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Weather patterns and predictions aside, it's time to turn our backs on winter and “think spring,” as the popular saying goes. You still have time for a little more rabbit hunting (that season closes March 31) and ice-fishing (ditto!), but it's also time to get ready for open water fishing. Certainly make the most of the next two weeks, enjoy the increasingly balmy weather and put a few more hares, trout or salmon into the freezer, but take time to rejoice in the fact that, at long last, another long, hard winter is over.
Mainers from Fort Kent to Kittery are all saying the same things: “It could snow again, but it won't last.” “The ice should go out early this year.” “I saw a robin in the field the other day.” “I heard geese flying down by the river last week.” It's done, it's over, and whether it snows or not in the next few weeks, time will not be denied or delayed. The first inklings of balmy weather are the signals we've been waiting for - hit the closet, the garage or the spare room, get your fishing gear out because early-season action is only a few days away.
It's always been the common lament that though the fishing season opens April 1 throughout Maine, it's generally a fool's errand to be on the water much before the last week of the month. That's true if JUST catching fish were the goal, but “fishing” means a bit more than that for the wader-and-rod brigade. It's about getting out of the house, to be near running water, to cast to fishy-looking deep holes and to hear the chirping of spring birds at dawn. It's a chance to feel the peculiar sensation of the warm air against the cold ground, to stand along a stream bank and see the bottom again for the first time since November's first ice sealed the waterways for good.
It has always been my personal ritual to find some open water and fish on April 1 no matter how high the odds are stacked against me. It's opening day, by heck, and I've waited too long for this chance not to take it just because the water's too high, too cold or too fast. I can fish, it's legal and it's possible . . . sometimes I actually catch something, too! An “average winter” is usually not a good one for April 1 fishing, but a dry winter, an early spring or a sudden, unexpected late thaw could mean better luck sooner, and I like to be there just in case.
It's a rare opening day when I meet anyone else on the water, and most years I realize that they are much smarter (or more efficient) than I. But, because my goal is not JUST to catch a fish, I win anyway. I get the stream to myself, I get the pleasure of making the first cast of the year and, when things are REALLY going my way, I even catch a fish now and then.
To be honest, the most sensible approach is not the classic fly-fishing mode, nor is it tossing fast-moving artificial lures. The cold, high water means sluggish, bottom-hugging trout and salmon. This calls for a rudimentary approach: a worm on a hook bounced slowly along the bottom of the slowest, deepest pools. You can't expect the kind of enthusiastic strike and battle from an April trout that you'd enjoy in May or June, but you can put a fish on the line. Early-season trout barely bite at all. Instead, they sort of ooze over to a drifting worm, engulf it and lay there like sodden sticks against the bottom, willing to eat but not willing to work for it.
I have had the occasional opportunity to watch spring trout in action (if you can call it that!) and it never ceases to amaze me how slow and lethargic they are. How they stay upright, afloat and on the bottom in swift-moving water without seeming to move a muscle is a mystery to me. I have worked visible fish with a fresh, lively garden worm and, if the bait passes two inches to the left or right, the trout will ignore it. If I find the “seam” and make an accurate presentation, the fish simply opens its mouth and inhales the bait - no movement, no “strike” and, in most cases, no fight! I have to see the bait disappear to know it's been eaten, and then when I take up the slack and just twitch the rod tip to set the hook, I bring my prize in slowly and unceremoniously as if I'd snagged a wool sock.
Trout are a little livelier in April if you can catch them in a feeding mood as they hold in a sun-drenched pool at midday, but then you risk spooking them as you wave your rod and line over their heads to present your bait. The better approach is to move in on a pool from above, feed line downstream to the waiting fish and work the water from bank to bank very slowly and methodically. One year I decided to fish Dead Stream in Atkinson on opening day and found a pool where two trout were clearly visible in a sunny patch of water in midstream. I happened to be on my lunch hour and so I knew that it was the warmest time of the day and that I'd started fishing at about noontime. Well, I did manage to fool one of the trout into taking my bait, and thought I'd done a tremendous job of working that pool in just 30 minutes or so. A check of my watch, however, revealed that it was 2:30 p.m. - I'd been casting and drifting my bait over those trout for over two hours!
Needless to say, I had some explaining to do when the boss wanted to know where I'd been, but the important point (to anglers, anyway) is that I'd spent all that time goading that reluctant April trout into striking. The fish weren't frightened or forewarned, they simply wouldn't take the bait unless I put it where they would have to expend the least amount of effort to take it.
Don't expect to catch a lot of trout this opening day, but as you tinker with your gear these last few days of March, just remember that you CAN catch fish on April 1. If and when you do, take a minute and tell us about it. We'll enroll you in the Rolling Thunder Express Angler's Hall of Fame - an exclusive club, indeed!
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