Maine's fabled north woods are vast; the size of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined, with few organized towns, limited paved roads and a population that totals less than the number of people you can probably find living on a typical city block in Manhattan.
Much of the land in Maine, both public and private, is open to the public for recreational purposes. You could theoretically fish here on your own. But with so many legendary "sporting camps," dotting the countryside, why would you?
Sporting camps are a tradition unique to Maine; begun more than a century ago, when pioneering fishermen came north and staked out the state's fishiest, most pristine lakes for rustic lodges. The storied, nationally-renowned waters around Rangeley, Moosehead Lake, Grand Lake Stream, the Fish River Chain and Sebago — now all have updated, idyllic lakeshore cabins in still remote places that offer all family friendly water sports, and of course, some of New England's best fishing.
Many waters still fish like they did in the good old days. In fact, many lodge owners became stewards of the remote lakes they fronted, ensuring they remained productive, and the land around them protected. This tradition continues at many lodges today.
With guides still taking fishermen out on the water daily, they've amassed an enormous amount of knowledge that they gladly pass along over dinner or your morning breakfast. This takes the guesswork out of your annual weeklong fishing trip with family or friends. You'll catch more fish and your family will thank you, too.
If you've only got a week, why waste your time?
The sheer number and variety of these lodges means you're likely to find one near fishing that appeals to you — landlocked salmon, brook trout, smallmouth bass draw the most anglers — and at a price point and level of comfort you can afford. Home-cooked meals, hot running water, cozy lodging and a cookie jar are standard fare. So are boat rentals, bait and tackle recommendations.
Just as important, many offer a variety of accommodation "plans" to suit any budget: All inclusive, full-service — which means three meals a day, lodging and, if you choose, a Registered Maine Guide; or a housekeeping plan, a more flexible option that allows you to tap into local knowledge and stay close to the fishing at a more affordable price. Everyone over 16 will need a fishing license from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and plan to check in with Maine's Office of Tourism for maps, driving information and fun pit stops to and from your destination.
The Maine Sporting Camp Association offers a comprehensive list of the state's sporting camps, but here's a list of some of our favorite camps by region, the fishing opportunities they provide and the accommodation options they offer:
MAINE'S FABLED NORTHWOODS (AROOSTOOK AND THE MAINE HIGHLANDS)
The farther north you go in Maine, the longer the voyage and often, the bigger the payoff in terms of fishing. Even the roadside ponds fish well in this remote area. For those looking for adventure off the beaten track, some of Maine's most pristine native brook trout ponds can be accessed by hiking along often discrete and unmarked trails, or by a short trip via floatplane. Several of the region's sporting camps can help you access an area many say more closely resembles Alaska than anywhere else in the lower-48. Here's but a few.
Red River Camps
Nestled in far northern Maine's Aroostook County, Red River Camps are among the state's most remote, but well worth the extra effort. Peace and quiet pervades. So do nearly limitless options for the brook trout fisherman. The camps have canoes stashed on more than a dozen local hike-in ponds, all protected by state public land, offering fishing in a forever-wild wilderness setting for the native brook trout that have populated these waters since the last ice age. It's a rarity that's hard to put a price tag on; fortunately, a range of accommodation plans assures you'll find one that meets your budget. There's even a cabin on its own private island.
No place says tradition like Libby's. This award-winning, high-end lodge has been owned and operated by generations of the Libby family for 125 years. Picture-perfect log cabins dot the shoreline of sprawling and pristine Millinocket Lake. Owner Matt Libby, himself a guide and pilot, can take you by plane to sample some of the most remote brook trout and salmon water anywhere. Whether you choose to fish with a guide or on your own, the crew at Libby's, endorsed by world-renowned fly-fishing company Orvis, can point you to outstanding trout water, outfit you with the proper flies and put you on fish. Given the remoteness of these camps, packages at the main lodge are all-inclusive. Affordably priced outpost camps offer fewer perks but equally good fishing.
Nearby Bradford Camps, on Munsungan Lake, is another top-notch option in the region. The 100-year old log cabins and original dÃ©cor take you back in time. So does the fishing. Here too, owner/pilot Igor Sikorsky can whisk you off by float plane to Maine's most remote and best brook trout water, book you a guide, or point you to the region's abundant ponds and rivers on your own. Many guests opt to try tantalizingly remote Big Reed Pond, surrounded by old growth forest and chock full of nice trout.
Little Lyford Camps
Farther south in a region known as the 100-Mile Wilderness, these camps, run by the Appalachian Mountain Club, cater to families that love the outdoors. Fishing comes first, of course — and dozens of pristine ponds — most a short hike from the road — are scattered throughout the club's property, offering fast fishing for native brook trout in a wilderness setting. The AMC maintains canoes on most. Hiking enthusiasts, meanwhile, can explore Gulf Hagas, the so-called "Grand Canyon of the East," and everyone will enjoy the deep history and rustic ambiance at these former logging camps.
Cabins On A Budget
Red River Camps, in Macanammac Camps, on Haymock Lake, offers a housekeeping option that is ideal for the angler on a budget. Baxter State Park offers an unusual alternative, with rustic, affordably priced rental cabins on Kidney and Daicey Ponds that offer quick access to some of the region's most storied — and forever wild — brook trout ponds. Several other area camps, such as Nahmakanta Lake Camps, offer anglers several options and plans and take advantage of trail systems on nearby public reserve land to access remote trout ponds.
DOWNEAST & ACADIA
One look at a map of the Downeast Lakes region of Maine — some of the finest smallmouth bass fishing in the country — and you'll get the point: There's so much water here you could spend a lifetime and never explore it all. Fortunately, the sporting camps in this region have been around for several generations, and options from high-end to affordable help you make the most of your time here even on a budget. World-class smallmouth bass fishing and some of the state's most prolific land-locked salmon fishing, both in rivers and on lakes, are the primary targets.
Grand Lake Stream, in Weatherby's backyard, is smack in the middle of the best fishing in this region, an area literally brimming with smallmouths and salmon. If you're coming to Maine to catch fish, there's no better place. This top-end lodge once played host to baseball great and fisherman Ted Williams, is endorsed by fly-fishing company Orvis and is just a few footsteps from Grand Lake Stream, among the most prolific landlocked salmon rivers in the state. Nearby West Grand Lake and Big Lakes offer thousands of acres of shallow, rocky coves with crystal clear water teeming with smallmouth bass. And if you come a bit later in July or August, your kids stay free.
A bit further east, Wheaton's is another renowned sporting camp that's been around for more than half a century. Located on 18-mile long East Grand Lake, which flows into 25-mile long Spednic Lake, there's enough water here to keep you busy for a lifetime's worth of visits. Many people do just that, coming year after year, drawn by the allure of catching a 4-pound smallmouth. These lakes are home to many trophy bass and peace and quiet is part of every visit to this quiet corner of Maine.
Located on 15,000-acre West Grand Lake, another of the region's sprawling smallmouth and salmon waters, Leen's Lodge has a reputation for big bass and big numbers. With almost 20 lakes within a short drive, fishermen are happy. So are their families. The lake is part of the St. Croix watershed, which forms the border between Maine and Canada, so day trips across the border, and to Maine's sparsely populated "Downeast" coast (think whale watching and fresh lobster) are easy to arrange.
Cabins On A Budget
If a full-service lodge isn't quite what you had in mind — but outstanding fishing, access to guides and the comforts of a roof over your head are important — then The Village Camps in Forest City may fit the bill, with a housekeeping option that keeps costs reasonable. Rideouts, on East Grand Lake, also offers more affordable options in the heart of the fishing country, plus a sandy beach out front for the kids.
SOUTHERN & WESTERN MAINE (MAINE'S LAKES & MOUNTAINS)
Steeped in tradition, with stunning scenery, world-class big brook trout and landlocked salmon rivers and easy, direct access to southern New England (Boston's Logan Airport is just 2 to 4 hours away), Maine's western mountains, lakes and rivers have plenty to recommend them. For the fisherman, this area's most important asset is its pristine lakes and rivers — including the famous big 'three': The Magalloway, the Rapid and the Kennebago. Nowhere south of Labrador are you as likely to catch a 3- to 5- pound brook trout or landlocked salmon as here. Several regional sporting camps can give you the skinny on how to do it and where (exactly) to go.
Grant's Kennebago Camps
For the fly fisherman, these camps are nirvana. Nestled on Kennebago Lake, cabins have docks out front with a boat and motor for fishing brook trout during the lake's prolific mayfly hatches. The Kennebago River, which flows out of the lake, offers miles of fly-fishing only water, with dozens of pools accessed by road or short hikes. For the family and non-fishermen, there is swimming, hiking, boating in the lake and surrounding mountains.
Near the New Hampshire border on a remote corner of Aziscohos Lake, Bosebuck Camps offer exclusive access to some of Maine's most storied fishing water. The upper Magalloway, where President Eisenhower famously once fished, is just north of the lake, offering picture-perfect traditional New England fishing in a setting that's barely changed in 100 years. Trolling for salmon and brook trout on the big lake out front is also productive.
Good fishing in Maine isn't always miles from the nearest paved road. Migis Lodge staked out one of the best fishing holes in Maine in 1916, on Maine's Sebago Lake, just miles west of Portland. With 35 idyllic cottages and 3,500 feet of shorefront, this place offers all the creature comforts and good fishing for smallmouth, largemouth, salmon and lake trout to boot. Fish all day with a local guide, then enjoy fine dining in the main dining room or sample some of the East Coasts best beer and dining in nearby Portland.
Cabins On A Budget
Just a bit further north but still within 3 hours drive of Boston are the Belgrade Lakes. Whisperwood Lodge and Cottages, Alden Camps and Castle Island Camps offer a variety of price points on some of central Maine's most beautiful, and productive, fishing lakes. Boat rentals are almost always available, and the region's central location allows for forays west to the Appalachian Trail, east to the coast, or north for more fishing.