We are speeding northwest along State Route 136, what locals call River Road, a potholed and frost-heaved asphalt ribbon tying Freeport and Brunswick to Lewiston and Auburn. The river to our right is the Androscoggin. Water flashes past in bursts of light between the trees, like an arboreal zoetrope, giving the illusion that the river is flowing backwards. It is a blue, bright, warm August day.
We’re out for smallmouth bass.
Three of us are crammed into an aging Honda sedan: Mike, Macauley Lord, who is driving, and I. Macauley’s car is all fishing bum: upholstery covered with Labrador fur, backseat pockets stuffed with maps and assorted lures, trunk crammed full with waders, poles, reels, nets, fishing vests, two deflated kick boats, and snarls of monofilament line. Another kick boat, fully inflated, is lashed to the roof rack. Our plan is to float from the twin cities of Lewiston/Auburn to a US Geological Survey flow monitoring station about two miles downstream from our put-in point.
I ask from the back seat how we’ll get back to the car, shouting above the wind whining around the kick boat on top. Will we hitchhike, I suggest? Macauley laughs and shouts back. “Maybe we’ll walk or thumb a ride,” he says, before adding, “or maybe we’ll take a taxi.” He smiles at me from the rearview mirror. Taxi rides are the luxurious and convenient way to fish this stretch of the Androscoggin.
Macauley had just come back from a two-week fly-fishing trip in the Idaho backcountry, chasing enormous native cutthroat and rainbow trout on a protected waterway in the same kick boat now struggling to detach from the Honda’s roof and become airborne. Often, he was the only person on the river for miles. He told his fly-fishing companions about the float-and-fish-and-back method he uses in Maine. They weren’t impressed. “Fly fishing and taxi cabs,” he jokes, “are alien cultures.” But it depends on the fish and the fisherman. For devotees of native trout, who preach the gospel of the overhand cast and the follow the catechism of hand-tied flies, bass fishermen are the angling equivalent of damned unbelievers. For Macauley, fish are fish and fishing is all about catching them, no matter where or what kind.
Macauley is a professional sport angler, a longtime guide for L.L. Bean and author of popular books and magazine articles on fly casting techniques. A piscatorial proselytizer, he’s fished the globe: the Indian Ocean, Patagonia, Kentucky, Montana, and Belize. His fishing wanderlust began early. As a Bowdoin undergraduate in the 1970s, he and a friend set out for Newfoundland in quest of brook trout. After leaving St. John’s for the backcountry, Macauley discovered he had left his sleeping pad back in Maine. Eager to fish, he made do with newspapers and pine boughs instead.
Yet Macauley, who lives in Brunswick, loves to fish his backyard as much as anywhere else. This summer, he’s eager to get out because, with the exception of the recent Idaho trip, classes at Bangor Theological Seminary have consumed his time. Macauley aspires to become an Episcopal chaplain.
“I can’t wait to show you guys what a fantastic bass river this,” he says, reading the water periodically as he drives. Bass fishing on the Androscoggin has only confirmed Macauley’s ecumenical angling and his rides with the local hacks are one reason why. “Whenever a cabbie gives me a ride, they first look at me like I’m crazy with all of my gear on the side of the road,” he says. But puzzlement always yields to conversation because, he found, “fishing is the universal language.”
Macauley pulls the car into a parking lot behind an old mill building in Auburn, makes a three-point turn, and backs down a crumbly concrete boat ramp. Like so much of post-industrial Maine, the Lewiston/Auburn waterfront is a jumble of timeworn and new buildings. Some are restored, some are in disrepair, and more than a few are boarded up and falling down. This section of the river, just below the Main Street Bridge connecting the Twin Cities, is getting yet another makeover. Bulldozers and excavators are clearing a path for a walkway and vest-pocket parks flanking the Great Falls, where the river plunges over a rocky escarpment almost one hundred feet high in braids of whitewater and mist. However, you can request a dryer inspection here
Mike and I unload the trunk while our guide wrestles the inflated kick boat off the roof. A construction worker ambles over as Macauley flips open the car hood, connects a well-worn electric pump to the battery terminals, and inflates the two remaining kick boats. Mike straps on his waders, secures his camera, dons scuba fins and pushes his now-inflated boat into the small eddy at the foot of the ramp. The fins are the propellers for the kick boat, legs and hips the engines. Macauley warns us to cinch the special-design Navy SEAL-issue fins tightly to our feet; they cost about $175 a pair and they don’t float.
The construction worker, now joined by a co-worker, watches us flop around on the concrete ramp. When we tell them we are fishing, they give us a bemused look and wish us luck. Hardhats and sunglasses shade their aces, so I can’t tell if they’re envious or just think we’re silly. I put on my waders, make sure my fins are ankle-bruising tight, place my rear end in the kick boat seat, and join Mike in the eddy.
A kick boat is a grown-up version of the summertime inner tube: a plastic bladder encased in a semi-rigid nylon shell shaped like a chubby U with a platform stretching across the bottom and pockets lining the sides, perfect for stashing lures, extra clothing, food and beer. You sit facing out from the top opening of the U, lower legs dangling in the water, and kick to move backward (the bend of the U is your bow), spinning or twirling one leg or the other to pivot as if you were rowing a boat with your feet, which you are. I feel like an anthropomorphized whirligig beetle. When I tell Macauley, he says I have a point: kick boats can take you to places impossible to reach by canoe or a kayak.
He launches his kick boat and immediately becomes amphibious, effortlessly moving out into the river’s main current. Mike, who still has the rangy build of the high school and college athlete he once was, has the hang of it already, too. I’m struggling but starting to get the feel for the fins, the boat, and the river. Macauley tells us to pull aside, lock arms, which he calls “rafting up,” and start kicking in unison to cross the river. Our lines drape in the water, swaying in the current, as we troll for fish.
This is my first time fishing for smallmouth bass. A westerner, born and raised in Utah, I chased trout, mostly rainbows or cutthroats, sometimes browns. When I lived in the Pacific Northwest, I largely gave up fishing, preferring to ski or climb instead, a foolish decision in retrospect given the region’s reputation for enormous steelhead, a type of rainbow with a taste for seawater, or any number of the salmon species that are the region’s totemic fish. Bass held no interest for me. They were not common to my childhood haunts, the high and cold mountain rivers and lakes of the Wasatch or Uinta or Wind Rivers, nor were they the kind of fish I associated with going into the wild. Bass were NASCAR creatures, spiny green bug-eyed trophies coveted by potbellied white guys wearing camouflage baseball caps and wraparound sunglasses.
Although I had no good reason to be so judgmental, I was an unrepentant nativist; bass are indigenous to neither the West nor New England. They are a warm-water fish, introduced covertly to Maine by summering fishermen from the mid-Atlantic states, who likely carried them north in pails of water until they received, in 1869, the official blessing of the state Fish Commissioners to do so legally. By 1914, William Converse Kendall, writing in The Annotated Catalogue of the Fishes of Maine, argued that smallmouth bass had become so numerous they deserved to be recognized as a legitimate game fish. As one state fishery biologist wrote in 1965, the species had been “a resident of Maine’s waters for so long that Maine fishermen are often startled to learn that the smallmouth is from ‘away’.”
These immigrants-gone-native now inhabit 471 lakes and ponds in Maine, maybe more, primarily in the southern and central regions of the state, plus all of the major rivers from the Saco in the south to the St. John along the New Brunswick border. The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife considers smallies legitimate residents in all of these locales, with a few exceptions, much to the chagrin of trout anglers who see them as threats to their favored quarry. (Bass like to eat almost anything, including juvenile trout.) Today, according to Macauley, the Androscoggin is one of the state’s premier bass rivers, and one of the best in the entire Northeast.
It didn’t always used to be this way. A 1967 report by the IF&W chronicled the near collapse of the Androscoggin’s fisheries. A century of dams and pollution had “destroyed the runs of anadramous fish” like salmon and alewives, which spawn in fresh water and grow to adulthood at sea, and “limited the production of resident game fishes” like brook, brown and rainbow trout, which were “restricted to the areas around the mouths of tributaries where cool water and high oxygen levels” sustained them. Pollution made the Androscoggin inhospitable for “all game species of fish,” except for “a limited warmwater fishery” of bass and pickerel in isolated coves and backwaters. “Generally speaking,” the report concluded, “it can be said that no appreciable fishery of any kind exists in the Androscoggin River from Berlin, New Hampshire, to Brunswick, Maine.”
Almost forty years later, I’m trying to have faith in Macauley’s enthusiasm. We are kicking hard, steering at a right angle to the powerful current generated by the falls upstream. After a few strenuous minutes, we reach the eastern bank. Macauley warns us that we’ll feel it tomorrow in our quads, ankles, and glutes. He advises letting the current do the work for us when we can. Already, my legs burn inside the cold Gore-Tex waders wrapped around them. Stopping for a moment, I breathe deeply and look up at the office buildings of Lewiston/Auburn sinking beneath the green canopy of oaks and maples.
We’re now on the Lewiston shore, floating near the crumbling remains of the Bates Mill. Opened in 1854 by Benjamin Bates, a transplanted Massachusetts industrialist, the mill was a copy of the sprawling textile industries run by the Boston Manufacturing Company on the Charles and Merrimack Rivers. Bates picked this site because of its proximity to inexpensive power, natural and human. The Androscoggin provided fast-moving water in abundance thanks to its gradient, the steepest of any major river in Maine, and ample headwaters in New Hampshire and Maine’s mountains. To insure a consistent supply of kinetic energy, Bates, backed by Boston capital, commissioned canals to divert the river and propel huge water wheels driving lines of textile looms. To secure reliable laborers, Bates first lobbied for railway lines connecting Lewiston and Auburn to major urban hubs, like Boston and Montreal, and then lured French Canadian and other migrants to come for work. By 1857, the mill employed a combined workforce 1,000 men and women, producing more than five million yards of cotton fabric that year alone. The Bates Mill both set and followed the pattern for Maine’s industrial rivers over the next 150 years.
Now, the ruins of Bates’s mill, which closed in 2001, lean toward the river in glorious, silent decay. Decaying brick towers stand atop masonry-hardened shorelines covered in English ivy and Scotch broom. Water dribbles from storm sewer outlets suspended above the slow moving current. Pieces of newspaper, plastic bottles, six-pack rings, food wrappers, and wisps of fiberglass insulation stick to the chain-link fences topped with barbed wire surrounding the old mill. Graffiti decorates concrete and brick walls left unguarded by the fence or the steep embankment.
Macauley smiles as he readies to cast. “I think we’ll find some hogs in here today,” he says, lobbing a plastic lure into the dark brown water.
* * * * *
By many measures, the Androscoggin isn’t a significant river. It isn’t even Maine’s largest: the Penobscot (if you include its directionally-named branches) and St. John are longer and discharge more water. It doesn’t even flow into the Atlantic Ocean, technically, despite draining a watershed of 3,530 square miles from its headwaters well above New Hampshire’s Umbagog Lake at Maine’s Magalloway River to its terminus in Merrymeeting Bay. After joining the largest tidal estuary north of Chesapeake Bay, the 178-mile long Andy, as it is sometimes known, is bullied by custom and fluvial nomenclature into joining the smaller Kennebec, which alone empties into the Gulf of Maine. And while the Andy is critical to the Gulf’s estuarine and oceanic ecosystems, it is perhaps most renowned for spurring the environmental movement that crumbled dams and restored fish runs to the Kennebec and Penobscot. Meanwhile, although running cleaner, the river of Edmund S. Muskie, Rumford native and Bates graduate, father of the 1972 Clean Water Act, remains a conduit for mercury, lead, and mill waste. Over one hundred dams spread across its basin, and none have come down or are slated for removal.
Yet the Androscoggin isn’t alone in its obscurity and damnation. Legions of other American waterways also hide in plain sight: the eponymous Los Angeles River, straitjacketed in concrete and barbed wire to protect citizens from its constant flooding and toxic flows; the Duwamish River in Seattle, its oxbows straightened and its banks lined with warnings in multiple languages to avoid eating the fish; the Chicago River, made to flow backwards permanently and dyed green every St. Patrick’s Day; and New York’s East River, sad polluted sibling to the Hudson.
The Androscoggin shares much with these and other rivers. All were umbilical cords that tethered their young towns to the global economy; all nurtured their progeny even as their towns abused and rejected them; and all were ultimately disconnected in the name of progress. As the famed writer Richard Hugo wrote in his poem, “The Towns We Know and Leave Behind, the Rivers We Carry With Us,” A town needs a river to forgive the town. / Whatever river, whatever town – / it is much the same…
Or so we think.
It is easy to see the Androscoggin as fallen. It fits with the conventional stories we tell about nature and human nature. But this river is far from lifeless. Bald eagles and osprey, once imperiled, are now commonplace, perching atop utility poles and cell phone towers, scanning for carrion or prey. Sturgeon, eels, alewives, and the occasional Atlantic salmon still move upstream and down to spawn, if sporadically, despite dams and pollution.
But the Androscoggin remains a river of contradictions. The Maine Office of Tourism website touts the “Upper Andro” north of Bethel as one of New England’s outstanding trout streams. Meanwhile, the stretch downstream is grudgingly peddled as prime habitat for smallmouth bass and northern pike, a newly introduced species with a voracious appetite for all other aquatic life, including juvenile pike. Above Bethel, the river wears Patagonia Gore-Tex jackets bedecked with hand-tied files; below, it sports Cabela’s baseball caps and fluorescent plastic lures.
Even this caricature is too neat. Macauley has both spin and fly rods. So does Mike. Feeling rusty with my casting skills, I’m sticking with a spinning pole and artificial lures. Macauley doesn’t judge my choice. “Pulling plastic is a blast,” he says. “On some days, it is the only way you can get a fish.” He speaks with an expert’s confidence as he lands the first bass of the day, removes the hook, tenderly holds it up for us to see, and sets it loose. If Macauley has one unwavering rule about fishing it is this: thou shall catch and release whenever possible. It is more than doctrine on the Androscoggin; state authorities advise against eating more than one fish per month from the entire river if you are a healthy adult. The limit for children, pregnant women, and nursing mothers is zero.
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Now, Mike hooks his first bass and lets out big holler. Macauley echoes with a whoop. I shout out congratulations even as stereotypes about bass and rednecks play in my mind. I’m also envious. We’ve been on the water now for almost an hour and while Macauley and Mike have caught fish, success eludes me. My fishing line is a bird’s nest and my casts make Little League pitches seem major league. I’ve had several bass temporarily hooked on my lure; all have wiggled free. Sensing my frustration, Macauley kicks over and offers to fix my rig.
Picking at the tangle, he gives me a few pointers about casting and setting the hook. A similar principle unites both techniques: use your rod. For casting, load the rod so it helps you to throw the lure (the same idea is true for fly fishing) rather than just muscling it. For setting, keep the rod almost flat. Once the fish is hooked, keep the rod more upright and the line tight so the fish can’t squirm off. Listening to Macauley, I hear my grandfather’s voice, offering the same lessons years ago on countless streams in Wyoming and Utah, patiently explaining how fishing is finesse as much as luck.
As he helps me to relearn the fundamentals, I ask how and where he learned to fish. Growing up near Louisville, Kentucky, Macauley dropped bait and lures in ponds brimming with bass and sunfish that dotted his grandparents’ farm. When it came time to attend college, he followed family tradition and went east, but with an eye on finding a college close to the outdoors. Bowdoin was just such a place.
After he unravels my line, he hands me an olive-colored plastic lure, shaped like a minnow, and explains counter intuitively that on a warm, sunny day like today, a dark lure is sometimes more enticing than a light one.
“Try over there,” he says and points to the narrow, shaded confines of an old canal outlet nearby, suggesting that I work along the sides, kicking slowly to the end of the channel and back. He smiles and turns back to catching his own fish. I ready my gear as the lichen and moss-covered walls rise above me. I spool some line out, flip the bail on my reel, and bend my forearm back behind my shoulder, remembering not to go too far. A forward flick with wrist and arm, and I release the lure. It bounces off the wall and falls in the water with a splash. Too hard. I reel it in slowly, keeping my rod tip pointed up at a 45-degree angle, maybe more, gently tugging on the line to imitate a floundering minnow or frog. No luck. I cast again, trying not to hit the wall.
This time, the lure plops into the water quietly. I begin to reel it back when I feel the strike. I try not to panic, keeping the rod up as I start cranking the reel. The water boils at my feet and the twitching rod arcs downward. Then, I see it: a smallie, hooked on his lip, pulling hard. Before I can say anything, Macauley and Mike both yell out, reminding me to keep my rod up. I try not to think about how much line I have left to spool back as I reach behind me, fumbling for my net, grabbing it, swinging it forward and putting it underneath the writhing fish. I have it, finally.
Macauley comes over to help and lets out a whistle. “That’s a pretty fish, Matt!” He takes a quick look and estimates it is about twelve to thirteen inches. Not bad, he says. We loosen the hook as I hold the bass tightly.
Staring into its dark eyes, watching its gills and mouth pulsate as it gasps for breath, I feel its needle-sharp dorsal spines digging into my palms, and what seems like its heart beating furiously as it thrashes in my hands.
I gently submerge the fish, let go, and watch it vanish in the murk. Macauley laughs and congratulates me again. “Alright, now we’re all fishing! I knew it would happen! I just knew it!” He paddles off, confident that I can do it again. He’s done teaching for now. He’s found another convert to the church of kick boats and bass. It’s time to start fishing.
I wipe my hands off and look up at the storm sewer pipe traversing the top of the canal channel, draped in greenery, then out across the river as Mike hooks another bass. I let out a whoop. As I prepare to pull back the bail on my reel for another cast, I notice two pinpricks of blood on my right palm, a reminder of the bass I just released. Now, it is back in the water, alive. And I’m floating downstream, newly alive, ready to fish a river I can no longer see as dead.