Archive for the ‘Fishing’ Category

After an early spring of frustrated days of casting fly after fly into unforgiving waters, I can, at last, dispense some words of wisdom to those spring fishermen of the meandering and plentiful rivers of Vermont and New Hampshire. Have patience.

Have patience because the stocking trucks will eventually arrive. If you’re lucky enough, they will even dump bone-headed hatchery fish into a river near you, saving you the trouble of driving to find them. If you peruse the Vermont website, they will even tell you the exact size of the fish being dispensed into your local river, to the decimal inch. What is a 9.3″ fish, anyway? The New Hampshire authorities are a little more circumspect, but here’s another hint… they dump a lot more fish than their compatriots in Vermont. They just don’t give you the precise statistics.

I will preface the following comments with this disclaimer – I am by no means an expert fisherman. I am, however, a fast learner and someone who pays attention to things that interest me. I also learned my beginning lessons of fly fishing in the West. I was the beneficiary of a patient tutor, who repeated a few important maxims to me in the course of waiting while I fumbled through my knots and pondered the difference between leader and tippet. “90% of their diet is underwater,” he explained as I complained about nymphing when we could be casting dry flies. He smiled and shook his head as I insisted on the purity of dry fly fishing as he pulled fish after fish out of a Colorado river using nymphs and a “strike indicator” (fly fisherman for bobber).

Eventually I relented and studied what he was doing. Cursed and swore when I repeated his motions without catching a damn thing. Waist deep in frigid waters a 6 hour drive from home, no waders. No fish. The high country of southern Colorado. Absolutely beautiful. After a few days of learning to mend line and make sure of a dead drift, it finally began to happen. Fish. And not just any fish, but big, fat fish. Full of vitality and color and fight. I held the first one in my hand, and there were rolls of fat rolling over my fingers. They don’t stock the river we were fishing. Native fish… wild fish… wary fish. A good day for me was catching two. But they were big, and the wildness of the country and the river was as much of a reward as touching a denizen of the watery underworld.

And so, when I returned to my home state of Vermont after more than 15 years away, you might understand that my expectations had a distinctively western flair to them.

In April, with the water temperatures finally breaking 40 degrees, I began to test the waters with no luck. The nymphs that had worked just fine out West snagged no waiting lips. The days were empty. And of course, I began to doubt myself. I had heard and read about the discriminating fish of the eastern waters, that could only be fooled by a perfect presentation by a skilled practitioner. But there was this, too… as I patrolled the local waters, I wasn’t seeing fleeting shadows of fleeing fish. It was as if the waters were just strangely empty.

The first suggestion of a different state of fishing came when a friend listened to my mentioning of fishing in late April and responded that I was fishing for “holdovers.” This was new to me, but I found it again mentioned in a worn edition of a guide to fishing Vermont’s waters (copyright 2001) that some pitying person had bequeathed to me. After some study, it became clear that they were talking about stocked hatchery fish that had, somehow, miraculously survived the winter. A few weeks later, over a beer with a stranger in Chester, I heard him say that there weren’t any fish in Vermont rivers anymore. The Williams, the Saxtons, he said… all used to have fish when he was a kid, but he hadn’t pulled a trout out of them in years. They don’t stock them, he said.

And it appears that this is the case. The rivers of New England are dead zones. Perhaps some lingering brook trout wriggle in the top waters at the heads of hidden creeks, but the big waters are inhospitable to trout. Be it warming waters, pollution, fishing pressure, or a deadly combination of these elements… without the state dropping fish into the waters, there would be no trout here.

And this, my friends, is an incredibly sad statement. What has this come to? There are no native trout left?

As a fisherman, it lessens the experience. What glory is there in fooling a fish that grew up on protein pellets and brushing fins with his neighbors? What skill in catching such a fish? What satisfaction in hooking a fish that would not survive the winter anyway? There is something wrong with the world when the skilled fisherman is the one who keeps abreast of the stocking report or who has inside information about where and when the trucks have been sighted.

And I begin to wonder about the people that profess their own skill in finding and landing the elusive, picky trout of the east coast. I am tempted to whisper to them 90% of their diet is underwater and hand them a couple of copper johns. I wonder if describing these fish as cryptic and difficult is just the fisherman’s way of pumping his own chest.

But then again… maybe there are some hidden pools out there. The undisclosed headwaters of some long forgotten stream without a name, nestled in the shadow of the Green Mountains. Maybe there, in the deep, cool water, are some monster fish that will look with disdain at my meager copper johns and wait for something better, something more real. Who will only rise out of the depths for the absolutely perfect presentation of the correct flies. Maybe that’s the ticket.

cold river, nh

ashuelot river, nh

ashuelot river, nh

black river, vt


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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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Finally, a fish!

I spent a few hours today where the Saxtons River empties into the Connecticut River. The lower sections were fairly crowded with fisherman on a Sunday afternoon, so I started up beneath the Rt 5 bridge and cast into the tailwaters of a small waterfall spilling over the remains of an old dam. I was hoping to wade out into the middle of the river, since the shores are fairly thick with trees and the far (south) side of the river looked more promising, but the water was just a little too high for me to be comfortable. And the water was cold. I bought a thermometer yesterday and the Saxtons River registered a chilly 42 degrees at about 3 pm.

The fly of choice today was a black woolly bugger, and that’s all I used at the falls — no success. I suppose I should have given some nymphs a try, too, but by then a spot had opened up just downstream over a deep, overhung hole, which seemed a little more promising.

Casting was a bit of a challenge here for me, so most of the technique was letting fly and line drift down through the hole, and then retrieving through the hole in hopes of a fish. To start I put a couple of small split shots on the line to help the bugger get down a little, but I noted that, on the retrieve, the fly was staying within a couple of feet of the surface. While I was noting this, there was a flash of gold in the depths and the unmistakable wiggle of a fish returning to the bottom. This, my friends, was the first fish I had even seen during the sum of my fishing experience so far this year… and it had actually come up to take a look at my fly! On the next retrieve, I hooked the fish, but lost it after a couple of seconds. But I had a smile on my face.

Figuring I had spooked him a little, I switched to a black ghost and gave that a try. Absolutely nothing. Except the black ghost hanging from a nearby limb with a good part of the leader. Sigh. So back to the woolly bugger. If you’re a beginner like me, changing flies takes long enough for most fish to forget that you are there.

The next try was more split shot, and I tried hard to get the bugger deep before starting the retrieve. And it worked. I never saw the strike, but was able to set the hook and land what I estimate to be an 11-12″ rainbow. It definitely put a smile on my face. The first Vermont fish I’ve landed with a fly rod. Shortly thereafter, I landed my woolly bugger in the exact same branch where my black ghost was twirling in the breeze, and decided to call it a day.

On the wing, again, were a small number of little brown stoneflies, and I also noted the first yellow-rumped warbler of the year. Some goldfinches and a flock of cedar waxwings as well.

The take home message so far – cold water and fish still holding in deep pools near holdover locations. Success with a small streamer fished deep.

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The weather has been miserable around here lately… cold and rain. Today some snow to start the day. But yesterday was a glorious sunny day with light winds – i couldn’t help but give fishing another try. The destination was the Williams River, which flows through Chester and near Rt. 103 until it meets the Connecticut River at a fine bay called Herricks Cove. Research indicated that Herricks Cove is decent fishing, and that there were fish as one moves up the Williams. But did it have fish during a cold April?
Late afternoon found me tying a bead-head brown woolly bugger on and trying the deep water beneath the I-91 bridge at the Williams. Didn’t take me long to find out that I had a pin hole at the left butt cheek of my waders. Ah well.
And, as usual so far, no luck under the bridge.
As the Williams turned more into a proper river above the bridge, I switched to a rubber leg brown stonefly nymph with a red copper john dropper. Some promising water there, but no fish. Plenty of tangled line, though, especially as the wind started to pick up a bit. No bites, and not a fish to be seen. The rivers have been high and brown lately, and the only way I was in the water yesterday was because of the start of a cold spell. So maybe the fish are still holding elsewhere. Or maybe I’m just a terrible fisherman.
The Williams looked promising, though.
I’ll be back.

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Well, here in Vermont the fishing season opened yesterday, and with the temperature breaking sixty degrees and the sun shining, I took an over-ambitious trip to the upper end of the Saxtons River for some early season nymphing practice. As has been the case for me so far in Vermont, there was nary a fish. I’m new to fly fishing, and a late taker on fishing in general, so please don’t take this entry as anything like professional advice. But, if you’re fishing the area, it may still be helpful.

Where – the Saxtons River above Grafton, VT… Rt. 121 from the “swimming pool” to the next upstream bridge

The gear – 6 wt 9′ rod… tapered 5x leader with 5x tippet

The flies – bead head, rubber leg brown stone fly nymph with midge dropper

The good news is that, as I parked, there were a fair number of little brown stoneflies in the air (see picture above), so the April hatches have already started. I saw quite a few on a warm afternoon a week ago or so on the Connecticut River as well. The Saxtons was deceptively deep and flowing well, but no problem to wade. I fished without any weight on the line and without a strike indicator, which had the nymphs just about right, it seemed… touching bottom fairly regularly with occasional snags on rocks, but not enough that I thought they were too deep.  The river and branches required short casts. No fish. No bites. But a pretty stretch of river with some promising spots. With a little research, I realize that I am probably fishing too far from holdover locations (the Connecticut River, lakes, ponds) for this early in the season. This will be remedied soon.

One thing of note is the power of scraping ice on a river like this. Many trees along the banks had bark stripped from them on the upstream side – looking as though there had been an outbreak of hungry porcupines along the river’s edge. Remnants of the river ice still remained in many places, like a receding ice wall backing slowly from the river and shrinking. A fair amount of snow in the shaded places as well. And the water was cold. I don’t own a thermometer (yet), but retrieving rock-snagged flies left my hand tingling after less than a minute. So probably a bit cold still for fishing.

In sharing this, I am by no means complaining. The sun was shining, the river was singing, and all in all the world seemed like a pretty good place. And casting nymphs without split shots or an indicator was quite a pleasure. I’m just saying if you want to catch fish, this stretch of the Saxtons might not be the place to do it this week. Or maybe it was just me…

So, no fish for me yet here in New England. I’ve caught fish on a fly rod in Washington, New Mexico, and Colorado — soon I hope to add my home state.

Commentary is welcome – suggestions, insight, or even if you want to tell me I’m an idiot for picking this place at this time of year… have a go. I have a lot to learn about fishing, trout, and eastern rivers.

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The tide has turned in the last week or so. The sun higher, the days longer, the smiles coming.

About ten days ago I noted the first turkey vulture of the spring floating in, and just a few days ago an American kestrel bounced its tail and head as it came to a perch. There are robins around. The cardinals are singing, the chickadees are singing, and the machine-gun drumming of woodpeckers echoes through the hollows. The world is a dripping, warming place.

A fortuitous confluence of events put fishing on my mind. I went on a “man’s weekend” with my brother, which, in addition to the requisite amount of alcohol, meat, and fire, included ice fishing. We chipped holes in the ice with a chisel (earning our fishing and blisters) and set six lines in the ice. And I held fish in my hands… I touched at least 3 brook trout on the weekend. There’s something addictive (addicting?) about touching fish. It is a strange, magical meeting of worlds. It is reaching beneath the surface, into the void, and finding something alive, breathing, and squirming. And beautiful … it is always about beauty, isn’t it? Fish are beautiful, alien creatures.

So I touched some fish. And when I got home, I found a brand-new set of chest waders waiting in the mail. Coincidence?

With brook trout and waders on my mind, I began flipping through a book on fly fishing northern New England and stumbled upon an epiphany. Although the fishing season here in Vermont doesn’t start for another month (unfair!), the season in New Hampshire had been open since January first! The Saxtons River had tossed its ice aside a week ago… those New Hampshire rivers were similarly open. The ponds and lakes were still iced over, and the fish everywhere were just waking, but I had waders… and those brookies this weekend had taken bait…

And so yesterday, as the sun climbed through noon and smiled upon the waking world, I found myself in the Cold River near Alstead — waist deep in spring. The sun glinting off the water, robins flying tree to tree along the banks.

I would like this to be a story about me waiting patiently, working the water carefully, and finally landing a monster of a trout. But this isn’t that story. When you are relatively new to fly fishing, like me, success is measured in more subtle ways. I am no Brad Pitt “shadow casting” into the mighty waters of Montana, after all. I am that guy sitting on the bank trying to untangle yards of line because he cannot fathom the thought of tying yet another knot. I am the guy jumping and reaching to branches in hopes of retrieving a snagged fly. A day where I don’t lose a fly is a highly successful day. And I must say, this day on the Cold River was such a day.

I tried using “streamers” for the first time… In my case just a simple woolly bugger, but still, a different technique of fly fishing. And, of course, because of inevitable circumstances, I was doing it off my left shoulder and casting across quite a current. When the woolly bugger had attracted no notice, I fell back into a familiar pattern of large stone nymph with a copper john dropper. This pattern, with its accompanying split shot and strike indicator, is a whole different world of casting. It is awkward at best, and again was performed off the wrong shoulder and across a current.

And through it all, not one tangle. Not one snagged. Not a single fly sacrificed to the river gods.

And the waders… being new to this game (and cheap), I had favored jeans and sneakers in my previous fly fishing escapades. What a chump! I felt positively comfortable out there… I could walk without stumbling and I felt positively buoyant. The boots gripped the rocks like newfound lovers, my toes suffered the transgressions of not a single rock.

And through it all the spring sun was beaming down, the trees were taking their first breaths, and birds tested the warming air. Not a bad day at all.

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The view west from the Pinnacle

I can see my breath, barely feel my fingers, and it has been at least a half hour since the chilly waters of the Saxtons River have topped my Extratuffs  and soaked me to the thigh. But I’m happy. The sunlight reflects off the water, and fire colored leaves ripple in the breeze and make their final jump and flutter down into the river. I’ve been told there’s no fish here, and I mostly believe it, but I can’t help but try. The sun touches the trees on the western horizon and the day is fading. I’ll fish just up to that rock and then get out I think to myself. I get halfway there before fly hits line in midair and the ensuing chaos of silk-thin line, hooked flies, and rod sits before me. I breathe life into my fingers and spend the next ten minutes untangling line. It’s how fishing goes for me, and it is ok. No fish today. Water bubbles out of my boots as I find my way back to the truck.

My truck still has Washington plates. I haven’t had time to replace the windshield and get it registered in Vermont. Time is precious these days. I’m an embarrassingly new teacher at a private school, and it is quite an adjustment for me. When I can, I get outside.

My brother and I sit on “The Pinnacle”… a clearing with a restored cabin and a wide open view of southern Vermont. It would be the peak of foliage color, except that a dry summer and torrential fall rains have stripped the lovely leaves from most of the trees. But you can still see the hint of a torch on the landscape. And the blue-tinted mountains are topped with the first snow of the season. Summer fades.

I’ve been around a bit, and over the last twenty years or so have fallen in love with the wide open spaces and soaring peaks of the American West. But I find myself falling back in love with Vermont. Someone, Barry Lopez I think, once said that to truly know a place, you have to leave it and come back. I’m back in Vermont and seeing it in a new way. I see the cloaking forest that envelopes and hides the traces of civilization. I see the beauty of these old, old mountains that stand over these young, impertinent second-growth trees. I appreciate the pockets of wildness that linger so close to the towns, and the character of a people shaped by years of living through harsh winters.

This is Vermont, and I’m happy to be home.




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