Along with many other Maine anglers I took the bait last week and went trout fishing a full two weeks earlier than normal. Open water fishing season has started on April 1 for close to 100 years and it has always been known among fishermen that even that date is about three weeks too early. The old saw about trout fishing being best “When the leaves on the poplar as a big as a mouse’s ear” is heard annually wherever brooks and trout exist in Maine, which is just about everywhere, and it generally holds true.
What drew me into the leafless woods to a nearby trout stream was the record warm winter and sudden early spring weather we’ve enjoyed of late. Could the trout possibly think that it’s time to bite despite the fact that there are no leaves on the trees to compare to the ears of mice?
The fact that I was able to dig up a dozen garden worms suggested great possibilities – the frost has been out of my little vegetable patch for a week or so. I could dig as far down as my four-tined garden fork could reach and every forkful came up loaded with fat, albeit sluggish worms.
I’d had my fishing gear primed and ready since Christmas, with a new reel, line and terminal tackle (a snelled No. 6 hook) ready and waiting for the big day. I decided to go with a 5-foot Orvis rod I’d built from a kit back in 1972, the perfect rod for “dapping” in small streams and alder-shrouded pools.
It’s true enough that spring water levels are remarkably low thanks to a major lack of precipitation and snow cover in these waning days of winter, but clear, cold brook seemed sterile and lifeless. Normally, trout (or chubs) could be seen flitting back and forth among the shadows but other than a few leaves and twigs even the deepest, darkest pools seemed empty. I had a feeling this was going to be an exercise in futility but I had bait, new gear and a chance to fish (legally) two weeks early, so I rigged up and went to work.
I fished every pool I came to and spent about three hours dutifully dapping when I finally had to admit that it was, in fact, too early for trout fishing. I had a feeling that it would go that way and was not terribly disappointed. It was at least sunny and balmy in the open, bug-free woods, so I did find some solace in that.
Always a student of nature I found myself scouting the stream bank for signs of critters and was heartened to see the tracks of mink, raccoons and deer deeply etched into the shoreline mud. A month ago there were no signs of wildlife along this very same stretch of water, which means I’m not the only one with a touch of spring fever.
While looking for a good place to cross the brook I flushed a grouse that lay hidden in a tangled blow down, another good sign because I have seen very few partridges in my area in recent years. Most of the necessary “edge” habitat that grouse prefer is gone from this area, replaced by open, mature forest that offer upland birds little in the way of food or cover. The best, thickest habitat is in the swamps and along remote trout streams such as the one I decided to fish, so it made sense that the only bird I saw that day was exactly where he should have been
The situation is the same with snowshoe hares, and I was happy to see plenty of sign as I dipped and ducked among the alders as I searched for a suitable stream crossing. I had seen hares in the same area during deer season and was happy to let them carry on unscathed. The debate over cyclical changes in the hare population rages among those who are concerned with such things but all I can say is that until I see more than one or two hares in a season I’ll give them a chance to repopulate. The stew pot can wait!
Considering that all the talk has been about an early spring (hence the early opening of fishing season), I expected to see a few woodcock in the alders along the brook but, alas, it’s apparently still too early for them. The ground is bare and soft enough for the woodcock’s probing beak but it seems that there’s still too much of a cold bite in the air, which I think makes a difference to them. At some point the temperatures will rise just enough to encourage woodcock to begin their mating displays. It seems odd that they are not around being that there is no snow on the ground, but I suspect it’s more a matter of nesting success than how much snow there is (or isn’t). Woodcock often begin their mating rituals when patches of snow are still visible but I’m thinking that the hens are not going to start laying eggs until they are sure their young will survive. Smart birds!
I gave up on trout and came out of the woods along a well-flattened deer trail that skirted the edge of the stream. Here and there in the alders and on the ground were patches of gray fur, remnants of the whitetails’ winter coat. Between the brook and home I found enough deer hair to fill a pillow, and I’m all but sure those tufts will end up in the nests of birds, mice and squirrels before long. I have found several such nests in the back of my wood pile, mostly made by the flying squirrels that have squatted there since I built the wood shed. Come fall when I start refilling the shed I toss the remains of last year’s nests out the door knowing that, before long, it will all end up right back where it started.
So, the early trout season was a bust for me but there is still time to catch a brookie or two before April 1. It’s certainly worth a try!