FAT BASS IN A LITTLE BOAT. SOMEBODY HASN’T BEEN WATCHING HIS WEIGHT...

The gritty appeal of Maine's Androscoggin River

Past the Far East Restaurant, and Big Daddy's Buff n' Wax, we turn left at the Mexico Congregational Church and find the boat launch empty. This is normal in the mill town of fewer than 3,000 residents, but surprises me on a spring morning: the Androscoggin is at its most fishable (around 4,500 cfs); it's free fishing weekend here in Maine; and the river's numerous, overweight smallmouth should be holding tight to the banks. We unload the canoe, neither of us complaining about our lack of company.

My buddy Parker is running on Red Bull and three-hours' sleep. I'm trying not to think of my guide trip the following day, given the rain, wind, and 40s forecasted. Today is a different story: mid-60s, a few fair-weather clouds, new leaves on the shoreline maples, and birches entirely still. Parker's heard me talk up this section for years, but this is our first chance to fish it together. We'll float seven miles from Mexico down to Dixfield, past Catalyst Paper, behind Walmart, alongside the Maine Central Railroad, over some of the best smallmouth water in the state.

Stand up and sight-fish. Spring has sprung on the androscoggin, and balancing in your canoe is key to a productive maine morning.
Stand up and sight-fish. spring has sprung on the androscoggin, and balancing in your canoe is key to a productive maine morning.
Photo by Molly Haley

Across the river, which is wide and swift-moving here at the put-in, the mill that once helped kill off all aquatic river life emits a steady hum. Morning sun lights the largest of four smokestacks—the one closest to the river—its business end rust-tinged like the water rushing by. The air smells faintly of sulfur. As we gear up, I'm reminded of stories of mill fumes peeling paint off nearby houses. That was before my lifetime, but recent enough that some people around here still remember. Directly below the smokestack, deep water runs along a sandy bank with overhanging trees.

Parker takes the bow at my urging, gripping his four-weight and a chartreuse ostrich herl fly with hunter-orange barbell eyes. We pass up riffles holding stocked rainbows and head toward the mill side of the river, paddling a little too fast, driven by boyish enthusiasm.

Smallmouth flies are colorful, furry, and built to entice.
Smallmouth flies are colorful, furry, and built to entice.
Photo by Molly Haley

I steer the canoe close enough to the sandy bank that Parker's underpowered rod can reach, but not so close as to risk spooking the fish off their beds. It's a two-man game here, one controlling the boat and the other taking shots. Parker's first casts are awkward, the fly a bit heavy for his set-up. It's only his fourth season fly-casting, and he's still working out the kinks. The fly plops like a fallen acorn.

"This spot looks so fishy," he says, stripping the fly with erratic bumps, eyes fixed on the end of his floating line. He's adept at working bucktails and soft-plastics for stripers, so he's not afraid to fish it slow.

After his third cast, Parker strip-sets, pauses, thinks he's stuck bottom, then a smallie pushing four pounds leaps with the fly in its mouth. His four-weight arches into the river. The bass doesn't take much line out, but pulls toward deeper water. The current swings the bow downstream. Parker works the fish as best he can. When it tires, which takes a while in the cool water, he lifts it to the surface and guides it to the net.

Mill-town ambiance along the androscoggin.
Mill-town ambiance along the androscoggin.
Photo by Molly Haley

"What a fish," he says, supporting the bass by its big belly, likely loaded with crayfish and eggs.

"Bigger than most of those rat stripers you catch," I jab.

We take a few quick photos, Parker revives the fish, and it dives deep. He rinses his hands in the Andro, then stands back up, ready for another cast.

A half-mile downstream we float beneath a rusted foot-bridge, then below the Veteran's Street Bridge. We pass more smokestacks with white steam-clouds hanging in the still air. Parker lands a few smaller bass. We've reached the end of the mill complex, where a long conveyor belt resembling a skyward roller-coaster deposits bald logs in a giant pile. The belt makes faint, mechanical squeaks as we pass, like the tanks traversing rubble in Saving Private Ryan.

put in across from the mill and float over more sunken tires than you've ever seen, past the shopping cart that usually has a bass in it.

This section of the Androscoggin lacks the attributes anglers expect from Maine rivers: banks lined with leaning hardwoods and the occasional split-log camp, not to mention native salmonids. It's a delicate conversation with inquiring clients: we could fish the classic water, I tell them, the Magalloway, or Kennebago, where we might encounter a big brookie or salmon, and where we'll certainly find anglers fishing the same day-long circuit. (I pause, then, for effect.) Or, we could leave the waders at home and fish the Andro, put in across from the mill and float over more sunken tires than you've ever seen, past the shopping cart behind the big island that usually has a bass over it, through a forest of submerged vinyl folding chairs. We'll lose count of odd debris sightings and caught fish. Big, fat, mean bass. Knot-testers. It might stink a little, too—the air in the upper valley, I mean, not the fishing. There's an occasional driftboat on weekends, the odd kayaker, or worm-dunker wading in from Route 4, but usually we fish this water alone.

Tossing juicy crayfish patterns at rootballs is a great way to spend a weekend morning.
Tossing juicy crayfish patterns at rootballs is a great way to spend a weekend morning.
Photo by Molly Haley

A half-mile beyond the mill-complex, the river starts to change. It's subtle at first, a narrowing where the current picks up and carries us away from town, as if the Androscoggin herself wants us rushed toward wilder parts. Soon we're casting at tangled, emergent roots along freshly eroded banks, the trees still hanging onto green leaves. Parker hooks a big fish on the drop and somehow yards it out of underwater branches. The bass jumps and then pukes crayfish parts in various stages of digestion. It dives under the canoe and Parker nearly dumps us following the fish with his rod tip. The bass takes up most of the net.

We maneuver the canoe out of a tree that pinned us in the mayhem, and then Parker spots a bald eagle perched in a shoreline birch. The massive bird appears black against green foliage, with an impossibly yellow hooked beak. It watches us with an air of nonchalance. I wonder how many fish have met their fate under that beak. From across the river, the high-pitched piping of another eagle. Already, the mill feels far behind.

The river bends sharply eastward, and we're surrounded by green rolling hills. We pass rocky islands, navigate a few minor rapids, kick up a family of mergansers, and pass a great blue heron standing rigid as a totem pole. Parker feeds a few more bass, medium-sized. He switches from streamer to popper to streamer again. It doesn't matter today; they'll eat anything. A train car headed for the mill chugs by, and the conductor leans out and waves.

That's a mighty fine craw imitation right there.
That's a mighty fine craw imitation right there.
Photo by Molly Haley

I take a few shots up front, land enough bass to satiate my need to bend a rod, to feel the pull, and then I'm back at the stern, guide instincts taking over, preferring to watch a good friend fish water I've grown familiar with, and attached to.

At Lunch Island, walking the canoe over a shallow gravel bar, I nearly squish a large crayfish as it scoots between stones. We eat turkey sandwiches and look out over the water. No boats pass. I think of how easy it would be to dub this river a success story, how that label would be both truthful and misleading. How, in the '60s, chemicals from the logging industry settled over this river bed, killed first the vegetation, then the insects, then the dace, trout, salmon, and eagles. How the Androscoggin was ranked, then, among the most-polluted rivers in the country. How the river came back, with help from the Clean Water Act, and a reseeding of bass. How they got fat on crayfish. But the trout still don't summer well, because oxygen depletion remains a problem. On some days, yellow foam slicks still eddy out on the sides of the river.

Stepping out of the canoe in the wrong place on this stretch has buried me up to my knees in goop. It smells sulfuric, and tickling bubbles boil up. Beneath that layer—if one were inclined to dig—lies a void, a lifeless stratum. Below that, maybe an ancient fishing hook, or an arrowhead. Above the goop, now, underwater grasses and mossy rocks, with stonefly cases clinging, and crayfish defending themselves with claws upraised, bass tipped down and feeding. This is what I'm imagining as we finish lunch and continue downstream.

A baldie with no concerns, awaiting his next meal. Which could come at
A baldie with no concerns, awaiting his next meal. Which could come at the end of your line.
Photo by Molly Haley

Four guys lob various bass plugs from the bank where the Webb River tumbles in. We skip the pool and paddle hard cross-current. Past an old concrete slab of unknown origin, a spent red oxygen tank, and a rusty oil drum, a wide-mouthed stream meets the river.

"They'll lay right on that sandbar, at the mouth," I say, back-watering to slow the canoe as Parker lays out a perfect cast.

"You mean, right there?" he says, setting the hook on a big fish that pulls line and thrashes its head. The fish is pissed, and Parker has his hands full with the four-weight. The bass finally comes to the net, sporting an old hook injury that hasn't slowed its eating habits. It's the heaviest fish of the day.

We motor through dead-water to the last pool, a boulder field with a rock as big as a cabin. We're too tired to talk, and after Parker lands a small fish, we silently call it a day and paddle for the take-out. We know, without saying anything, that we've hit it right, the season's sweet spot.

An Andro smallie muscling a four-weight around.
An Andro smallie muscling a four-weight around.
Photo by Molly Haley

We round the last bend, the landing now in sight. I remind myself to call my client later and arrange a meeting time for the morning. For a few moments, though, we stop paddling and let the current do the work.

"You know, in the ten years I've guided here, I've never fished beyond this take-out."

Parker turns in his seat, looks beyond me, back up the river valley. He pauses, says, "Yeah, but, why would you even want to?"

It occurs to me, as the canoe slides into shoreline grasses, that something less obvious than great fishing draws me back here. Perhaps the pull is in part the valley's complex history, its resiliency in the face of industrial pollution, the river's constant effort to flush a messy past out to sea. More likely, I'm drawn to the Andro's imperfections: strange artifacts along its banks, juxtaposition of mill-complex and beautiful boulder pools, and still, the bass existing—thriving, even—here at the murky confluence of industry and wildness.

The next time I fish here—early summer, probably—the water will have dropped, with the riverbed revealing more of itself. The Andro's resilient bass will be off their beds then, down deep in the oxygenated water while it lasts, harder to find, and fool.