For decades, anglers have made April 1 pilgrimages to a special little village nestled in the Maine woods, not far from the U.S.-Canada border, on a road that leads to the vast commercial forestland of Washington County.
On their minds: Cool, flowing water and landlocked salmon. In their vehicles: waders, fly rods and assorted tackle. And for decades, those anglers have sought to explain themselves. Why is it that you jump in your car in the dead of night to drive here, to the middle of nowhere? Why is it that you’re wading around in 34-degree water at one minute past midnight, trying to catch a fish that will still be there at dawn?
Or, more simply, what is it about this place that tugs at you all winter long, that turns these trips into pilgrimages … and eventually, if you’re lucky, traditions?
For years, those anglers have answered our questions. They’ve told us their stories. They’ve explained their feelings for this special little town that just happens to sit on one of the prettiest pieces of flowing water you’ll find in this state.
It’s a place where the water always flows — even when the rest of the state is still trying to shake off its icy winter coat. It’s a place where the fish are often eager participants, even during April excursions. It’s a place with named pools where the famous (like baseball great Ted Williams and sportscaster Curt Gowdy) once stood shoulder to shoulder with mill workers and traveling sports, casting tiny flies with limber rods to fiesty fish.
This is Grand Lake Stream. This is opening day. This is a Maine tradition.
Over the past several years, we’ve asked dozens of Grand Lake Stream anglers hundreds of questions on April 1, the traditional opening day of open-water fishing season. All have traveled
to get to the town, which has few year-round residents. And all hold the place — often referred to on fly fishing message boards and casual conversation as “GLS” — in the highest regard.
Here are a few of their stories.
“This is the place to be,” Joe Glowa of Glenburn told us back in 2005, as he wrapped up one of the most impressive opening days of fishing many had ever seen at GLS … or anyplace else, for that matter. “The fish are there. Just put some time into it. I was up at 2 o’clock this morning to get up here and fish for these salmon. This place is famous.”
Glowa was in the water, wading, by 4:30 a.m. that April Fools Day. By noon, despite frequent trips to shore to warm up and chat with his fellow anglers, he had caught and released more than 40 landlocked salmon. By that point, the other anglers had begun keeping track, and counted the fish for him. Over a 15-minute span, he caught and released five more salmon, putting his total at 50. Then he packed up his gear, grinning, and called it a day.
“I get goose bumps from the time I get in my car until I get here,” Glowa said at the time. “And I’m shaking until I’ve got my fly in the water. It takes that first fish to break the ice. I just can’t get enough of it. That’s why I’m still here.”
And that’s why others make a point to get there, every year, no matter what. On that same opening day, Dave McLaughlin of Old Town landed and released 19 salmon. To the left and right of him, in the crowded Dam Pool, others were following suit. And afterward, in the gravel parking lot that overlooks that famous fishing hole, McLaughlin was smiling.
“Gee, whiz, it’s a long winter,” McLaughlin said. “I hate to see the fly-fishing season close in the fall, so I’m looking forward to it in the springtime. As soon as opening day comes, I’m ready to fish.”
In 2009, Bernard “Bun” Ward of Columbia Falls thought for a moment before admitting that he’d been making regular trips to Grand Lake Stream for about 45 years.
“In fact, Ted Williams was around then,” Ward said as he spent some time out of the water, letting blood start circulate through cold-numbed toes. The trips to GLS, he said, are planned well in advance … even when they’re not officially scheduled.
“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.”
One by one, or three by three, the anglers make the sometimes tricky descent into the Dam Pool from the large parking lot. Some years, they walk through mud. Other years, they tromp through snow. And veterans have found that in the really severe years — when a couple feet of the white stuff stands between them and the fish — it’s safest to cover the last few steep feet while sliding across the snow on one’s bottom.
And even when those anglers reach the water, they never really know what they’re going to find.
During winters when an abundance of water is released from the dam that holds West Grand Lake at bay, the Dam Pool is often reconstituted. Sand bars move. Dropoffs exist where gravel once lay. And the first fishermen of the season serve as wading guinea pigs for the rest. Two years ago, Kurt Bauersfeld of Houlton recalled another trip to GLS, after just such a turbulent off-season. In 2010, Bauersfeld and his group of former high school buddies got some sleep and weren’t among the first wave of midnight anglers.
Instead, some opted to begin fishing at the “crack of eight,” he said. “I kind of felt almost relieved that I didn’t have to get down here at midnight,” Bauersfeld said. “One year, Roddy [Grant] went swimming when we did that.”
Grant thought he knew where he was going, Bauersfeld explained.
He had been to GLS before. But this wasn’t the old Grand Lake Stream.
“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.”
The midnight swim of Roddy Grant did provide the unfortunate angler with some unintended benefits, though: Bauersfeld said Grant became a role model of sorts.
“He toughed it out,” Bauersfeld explained. “He fished for an hour and a half after that. He was a stallion.”
In some years, 20 or more anglers view for position in the Dam Pool at any one time on opening day. The stream is three miles long, but early on, most of the fish have huddled up in the deep water near the dam. Sometimes, another dozen or more wait patiently on the shore for their turn to fish.
Waiting isn’t a bad thing, either. It gives anglers the chance to chat. To warm up. To eat.
“We had some deer steak from a deer taken last year and some fresh coffee,” Brandon Parker said in 2009, after finishing up a late breakfast. “No sense roughing it. Not when you have a tailgate.”
And at some point, if tailgating isn’t in the offing, many of the anglers take the short ride up the hill to the venerable Pine Tree Store, which has been serving their kind for … well … decades. The store is the only one in town, and has recently changed hands. The new owner will be on hand this April to greet a constant stream of hungry, eager fishermen, and more than a few dogs.
But back in 2009, proprietor Kurt Cressey, who had seen a few winters change to spring in the tiny little town, explained what opening day meant to him.
“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,” Cressey said. “It’s a fishing village.”