Reprinted from the February 2017 issue of the Northwoods Sporting Journal
It’s a long offseason for a fly fisherman in northern Maine. Sitting by the fire while cold wind blows snow across the fields outside, I’m going over memories from last summer and dreading the months before I can do it again. Ice fishing’s great, and it helps us get through the long winter, but it’s tough to drift a fly in moving water through the ice.
Last summer was quite a blast, and of all the great trips, the last one of the season was most interesting, so I thought I’d share it with you. That way I’ll be less likely to forget it, and we all might get a little laugh in between lugging firewood and shoveling snow.
It was September 30th, the last day of open water season, and I took the day off to fish. I’d discovered several incredible trout streams over the course of the summer, but there was one place on my list I hadn’t made it to, and the thought of waiting another year before getting there didn’t sit well with me.
It was a stream I’d caught lots of trout in as a youngster, but we never ventured far from the road, so there were large reaches of it I’d never seen. Google Earth revealed some really good looking habitat in a remote reach, and I figured it was worth the hike.
There was a frost that morning, but it warmed up quick as I hiked through the woods toward the stream, chest waders and pack on, glints of morning sun shining through the trees. I made it to the stream and found things in fine shape as I sat down on a log washed onto an open gravel bar. The log was four feet long and cut on each end. Pulpwood from the old logging days.
This was a beautiful stream. It was, then it was cleared, bulldozed and used to drive logs. Today it’s recovered to resemble its former self, and the habitat that’s returned to the stream after several decades of nature’s work is encouraging. I rigged up and tied on a fly.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and it was going to get into the 70’s. But in late September the nights get cold, and so does the water. It was in the low 50’s and the trout were slow. As the saying goes, “shoulda been here last week”. After some patience I was able to get the brookies to cooperate, and as the sun shone and warmed the water, the fishing picked up.
I made my way upstream, fishing the beautiful deep pools and runs. It was slow, but it was fun, and with enough patience I caught a fish or two in every spot. The stream meandered beautifully through a steep meadow, reminding me of the Western waters I’d fished in years past.
The fishing could have been faster, but not only was the water cold, the trout were getting into spawning mode, and spawning trout don’t have feeding on their mind. In fact, they can be downright impossible to catch. I spotted some trout staging in shallow water gravel beds and walked on by as they scooted away.
Suddenly the stream changed. The gradient picked up, and I entered a narrow, steep valley with large cobble, boulders and step pools. This was pocket water fishing. I stopped and set on a rock to change flies and eat lunch.
Something caught my eye. You don’t usually see an owl during the day, and especially not by the water, but this one was. It was sitting on a boulder in the middle of the stream about 50 yards up. What would an owl be doing on a stream during the daytime in late September? I got up to go and he flew off.
Half an hour later and a good ways upstream, I found myself at the perfect trout pool. The steep stream had leveled off and had carved out a deep pool at a pinch point on a bend. Amongst the fast water, it was the perfect place for a trout to rest. I rigged up and started catching them.
I got a good one on. The brookie fought well and put quite a bend in the 3 weight rod. I got him in to shore and took my phone out to get a picture before sending him back. That’s when it happened. WHOOOSH! Air, wings and feathers in my face, I panicked. Something was attacking me!
I swung the rod around and yelled and hollered until the bird backed off and flew away. It was the owl. The bugger flew across the stream, landed on the opposite bank and stared back. I was shaking too bad to take a good picture and couldn’t wrap my head around the whole thing.
In the end, I had a broken fly rod, lost trout, a couple lost flies, and a newfound respect (and mild hatred) for owls. It all started to make sense, though. When I’d first seen it, the owl was hunting for trout in the stream. Naturally, spawning season would be an easy time to catch fish, and this stream was full of them. When it saw my trout splashing in the water near shore, it went in for a meal. Probably didn’t even know I was there. Makes sense, since I got out of the ordeal without a scratch.
The broken fly rod ended that trip. Thanks, Owl! I walked the mile back to the car in amazement over what had happened. With a few hours left in the day, I grabbed the 5 weight and caught a couple of salmon in a nearby river, but it wasn’t the same. Owl or no owl, I’ll be back there next year. I may be the only angler he ever sees on that stream, so I hope we can learn to get along.