Fish Stories and Tall Tales, or, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Gray Ghost

Take a walk across Upper Dam. Continue straight down the old portage road towards Richardson Lake. Halfway there on the right-hand side of the road you’ll find Camp Midway, where beginning around 1919 Wallace and Carrie Stevens summered (and often wintered) for many years. Now look to your left, approach the metal plaque on its sturdy pedestal and read the words, “Fishermen: Pause here a moment and pay your respects to Carrie Gertrude Stevens.” After paying respects, you might wish to prime the old pump at the nearby well and draw a cup of cold pure water.

The text continues: “On July 1, 1924 while engaged in household tasks in her home across the portage road, she was inspired to create a new fish-fly pattern. With housework abandoned, her nimble hands had soon completed her vision. In less than an hour the nearby Upper Dam Pool had yielded a 6 pound 13 ounce brook trout to the new fly that would become known throughout the world as the Gray Ghost streamer.”

It’s a great story and mostly true, as Bill Pierce, the Executive Director of the Rangeley Lakes Region Historical Society pointed out to me in an email last week after he read my previous posting.

The plaque was dedicated on August 15, 1970, the same day that was proclaimed Carrie Gertrude Stevens Day by Maine Governor Kenneth Curtis. Had Carrie been around for the proclamation and the unveiling of the plaque, she might have politely pointed out the wee flaws in the text. But Carrie had died twelve days earlier, on August 3.

The plaque’s claim that “in less than an hour” the pool had “yielded a 6 pound 13 ounce brook trout” is contradicted by Carrie’s own recollection, as noted in Graydon and Leslie Hilyard’s treasure of a book, “Carrie G. Stevens, Maker of Rangeley Favorite Trout and Salmon Flies.

The Hilyards' Book

The Hilyards’ Book

She had indeed tied a new streamer pattern that morning, and had fished for a half-hour, catching a couple of small fish, before the big trout took the fly. But it took her nearly another hour to bring the fish to the net, so the pool had not truly “yielded” the fish in “less than an hour.” No biggie.

The second “wee flaw” is more of a whopper, and I naively repeated it in this space a week ago. She did not catch that trout on a Gray Ghost streamer.

Edward "Shang" Wheeler and Wallace Stevens (Courtesy Rangeley Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum)

Edward “Shang” Wheeler and Wallace Stevens (Courtesy Rangeley Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum)

Wallace Stevens guided anglers on the famed Upper Dam Pool, including a man named Charled E. “Shang” Wheeler. It was Shang Wheeler who, in 1920, encouraged Carrie, a milliner by trade, to try her hand at fly tying. As a milliner she did not want for feathers, and as a guide’s bride she did not have to look far for a fishhook. She did not have a vise, though, and so that first fly and all the thousands she tied thereafter were tied in her hand. (The only person I have witnessed performing this feat is Selene Dumaine, who several years ago tied for me a selection of Carrie Stevens patterns.) That first fly she named the Rangeley Favorite. She later created another streamer for Mr. Wheeler, “Shang’s Favorite,” shown here courtesy of another great American fly tyer, Don Bastian.

Shang's Favorite (Tied and photographed by Don Bastian)

Shang’s Favorite (Tied and photographed by Don Bastian — Used with permission)

Cast ahead to that July morning of 1924. After Carrie’s nearly hour-long struggle with the brook trout she dashed to the Upper Dam House to weigh the fish and enter it in the hotel’s record book. The entry, in her own hand, reads, “Mrs. W. C. Stevens — Trout — 6 13/16” — and as was the custom, she listed the fly: “Shang’s Go-Get-Um.”

According to Bill Pierce, that was the streamer she had tied that morning before heading to the pool. Yet, a quarter-century later, in a letter to Col. Joseph Bates (whom Carrie also named a fly after) she recalled the fatal (to the big trout) fly as a Rangeley Favorite. We have to accept the entry in the hotel ledger, which was unearthed by the Hilyards in their research. We know for sure that it was not a Gray Ghost, which seems to have appeared quite a bit later.

Carrie Stevens's Gray Ghost pattern. (Tied and photographed by Don Bastian -- Used with permission)

Carrie Stevens’s Gray Ghost pattern. (Tied and photographed by Don Bastian — Used with permission)

Be that as it may, each spring when I make my first cast into the Upper Dam Pool, the fly at the end of my line is a Gray Ghost, still the most famous streamer fly in the world and one of the most effective, even though its reputation may rest partly upon the ethereal shoulders of, well, a ghost story.

(For the record, I do believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Harry Potter.)

Nick Mills

About Nick Mills

Full disclosure: I was not born in Maine, alas! I was born in Massachusetts, but the family moved to Maine when I was eleven, and I grew up in Thomaston. My dad was skipper of one of the draggers that sailed out of Rockland, in the days when it was a rough-tough working fishing port. When he came in from the sea his favorite activity was freshwater fishing with me and my brother, Peter. We learned together to flyfish for trout in the Alder Stream in Eustis. Once hooked on the sport, pun intended, I fished at every opportunity in every place I could -- in the rivers, streams and ponds of Maine; in the mountain ponds of Utah, where I was stationed for a year in the Army; in high Andean lakes in Colombia, where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer; even in a lagoon that surrounded one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Baghdad. I tried once to go trout fishing in northern Afghanistan, when the U.S.S.R. occupied that country; a landslide blocked my path, but that led to a more interesting adventure, which I will tell you about in a future post.