Trolling flies is a time-honored tradition on Maine’s lakes and ponds.
As my boat neared an underwater ridge, I began to pump my fly-rod back and forth.
I could picture the sparse fly attached to the leader darting ahead in the water, then pausing as if it were a crippled smelt. Surely a salmon would find this action attractive. After perhaps six pulls on the rod, I began to wonder if there were any fish to be caught. I had diligently checked the brooks that lead into Lake Auburn for the past three nights, so I knew that the smelts were running.
After jigging the rod forward one more time and letting the fly settle back, a sharp tap on the rod tip signaled that a fish was on. I snapped the rod tip forward and palmed the reel as the salmon made for deeper water with my fly securely anchored in its bony mouth. I barely had time to celebrate the fact that this was my first fish on a fly this season as the salmon changed its course and broke the water with a stunning tail dance. While some would argue that a fish caught on a fly while trolling doesn’t qualify as a fly-fishing prize, I would beg to differ.
This was traditional salmon trolling with flies, a favorite rite of spring for many Maine sportsmen and women alike, and one of my favorite ways to fly fish.
Trolling flies for trout is as old as fly-fishing itself. Scottish anglers of old who cast long rods with large flies out over storied rivers occasionally used boats to fish further out on the river. Some of these sage anglers discovered that by playing out all their line and stripping it in, they could catch fish without casting, resting the sore arms that spent the whole day wrestling with 12-foot rods. It didn’t take long for them to learn that they could cover more water with their flies if they paddled while the line was out in the water.
Perhaps this is how the sport of trolling was born. Because of the success that trolling can bring, anglers are now prohibited from trolling flies on fly-fishing-only lakes and ponds in Maine.
Anglers in Maine have been using these techniques for as long as fly-rods and canoes were present on our abundant lakes and ponds. Fly-rodders trolled their streamer flies with much success, but many felt that they needed a bigger fly, so the trolling streamer evolved from many of the original casting streamer patterns.
One of Maine’s most famous fly dressers created a fly that closely resembled the smelt, earning her fame and admiration throughout New England and around the world, and is probably responsible for the sport of fly-trolling as we practice it today.
Carrie Stevens of Upper Dam in the Rangeley Region, was a milliner, creating feathered hats that were all the rage in the 1920s. She was also the wife of noted fishing guide Wallace Stevens.
As the legend goes, Carrie was doing her housework on July 1, 1924, when she had an urge to take some of the feathers she used in making her hats and build a streamer fly with gray wings to imitate a smelt. Spending only a few minutes crafting her fly, she quickly rushed out on the dock by the flowing water of Upper Dam Pool. After a few casts, she hooked onto a spirited brook trout. After a long and laborious battle, she managed to net the fish and quickly took it to the closest resort to be weighed.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Carrie’s fish weighed 6-pounds, 13-ounces and was 23 3/4-inches long and 15-inches around. At the urging of some friends, Carrie entered the fish in the 1924 Field and Stream Magazine Fishing Competition. She took second place for her trophy, and when the publishers told readers that she had caught the leviathan on a fly that she had created, the mail poured into the tiny western Maine Post Office with orders for her fly. She was soon in the commercial fly-tying business, eventually creating a pattern that was sold worldwide. Today, Carrie’s gray ghost is a popular casting fly, but it better known as a smelt-imitating trolling streamer.
Several other Maine anglers have created trolling streamer patterns that have become etched in angling’s annals and are still in use today. Dr. Hubert Sanborn of Waterville created a black and green streamer in 1936 with a unique method of mounting the wings. Instead of tying the saddle hackles along the edge of the hook, he tied the green saddles on flat on the top edge of the hook. The first time he trolled this fly while on Messalonskee Lake, he caught a nine-pound, three-ounce salmon, naming the fly the “nine-three.”
Sebago Lake, where the landlocked salmon was first classified, is also the home to a famous angler and a famous trolling fly. Legendary guide Art Libby of Standish had probably spent more hours than anyone fishing Sebago Lake. In 1972, he experimented with an odd looking fly that was tied as sparsely as it could and still be recognized as a piece of fishing equipment. Libby tied four layers of white, orange, red and black bucktail to a No. 4 hook that was wrapped with silver flat embossed tinsel. Under the tinsel was a connector of 50-pound monofilament with a No. 10 treble hook on the end. Libby specified that the fly be tied full in the early spring and then sparser as the water clears.
Several other patterns remain at the top of the trolling anglers list and are dragged for countless miles through Maine’s coldwater lakes. The Umbagog smelt, named for the popular border lake captures the smelt’s purple breeding hue and accounts for many of my early season salmon, as does the flashy Joe’s smelt pattern. Likewise, many anglers use a variation of Carrie Steven’s ghost pattern with flies like the green ghost, black ghost or red ghost having staunch supporters for one reason or another.
The mechanics and equipment behind traditional fly trolling vary from angler to angler, but many commonalities exist. To begin with, most anglers use a stout fly rod, preferably nine feet or more in length. Aside from providing a more enjoyable fight, the long fly rod serves to get the anglers line away from the boat. When trolling on fabled Sebago Lake (home of the world’s record 22-pound eight-ounce landlocked salmon taken in 1907), I often motor past Frye’s Leap in Raymond where the water is extremely deep and my rod tip actually touches the rocky shoreline.
For reels, almost any fly reel will work, but I prefer a multiplier type reel that will bring in my line as quickly as possible. This is especially important when I am alone and trolling two rods. If I get a fish on one rod, I want to be able to bring the second one in as fast as possible to avoid a snag or tangle. A quick retrieve is also a plus when you want to change flies in a hurry. Many Maine anglers use the Martin MG-72 reel which has a 3-to-1 retrieve rate (the spool turns three times each time you turn the handle one crank) and an adjustable disc drag that can slow even the largest fish.
When trolling a streamer fly, the fly line serves two purposes. First, it gets the fly down below the surface. The depth you reach, depends on your speed, and the weight of the line. Second, the fly line follows the course of your boat, unlike monofilament line that only tracks a straight course when you turn. The fly line adheres to the water because of the surface tension created by the large diameter line and follows the boat. If you make a sweeping turn around a dock or other obstacle, the fly line will follow that arc. Most anglers use a cheap eight-weight sinking level line. Cortland has designed a specialized fly line for trollers that sinks at a rapid rate and is extra-long, to allow anglers to get their streamers out to almost any depth. Their Cortland 333 Trolling Fly Line is 50 yards long, is level and comes in eight weights.
While the mention of trolling conjures up thoughts of boredom to some, most trolling anglers don’t sit and let the fish come to them, they try to impart motion to their flies to entice finicky fish. When trolling bait, the rod is clamped into a rod holder while the boat and the bait do all the work. When trolling flies, the angler imparts action to the fly by pumping the rod back and forth to create the illusion that the fly is swimming. Most often, the fish will strike as the fly is motionless between jigs. The fish may have been following the fly for a short distance, and the pause is just the opportunity the hungry salmon is waiting for.
Trolling flies for salmon and trout in Maine is a tradition-steeped, time-honored method of angling that is still popular today. While some fly-fishing purists believe that only casting constitutes fly-fishing, many of our sports forefathers would object. Trolling involves skill, requires the angler to be able to read the water and know where the fish are, and also be as well versed on matching streamer patterns to food sources as the wet or dry fly angler must be. With pioneers like Carrie Stevens and Art Libby as trolling advocates, you’re in good company, fellow anglers!