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Matt Dickerson: Bird watching on a trout stream

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Posted on August 10, 2017 |
By Matt Dickerson



Over the past few years I’ve been reading and learning a great deal more about the interconnectedness of stream and forest: the intimate interdependencies of terrestrial ecology and aquatic ecology. The dependencies go in both directions. Aquatic life depends on terrestrial life, and vice versa. Or to turn the motto of Las Vegas on its head, what happens on shore doesn’t necessarily stay on shore.

I’ve known for years about the importance of riverside trees both for shade and to stabilize the streambank. What I’ve learned more recently is how important it is that there are mature forests in which trees occasionally die and fall into the river. It’s also important that the nutrients of fish die and end up on terrestrial soil. Or in the mouths of feeding creatures. The introduction of non-native lake trout into Yellowstone Lake a few decades ago resulted indirectly in a catastrophic collapse of the osprey population. Rocky Mountain streams in which invasive brook trout displaced the native cutthroat may have only half as many spiders living in the trees along the shoreline, and also have many fewer songbirds.

Ultimately, though, I also prefer experiencing stream ecology to reading about it.

The afternoon sky was clear, but the air was not too hot. Between the thunderstorms rolling through Addison County and my own travels, I hadn’t been out on the local rivers for some time. I didn’t expect trout to be feeding at 3 p.m. in the afternoon on an early August day, but I knew I needed to get out on the water.

I drove to a favorite stretch of the New Haven River — not a particularly productive stretch, but one a little farther away from the road, where I expected a deeper quiet. For the next two hours I worked my way steadily upstream.

There are days when I’m feeling lazy, and will just keep the same fly on whether it’s working or not. If it’s working, no reason to change it. If it’s not, I figure nothing will. This was not one of those days. Despite my low expectation of finding feeding trout at this time, I kept trying new flies. I drifted nymphs below dry flies. I stripped streamers. I let wooly buggers sink into the depths around logs. Nothing drew any notice. The trout were all hiding.

The effort to find trout had me paying even more attentions to my surroundings. I noticed how much the stream has changed. In fact, it’s constantly changing. Sometimes the changes come fast. Sometimes they come slowly. For the past 15 years I have been watching one of my favorite holes slowly fill in with sand and gravel. This was the trip I realized I could no longer call it a “hole.” A few other favorite spots had been changed more quickly and drastically over the winter or in a single one of the heavy early summer flows, and also for the first time I decided they were no longer worth fishing.

On the other hand, a couple beautiful new spots had been created — in both cases by the falling of a tree. Though I wasn’t able to entice a fish to chase a fly, before leaving I waded quietly to the very edge of these treefalls and peered in the clear deep water. In both places I spotted a trout hiding below a log in armpit deep water at the bottom of a pool.

The most enjoyable moment came late in the excursion when some mayflies starting coming off the water. Another fallen tree laying across the shallows provided a perfect perching for a steady rotation of at least half a dozen waxwings that were picking off the mayflies one by one as they rose from the water. I suppose the lack of trout to take a fly I presented, which was a disappointment to me, was a boon to the birds because it meant all of those aquatic invertebrates escaped to feed the forest creatures.

Three days later I was out again, this time at 6 a.m. when my prospects for landing a fish were somewhat higher. And I did, indeed, land half a dozen trout, mostly small rainbows but also a pair of brown trout of 12 and 15 inches. Neither fish are native anywhere to eastern North America, so I wasn’t ruminating too much on stream ecology. Nonetheless, a stream that holds even non-native fish is better than one that can’t support any fish. So I didn’t worry too much about the counts of spiders along the shoreline.

On this morning I was fishing a gorge, and though I enjoyed landing the trout, the most enjoyable moment came just five minutes into the excursion. As I stood on the trail 40 feet above the level of the river looking down into the morning shadows, a movement in the air caught my eye. A big bird was swooping down the gorge almost directly below me. About the time my eyes focused on it, and I realized it was an osprey, it folded its wings and dropped down into a plunge pool below a small cascade. For a few seconds it was hidden behind a big bolder. When it reappeared, it had in its talons a nice breakfast trout at least as big as all but two of the fish I would catch in my excursion.

With the extra weight, the osprey had to circle three times around the narrow gap before it had gained enough altitude to lift up over the trees and fly off to a quiet spot to eat that breakfast — or perhaps to feed it to its young. And as the bird lifted up out of the gorge, I dropped down in to continue my ecology lesson.

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