[Editor’s note: I was talking about my love of the Rapid River with a friend last night, which reminded me of this piece I wrote a couple years ago. Everything in it is still valid today, and I plan to see the Doc on Memorial Day weekend this year.]
Although I had been a fisherman since early childhood, I didn’t learn to fly-fish until I was in graduate school at the University of New Hampshire. My older brother, Brian, lived nearby, and he taught me to cast one chilly January day in the backyard of his girlfriend’s house. Then we went down to the Suncook River to see if we could catch a trout. We didn’t. In fact, I would go fly fishing thirteen times before I caught my first trout.
I spent that spring and summer puttering around the small streams and ponds of southeastern New Hampshire and caught a few stocked trout, a bunch of panfish, and even a couple bass. It was mostly just a fun way to pass the time and get outdoors, and I enjoyed learning a new skill—mostly by reading magazine articles. But then I received an invitation that would ultimately change the course of my life.
In the fall of that year, my high-school buddies Fred and Sandy Hays asked me if I’d like to join them and their dad on one of their twice-yearly trips to Lakewood Camps on Maine’s Rapid River. Doctor Hays, known to all of us as “the Doc,” had been making these trips since the mid-1970s, and the boys had been joining him since their middle-school days. I was honored to be included in their family tradition and was excited for my first “real” fly-fishing trip. I had no idea how life-altering it would be.
Fred explained that Doc was a creature of habit, so the itinerary for the trip was always the same. The first stop was the famed Upper Dam Pool, where Carrie Stevens tied the first Gray Ghost streamer. After a night in Rangeley, we’d head over to the boat landing at South Arm for the trip across Lower Richardson Lake to the camp, for two full days of fishing on the Rapid River. It sounded great to me, but I didn’t really know what to expect.
The road trip itself was pretty wonderful. Once you leave the main highways, the drive through western Maine is glorious, as the two-lane roads follow rivers, passing through small villages and larger logging towns. Then you hit the land of mountains, big lakes, and strange Indian names, such as Mooselookmeguntic and Oquossoc. Doc turned off the pavement onto an unmarked dirt road and eventually parked at a locked gate.
Getting My Feet Wet
On the hike down to Upper Dam, my excitement grew, and when we emerged from the woods, I was a little taken aback by the size of the water. Upper Dam holds back Lake Mooselookmeguntic, and the outflow creates just one huge pool before the water empties into Upper Richardson Lake. There were several anglers in boats casting in the middle of the pool, and a few others wading the edges. The scale was intimidating for a novice angler.
We rigged up and waded in at the lower end of the pool. As I remember, none of us caught anything that evening, but it was fun trying to read such big water and working on my casting and presentation skills. I did see a couple other fly fishers land nice landlocked salmon, a species I had never encountered before. When it became too dark to see our flies on the water, we reeled up and made the trek back to the car by flashlight.
After a night at the Rangeley Inn, we packed up and made the drive to the boat dock for the trip across Lower Richardson Lake to Lakewood Camps. The boat ride was gorgeous, as the surrounding hillsides were draped in the reds, yellows, and oranges of the New England autumn. As the camp came into view, I was struck by its rustic charm. I was eager to get a look at the river, but that’s not how Doc rolls. First we had to have lunch.
Doc is what is known, I guess, as a “gentleman” angler. He doesn’t fish before breakfast, prefers to return to the lodge for lunch, and enjoys an afternoon sit on the porch of the cabin, rather than racing back to the river. I learned quickly that catching fish was one of the least important things about the whole experience for Doc. What these trips were really about for him were escaping his stressful life as a surgeon, spending time with his boys, basking in the beauty of northwestern Maine, enjoying the continuity of his rituals, and standing in the river casting. Catching a fish was simply icing on the cake.
These were valuable lessons for a newbie angler like me, who was so focused on catching fish that I might not even notice these other parts of the experience. Doc taught me to slow down and enjoy every part of a fishing trip, not just those times when my fly rod was bent.
When we finally did gear up and make the five-minute walk to the river, I immediately fell in love with the place. The Rapid River emerges from Middle Dam and flows through two large pools before tumbling down a half mile of steep pocket water that features some really fast stretches and big boulders. Then it flattens out a bit before entering the aptly named Pond in the River. Below that, there are miles more of pools and rapids.
I didn’t catch anything during that first afternoon session, but after dinner, I crossed over the dam to fish the far side of Harbeck Pool, the second one below the dam. With the whole stretch to myself, I started casting an Elk-Hair Caddis upstream against the outside edge of the current, and I soon saw a fish take the fly. I raised my rod tip and came tight, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened next: the fish took to the air as soon as it felt the hook and then proceeded to jump six more times before I got it in the net.
It was my first experience with a landlocked salmon, as well as the first time I had hooked a wild salmonid of any kind. I was astonished by how hard it fought, and unlike the stockers I’d caught during the summer, this silvery salmon felt hard and muscular in my hand. I could barely hold onto it. The fish was just 14 inches long, hardly a trophy, but it seemed to represent a milestone in my angling education. When I think back on it now, that was moment I truly fell in love with fly fishing.
Learning to Fly
Since that first trip to Lakewood more than a quarter century ago, I’ve been back to the Rapid perhaps a dozen or fifteen times, and I always fall in love all over again—enchanted by the geography, the path of the water itself, and the spectacular brook trout and landlocks. Although I have since fished all over the world (mostly with Sandy along to take photos), the Rapid is still my favorite place to fish.
After that first visit, I began fishing harder than ever, reading every fly-fishing book and magazine I could get my hands on, and figuring out ways to make the sport a bigger part of my life. Every time I went back to the Rapid, I was a better angler. By the mid 1990s, I was guiding in Alaska and Montana, and soon thereafter, I launched my career in publishing, which eventually landed me here. I think I can trace all of that back to my first trip to the Rapid.
The Doc is in his early 80s now, and when we traveled to Lakewood last September, he didn’t fish much. But you can tell how deeply he still loves his rituals and the place he’s returned to every year for almost half a century. He spends most of his time on the porch of the cabin, repairing some piece of his gear and surreptitiously offering treats to the camp owners’ corgis when they wander by. He still enjoys casting from the platforms at the ends of the piers that extend from the dam, a place from which he can watch his boys fish, as well.
In several ways, I owe my life in fly fishing to Doc Hays. Not only did he bring me to Lakewood all those times when I was a starving graduate student, but he taught me many valuable lessons that are still important to me. It may have taken me a while to get there, but I came to share his philosophy that a fishing trip is about much more than catching fish. The people with whom you choose to share that time on the water or in the cabin are so much more important than the number of trout you bring to hand.
We don’t know how many more trips to Lakewood the Doc has in him, but I’m going to try to make it along on as many as I can. And I look forward to future decades with Fred and Sandy and our kids, as well. Hopefully, there will come a day when the three of us stay on the porch while our kids head to the river in search of something special, which might not be a fish at all.
Editor’s note: You can get a good feel for the Rapid River and its surroundings in this promotional video made by our friends at Tightline Productions: