OQUOSSOC, Maine -- "You can always catch a fish in the Kennebago."
Reggie Hammond, Maine guide and game warden for Rangeley, Maine, repeats that every year. And every year it proves true. In fact, it's a running joke with my two lifelong friends, Ted Taigen and Bob Harvey, who stand beside me on the north shore of the Little Kennebago Lake, waist deep in late spring runoff, watching what first appears to be a rainstorm start to pucker the water's surface.
A moment later we realize an insect hatch is on and the water stirs with feeding fish. We cast five-weight floating lines, using mostly Brown Variants and March Browns as flies, our retrieves quick and jerky. On Harvey's third cast, the water makes a hoof mark on the lake top, then an 8-inch brookie follows his line into the air. It's the first of 70 or 80 fish we will catch that night. We release every fish, happy to support the ''fly-fishing only, catch-and-release" ethos that makes the Kennebago watershed arguably the finest fly-fishing in New England.
''Kennebago Lake is inexhaustible," Hammond says. ''It's deep, it's huge, and it's fly-fishing only. Trolling is not permitted. It's 5 miles long, three-quarter miles wide, and 119 feet deep. It's one of the best fisheries in the lower 48 states. And the river that connects Kennebago Lake and the Little Kennebago, well, it's as productive as a New England river can be."
Among fly-fishers, the Kennebago region is legendary. Named for the ''sweet flowing waters" by the Native American nations, it was a destination for early fishermen, who hiked in from Rangeley in search of brook trout weighing 6 to 8 pounds. A nine-hour hike brought them to a log cabin at the head of Kennebago Lake, where they slept on pine bough beds and captured brook trout larger than any on record. Sports editors insisted that the fish must be lake trout, or toque, and the confusion continued until a specimen delivered to Harvard professor Louis Agassiz proved the fish to be a true brookie. Afterward, the chance to angle for such an enormous trout proved irresistible. In 1913, a train brought ''sports" from Oquossoc to the foot of the lake. Grant's Kennebago Camps, providing log cabins, three meals a day, and vintage Rangeley boats, was built in answer to the demand in 1905.
For 10 years, my friends and I have traveled each spring to Oquossoc to spend a week casting over the Kennebago, the Little Kennebago, and the Kennebago River. We have made short day trips to the Magalloway and Rapid rivers, both spectacular trout waters in their own right. President Eisenhower fished the Magalloway and President Hoover cast for brookies on Kennebago Lake. The Rapid River, setting for the memoir ''We Took To the Woods," by Louise Dickinson Rich (Down East, 1980), is a wide, handsome river, as wide and as versatile as the best Western rivers.
Lakewood Camps was built in 1853 on the corner of Richardson Lake where it spills into the Rapid River. Like Grant's Kennebago Camps, Lakewood provides meals and housing to its guests. After passing Lakewood Camps, the Rapid continues on its way, eventually spilling into Lake Umbagog, a rich wilderness lake that straddles the Maine and New Hampshire borders.
History aside, we come for the fishing and the wildlife that are regular features of trips here. Moose are a routine sight, but we also track the fishing forays of a pair of osprey that scout the Little Kennebago, and loons warble every night . Because access roads to portions of the river are gated, and because no form of trolling -- pulling a weighted line behind a slow-moving boat -- is permitted, the fishing remains unparalleled in New England.
Little changes here. Last year, for instance, the big story we heard on our arrival was about a moose that had died and was deposited by the river on the front yard of a lakeside cabin. Local debate centered on whether the Fish and Game Department should move the moose or whether it should remain where it was until nature cleaned it up. If you know the Kennebago region, you know the outcome of the story.
''Moose die," one local fellow told me, ''and they have to die somewhere."
The owners abandoned the cabin for three weeks until nature remedied the situation. They couldn't even lime the carcass for fear the residue might enter the water and harm the fishing.
Though we own no land in the Rangeley area, my friends and I count on our annual trip and chew it over for most of the year. Harvey is a salesmen and Taigen a professor, both with busy families, but for a week on the Kennebago, we are boys again. We fish midmorning, midafternoon, and then show up at dusk for the big show. In a decade, the fishing has never disappointed us, and that's a remarkable standard.
''The fishing goes until mid-October, then the moose hunt takes over," Hammond says. ''Then grouse and woodcock through October, then deer season. That's the busiest time. Most of the hotels and motels are at full occupancy during deer season. The deer grow big up here, just like the fish."
On the last day of our trip we had breakfast at Grant's fishing camp. Hummingbirds worked the feeders around the porch and loons patrolled the lake. Lionel Strong, camp manager, stopped by to tell us five or six moose had been wading in the water at sunrise. A chalkboard indicated trout had jammed a nearby cove and had taken a liking to March Browns and Blue-Winged Olives.
''Good-size fish, too," Strong said. ''A fellow pulled a 9-pound brookie out of the river a few weeks back. He had to come back to the lodge to calm down. He still can't believe it."
Joseph Monninger is a New Hampshire fishing guide and the author of 11 books.