A Fish Story
“That is the biggest one I’ve ever seen,” said Ray Sockabasin. I agreed. We had finally gotten the large fish into the net and were holding him next to the canoe but keeping him in the water. “I wonder what it weighs?”
Ray’s scale went to a maximum of 6 pounds. We had to maneuver the fish in the net so Ray could lift him. I got the iPhone camera ready and held the net. Ray reached in carefully. A fish like that has a mouthful of teeth. One snap by the fish and you have a cuts that can really hurt and bleed.
When Ray hefted him and got him on the scale, the “thunk!” of the scale hook was loud – the scale went right to the bottom. All we knew was he was well over 6 pounds. We took quick measurements and then got him back in the net and into the water.
We kept the fish out of the water a total of about two minutes. Then he was back in the net and in the water. Then a little resuscitation, a gradual release, and after a minute or so a swish! and the big pickerel was gone.
Scott and Kris Weeks are the wonderful innkeeper/owners of Leen’s Lodge in Grand Lake Stream. Scott has a contact who is the modern version of a taxidermist. These days no one has to kill a trophy freshwater fish to have a trophy. Measurements and photographs are all that is needed to make a replica. Here’s the result of our big catch on the wall at the end of the lodge’s dining room, right before you walk into the Tannery Room.
This was in June of 2018. It was the first of three trips each year that have become a ritual. The day had a glorious start.
Leen’s fisherman’s breakfast is always a good beginning. For me the usual order is two over easy, with bacon or sausage and whole wheat toast, lightly buttered. And the home fries have to be very well done. “I want to build a road with them” is the normal charge to the kitchen. After too much early and fresh and delicious coffee, I’m out the door to meet Ray.
That day we already knew where we were going to fish in Big Lake. The group, whether large or small, tries to mix up the lakes and meet up for lunch. There are fifteen lakes in this part of the St. Croix River watershed. Big Lake was the choice that day.
From getting into the truck at the lodge to taking the canoe off the trailer is about 20 minutes. A dirt road of three miles takes us out to the only paved road in and out of Grand Lake Stream, Maine. Right turn. On to the village. Left turn past the Pine Tree Store, the only store in the village, which serves all the tourists and a year-round population of about a hundred. And then down Big Lake Landing Road. Reach the landing. Canoe in, truck parked, and we’re on the way.
This was one of the longest days of the year. The summer solstice day starts that far north at 4 AM. By 8:30 the sun was already high. The sky was a glorious blue. No wind, so we could make time crossing the five miles of lake to Musquash Bay on the far side of the lake from the landing.
Many miles of real estate drain into the Little Musquash Stream. A ride up the stream can feature an encounter with a deer or moose or beaver and a bald eagle in the air or a raven calling from the woods. The region is in a protected land trust and undisturbed by development. In my 30 years of visiting, nothing has changed on the shoreline of Big Lake. There are no new roads going into the side of the lake where Musquash Bay starts. The stream gradually widens from a rivulet as two named feeder streams add to the flow. Big Wallamatogue Stream is the first one, and Little Wallamatogue is next.
The stream is about 15 feet deep at the point where it enters Big Lake and branches out into an expanse of weed beds and shallows and a narrow, deeper channel. The flow of pure water is continuous as the bay opens into this multi-acre expanse. There are many types of weed beds and lily pad groupings and grassy spots. This is perfect pickerel country.
We had made the usual run up the stream and then started to fish our way down and go easily with the flowing water. Either side of the stream was fertile for a fisherman. The place is loaded with bass and pickerel. Casting has to be precise. Too far and into the weeds and a mess. Too short and the fly or lure is outside the range of the fish waiting in the weeds near the edge. Stream fishing requires precision, whether with a fly rod or a spinning rod.
It was about 11 o’clock. We had caught fish off and on all morning, and the sun was getting higher. “A few more minutes and let’s go in for an early lunch,” I suggested. “It’s getting hot.” No argument from Ray. We have been fishing together for almost three decades. As time passed and year followed year, the lunches got earlier and the willingness to soak up the sun has been gradually eroded by weather and time.
But some surface action erupted near one of the weed beds. Some bait fish were running for their lives and something big was chasing them. Bass? Pickerel? We couldn’t tell, but we had to try it.
I had already tired of the fly rod. The lighter-weight spinning rod with six-pound test line was still armed with an orange-hinged Rapala. It is the type of lure that you can retrieve slowly, and the wiggle of the lure is exaggerated by the hinge.
My cast was right to the edge of the weed bed. The angle of retrieval allowed me to “swim” the Rapala along the edge of the weeds without getting fouled. That slow retrieve of the Rapala kept it near the surface. Any faster and it would have picked up the weeds growing up from the bottom.
The fish took the Rapala with a rush. Fortunately, the hook was set on the side of the mouth and the line never got near the teeth. That is just luck. I’m on six-pound test line with a large pickerel in a weedy shallow bay. I figured it was only a matter of limited time and I would lose this one.
Ray was a terrific partner. I had to stand in the canoe. Ray kept me aligned so I wouldn’t fall out. The fish couldn’t be “horsed in.” I had to a keep tight line but not so tight as to break it off. When the pickerel went into the weeds, I had to allow it to go and then slowly and gingerly work it out again. Twenty minutes of delicate teamwork unfolded with guide and sport fully engaged as a coordinated unity. And then a tired fish was eased into the net. Phew.
Two years ago. Big Lake in Washington County, Maine. After breakfast at Leen’s Lodge.
Hope to go back soon. Maybe that big fish is still swimming in Musquash Bay?
Grand Lake Stream, Maine: