Outdoors

Trolling streamer flies still a tradition for some Maine anglers

Posted May 11, 2017, at 10:56 a.m.
Last modified May 12, 2017, at 10:45 a.m.

ORLAND, Maine — A steady but manageable wind blew on a recent chilly May morning, turning the Toddy Pond into that most sought-after of surfaces — a “salmon chop” or “streamer chop,” depending on which old-timer you happen to ask.

Landlocked salmon don’t strike when it’s too bright or when the water is flat calm, those same old-timers will tell you. But if you’ve got a bit of a breeze, and there are at least a few clouds in the sky?

Well, on days like that, you head for the water and do what generations of Maine anglers have done: You tie a hand-crafted streamer fly on the end of your line, and you go trolling.

“I got involved in tying streamers and then tandem trolling streamers, and then got into a boat to be able to go [fishing on lakes],” Rob Dunnett of Brewer, one of the new generation of avid anglers who rely on the age-old methods, said. “So for the past eight or nine years, spring and fall have been all about trolling for me.”

On this morning, Dunnett is one of several anglers from the Penobscot Fly Fishers club who are trying their hand on Toddy Pond. A half-dozen or so boats yield space to each other as they trace graceful, S-shaped paths across the water.

For decades, other anglers have traced similar paths across Toddy and other Maine lakes. Before outboard motors were used, paddles or oars provided the locomotion in canoes, rowboats or Rangeley-style boats.

And before colorful and shimmering synthetics were used in flies, tiers used precise combinations of feathers and hair to craft the flies that simulated swimming smelts. Those flies, like the Gray Ghost, became legendary and are still used today.

“I took a fly fishing class with the Penobscot Fly Fishers [years ago], and the fly that I really wanted to tie was the Gray Ghost,” Dunnett said. “I really didn’t care about all that other stuff, because that was the iconic fly. What a mistake that was. What a difficult fly to tie. I’ve gotten pretty good at it now, but at the time it was pretty frustrating.”

On this day, Dunnett offers up a fly box full of alternatives that are tied using new-fangled materials, including some that shine, others that shimmer, much like the iridescent body of a swimming smelt would. He said he’s not an expert but knows what has worked for him. And he knows he loves spending time on the water with friends.

“I’m kind of a traditionalist in that I like to tie traditional flies, but when everyone else is catching fish and I’m not, I’m happy to try some new things,” said Dunnett, who said he thinks the originators of the classic flies would have opted for shiny synthetic tying material if it had been available 100 or more years ago.

In the spring and the fall, when the water cools, Dunnett and other anglers target fish that are cruising near the surface. As the water warms, they move down in the water column and search for food in deeper, cooler water.

“It seems to be that 50- to 55-degree water temperatures really get the fish going,” Dunnett said. “And it’s really a short window from ‘we’re catching a few fish’ to ‘we’re catching a lot of fish’ to ‘you’ve got to go deep [to catch any fish].’ Spring and fall are my times for trolling. I work all of my schedules around doing that.”

Dunnett is obviously avid. But that’s not to say that actually catching fish is the most important part of his days on the water. Instead, he takes care to head onto the lake with a reasonable outlook. And he said that as opposed to fishing in a stream, which is a solitary pursuit, trolling with a friend can turn into a social event.

“I hope we have success today, but either way we’ll be fishing. And they call it ‘fishing,’ not ‘catching,’ so we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. And I’ve never spent a fish sitting on my sofa,” Dunnett said.

Dunnett said he’s heard all the theories on how fast to troll. Some say it’s impossible to troll too fast for salmon — the fish will catch up with any bait. Some prefer to troll more slowly. He alters his speed, traveling between 2½ and 3½ mph but turning frequently.

On this day, the water temperature was in the low 40s — not optimal — and the strikes were few and far between.

After a bit, with the outboard motor putting methodically, the fisherman adjusted his viewpoint a bit.

“You know, I don’t necessarily even look at this as fishing,” he said with a smile. “It’s a really, really relaxing, comfortable boat ride with some beautiful scenery, with the opportunity to catch a fish in the process.”

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