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Archive for May, 2011

Spring comes to Vermont.

Green touches the trees, a coat of pollen on the truck. Black flies. Gray rainy skies with occasional breaks of sun. The Connecticut River big enough to bury familiar landmarks in a swirl of brown water. Fields flood. And black flies. Did I mention black flies?

You would think that the change of season would bring with it pictures of fish in my hand, but it isn’t so. I’m learning a bit about fishing these parts, and I confess that I have much to learn about fly fishing.

The Cold River

The week started with a Sunday visit to the Cold River, across the Connecticut in New Hampshire. The Connecticut itself was swollen and angry, sending its tendrils far back up the mouths of its feeder rivers, including the Cold. But there’s a nice bend in the river not too far up with a deep hole and the promise of a large fish. I found myself there on a Sunday afternoon, approaching from downstream with an olive woolly bugger and some extra weight to get it down. No luck. Some combinations of dead drifts and retrieves. The water was 46 degrees, so it seemed primed for fishing and I knew there had to be a fish lingering in there. I worked slowly up to it, and then beside it, to retrieve across from the far bank. Nothing.

And then a rippling in the water and a fin. He surfaced again and again. My own white whale. Nearby. A dream come true. A trout hitting the surface on an afternoon in late April! I paused to regard my selection of dry flies. What was he eating? The only thing in the air seemed to be little brown stoneflies. To match this possibility, I had, well, not much. The curse of the novice fly fisherman. Ever an optimist, though, I tied on a yellow stimulator and a small elk hair caddis, and gave it a try. It’s a bit frustrating to watch a fish surface, place two flies within six feet of that spot, and have absolutely nothing happen. A decent drift, not a bad presentation as far as I could tell, but just no interest. This happened over and over again. Ah well.

By this time some kids had come by and were shouting down to me from the road. Ugh. I reeled in my two useless flies. As they sank and fought the current back to me, I saw a flash of yellow and my fish trail them for five feet or so. I thought he was going to hit it, and I pulled a little early. No fish. I tried this sort of underwater retrieve a couple of more times. Nothing. By now the kids were playing around on the road and chasing each other toward the river. I began to notice a steady stream of vehicles passing by, filled with smug men in camouflage, carrying fishing poles and bait. I found a light-colored streamer (a black ghost) and gave that a try. Nothing. Nada. Rien. Rocks splashed in the water as the kids started chasing each other along the banks and threw stones. Another fisherman began throwing a spinner above me. An old timer in camouflage on a bike carrying at least six poles stopped to watch and wait.

Don’t think I’ll be back to the Cold on a Sunday any time soon. But there was at least one good fish there.

The Williams River

A few days later found me at the mouth of the Williams River in Vermont, under the I-91 bridge. The Connecticut was backed up right about to this point, and I figured a few fish might be hanging here, avoiding the big water. Unfortunately, by now I had lost all of the black woolly buggers that had caught me my only fish so far, and was left with a ragged olive one that didn’t inspire much confidence. But it was worth a try.

Casting options were limited with the water so high, so it wasn’t long before I was moving upriver exploring. The Williams has some deceptively deep spots, and enough structure that it seems like a place for fish. But I had no luck. All I threw was that woolly bugger… it was mostly a reconnaissance trip. No fish. The water was 46 degrees and there wasn’t much of anything on the wing. But the solitude was splendid. Not a kid throwing a rock in sight. For me, fishing is as much about finding quiet, beautiful places as it is about touching the magic of a giant fish, so I was quite happy. But if I could just catch a fish AND be in a quiet, beautiful place, now that would be special. I’ll be back.

The Williams River near Rockingham, VT

The Saxtons River

The books I have tell me that the middle sections of the Saxtons are devoid of trout. The water gets too warm in the summer. A friend who would know told me that the state stopped stocking the Saxtons years ago, and that since all the trees have grown up and the fields are disappearing (he’s been here a while), there’s no longer enough water for the fish. A trickle compared to what it used to be. No more deep holes. He might be right. The book might be right. But then again, the Saxtons River is within walking distance, so I have to try it, don’t I? Well, don’t I?

If there’s a fish anywhere near the town of Saxtons River, it would spend its winter in the deep hole below the falls… near the center of town and under the bridge that leads to Westminster West. So I spent an hour or so throwing my luckiest woolly bugger (a tally of one fish, mind you) into its depths in hopes of proving the critics (and logic) wrong. No luck. And somewhere in that hole my lucky woolly bugger still sits, attached to a rock or a stick.

Just a few days ago, I tried a hole upstream a half mile or so, with a new, shiny woolly bugger without luck. Water about 45 degrees… a beautiful river. Not a fish in sight.

Furthermore, turning some rocks turned up some mayfly larvae and caddisfly as well. But this, too. In the space of five minutes I saw about 4 larval salamanders sheltering under the rocks along the banks, in the water. I don’t know New England salamanders that well, but if I had to guess, I would say that they were spotted salamanders. I’m probably a better biologist than a fisherman, and I have worked with salamanders before, in the Pacific Northwest. When we went looking for larval salamanders in streams, we began looking for them above the places where the fish were… in the tiny headwaters where no fish could get past various barriers. Why? Because fish do a pretty good job of eating larval salamanders. It’s why vernal pools are so important to salamanders around here. So to see salamanders in the Saxtons is not a good sign of fishiness, at least in this stretch.

So you might suppose that I am frustrated by now. Three rivers, no fish. Nope.

As a matter of fact, I’m working on learning the art of fly tying, so I can lose more flies and stay well-supplied. There is something about standing waist-deep in a river, with even the slimmest of hopes of touching a fish… furls of fly line holding up in the air defying gravity… the anticipation and optimism that sits with that tiny hook at the end of the line… the line sinking and connecting two different worlds… the hope of bridging the gap and holding a fish out of the water to stare and admire the wonder of it. There’s something about that.

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