Bernard “Bun” Ward can’t remember exactly when he first discovered this tiny village nestled in the Down East woods.
“It’s been a while,” the Columbia Falls fly fisherman said Wednesday as he stood in a parking lot overlooking the famed Dam Pool of Grand Lake Stream. “I guess the first time I was down here was 45 years ago. In fact, Ted Williams was around then.”
Yes, Ted Williams used to come here. So did sportscaster Curt Gowdy, whose favorite fishing spot, a little outcropping overlooking a particularly productive piece of water, now bears his name.
Assorted other TV personalities visited as well. Many came to fish for smallmouth bass. Many others made the trek to rural eastern Maine hoping to tangle with a hard-fighting landlocked salmon.
No, Bun Ward can’t remember exactly when he discovered the sleepy village of Grand Lake Stream. But he can tell you that when April draws near and the snow starts melting, he drops what he’s doing and begins dreaming about the town, the stream and the prospect of hooking an opening-day fish.
“We talk about it for a month or two before the season opens and we make plans for [it],” Ward said. “In fact, I had to cancel a doctor’s appointment for today. I forgot and made the doctor’s appointment for today, forgetting that it was opening season.”
On Wednesday, Ward was one of a few dozen anglers who headed to Grand Lake Stream to observe the state’s first day of open-water fishing season.
Fly fishermen filled the popular Dam Pool, dredging the deep water with streamer flies in hopes of enticing a strike from a landlocked salmon.
As many as 18 anglers shared the pool at one time, with the string of fishermen forming a rough “C” shape from the dam to the tail of the pool.
Kurt Cressey, the proprietor of the Pine Tree Store — just a few long casts uphill from the stream, and the only store in town — said the anglers flock to the same spot each spring for a simple reason.
“It’s a matter of location, location, location,” Cressey said. “Typically, the Dam Pool is where the fish will stockpile, or if they’re moving up from Big Lake, through the stream, they’ve got to stop at the dam.”
On Wednesday, reports filtered in from other spots on the river, and anglers had a bit of luck in at least one spot farther down toward Big Lake.
But the Dam Pool was the center of attention, with anglers gathering in the parking lot, cooking food, telling stories … and warming up after spending a few frigid hours in the 37-degree water.
Rich Rolfe of Machias headed to Grand Lake Stream in the dark, as has become his custom, and by 8:30 a.m. he’d already caught and released several fish. Rolfe said he has fished GLS on opening day for more than a decade and wouldn’t miss it.
“Frankly, it’s the best game in town,” Rolfe said. “The season closes here Oct. 20, and usually [as seasons change you] go ice fishing. But you’re really ready to go fly fishing come sometime in March.”
Rolfe’s friend, Brandon Parker of Jonesboro, tagged along this year, and the opening-day visit was Parker’s introduction to Grand Lake Stream.
“I’ve been up here working and never fished it,” Parker explained. “Just watched it. Drove by and saw it.”
Driving by — or walking by — Grand Lake Stream when anglers are wading and fly casting is still a pretty good way to spend some time. On opening day, several nonanglers or future anglers stopped by to visit. Some walked across the dam at West Grand Lake to get a better view of all the anglers vying for space.
On Wednesday, Parker did more than “watch it.” He fished it. And like many others, he kicked off his season in style.
“I’ve caught two, but the guys that know what they’re doing are catching a lot more than that,” Parker said. “Two’s good enough for me. It’s enough to get me out in the water.”
Parker and Rolfe were well prepared for the season opener, and despite temperatures that hovered in the mid-30s, both men agreed the conditions could have been far worse.
“I think we’re pretty lucky this year,” Parker said. “I remember last year was pretty cold. This year seems to be a little bit warmer than it was last year.”
Rolfe said he used to head to Grand Lake Stream in the evening hours of March 31 and was among those who stepped into the pool at a minute after midnight.
This year, after deciding that the midnight fishing excursions had turned unproductive, he abandoned that tactic, opting to get a bit more sleep.
“We didn’t hit the road until around 3:30,” Rolfe said. “Not a lot of extra sleep, but a little bit.”
Rolfe and his pals were fishing plenty early, however.
“We were in the water maybe 10 minutes of five this morning,” Parker said. “By headlamp.”
That tactic seemed to pay off for Rolfe, who said he’d caught and released seven fish and lost as many before taking a break to eat and warm up.
“We had some deer steak from a deer taken last year and fresh coffee,” Rolfe said. “No sense roughing it. Not when you have a tailgate.”
Up at Pine Tree Store, Cressey, his wife, Kathy, and two other store employees took turns greeting anglers, game wardens and locals on a busy opening morning.
For Cressey, the opening of open-water season is symbolic.
Winter is over. Spring is here. Better times are ahead.
At least, that seems to be what Cressey’s getting at. You be the judge.
“People are just anxious to get out of the house, blow the stink off, as we say,” Cressey said with a chuckle. “For us it’s great because what we look forward to is the same familiar faces coming back [to] rehash some old stories and just kind of get things going again. This is what Grand Lake Stream is all about: It’s a fishing village.”
MYFGA banquet tonight
If you’re looking to enjoy a good meal with some outdoor enthusiasts, and support a good cause at the same time, you’ll have that chance tonight.
The Maine Youth Fish & Game Association is holding its annual banquet and auction at the Old Town Elks Club. Doors open at 4:30 p.m., silent auctions run from 4:30 to 8 p.m., and a ham dinner will be served from 5 to 6:30. A live auction will be held after dinner.
Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for youths, and kids under age 6 get in free.
The proceeds will benefit the MYFGA, which provides children traditional outdoor recreation instruction through its facility on Pickerel Pond outside of Milford.
For more information or auction details, go online to www.maineyouthfishandgame.org.