June 18, 2018
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In search of wild trout: The Baxter experience

By John Holyoke, BDN Staff

Jeff Reardon won’t tell you exactly where he goes to catch trout in Baxter State Park — anglers are famously secretive about their favorite spots — but the man who serves as the director of Trout Unlimited’s Maine Brook Trout Project will let you in on a fact that’s never been much of a secret.

If you’re looking for a beautiful place to target wild or native fish, you’re going to the right place.

“If you look at the chunks of public land in Maine that have native and wild brook trout ponds on them … nothing else comes close to Baxter,” Reardon said.

In Reardon’s world, the terms “wild” and “native” are not interchangeable. Those words refer to the most special, sought-after fish: Those that are relatively unsullied by years of hatchery influence in the state. A pond with “native” fish has never been stocked. A pond with “wild” fish has not been stocked in more than 25 years.

Maine, as you may have heard, has more waters possessing wild and native brook trout than any state in the lower 48. In fact, it has been listed as the last real bastion of those prized denizens of clear, cool water.

And for more than three decades, Reardon has made a point of rediscovering the ponds and streams of Baxter State Park on a yearly trip from his home in southern Maine.

“I think we started going in ‘77 and I’ve spent at least a four-day trip, most years a week, in the park almost every year since,” Reardon said. “We really try to focus on going [at a specific time of year], and it’s just one of those annual events for me: Hexes and Baxter in late June or early July.”

The hex hatch is a near-constant in the waters of Baxter State Park, according to Reardon. He said that regardless of the weather that has prevailed through the spring and into early summer, the monstrous mayflies hatch sometime between May 26 and July 7.

And Reardon will be there to take advantage of that predictability.

“When it’s good, both the number of the insects and their size is just like nothing else in Maine,” Reardon said. “And because there are so many [hexes] and because they’re a big cheeseburger for the trout, it tends to bring pretty big fish to the surface where you can catch them on dry flies.”

But hexes aren’t the only game in town when you’re talking about Baxter State Park. There are, after all, 23 ponds in the park that hold native brook trout. Another 13 hold wild fish. And if you’re willing to do a little bit of trekking, you can have yourself a pretty amazing vacation without ever stepping foot on the state’s most famous mountain.

“It’s a lot of water. It’s almost all good trout water. And with the exception of Matagamon [Lake], there are almost no competing species introduced anywhere inside the park,” Reardon said. “So it’s not just one or two good trout ponds. It’s a whole big chunk of trout ponds that are very much like they were when — take your pick — Thoreau, Percival Baxter, whoever of our ancestors, fished up in that area.”

Reardon said that some of the ponds qualify as relatively well-known, and relatively easy to access. He has no qualms about mentioning those sites by name: Kidney, Daicey and South Branch ponds, for instance, are home to campgrounds and provide some fine fishing.

But deeper in the woods are the special gems that Reardon won’t name. Others know of them, park rangers will likely discuss them with curious anglers, and park canoes are available at many.

Not surprisingly, the harder you’re willing to work to get to a pond, the more apt you are to have yourself a special day of fishing … if, that is, you can entice the finned residents to participate.

“There’s a handful of ponds that you can drive to, but most of the ponds that I fish are accessible with like a mile- to a 2-, 2½-mile walk, which is enough walk to discourage the crowds, but not so much that it’s not still an easy day trip,” Reardon said. “The other nice thing is the park keeps canoes on most of those ponds, so you’re not having to hump a float tube or drag a canoe in.”

The system works like this: Sign up with a warden to reserve the canoe, get a key to unlock it when you get there, and carry your own paddle and life jacket to fishing nirvana.

Again, Reardon won’t share any secrets here, but he said that in most cases you won’t need any.

“The main thing is, just go,” he said. “A lot of those ponds, the fishing is actually pretty easy. Go in late May, early June, if you can stand the black flies, because then the fishing is really easy. The fish will be up on the surface, you’ll see them rise. Just cover them with a half-decent fly and you’ll probably take ‘em.”

Reardon says hornbergs, muddler minnows and grasshoppers have produced for him in the past, and when the water warms and the fish huddle in the cooler depths, they can often be caught by Alvin Theriault’s maple syrup fly, among others. And while the fishing will slow in July and August, Reardon said September can also produce great fishing.

“There’s an awful lot of good water [in Baxter State Park],” Reardon said. “If what you want to do is catch trout, there’s not many better places to do it.”

And if what you want to do is catch trout in a beautiful place, Baxter’s still the place to go, he said.

“The nice thing is, on a lot of those trails, you’re not just walking to a canoe in the woods,” Reardon said. “You’re going along waterfalls. If you want to hike anything from little, low mountains with good views of Katahdin to climbing Katahdin itself while you’re in there, you can do all that.

“There’s no question it’s a special place,” he concluded. “Percival Baxter got it right.”

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