” and I have to say, it’s the most comfortable boat I have ever been aboard when trolling for salmon.
“The canoes are fine, very traditional,” Matt said. “But one reason a shore lunch is so popular is because they get a little cramped and people need to stretch their legs. It’s a great experience fishing from one, and I recommend it for anybody.
“However, my approach is about comfort and about catching fish. We fish all day. This boat is so comfortable we don’t need a shore-lunch leg-stretcher. Instead, we eat a ‘deck lunch’ on the boat and we keep fishing.”
It might be argued that the traditional trolling lure in Down East waters is a hand-tied streamer fly, like the famous Gray Ghost created by Maine’s fly tyer laureate, Carrie Stevens. These flies are designed to imitate the salmon’s main diet in the lake: smelt. With three people in the boat, we could legally run six lines, so we tied on a few smelt-imitator flies and a few spoons that looked like smelt.
We also rigged live smelt, just to be sure. On the way to the boat launch we had stopped at a remote house beside the road. In front of the garage was a tank filled with smelts. (I don’t know for sure the plural of smelt, but in Maine they are called smelts.) We took what we needed and left cash in the coffee can. The old dog on the porch didn’t even bother to bark. I guess strangers raiding the fish tank in the gloom of night is just not worth the bother. Got to love rural Maine.
The secret is to rig the smelt in a way that keeps it swimming rather than spinning as it’s trolled. It’s also usual to run a live smelt at a slower speed than might often be used for lures or flies. I fished for salmon in Lake Champlain quite a bit, and the conventional wisdom there is to troll fast at 4 to 5 mph. Matt shook his head in horror at that suggestion. With the rigged smelt we slowed down to about 1 1/2 mph.
We ran out some flat lines and of course put a lure in the prop wash just behind the boat. Every salmon fisherman knows that trick.
Some lines were on downriggers, but we also used traditional lead-core line. The line changes color every 10 yards, and you count the colors to determine how much line is played out and how deep it will run at a given speed. It was my first time using lead-core for trolling, and I must say I am hooked. I didn’t keep track, but I think we caught as many salmon on the lead-core rods as the rest combined.
As the day turned gloomy and dark, Matt put out a few spoons with a tarnished copper finish. “Always run tarnished copper on a dark day,” Matt said. “It’s a salmon killer.”
I jokingly called it decayed copper, and he corrected me. I kept the joke going all day, and Matt corrected me every time. Late in the day, he turned to me, exasperated, and said, “You are an outdoor writer, and you need to get this stuff right!”
Bob and I laughed. Matt did not. He takes his fishing very seriously.
Matt’s seriousness paid off as he helped us put a lot of fish in the boat. Even with some horrible weather conditions—rain, wind, cold fronts and one epic storm that drove all the boats off the water—we caught fish. In two days of trolling on West Grand Lake we caught a bunch of salmon, several lake trout (togue in Maine speak) and a few smallmouths.
Landlocks are notoriously hard fighters, and they love to jump. Often the first indication that you have a fish on is when you see a salmon jumping behind the boat. They fight right to the net, and if catching one on light tackle doesn’t make you giggle, you probably aren’t human.
Beech Hill Bass
On the third day, we shifted our attention and the Bentley War Wagon to Beech Hill Pond, where we focused on casting for smallmouth bass. Smallmouths slam lures and fight you all the way to the boat. Those virtues make them one of my favorite fish. They are the perfect complement to landlocked salmon.
It was one of those slow days, but we still boated a dozen or so smallmouths, with some of them pushing 3 pounds. The lure of the day was a silver No. 5 Mepps spinner with an orange dressed hook. I also had some luck with white and red jigs, and caught a few bass on crankbaits. But that Mepps was just deadly at sucking the big fish out of the rocks and into the boat.
Bob had bought the spinner at a little mom-and-pop store where we stopped for snacks. It was the last one in the store and, no, Bob would not sell or loan it to me. I considered stealing it, but he is a pretty big guy and it wouldn’t be worth the beating.
Matt guides on the 1,400-acre Beech Hill Pond often and knows it well. Much of his customer base comes from tourists in Bar Harbor looking for a day trip. This is the lake he usually takes them to.
“No matter what they are looking for I can usually find it for them,” Matt said. “I had one family who was not impressed with these big bass. We had a language barrier, but I finally figured out they wanted a lot of fish. So I took them to a sunfish spot, and they fished with worms and a bobber. They boated a lot of fish and were very happy at the end of the day. It wasn’t my preferred way of fishing, but it’s about giving the customers what they want.”
The last day we had to fish, Bob and I made our way to Grand Lake Stream to try our hand at fly fishing for landlocked salmon. We came in so green it was rubbing off on everything we touched. But by asking a lot of questions from the good people we met there and after a few hours on the stream, we figured out enough to dodge embarrassment.
Everyone we talked with was using nymphs. So we drifted nymphs for a while. I didn’t see anybody catching fish, so after a few hours I switched to a streamer pattern. It’s one I claim I invented, but it may have been around and I just didn’t see it. I call it a Copper Finn. It’s a Mickey Finn-style streamer with a copper bead head, only for the wing I use white, orange and yellow bucktail with a bit of Krystal Flash. The body is copper tinsel with silver ribbing wire. A short red-floss tail gives it some pizazz.
On my second cast the fly swung out of the drift and just as I started to retrieve, a salmon hit hard. After a grand fight, I dipped the net under my first landlocked salmon on a fly—on a pattern I created and tied myself! My hat squeaked and stretched as my head started to swell with thoughts of pride: Never mind all those other guys on this stream, I got this. I figured it out pretty fast. Gaze upon my glory.
Then I noticed every other rod in sight had a fish bending it. Something turned the salmon on, and it probably had nothing to do with my fly. Ten minutes later, just as quickly, it stopped.
We moved downstream a few pools and witnessed the most amazing Hendrickson hatch. The water was carpeted with flies, but nothing was taking them. We might not be experienced on Grand Lake Stream, but we still figured out the pool did not hold any fish. So we hiked back to the pool where I had caught the salmon.
It was hard to get down the path with the stream of fisherman going the other way. One said back over his shoulder, “It was an amazing hatch, everybody caught fish.” The guy behind him said, “I caught six as fast as I could get my fly back in the water.” The next guy, “I caught eight! It was the most outstanding fishing I have experienced!”The last one in line was a woman we had talked with earlier. “Man, you guys missed it,” she said. “It’s over.”
Story of my life.
Down East anglers can keep two salmon per day. I don’t like fish and I really don’t like salmon, so catch and release comes easy. My idea of a shore lunch is to toss everything back and get a burger on the way home.
However—and this is a big however—I have always liked smoked salmon. So we kept three that were hooked too deep and were going to die anyway. I brined the fillets using brown sugar, real maple syrup and kosher salt, and smoked them in my Bradley smoker using alder wood.
I planned to share, but before I realized how out of control I was, it was all gone. The smoked landlocks really were that good!