Winter fly-fishing on Androscoggin provides challenge

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NEWRY – Scott Stone was simply stealing some time to himself on a Saturday, fly fishing alone on a western Maine river full of ice.

The Bethel fisherman never saw the media spotlight coming – or thought about the wonderful example he offered to those who came to tell his story.

It is a story worth telling, because Stone represents more than a fisherman out at an unusual time of year. He typifies the spirit of Maine’s outdoor adventurers, those everyday explorers who welcome all kinds of weather in their quest to better understand nature’s secrets.

From the point of view of a couple of news folks going in search of a fly fisherman in western Maine in January, you have to ask: What are the chances?

This time of year, most open-water fishermen have packed away their rods and waders.

As photographer Greg Rec said after two hours of searching, while driving past a parked truck at an unplowed, snowy boat launch: “They are probably cross-country skiing.”

That’s when Stone came into sight.

Down a forested, slippery-white path, at the edge of the ice-lined Androscoggin River, Stone stood waist deep in the clear water, waders up to his chest, fishing gear strapped around him, and a beauty of a back cast in full swing.

The image, like so many found in Maine’s outdoor world, was a surprise.

Writing this section’s feature centerpiece requires a few hours of field work each week, at different spots across Maine’s vast landscape, in hopes of happening upon one specific outdoor activity.

Sometimes we piggyback on a pre-arranged trip. Sometimes we focus on one subject interviewed earlier.

More often than not, we do what we did this week and go to a certain spot where a specific outdoor activity is known to take place, and hope for the best. More often than not, Maine surprises us, and delivers. People are almost always out there in the state’s wild places – no matter if we are looking for hikers, hunters, climbers, skaters or fishermen; whether those featured are foresters, painters, paddlers or backpackers.

That is because this beautiful, gritty, undeveloped homeland is embraced by so many different naturalists.

Because, more often than not, in this raw, rugged place, where somebody in snow country is likely to pick up a fly rod in January, people search for their chosen happiness outside.

Because this is Maine.

That is why Scott Stone was out on a western Maine river in January, selecting flies, dodging ice, and laughing about it.

The idea of fly fishing in the winter in Maine originated about 15 years ago, when the state opened a few rivers year-round, said John Boland, the state’s director of fisheries operations.

During a winter like this, with such a mild start, it is particularly appealing. That is, as appealing as it gets for this kind of activity, Boland said. “Typically, there is not a lot of interest in January, February and March fishing. But a year like this, we get a lot of calls from fishermen saying, ‘I can’t ice fish. Where can I go?”‘ Boland said.

This winter, for the first time, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife sent out a long list of rivers – 14 big ones – where year-round fishing is allowed.

Those unable to ice fish were encouraged to not wait until April to spincast or fly fish on open water, but to get out now and test their luck on the frigid river waters. Boland said when some rivers were first opened year-round, the extended season got little attention from fishermen, so the list was extended five years later.

Today, that list continues to expand because of the ramped-up hatchery system. With $7 million in upgrades completed, thanks to an environmental bond that passed in 2002, the state’s fish hatcheries are finally humming at full capacity, and biologists are looking for waters to stock the additional fish.

The northern waters are generally stocked twice, once in the spring and as soon as the temperatures drop in the fall.

Some of those brown trout and rainbow trout are expected to remain in the water and grow, because Boland said they will not all be caught in the fall before the waters turn cold.

“That type of river does not have a lot of use in October. It’s not a fun place to be,” Boland said of the frigid running water that time of year.

Tell that to Stone.

Stone has been fly fishing in Maine for 30 years. But this is his first winter season on the Androscoggin River.

Stone mistakenly thought winter fishing was prohibited until this year, though the Androscoggin actually has been open year-round since 2002. But even if he’d known, ice would kept him off the river in the past.

“It’s very exciting. I’d rather be fly fishing than just about anything. It’s something I try to do as much as possible,” said Stone, 45, a native of Paris.

He fashioned studs to the bottom of his wading boots; took a wading stick so he wouldn’t float away; and used great care where he stood, to avoid the mini-icebergs.

“I’m not taking any chances,” he said.

Since he moved to Bethel five years ago, Stone has made the Androscoggin his home river.

He built a drift boat to use with his two sons. He helped to form a new fishermen’s organization, which is keen on helping to secure public access to the river.

And he has watched the Androscoggin River grow cleaner as mills have come down along it. Stone looked around at the mountains and the skyline, and compared the view to Alaska.

Standing in the river in wading boots, Stone’s toes were cold, his hands were a little hampered by gloves, and his cast was hitting a stiff wind.

And there were no fish rising.

Did he care?

“There are no black flies,” Stone said with a grin.

Fishing, Stone pointed out, is a challenge, whether you are chasing steelheads in New York or brook trout in Quebec.

As he sees it, choosing a wet fly in the dead of winter in Maine is just one more equation in the fly-fishing formula.

It is also part of his secret to what is gained by being outside, standing in a frigid river, in winter.

“I think with everything going on in the world today, what a great diversion I have today. My big thing is dodging icebergs. That’s a pretty good day,” Stone said.

Catching a trout in snowy Bethel in January is possible, if the lack of ice allows access and if you take an approach used by knowing fishermen. “Don’t expect fast and furious fishing.

“The fish tend to move out of the shallow ripples and into the deeper pools,” Boland said. “There will be a lot of fish this winter, if you can coax them into biting.”

On some rivers, Boland said, fish can’t be caught where they are normally found because they’ve moved out of their usual hiding places, into deeper areas.

Stone realized all of this.

“I could catch a 5- to 6-pound brown trout, if I knew what I was doing. But I’m trying to figure it out,” he said.

The fish were there, somewhere. He just needed to find their winter havens with his sinking line.

It’s worth the effort, he said.

“We’re lucky to live where we do,” Stone said.

Which is another way to say: Because this is Maine.

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