GRAND LAKE STREAM TOWNSHIP, Maine — Before the wind started whipping off West Grand Lake early Wednesday morning, stirring waves and freezing the fingers of anglers wading in the famous Dam Pool, one of the stream’s residents stopped by for a visit, possibly to teach those fisherman a lesson that would prove handy.
“There was a big otter out in the pool a little while ago. He was swimming all around,” said fisherman John Richards of Greenfield, as he took time to warm up in a nearby parking lot.
The lesson: If you wanted to get into Grand Lake Stream on the traditional opening day of open-water fishing season this year, having a few otter-ish skills would be advantageous.
From the parking lot to the stream, more than two feet of snow remained, you see. And though earlybird anglers packed down an icy staircase, Richards thought the otter had things pretty well figured out.
“You’ve got to act like one [to get to the water],” he said. “Slide down the snow to get in.”
Conditions weren’t kind for the hardy few who headed to the iconic outdoor village to mark the beginning of fishing season this year. Temperatures at daybreak were below 20 degrees, and it didn’t take long for the wind to kick up.
Still, by 6:30 a.m., eight anglers vied for space in the Dam Pool, many perching on rocks on the far shore. A few others geared up — or warmed up — in the parking lot.
“It’s an opening day tradition for me and most everybody here,” said Brian Foley of Orono, who said he’s been in Grand Lake Stream on April 1 for the past 18 years or so. “It’s something that we do every year, regardless of the weather or the prospects of catching anything or anything like that.”
“It’s just something that we do to celebrate the beginning of the season,” he said.
Foley arrived in Grand Lake Stream “late” for him — about 5:45 a.m. Others were earlier. But by 8 a.m., he was ready to take a break. Chatting with Richards in the parking lot, his damp waders still crusted with ice, even as he warmed up after spending a couple hours in the 34-degree water.
“The temperatures are probably as low as I’ve experienced them over here,” Foley said. “But it’s not uncommon for it to be spitting snow and ice and whatnot.”
Though conditions are sometimes challenging, Foley said April 1 signifies something important to him: Winter is over. Spring is here. It’s time to fish.
“We always expect the toughest fishing conditions of the year today,” he said. “From here, it’s all uphill. It gets nicer after this. Very quickly, usually.”
For much of the rest of the year, Foley fishes for the solitude that it provides. He’s an avid fly fisherman who ventures far from Orono in his veggie-powered Dodge pickup, which he fuels with discarded cooking oil, also known as bio-fuel.
In fact, unless you’re extremely adventurous and have done a lot of homework, you’re not likely to find Foley fishing the rest of the year. He’ll be out there, somewhere, but his regular haunts are miles from even tiny pockets of civilization like Grand Lake Stream.
“[Today I’m here for] the possibility of catching a fish, of course, but just the camaraderie and the fact that it’s the first day of the season,” he said. “The only day of the year that I put up with crowds is today, opening day.”
Opening day at Grand Lake Stream is an occasion, and anglers searching for open water after a long Maine winter know they can come here, where the stream below the dam is always running clear and cold on April 1.
It’s such an event, in fact, that L.L. Bean has sent its Bootmobile to the remote town the last two years to mark the Maine tradition.
“We travel the country in the Bootmobile to promote the outdoor lifestyle and figured, what better way to celebrate the outdoors than to come to the hallowed grounds of Grand Lake Stream and cast a fly and welcome fishermen to the season,” said Eddie Flaherty, L.L. Bean’s senior Bootmobile marketing specialist.
Flaherty, who grew up in nearby Baileyville and has fished here often, came up with the idea to visit Grand Lake Stream. On Wednesday, he and a colleague handed out handwarmers and L.L. Bean hats. But there was fishing to do, too.
Except Flaherty didn’t call it fishing, really. It was work. Honest.
“Not only do we sell great outerwear, we like to product-test,” Flaherty said, just before walking (or otter-sliding) his way into the stream. “So we’re out here with some of our gear and hopefully we’ll find ourselves a couple of salmon on the way.”
Richards said he’s been coming to Grand Lake Stream every opening day for 15 or 20 years. He was among the anglers who actually caught fish this year, when most said the landlocked salmon weren’t overly cooperative.
“This year’s been pretty slow,” he said. “I caught a couple really early this morning, but it’s been really slow compared to last year.”
Richards said the otter likely had more success than the anglers did, and said he thought low water flow in the stream last fall might have led to fewer fish spending the winter in the Dam Pool than in past years.
Still, when opening day rolls around next year, he knows where he’ll be: Right here, likely with many of the same faces surrounding him.
“I don’t think anything would [keep me away],” Richards said. “Illness, maybe, but that’s about it.”