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Posts Tagged ‘vermont’

Leaving Vermont

My name is Daniel Harrington. I’m 38 years old, and I just left a steady job, my family and friends, health insurance, and many belongings in order to pack up an old Toyota truck and drive West. Again. It is a recurring theme in my life, this migration. It first happened in 1995, when I had just graduated from college with a biology degree and narrowly escaped unemployment by being offered a job out west. In southern Utah, working with Mexican spotted owls.

And now I find myself looking at my own footprints, watching the lingering ghost of myself driving ahead of me. I drive west again, to work with spotted owls again.

This morning a 22 year-old Toyota pickup with 232K of experience carried me rattling over the dirt and potholes of Route 121. Headed west, out of Vermont, into New York and beyond.

Vermont is a conundrum. According to the experts, the Green Mountains once soared like the Himalayas, or maybe just the Rockies. But they were big, and sharp, and high. That was thousands of years ago, and now the rounded, worn ridges  we see are the eroded remains of those giants. So you would think, while wandering around Vermont, that one would get the sense of the land being old. And that might be true of the hills, but not of the landscape.

Those hills are old, but the trees cloaking them are young and naive. A little over a hundred years ago, Vermont was a hilly land of sheep pastures and stone walls, with only a few trees left for shade or aesthetics. So the forested landscape of Vermont is one that is young, wounded, and recovering. When Europeans first arrived in Vermont, they were greeted by giant pines. White pines over 200 feet tall that looked to them like perfect masts for sailing ships. And so they cut them down. And then they tried to farm, tried to raise sheep until better lands elsewhere pulled the people away and the trees started sprouting again.

This is what I was thinking about, this time, as I left Vermont driving west. I  couldn’t help but look through the skeleton fingers of the winter deciduous trees reaching up, but falling short, as around them the solid pines outgrew them. You see them all around, once you start looking… white pines clearing the canopy and getting taller again. Those pines, those someday giants, patiently reaching up through those young, naive trees, the orphans of an older forest.

I didn’t know it then, but that was what amazed me when I reached the carved canyons of Utah 16 years ago. The presence of that landscape, an ancient presence. Even the twisted junipers and fields of sage.

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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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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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Vermont is…

a blue-sky day with growing heat as morning gives way to afternoon, and finding still, in the grass seeped in morning shadow, the clinging droplets of last night’s dew.

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