Carrie Stevens: A Woman Ahead of Her Time

Carrie Stevens: A Woman Ahead of Her Time

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.

Carrie Stevens

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.

Shang’s (Wheeler) Go Get-Get 'um

Shang’s (Wheeler) Go Get-Get ‘um

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.

Plaque at Upper Dam Dedicated to Carrie Stevens

Plaque at Upper Dam Dedicated to Carrie Stevens

I have a poster in my home that has 120 of her patterns, and she is credited with many more.

Tony and I with the Carrie Stevens Pattern Poster

Tony and I with the Carrie Stevens Pattern Poster

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.

Carrie Stevens Hooks

Carrie Stevens Hooks

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.

A Few of My Versions of Carrie Stevens' Flies

A Few of My Versions of Carrie Stevens’ Flies

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.

Louise Dickinson Rich

Louise Dickinson Rich

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.

WLAGS

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6o Years of Waiting

In July 1954, my father returned from a fishing trip to Aziscohos Lake and Parmachenee Lake. He would for the rest of his life, say it was one of the greatest times of his life. I remember vividly the stories of his trip, which was much more than a fishing trip, and he often referred to it as an experience.

His trip started at the southern end of Aziscohos with three friends and a guide. They motored their Rangeley canoes up to the Magalloway River and then up to Parmachenee. After they made their way the ten or so miles up the lake, the guide instructed the guys to set up camp on the shore of the lake while he returned to the bottom to bring up more supplies. He said he would return shortly after dark. So Dad and his friends did as instructed, and true to his word the guide returned after dark. The guide was very excited, and he told the guys to break camp and move it up the shore a hundred yards or so. When asked why, he said because the camp was set up on an active moose trail.

Sure enough the next morning at daybreak, there were a cow and a bull standing in the lake right where the tents were the night before. The cow waded up the lake away from the guys, but the bull waded out into the lake until it was swimming. The guide ushered the guys into the canoes, and he jumped into the canoe with Dad. He instructed Dad to pull him alongside the bull. He did. Then suddenly the guide hopped out of the canoe and onto the bulls back! Dad couldn’t believe his eyes as the guide sat on the bull, grabbing a tuft of hair on its back. About the time the guide thought the bull might be getting its footing, he had Dad pull up to let him get back in the canoe. As it turns out this was a fairly common feat among the guides of the day. It was almost considered an initiation of sorts.

Moose Riding Theodore Roosevelt

Moose Riding Theodore Roosevelt

Dad and his friends spent the next seven or so days fishing the lakes and the river. Dad would often refer to the land there as “God’s country.” He never went into any detail about the fishing other than using single word adjectives to describe it as “terrific,” ”great,” or “wonderful.” Unlike many of his trips, there were no photos. He would often return from such trips with pictures of him and a friend holding a stinger with 25 or 30 trout. I guess it was better in some ways for this 9 year-old not to see pictures so my imagination could run wild. He said more than once that it was “the best experience” of his life or “the best week of his life.”

A Typical Vacation Photo of Dad's

A Typical Vacation Photo of Dad’s

I often wondered why they picked this particular area. Keeping in mind much of this planning, if not all, was done by mail. There is only one realistic answer, the book “We Took to the Woods,” which was very popular and written by Mrs. Rich 16 years earlier. I can’t imagine how else they would have heard of this very remote area when there were so many more famous places like Moosehead Lake. Mrs. Rich was on a guided canoe trip starting in Parmachenee Lake that would lead to her meeting her future husband along the way.

So I’ve had this urge to get there, and I had reached Aziscohos with Tony last year. Parmachenee was a problem though, as it is behind locked gates and miles from any reasonable form of access. However an opportunity arose this year through a friend whose family owns one of the 12 or so camps on the lake. I jumped at the chance even if it was only for a day.

Finally I was getting to fish this place that my father so cherished. Tony and I arrived early on a cold, 30-degree, foggy morning.

Foggy, 30-Degree Morning

Foggy, 30-Degree Morning

The 20-mile dirt road ride was uneventful, except for one moose sighting. We evaluated the situation, and decided on the smallest boat and the electric motor. That proved to be the right choice. Our loading of the equipment was with a serenade of loon calls coming out of the fog.

Loons in the Fog

Loons in the Fog

 

Suddenly we noticed a small splashing sound coming from the edge of the boat. We looked, and to our amazement a minnow (blacknose dace) was thrashing about in the grip of what we initially was a crayfish. Upon a closer look, we discovered the hunter was a toe biter–a flying, swimming insect, about 2 inches long and almost as wide. It injects a digestive juice into its prey with a device similar to that of a mosquito. We were amazed at its quickness.

Toe Biter with Fish

Toe Biter with Fish

We had more important fish to fry than to watch the entire episode, so it was back to readying the boat. The fishing started out slow, largely because we were not expecting the conditions we were experiencing. The surface temperature was 59 degrees. That’s 13 degrees cooler than our host had experienced just two weeks earlier. On his trip, he was consistently taking fish down 20 or more feet, and we were equipped to do the same.

We finally caught our first trout while paying out line, just 10 feet behind the boat! That did it. We changed tactics going for slow sinking and sink tip fly lines. The change paid off immediately with some nice trout and very nice salmon coming to net.

Wild Brook Trout

Wild Brook Trout

The weather worsened. The winds and rain picked up, and the temperature barley made it above 40 even at midday. We caught our last fish later in the afternoon, and with me shivering noticeably it was time to pack it in.

Wild Landlocked Salmon

Wild Landlocked Salmon

Earlier in the week, I sat down at the fly tying bench to tie some flies especially for this trip. I tied 14 flies. Four patterns were juiced-up versions of some of my own patterns that I tie and use everywhere. I added jungle cock to them, as is the norm for flies in the region where streamer flies were invented. Then I tied three entirely new patterns–all this while I had some 2000 other flies in the boat with me. All we needed were my new 14! All but one of the fish were caught on them. They will be forever known as my Parmachenee patterns.

It was a very good day of fishing in a very beautiful place. We were never out of sight of loons. At one point five of them swam out of the fog to check us out. They were as curious about us as we were them. We saw so many loons that I truthfully could not tell you how many there were. We could always tell when an eagle was around, which was often, because the loons would scream bloody murder every time one was near.

An Asylum of Loons

An Asylum of Loons

We saw an amazing amount of waterfowl–geese, mergansers, wood ducks, mallards, and teal.

It was everything I had hoped for and imagined 60 years ago. If I couldn’t experience it with my Dad, then I was very grateful to experience it with his grandson.

Parmachenee: Everything I Imagined 60 Years Ago

Parmachenee: Everything I Imagined 60 Years Ago

WLAGS

Rapid River: A Challenge and a History Lesson

Back in mid-June of this year, Tony and I went to fish the Rapid River in the Rangeley region of Maine. This was result of our first trip there in June of 2012. That 2012 trip was one of exploration, physical effort, and great reward. The exploration came from us going on research, hearsay, and trusting our gut. The physical effort came in the form of a two-mile hike in waders on a logging road in warm weather. The reward was some great fishing.

Great Fishing on the Rapid River in 2012

Great Fishing on the Rapid River in 2012

We didn’t know what we were getting into back in 2012, but we hoped it would be worth the gamble and effort. It certainly was. I caught five native brook trout, including the biggest of my life, an 18-incher.

18-Inch Brook Trout in 2012

18-Inch Brook Trout in 2012

Tony caught five wild (meaning they were born in the river) landlocked salmon and a native brookie.

Tony's 13-Inch Brookie in 2012

Tony’s 13-Inch Brookie in 2012

Most of the salmon were taken on dry flies, by far the most exciting way to catch them.

Wild 17-Inch Landlocked Salmon in 2012

Wild 17-Inch Landlocked Salmon in 2012

The hike out was tough, but not as tough as it would have been had Tony not made an extra trip back to the truck in the midday heat to retrieve food, water, and most importantly shoes so we could carry our waders instead wearing them. It was a very memorable day to say the least.

So we looked forward to our next trip there, but with some adjustments to our way of getting there. We decided to book a stay with Lakewood Camps, which is located on Lower Richardson Lake, just above Middle Dam and the beginning of the Rapid, where we fished on our previous trip. The lodge has a long history of lodging sportsmen in the region, and that is well documented. The most frequent method of reaching the lodge is by driving to South Arm on Lower Richardson Lake and taking a boat provided by the lodge the five miles across the lake to the camp, which was the only way of reaching it back in the day.

Motoring Across Lower Richardson Lake

Motoring Across Lower Richardson Lake

We provided a rating of the lodge here.

A few days before our arrival, the discharge (or flow) from the dam was 2,000 cubic feet per second (CFPS). When we arrived, it was down to 400 CFPS. That is two extremes–very high and a little low.

That makes where you fish and how you fish difficult to ascertain. All fishing is fly fishing only, and all hooks must be barbless.

The fishing was challenging. If it weren’t for a nice backwash that Tony spotted and many other fishermen missed, our success would have been very different. We caught most of our trout and salmon on dries, which is preferable, but with the river so properly named, every fish was a challenge to land.

Tony caught his biggest native brookie (16″) along with several others and several nice salmon. He earned them because he was observant enough to spot that nice backwash that was holding so many fish.

Tony's 16-Inch Brookie in 2014

Tony’s 16-Inch Brookie in 2014

The other mission we had was to see and fish near Forest Lodge, the home of author Louise Dickinson Rich. She wrote a number of books, mostly about living here in the ’40s. Her most famous was “We Took to the Woods.” It is an amazing book about an amazing lady during a time in our history that is not written about enough. It was all about her life here in what was then wilderness, and I can assure that it hasn’t changed much.

We fished in front of her house and caught some fish just as she did 70 years ago.

Catching Native Brook Trout In Front of Forest Lodge

Catching Native Brook Trout In Front of Forest Lodge

Tony even saw a machine that he could not identify on the porch of her house, which is now a museum of sorts. The machine was a wringer washer, like we used in the ’40s and ’50s.

Forest Lodge Wringer Washer

Forest Lodge Wringer Washer

You can stay at the lodge, by the way, as did three fishermen from New Hampshire.

It is a beautiful area and worth the effort to get there by boat, plane, or by hiking.

Rapid River Beauty Near Forest Lodge

Rapid River Beauty Near Forest Lodge

You can access the area by car only if you stay at Forest Lodge, but you will need a 4WD with great ground clearance, lots of patience, and good driving skills over several miles of very, very rough roads.

This area also produced some other women that were ahead of their times in their independence and their skills in sports dominated by men. Carrie Stevens lived further up the lake at Upper Dam and designed and tied the most famous flies for salmon and trout in the 1920s and continued to do so for decades. Her patterns are still used today.

Then there was Fly Rod Crosby, yes a woman, and world famous fly caster and outdoors woman.

Several of our presidents fished here as well.

Fishing and history are often very compatible.

WLAGS

Debbie’s New Fly Rod

We set out to our favorite fly fishing only (FFO) pond on Friday morning. No need to get up early as the weather and the moon were about perfect.

Our Favorite Fly Fishing Only Pond

Our Favorite Fly Fishing Only Pond

This particular pond has always fished best on cold, wet days with a wind anywhere between east and north. It was perfect with the wind out of the northeast at between 2 and 5 mph.

Debbie was using her brand new Fenwick fly rod for the first time—a 9’ 5-weight. She had the first hit not five minutes into our day, followed by several short strikes as we made our way down “Tiger Alley,” so named for the stretch where we catch many of our tiger trout, a hybrid cross between a male brook trout and a female brown trout.

Rainbow

Rainbow

As we reached Eagle Rock (you can guess why we call it that), there were dimpling trout everywhere, no doubt feeding on emerging nymphs. I was into four fish very quickly. Debbie was undeterred and was soon into a big fish. She fought it for several minutes, and just as it was coming into view, the fly pulled out. Now she was deterred! She buckled down and proceeded to kick the trout’s and my butt nine ways to Sunday.

We were sharing the trout with several other fishermen, namely an eagle, three osprey, a great blue heron, a merganser, and three loons. All seemed to be doing as well as Debbie.

As we headed for the launch, we were about even at 13 fish apiece. Two older gentlemen were putting in, so at Debbie’s suggestion we stayed out of there way and fished out front of the boat launch until they were done.

Well, in the next 30 minutes (because she didn’t want to leave) she proceeded to catch six more, including the biggest fish of the day—a fat 16” rainbow, to my one.

Debbie's 16" Rainbow

Debbie’s 16″ Rainbow

It was the perfect end to a perfect day, and a great way to break in a new fly rod.

Selfie

Selfie

PS: All of the fish were taken on either my Grampy’s Copper Flash fly or my Village Pond Special fly, which this time I tied with rust brown and copper crystal flash.

Grampy's Copper Flash (What's Left of It)

Grampy’s Copper Flash (What’s Left of It)

WLAGS