I was 9 years old in the summer of 1954 when my father returned from a fishing trip to the Great North Woods of Maine. I listened intently as he described in detail his adventure—the guides, the lakes, the fish, and the flies. He might as well have gone to Darkest Africa, because it all seemed so unbelievable to me.
After that, I read everything I could get my hands on to learn more about the big brook trout and the most mythical of fish, the landlocked salmon. One article in Field & Stream said that it required more man hours to hook a landlocked salmon than any other fresh water fish. I think it said that it took an average of six hours to hook one and eight hours to land one because of their incredible leaping ability. The one lure or fly that always came up in those articles was the Gray Ghost streamer. That fly was invented by a lady from Upper Dam, Maine by the name of Carrie Stevens.
She was the wife of Wallace, one of the most noted guides at one of the most famous fishing places in the country at the time. Upper Dam was home to a sporting camp that sat at the dam between Mooselookmeguntic and Upper Richardson lakes.
It was the heyday of sport fishing that started in the 1860s and lasted until the 1940s.
Carrie had experience as a milliner and worked with feathers and fur for ladies hats. She soon started tying flies for the sports that came from the big cities to fish these most historic waters.
In 1924 Carrie caught a trophy sized brook trout on a fly partly suggested to her by a friend. It was called the Shang’s (Wheeler) Go Get-Get ‘um for the man that requested a fly with certain colors.
She walked to the dam to try it, and she would hook a brook trout so large (6 pounds, 13 ounces), that it would take her over an hour to land the fish. That fish took second place in the Field & Stream contest that year. Today that would be equal to a Super Bowl appearance. She was immediately vaulted to national acclaim, and her flies were in demand from every corner of the continent and Europe.
Her single most famous and consequently most productive pattern was the Gray Ghost. If you were going fishing in the wilds of Maine you had to have one.
I have a poster in my home that has 120 of her patterns, and she is credited with many more.
She supported her and her husband with the flies. She tied until 1950, and she lived until 1970. Her flies sold for the handsomely some of $1.50—a lot of money in those days. Today, every manufacturer of fly tying hooks in the world has a Carrie Stevens hooks. They are extra-long shanked and just the right gauge to handle big fish without inhibiting inhibit the action of the fly.
No one was every allowed to watch her tie a fly. One of her secrets was that she would glue, I’d love to know what kind of glue, all the feathers together before attaching them to the hook. I can tell you that I have tried that method, and it is just this side of impossible. I have never heard of another fly tier that succeeded in doing that. It would require far more patience than I—and I guess any other tier would—possess.
I give you this history lesson merely so you may better understand my obsession with the flies, the fish (thankfully there still are fish—trout and salmon—born in these waters, never having seen a hatchery), and most of all the places where she and her famous “neighbor” Louise Dickinson Rich lived and fished.
They were two women way ahead of their time, making a life for themselves while living where they wanted to and doing what they wanted to, in what was then a man’s world.