(Editor’s Note: Last weekend I vacationed with my friends Fred and Sandy Hays and our families and had the opportunity to spend some quality time with the Doc who is now 89 years old. I was reminded of this article I wrote almost a year ago over a decade of the profound impact the Doc had on my life, even if he wasn’t aware of it.Almost everything below still applies today, although it has now been several years since the Doc made his last trip to the rapids has .)
Although I’ve been a fisherman since my early childhood, I didn’t learn to fly fish until I was doing graduate school at the University of New Hampshire in the late 1980’s. My older brother Brian lived nearby and he taught me casting on a cool 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 do it. In fact, I would go fly fishing thirteen Times before I caught my first trout – a fact I like to tell struggling beginners.
I spent the first spring and summer poking around the little creeks and ponds of southeastern New Hampshire and catching some stocked trout, a bunch of panfish, and even a few bass. Most importantly, it was just a fun way to pass the time and get some fresh air, and I enjoyed learning a new skill—particularly through reading magazine articles. But then I received an invitation that would change my life forever.
This fall, my high school friends Fred and Sandy Hays asked me to join them and their father on one of their twice-yearly trips to Lakewood Camps on Maine’s Rapid River. Doctor Hays, known to us all as ‘the Doc’, has been making these trips since the mid 1970’s and the boys have accompanied him since they were in middle school. It was an honor to be included in their family tradition and I was looking forward to my first ‘proper’ fly fishing trip. I had no idea how life changing it would be.
Fred explained that Doc is a creature of habit and so the itinerary is always the same. The first stop was the famous Upper Dam Pool where Carrie Stevens tied up the first Gray Ghost streamer. After a night in Rangeley we headed to the boat launch at South Arm and made our way across Lower Richardson Lake to camp where we enjoyed 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 quite wonderful. Once off the Interstate, driving through western Maine is delightful as the dual carriageways follow rivers and through small villages and larger logging towns. Then you get into the land of mountains, great lakes and strange Indian names, such as Mooselookmeguntic And Oquossoc. Late that afternoon, Doc turned off the sidewalk onto an unmarked dirt track and finally parked in front of a locked gate.
Getting my feet wet
My excitement grew as I hiked down to the Upper Dam, but when we emerged from the forest I was a little taken aback by the size of the water. The Upper Dam holds back Lake Mooselookmeguntic and the outflow creates only a 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 at the edge. The scale was intimidating for an inexperienced angler who mostly roamed streams you could practically jump over.
We geared up and waded in at the bottom of the pool. As far as I remember neither of us caught anything that night but it was fun reading such big waters and working on my casting and presenting skills. Saw a few other fly fishermen catching beautiful landlocked salmon, a species I had never seen before. When it got too dark to see our flies on the water, we wrapped up and made our way back to the car with flashlights.
After a night at the Rangeley Inn, we packed up and drove about an hour to the boat launch for the trip across Lower Richardson Lake to Lakewood Camps. The boat ride was beautiful as the surrounding hills were bathed in the reds, yellows and oranges of the New England fall. As the camp came into view, I was struck by its rustic charm. I was dying to get a view of the river, but that’s not how Doc rolls: First we had to have lunch.
Doc is a ‘gentleman’ angler in my opinion. He doesn’t fish before breakfast, preferring to return to the lodge for lunch and enjoys sitting on the cabin’s porch in the afternoons rather than running back to the river. I quickly learned that catching fish is part of it at least Important things about the whole experience for Doc. For him, those trips were really about escaping his stressful life as a surgeon, spending time with his boys, enjoying the beauty of Northwest Maine, enjoying the continuity of his rituals, and being in the flow. Catching a fish was just the icing on the cake.
These were valuable lessons for a newbie like me who was so focused on fishing that I might not have noticed these other parts of the experience. Doc taught me to slow down and enjoy every part of a fishing trip, not just the moments when my fly rod is bent.
When we finally got ready and took the five minute walk down to the river, I immediately fell in love with the place. The Rapid River originates at Middle Dam and flows through two large pools before tumbling down a half mile of steep pocket water that features some really fast sections and large boulders. It then levels off a bit before merging into the aptly named pond in the river. Below that are miles of other ponds and rapids.
I didn’t catch anything during that first afternoon session, but after dinner I crossed the dam to fish the other side of Harbeck Pool, the second down the dam. Having the whole stretch to myself I started throwing an Elkhaar caddis upstream against the outer edge of the current and soon saw a fish take the fly. I raised my rod tip and got stuck, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened next: the fish flew into the air as soon as it felt the hook and then jumped on six several times before I got it online.
It was my first experience of landlocked salmon and the first time I had caught one wild Salmonids of all kinds. I was amazed at how hard it fought and unlike the stockfish I had caught over the summer this silver salmon felt hard and muscular in my hand. I could hardly hold it. The fish was only 14 inches long, hardly a trophy, but it represented a milestone in my fishing education. Thinking back to it now, that was the moment I really fell in love with fly fishing.
Learn to fly
Since that first trip to Lakewood more than three decades ago, I’ve been back to the Rapid maybe a dozen or fifteen times, and I always fall in love all over again – enchanted by the geography, the course of the water itself and… the spectacular brown trout and inland waters of the river. Although I’ve fished all over the world since then (mostly with Sandy for photos), the rapids is still my favorite spot to fish.
After that first visit I started fishing harder than ever, reading every fly fishing book and magazine I could get my hands on and thinking about how I could make the sport a bigger part of my life. I’ve been a better angler every time I’ve returned to the Rapid. I was a tour guide in Alaska and Montana in the mid 1990’s and soon after began my career in publishing, eventually leading to the management of American angler and then here at Orvis. I think I can trace it all back to my first trip to the Rapid.
The Doc is in his early 80’s now and when we went to Lakewood last September he wasn’t fishing much. But you can tell how much he still loves his rituals and the place he has returned to every year for almost half a century. He spends most of his time on the cabin’s porch, fixing some of his gear and secretly offering treats to the camp owners’ corgis as they pass by. He still enjoys casting from the platforms at the ends of the piers extending from the dam where he can also watch his boys fish.
In many ways I owe my fly fishing life to Doc Hays. Not only did he bring me to Lakewood all those times I was a starving graduate student, but he taught me many valuable lessons that are still important to me. While it may have taken me a while to get there, I came to share his philosophy that there is much more to a fishing trip than just catching fish. The people you spend time with on the water or in the cabin are far more important than the number of trout you bring with you.
We don’t know how many trips to Lakewood the Doc has left, but I’ll try to attend as many as possible. And I’m also looking forward to the coming decades with Fred and Sandy and our children. Hopefully there will come a day when the three of us stay on the porch while our kids head down to the river in search of something special that might not be fish at all.
Editor’s Note: You can get a good taste of the Rapid River and surrounding area in our friends at Tightline Productions’ promotional video (above).