GRAND LAKE STREAM (AP) – From his seat at the square stern of his Grand Lake Stream canoe, master Maine guide Randy Spencer points to a splotch of light-colored water along the shore of Big Lake.

“Put it right in there,” he instructs.

Photographer Bob Bukaty, fly fisherman extraordinaire, does just that, casting his line 30 feet and dropping the yellow and red popper fly in the middle of the target area, a gravel-bottomed spawning bed where a male smallmouth bass may be hovering over eggs deposited by the female.

The payoff comes a few casts later when a bass snaps at the fly. Bukaty sets the hook, plays the fish and deftly brings it in.

Repositories of wisdom and experience, registered Maine guides are known first and foremost for taking their clients – known as sports – to places where fish and game are big and plentiful. But guides are more than mere fish finders: they are boon companions, gifted storytellers and masterful campfire chefs possessed of the outdoor expertise that helps assure a safe and memorable experience.

The day begins around 7:30 a.m. as guides and pickup trucks with canoes in tow line up outside the lodge like chauffeurs and limos in front of a grand hotel, waiting for the sports to finish breakfast and begin a day of fishing.

The scene outside Weatherby’s brings together three traditions that for more than a century have lured anglers to this village at the end of a 10-mile road in the eastern Maine woods: the guide culture, the distinctive Grand Laker canoe and the storied fishing lodges.

A former industrial community, Grand Lake Stream remade itself into a haven for sportsmen, principally fishermen who were drawn by the chance to match wits with landlocked salmon, bass and lake trout, known as togue.

The town, with a year-round population of about 150, is bisected by the 3-mile-long stream of the same name that links 15,000-acre West Grand Lake with the slightly smaller Big Lake.

In the center of town is the Pine Tree Store, where vacationers and locals alike can pick up sandwiches and a six-pack and share local gossip. The store is well-stocked with souvenirs and fishing gear, including what co-owner Kathy Cressey terms the biggest collection of flies in Washington County.

Guides, who get their coffee free, congregate at the Liars Bench, where they can often be found trading stories over a game of cribbage. But the bench is not exclusively theirs.

“It’s for anybody. As long as you’re on the bench, you can say what you want,” Cressey said.

The community’s heart and soul are the three dozen or so registered Maine guides who work out of Grand Lake Stream, which boasts the largest concentration of guides in the state.

Like Spencer and third-generation guide Arthur Wheaton, most of them are in their 50s and 60s. Wheaton guided sports while going to school and went back to it after retiring from a corporate career and returning to the area where he grew up.

Other guides include retired military and a retired state trooper. Because the work is seasonal and unsteady with no health or retirement benefits, young people can’t make a living at it, Wheaton said.

A black granite monument that was dedicated in 1997 to mark the 100th anniversary of both the Maine guide designation and the incorporation of Grand Lake Stream sits across from the store.

Just down the hill, the state fish hatchery, built on the site of what was one of the world’s largest tanneries, provides salmon for local waters. Nineteenth-century photographs of the community, then known as Hinckley Township, show the plant’s smokestack towering over a landscape stripped of trees.

The tanning operation went bust around the turn of the 20th century. By then, however, the area’s bountiful waters had been discovered by fishermen from throughout the Northeast, who traveled by steamer, rail and buckboard.

Today’s sports arrive by car, but the attraction is the same. Early season fishermen with light tackle come for the salmon that swim along the surface while the water remains cold. But by late spring, as the water temperature rises, the word around town is that bass fishing is starting to pick up in Big Lake. West Grand Lake, deeper and colder, is known more for its salmon and togue.

“June is the money month for bass, and the bass fishing is fantastic through September,” said Spencer, as he took us onto Big Lake in his 20-foot Grand Laker that was crafted two decades ago of ash, cedar, mahogany and canvas by the late Sonny Sprague, a legendary guide whose name still invokes reverence.

The sturdy canoes, capable of carrying a guide, two fishermen and hundreds of pounds of equipment, are fixtures in the town where they originated. Lest anyone need a reminder, the town’s street signs – in the same forest green as the canoes – are carved in the shape of a classic Grand Laker.

With a 9.9-horsepower motor hooked onto the square end, Spencer’s canoe shoots across the water to a spot where bass are biting. In some areas, Spencer takes a roundabout route to avoid treacherous shoals that can damage a canoe or its motor.

Within minutes, we find ourselves fishing alone in a promising area of smallmouth habitat. The shoreline is an unbroken stretch of fir, hemlock, spruce and pine, with wooded hills in the distance and no cottages or docks in sight.

When Spencer cuts the motor, the air is silent, and it’s easy to imagine that the landscape is just as it was when sports first visited the region more than a century ago or Indians fished the waters centuries before that.

On one of the lake’s 28 islands, Spencer points out a large white cross planted near the shore to mark a burial ground for Passamaquoddy Indians who were quarantined after contracting diphtheria and other diseases brought by the white man.

Not far away, on a small outcropping, the guide points out an eagle in its nest near the top of a pine tree and cuts the motor to keep from disturbing the bird as we slip by. Soon after, we spot a loon adrift on the lake.

Around mid day, Spencer pulls onto the shore at one of the sites where the guides association maintains a fireplace and picnic table. There, a guide will light a fire and prepare a sumptuous meal that might include an hors d’oeuvre of fish caught by a sport that morning, chowder, a main course of chicken, steak or pork chops, and the traditional fried potatoes and onions.

Spencer demonstrated his chef’s prowess by fileting the two 11-inch bass taken by Bukaty, soaking them in his wife’s secret marinade and frying them to perfection on the open fire.

To brew coffee without residual grounds, he cracks an egg and mixes it shell and all with the ground coffee that he drops into boiling water. The grinds and the yolk bind to form a raft while the coffee brews over the flames.

While much of the fishing is concentrated on Big and West Grand, anglers are within easy distance of a couple dozen other lakes on which to ply their skills. If a day on the lake is not enough, some don their waders around 5 a.m. for pre-breakfast salmon fishing in Grand Lake Stream and may return there after dinner for more of the same.

The lodges that draw fishermen from around the country are temples to the sport. The walls of historic old Weatherby’s, once the home of the tannery superintendent, and Leen’s Lodge are lined with mounted trophy fish and photographs of celebrated anglers, including the late Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams, once a familiar figure in town.

Both lodges are open from ice-out in May through October, when hunters come for woodcock and partridge. Most other lodges and camps also close for winter, although at least one – Canal Side Cabins – remains open to accommodate ice fishermen.

There is one weekend of the year, however, when fishing and hunting surrender center stage to a different type of activity.

As many as 6,000 people crowd the ball field on the last full weekend in July for the annual Grand Lake Stream Folk Art Festival, an event that attracts dozens of artists, craftsmen, quilters, canoe builders and musicians.

Among the performers is Spencer, a singer-songwriter as well as a guide, who has become the unofficial troubadour of Grand Lake Stream, with songs like “Pine Tree Store,” “One Road In” and “Old Maine Guide” that celebrate the unspoiled wilderness community he calls home.



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