A Rapid River Primer, Part 1: Regulations, Access, and Ecology

Many things haven’t changed since 1941!

INTRODUCTION
Located in The Great North Woods of Western Maine, the Rapid River is the premier brook trout fishery in the United States. It is without comparison a destination for landing a trophy size wild brook trout (17 inches or longer) in its native range in the Lower 48.

Source: Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust

An outstanding new book, Squaretail: The Definitive Guide to Brook Trout and Where to Find Them by Bob Mallard (a Mainer himself), highlights it as the one of the last bastions where you have a good chance to land “the big one.”

The Rapid River is hard to access, though this additional challenge contributes to its appeal. If this discourages you, the nearby Lower Magalloway River below the Aziscohos Dam offers parking and tailwater water temperatures. It has a population of big brook trout. It is also the next-best wild native brook trout river according to Mallard (and others).

However, the Rapid River is in a league of its own when it comes to huge fish and also has a biomass of landlocked Atlantic salmon, a fantastic gamefish in their own right.

If you’ve never fished inland Maine, it’s not too late, though I encourage you to follow the guidance from the Office of the Governor with regards to their Covid-19 Response. For the fly fisher on the East Coast, Maine is a much shorter and more economical trip than the trout meccas of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.

In addition to the Rapid and Magalloway, the Kennebago River and several of the large lakes in the Western Maine region, are enough to make any fly fisher drool, especially those obsessed with native salmonids.

REGULATIONS
Only fly fishing is allowed on multiple bodies of water in Western Maine, and that is defined as “casting upon water and retrieving in a manner in which the weight of the fly line propels the fly.”

This contrasts with New Hampshire’s definition, which specifies that a reel must be involved. This has been interpreted by some to mean that tenkara rods are allowed on FFO (fly fishing only) waters in Maine, but not New Hampshire.

If you don’t get a chance to visit the Rapid River, seek out other FFO waters in the region, which are referenced in the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Maine Fishing Laws. The aforementioned locations, including others such as Parmachenee Lake and Kennebago Pond, are all FFO and mostly catch-and-release. You will be in good company!

The Rapid River itself is a barbless FFO zone and has a three-bag limit on salmon at least 12 inches long. And, “all trout caught must be released alive at once.” Only the Lower Magalloway, the Rapid, and Priestly Lake in the Allagash region have this brook trout regulation so explicitly stated in Maine’s Special Fishing Laws.

This should give you an idea of the superlative qualities of this fishery. The lake known as Pond in the River is closed to fishing in July and August to protect brook trout that spend the hottest part of the summer resting in the thermal refuge above underwater springs.

South Richardson Lake, the source for the Rapid River, is stocked with brookies in the spring and salmon in the fall and has less restrictive tackle regulations. Lastly, fishing three flies at the same time is allowed in the state of Maine, but lead split shot is not.

pond in the river
Lakewood’s dock at Pond in the River

ACCESS
Admittedly, the Rapid River is exceptionally difficult to access for the day tripper. Motorized boat owners can make the eight mile round-trip from the public boat launch at the South Arm of Lower Richardson.

Otherwise, your best option is staying at Lakewood Camps, a historic Maine camp on the lake a few minutes away from Middle Dam, where the Rapid River begins. Your stay at Lakewood includes a complementary boat shuttle from their private dock at the South Arm, which has a good road leading up to it.

WARNING
Carefully consider whom you invite for a stay at one of Western Maine’s sporting camps. For the brook trout seeker, Lakewood Camps, Grant’s Kennebago Camps, Bosebuck Mountain Camps, and Tim Pond Camps are all wonderful options, reasonably priced, and have strong reputations. But, even passionate anglers on a slow day may be less than enthusiastic about the sometimes uneven floors in an old cabin, the absence of Wi-Fi, or a lack of air conditioning. While the food and scenery will be great, there may be biting insects on your porch, the beds won’t be luxurious, and the complementary boats for use could be leaky.

Unless accompanied by a guide, local, or gate key owner, you are at your own risk attempting to drive in via the Fish Pond Road from the north or the maze of logging roads from the south. The most recent edition of The Maine Atlas and Gazetteer will show you that these roads are largely gated and not maintained for passenger vehicles.

If you want more information on how to DIY, reaching out to area establishments such as the Rangeley Region Sports Shop is advisable. Learn how to use the Google Maps Offline Maps feature if you are going to go off the grid by yourself. As The Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust implores: “seek further advice as the roads to the Rapid vary year by year due to landowner logging operations.”

American Whitewater, a conservation organization for whitewater enthusiasts, offers the below map for directions. This will at least give you an idea of the lengths that other recreational river users (rafters and kayakers) are willing to go to for paddling the lower Rapid. The Appalachian Mountain Club River Guide for Maine sums it up this way: “The Rapid River would be even more popular if the access were less difficult.”

Source: American Whitewater. “You can’t get there from here!”

ECOLOGY
You will encounter four species of fish: Eastern Brook Trout, Atlantic Salmon, Fallfish, and Smallmouth Bass. Fallfish, also known as chubs, are in fact large minnows that are found throughout northern New England. They provide relief to the brook trout angler at risk of getting skunked on a challenging day.

The salmon in the Rapid River system are so numerous that Maine IFW, the management at Lakewood, and local guides collectively encourage you to feel free to keep some for the smoker. The goal is to decrease competition for the sake of the brook trout.

The smallmouth bass, or “black bass” as they’re sometimes referenced on posted signage at the river, are invasive and should be humanely dispatched if caught. This deep dive from the Center for Northern Woodlands Education will shed more light on the history of these warm-water fish and their effect on the cold-water fishery: Troubled Waters: Preserving a World-Class Trout Fishery in Maine.

Familiarize yourself with the regulated flow levels that Brookfield Renewable Partners, the dam owner, publishes on safewaters.com. If you see an overnight “pulse” of 1200 cfs, that’s actually a high water flow regime designed to disrupt smallmouth bass spawning, which you can read more about at the Northern Woodlands link above. Finally, note that the four weekends from July 17 to August 8th are “release weekends” during which river levels will be abnormally high to accommodate recreational whitewater activity.

bass
Not the target species, but a resident one nonetheless

FOR FURTHER READING

What have your experiences been targeting natives in Northern New England? Let us know in the comments below, or reach out to me on Instagram or Facebook.

salmon
The author with a salmon for the smoker
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9 thoughts on “A Rapid River Primer, Part 1: Regulations, Access, and Ecology

  1. Great piece. From the Trouble Waters link: the Rapid River has ” the sharpest elevation drop of any river east of the Mississippi without a waterfall”

  2. Lotsa big holes between the rocks and the significant elevation drop makes wading pretty tricky IMHO! Worth a visit though.

      1. Don’t know of anyone that floats it (its a really high gradient river). I have been shown pictures of Monster Brook Trout taken recently, but like anything timing is key to these big fish. I was told there is a two week window and then they are gone. I assume it has something to do with sucker runs. Also the size of the flies he used were pretty impressive!

        1. Steve – thanks for the comments. I’ll write a little more about flow levels in part 2. You’re right – wading is challenging at higher levels. At 400-500 CFS however, wading is manageable. The upper section can be floated by experienced boaters. The lower section is the true whitewater run with Class IV rapids at release levels. I can’t tell from your comments – have you fished it or not?

          1. yup just once to say I did. Lotsa history and well worth it. Did well above Pond in River on Landlocked Salmon. Also glad I fished Upper Dam Pool before the modernization!

          2. Great post, David! Seems like a challenging piece of water that has the potential to deliver a memorable fish if the stars line up. Welcome to the blog team!

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