Matt Dickerson: Even as weather changes, the joys of fishing stay the same
Thirteen days earlier on the final weekend of April, the water temperature in the lower Middlebury River was a mere 44 degrees. It was definitely still early spring fishing conditions with sluggish trout and only minimal aquatic insect activity. On this past Friday afternoon, however, after a week of temperatures ranging from the upper 70s to nearly 90, the water had soared all the way up to 62 degrees — a temperature I have never before seen or even imagined in a Vermont river in the first half of May, and one of the most dramatic temperature rises I’d ever witnessed in the Middlebury River. It had gone from below the bottom of a trout’s active range up close to the top. As I used a brief 40-minute window of free time in the late afternoon to stand in the river and cast a fly, the surface of the water was alive with insects — mostly midges but also some stoneflies and early season mayflies.
Twelve years ago Steve Liu was a senior at Middlebury College. Growing up in Boston, he was a temporary urban transplant to the rural environs of Addison County. Wanting to take advantage of that period of rural living, he acquired a fly rod and asked me to take him fishing. So one fall afternoon when the foliage in the mountains was peaking, we hiked down to Silver Lake from above. We arrived at the beach by the state park, and pulled out our gear only to discover that Steve had brought his rod but left his reel in the car. Rather than hike all the way back for it, we took turns with mine.
I put on a streamer fly imitating a small trout, and told Steve to wade out as far as he could, and then to cast out as far beyond that as he could. I then had him strip the fly in with small rapid tugs to imitate a bait fish darting through the water. Some 30 or 40 minutes later, Steve landed his first trout on a fly rod. Excited by his success, we fished too long that evening — continuing to cast right up until dusk. This was followed by a memorable hike out through the woods in the dark when both of our flashlights died within moments of turning them on.
Steve graduated and returned to Boston, first for a teaching job at his old middle school, and later as a summer camp director and youth minister for his church. As a married man with a three-year-old daughter and a full-time job, his life is quite different now. But he still has a passion for fly-fishing. He gets out when he can to cast for bass in the crowded ponds of various town parks in eastern Massachusetts, and hopes for rare opportunities when his travel takes him up to northern New England and he can chase trout in a less crowded river.
The wedding of a mutual friend provided such an opportunity. Not long after I got off the Middlebury River, I had a text from him asking if I could get out fishing some time over a long weekend. The recent spate of unusually warm weather had spawned a flurry of aquatic insect activity, I told him, and the fishing ought to be pretty good. Saturday was out for me, however, so we made plans for Monday morning.
Thanks to predicted thunderstorms, the plans were tentative. But the thunderstorms on Sunday were less intense than some predictions. The day dawned with a promising feel. When we met at 6 a.m. on the New Haven River, the water was a bit up and slightly off color with some flotsam from the storm, but it was still very fishable.
Over the next two and half hours, we fished our way up about a mile of water, with a variety of flies. And we saw nothing. A cool thunderstorm on a hot summer day can trigger a feeding frenzy as it washes some terrestrial food into the river. But this storm had caused the water temp to plummet 10 degrees, down into the lower 50s, and the fish had shut down. I knew Steve really wanted to catch a fish, so I suggested one other spot we might try, just a short drive down the river. Steve was supposed to be on the road shortly after 9 a.m. to pick up his wife and daughter and begin the drive back down to the city. Not much time remained.
By the time we had parked the car and walked down to the water, the clouds had parted and the air had warmed. Early morning had turned to mid morning. Late morning was approaching. We weren’t on the river more than two minutes before we started to see fish rising. We both put on dry flies. I caught and released three brown trout within five minutes. Steve had strikes, but was not getting the hook set. He got one fish on, but lost it. Then he lost several more strikes, when he couldn’t seem to set the hook.
He pulled out his fly and looked at it, only to discover that the hook had broken off perhaps on his first fish. That provided a good explanation for his failure to set a hook. It was now close to 10 a.m. An hour after he said he was going to depart. But his wife hadn’t actually called him yet. He tied another fly on.
Some time shortly after 11 a.m., we both reeled in our lines and packed up our gear. After replacing his broken fly, Steve had netted and released several fish, kept one stocked brown trout that had taken a hook too deeply, and let a couple others go via the euphemistic “long distance release.” Just like our first time fishing together some 12 years earlier, we’d both stayed on the water much longer than we’d planned. But that last hour provided the fastest trout action Steve had remembered in a long time. Perhaps ever. Enough to sustain him for several more months of city living? Hopefully. And this time, fishing the extra hour was not going to result in a long dark walk through the woods.