Some days, any angler will tell you, the fishing seems pretty simple, and the fish nearly hop into the boat. And other days, that’s just not the case. The fish are just plain finicky, and an outing turns into a guessing game of “what do they really want to eat?”
On Sunday, Todd Mackey of Rockport and I had one of those finicky-fish days during the BDN’s 17th annual drift boat trip. Mackey was selected as our lucky winner from among hundreds of applicants, and we spent the day with legendary (he has the award to prove it) Maine guide Dan Legere of the Maine Guide Fly Shop in Greenville.
For nine glorious hours, we drifted down the East Outlet of the Kennebec River, which is just northwest of Greenville, and fly fished for landlocked salmon and trout. We tossed nymphs and streamers and soft-hackle wet flies, and even tried a few dry flies.
For the most part, the fish didn’t show much interest.
And neither Mackey nor I were too concerned.
The company was good, the conversation enjoyable and the lunch that Legere laid out was spectacular. So, too, was the strawberry-rhubarb pie that his wife, Penny, packed for our dessert.
So what if the fish were not hopping into the boat. We caught a few, learned a lot and had a great time.
Legere kicked off the day with a prediction, pointing at some wild flowers on the side of the road and grinning.
“The lupines are in bloom, so the caddis will come soon,” he said. “Today’s the day.”
Caddis flies, for the uninitiated, are a primary June fish food in these parts. When they’re hatching, that is.
And when we arrived in Greenville on Sunday, Legere shared some somber news. The caddis hadn’t been hatching en masse, and his previous fishermen had not had the chance to “sight fish” to rising salmon and trout.
So maybe, just maybe, we would be the ones to finally cash in when the caddis came out. (Spoiler alert: As you may have guessed, we weren’t).
The water was quite cold for this time of year — 52 degrees — and hatches seemed to be running a bit behind schedule, Legere said. That left us to do what he calls “prospecting.”
Just because the fish aren’t rising, that doesn’t mean they’re not there, and not eating. They’re just doing their business more covertly, and our job was to find them.
“We’re gonna do a lot of different things today,” Legere told us. “We’re gonna fish this [streamer fly] for a while, then we’ll nymph for awhile.”
Mackey, who hasn’t been fly fishing for all that long, took to nymphing naturally, and began drifting his two-fly rig — “A train looking for a wreck,” in Legere’s vernacular — on long, graceful drifts through productive-looking seams.
On one such drift, the strike indicator on Mackey’s leader swerved violently to the side, eliciting a group “Whoa!” from Legere and me. Mackey tried to set the hook on the invisible fish but reacted just a moment late.
“This is a spectator sport,” Legere said. “We’ll both try to catch the same fish you’re catching.”
And the veteran guide reiterated a message that he has undoubtedly shared hundreds of times to other anglers over the years: When in doubt, set the hook.
“That’s what we call suspicious activity,” Legere said. “Some people don’t set the hook [when they see the strike indicator swerve] because they think it was bottom. There is no such thing as bottom. Fish live next to rocks.”
Mackey caught a few landlocked salmon on soft-hackle wet flies, and I hooked a couple of my own. And eventually, as our time on the river drew short, we began to see a few fish rise.
On the water, there were caddis flies. Not many of them. Not the huge hatch we had wanted. But a few. And it changed the whole day.
Shortly after 3 p.m., Mackey targeted a rise ring, cast 5 feet away from the cruising fish, and caught a salmon on an elk-hair caddis imitation. Five minutes later, he caught another using the same method.
“And that’s why we do it,” Legere said. “Cast to a feeding fish and get him to eat your fly.”
A couple hours later, back at the fly shop, we said our “farewells” and thanked Legere for a great day on a magnificent river.
But Mackey made sure I got his most important quote right.
“If you write anything about this, I hope you’ll let me thank my wife for entering me in the contest,” Mackey said. “And I’ve got to thank my family for giving me the day off so I could come fishing.”
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 207-990-8214. Follow him on Twitter, @JohnHolyoke. His first book, “Evergreens,” will be released by Islandport Press in October.