April 1 fishing opener still celebrated

Posted April 02, 2010, at 10:50 p.m.

According to the Legislature and the governor, the opening day of Maine’s open-water fishing season was March 25 this year.

That’s what the Legislature said when it approved its emergency bill designed to take advantage of a mild late-winter spell and give the fishermen what they’d want.

That’s what the governor said when he signed that bill into law.

And that’s what many grateful anglers would say when they took advantage of the extra week of fishing despite some cold and rainy weather.

According to tradition, however, opening day is April 1.

And in Grand Lake Stream, one of the state’s most traditional fishing villages, opening day officially fell on Thursday, despite the fact that anglers had been wading its fabled Dam Pool for a week.

“It’s an annual thing,” Kurt Bauersfeld of Houlton said on Thursday afternoon, after spending much of the morning fishing with four buddies he grew up with in Ellsworth. “We all get together down here. The guys have been coming down 14, 15 years.”

The fact that they were allowed to fish a week earlier didn’t change the plans of Bauersfeld’s group. They targeted April 1 for their trip, and nearly kept up their traditional schedule.

There were a couple of changes, of course.

“Two of our party fished last night,” Bauersfeld admitted.

And the others? Was there, perhaps, a preseason celebration that kept them from gearing up and hitting the water?

“The rest of us just set up camp. We’ll leave it at that.” Bauersfeld said.

Knowing that plenty of other anglers had already spent hours flogging the popular Dam Pool earlier in the week also relieved a bit of pressure, Bauersfeld said.

Nobody really felt the need to rise early, or stay up late, in order to be among the first to fish Grand Lake Stream.

“I kind of felt almost relieved that I didn’t have to get down here at midnight on March 31 and wait for opening day,” Bauersfeld said. “One year Roddy [Grant] went swimming when we did that.”

Bauersfeld explained that fishing a stream that has been subtly reconfigured by the constant flow of water can be tricky early in the year, when the spots you used to wade might be a bit deeper than you expect them to be.

Fishing in the dark only exacerbates matters.

“That particular night, when we were walking he was in an unlucky spot and what used to be bank was no longer there,” Bauersfeld said. “He was toes up. He swam.”

After he swam to safety in that winter-cold water, however, Grant became more than the subject of a fishing story.

He became a role model of sorts.

“He toughed it out,” Bauersfeld recounted. “He fished for an hour and a half after that. He was a stallion.”

This year, without the pressure to fish in the dark, the group was more relaxed.

“[We started fishing] at the crack of eight,” Bauersfeld said.

Up at Pine Tree Store, the lone shopping option in tiny Grand Lake Stream, owner Kurt Cressey kept up his own tradition of serving free coffee on opening day … even though it was not, strictly speaking, opening day.

“It might have made a little bit of a difference to [some] people who use April 1 as the get-together at Grand Lake Stream, but those people didn’t come early. They still came April 1,” Cressey said. “That was the day that everybody meets up and heads into the stream at midnight and fishes. It really didn’t make any difference [this year].”

There were plenty of anglers in town, but Grand Lake Stream wasn’t as busy as it has been in some past years. Even the Dam Pool — the most productive spot on the river most opening days — wasn’t packed with 15 or 20 fishermen as it sometimes is.

Instead, five or six or eight at a time braved the high water level in the pool.

At times, in fact, it was possible to have the pool nearly to yourself.

Anglers who showed up before Thursday had better luck, thanks in large part to the water situation, Cressey said.

Damkeepers from Domtar responded to heavy rains by increasing the flow from about 1,100 cubic feet per second last weekend to about 1,500 cfs.

“Before they bumped the stream up, [anglers] were slamming the fish,” said Game Warden Brad Richard, who patrols the Grand Lake Stream area. “There were some guys that were catching fish right straight ahead, when they could stand. Now it’s to the point where the flow rate is so high that you’ve got to be very, very cautious about where you stand. The water can take your feet right out from under you before you know how you got there.”

Cressey said some anglers were catching 40 or 50 fish in a session of fishing — not fishing all day, he stressed — before the flow was increased. Bauersfeld’s group had combined to catch about 20 landlocked salmon by midafternoon.

And while the flow was much higher than the 700 cfs that many recognize as the upper limit for truly enjoyable wading and fishing, Cressey was willing to tolerate a few early-season days of high water.

“We’ve got a little bit of water, but you can’t control the weather,” Cressey said. “I would rather see them run a little bit heavier on opening day if they deem it necessary than [to] call them up and tell them, ‘Drop it down, shut off the water, let the guys fish for the weekend,’ and then when May comes, when all the tourists really do start coming, the stream then becomes unfishable.”

The big question at GLS

As the storekeeper in a one-store town, Cressey fills many different roles. He tags deer, moose and bears. He feeds the hungry. He sells fishing gear and offers advice on tactics and tackle that will work best.

And at this time of the year, he is the unelected (yet semi-official) Ice-Out Sage of Grand Lake Stream.

Picture the wise man on the mountaintop, without the mountain … and with a single question to ponder.

When is the ice on West Grand Lake going out?

Phone calls come in from across Maine and beyond. Eager anglers want to be among the first to troll the lake after the ice finally melts.

And though I can’t explain his exact methodology in this space (Cressey uses a word that I’m not allowed to write), he is certainly willing to play along and give the people what they want.

“We have a store policy so that we don’t contradict each other,” Cressey said. “We pick a number and we go with it. This year I picked April 8 at 2:30.”

That, of course, begs the question. “2:30 p.m. or 2:30 a.m.?”

Unfortunately, I didn’t think to ask that question.

And if I had, Cressey may well have said, “Either one. Take your pick.”

That’s just the way this man on the mountaintop works.

And his track record is amazing … more or less.

“I’m always within three or four weeks,” Cressey said with a grin.

Seriously, though, Cressey said ice-out prognostication is a complex science, and nobody’s really got it figured out.

“If you look at the ice-out charts, in 2006, ice went out on April 2. I think it was 2008, ice went out May 2. So when someone calls me up, there’s no real indicators,” Cressey said. “[Some use] when Musquash Stream opens up, when Big Lake goes out. The general rule of thumb: When Big Lake goes out, it’s seven days afterward, West Grand will go out. But the weather has been so unusual.”

For the record, Big Lake went out late last week. Then temperatures dropped below freezing for a couple days before rain fell early this week. We’re already beyond the seven-day window that many use as an indicator.

Richard took the Maine Warden Service airboat out on West Grand on Monday, and said he came across one open spot near rocks in shallow water. That’s when he learned how solid the ice still was.

“When I dropped into it with the air boat, I didn’t even crack the edges [of the ice], and the air boat weighs close to 5,000 pounds. If the ice was weak, [the boat] would have broken it.”

And though there was open water near the dam at Grand Lake Stream on Thursday, with no ice on the lake as far as I could see, Cressey said much of the lake is still wearing a winter coat.

“It’s still there,” Cressey said of the ice. “It’s still going to be awhile.”

Augusta show open

If you haven’t attended one of the sporting expos held in Maine over the past three weeks, perhaps a trip to Augusta is in order this weekend.

The popular State of Maine Sportsman’s Show opened on Friday and runs through Sunday at the Augusta Civic Center.

The Augusta show is a top-notch affair, with plenty of exhibitors and seminars for all.

The show runs from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. today and from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $7 for adults, $4 for those age 5-12. Children age 4 and younger get in free.

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