Two weekends ago, my friend Mike took me fly-fishing on Lewis Creek in Starksboro.
(Starksboro, looking North)
“I’ve got an amazing 3 weight Orvis rod that I want to try out,” he said, “and I’ve been tying some new flies.” Then he rattled off a list that sounded more like indie band names than flies: Wooly Bugger, Wingless Prince, Pheasant Tail Flash Back.
“You been fishing before?” he asked.
“Oh yeah,” I said confidently. This is technically true, as I’ve been spincasting since I was wee. But I know as much about casting a fly rod as I know about operating a helicopter. We agreed to meet at a dark hour on Saturday morning.
If you’ve read “A River Runs Through It,” by Norman MacLean, you know what fly-fishing is supposed to be like -- a rite of masculinity, a dance with the water, an improvisatory poem. A half-clad man in a wide-brimmed hat casting graceful loops above a shimmering stream. You get the idea.
That is not what I experienced.
Lewis Creek was definitely shimmering, and last Saturday was one of the standout days of the fall. The grass was frosted when we drove up, and some of the quartzite in the riverbed had a frozen sheen. The maples and birches next to the river were starting to change, and the water was so clean it bubbled green. The scene was set for a truly religious fly-fishing experience.
We pulled up to the river near two trucks. Mike scrambled down to the river, and I chatted with a few guys getting ready to go bird hunting over the road.
“I’ve caught some big brookies up in here,” one of them said. I nodded sagely and headed down the trail.
I tied a Wooly Bugger on, dropped it in the water, and watched it float downstream. Then I tried casting, and tangled the line. How can just two casts create a knot with more complexity than the human eye? I sat down to unsnarl it, and by the time I was done my butt was asleep.
I repeated the cast and untangle drill a few times, then walked upstream a bit, scrambling over slick stone shelves to get to a higher pool. After untangling my line again, I hid behind a big rock and dropped my Wooly Bugger into a deep eddy on the other side.
“There’s no way the fish can see me here,” I thought, “and I don’t even have to cast.”
This was no more effective at catching fish than the cast/tangle/untangle procedure, but far less frustrating. Within a few minutes, though, the hook snagged on a piece of wood jammed under the big boulder.
I tried pulling on it from a variety of angles and briefly considered cutting the line, but Mike had chosen this Wooly Bugger especially for me. I couldn’t lose it.
So, I rolled up my sleeves and shimmied out onto the boulder, hooking my toes over a bump and lowering my body toward the water. Even without a fly rod in one hand, this would be a precarious move. I followed the line under the boulder with my fingers and the sleeves of my shirt got soaked. I switched to the other hand and freed the hook, shimmied back over the boulder and looked up the bank. Two of the hunters were watching me. I gave an embarrassed wave and scurried into the woods.
After three hours of scaring fish and untangling monofilament, it was much warmer out, and my shirt had started to dry. I still hadn’t caught a fish, but had mastered the art of appearing to fly-fish while in fact just passively enjoying the morning.
And, surprisingly, it was great. I watched a Sisyphean chipmunk roll an unshucked black walnut up the hill. A school of black-nosed dace (Mike told me what these were) darted around a small pothole, cut off from the main flow. I found a small cave between two imbrocated slabs of quartzite and climbed through it to the very edge of a waterfall. When Mike told me it was time to go, I was peeling back a sheet of moss to watch a long beetle burrow through a fissure in the rock.
And Mike didn’t catch anything either, so I didn’t even feel too incompetent.
So, from an absolute novice, here are my three tips:
1. Don't pretend you know more than you do. Even if you're a state champion in Montana, tell your guide that you could use a few pointers. They know their local streams, flies, and fish better than anyone. Or at least think they do.
2. If you're the local taking someone fishing, be as mysterious as possible. Say things like, "I've fished all over the world but there ain't no trout like these," or without provocation exclaim, "Now you've done it!" and storm off. Occasionally taste the water and make thoughtful faces as you inspect your flies.
3. If you're the fish, go ahead and bite the gosh-durn fly for once.
And, if you still want to go fly-fishing in Addison County, there are LOTS of opportunities. We fished near Great Falls of Lewis Creek off of States Prison Hollow Road, but I’ve seen people fishing on almost every sizeable stream in this area. The Middlebury Mountaineer and Vermont Field Sports both carry fly-fishing equipment and can help direct you to good stretches of river. There are regional non-profits like the New Haven River Anglers Inc. who help monitor water quality and fish populations in area streams.
Fishing for trout is best in the cold, highly oxygenated rivers like Vermont’s mountain streams. Not only is the fishing good up there, but the scenery is incredible. So, get out of the valley, have someone (not me) teach you how to cast, and go catch some trout. Or, barring that, watch some animals and fall foliage with a rod in your hand.