Trout season closes with a big bang

The fish was huge. From 30 yards away, I could see its body waving below two feet of current on the gravel river bottom. It was another angler who pointed it out to me.
“It’s gotta be 30 inches long,” he said. “I cast to it for a while, but I couldn’t get it to take.”
He was the only other angler I’d seen on the river that day — the second to last of October, and of the 2010 trout season. More than an hour earlier, I’d caught a glimpse of this angler headed from the parking area toward the stretch of river where I’d spent the past hour casting. I wondered if he was going to join me, but when he saw me he politely turned around and started fishing his way upstream instead. I fished for another hour in the same 70-yard stretch of water, but saw only one medium-sized fish. So I decided to try upstream also.
What I was hoping for was a landlocked salmon. Like nearly all salmonids — lake trout being the prime exception — landlocked salmon, though they generally live in large lakes, need to spawn up rivers and streams. Lake Champlain, at over 100 miles long and 400 feet deep, is Vermont’s best salmon-producing lake. Most of its productive tributaries are on the New York side, but there are a few in Vermont. Vermont also has a few other lakes large enough to hold salmon, and with enough food for those salmon to grow big.
And here is the key thing. Every fall, the entire adult salmon population of these lakes is going to be looking for some stream to spawn up. The instinct is that strong. Therein lies the opportunity for stream fishermen to catch the sort of big fish that are usually only pulled out of the deep lakes by anglers trolling from boats: fish that are measured in feet and pounds and not inches. Not as big as the Chinooks, coho, steelhead, or brown trout that run up the tributaries of the Great Lakes, but fish that will still cause the heart to skip a beat. That’s what I wanted to end my season with.
When I saw the other angler again, he was working a pool intently. I gave him a wide berth and cut across a field, planning to go back to the stream well above him. When he saw me, he left the hole and started upstream also. I didn’t want to cut him off, so I instead greeted him and asked his plan. It was the same as mine: fish upstream to a certain spot we both thought might hold fish. That was when he pointed out the huge fish he was leaving behind, a dark shadow at the tail of the pool. So I did what I almost never do: I intentionally went down to a spot that had just been vacated by another angler.
I had on a small black wooly-bugger with a black cone head. I thought I’d give it a few casts and retrieve it upstream like a small fish. If that didn’t work I’d drift it slowly along the bottom like a nymph. Except on my second cast, I snarled it around a branch hanging low over the water. I could have waded out and retrieved it, but only if I were willing to spook the fish. I don’t see fish that big very often. I broke the line instead and sacrificed my $2.95 fly.
Over the next 45 minutes I tried a half dozen other flies, as I slowly and cautiously worked my way along the edge of the stream, trying to cast from different positions without spooking the fish. I thought I got a little tap on an imitation stonefly, but it might have been my imagination.
Sunset was only about 30 minutes away. I tied out my only other black wooly bugger, identical to one I’d lost in the branch.
On the fifth of sixth drift of the fly through the hole, it stopped. Instinctively, I lifted the rod and set the hook. Nothing happened. I must have stuck on the bottom. From where my line went into the water, it was pretty close to the nose of the fish. I pulled harder. And then my heart, like my fly, seemed to stop for a second, before thundering off at a very high rate. The fly was not on the bottom. The fish had taken it. It was just so big that it felt like the bottom.
It was 45 minutes later and 70 yards downstream, as the dusk settled around me, when I finally landed it. The fish, way too big for my measly little trout net, had taken me on a ride. As for the 30-inch guess, it turned out to be a slight underestimate, not an exaggeration. The fish turned out to be 31.25 inches in length — far and away the largest fish I’ve caught in Vermont, and the largest I’ve caught on a fly anywhere in New England. I tried to weigh it with the little scale I keep in my fishing pack. The scale only goes to nine pounds, and the fish maxed it out. My guess? Twelve pounds, but unlike the linear measurement it’s only a guess.
The funny end of the story is that I’m not completely sure what kind of fish it is. I assumed it was a landlocked salmon (salmo salar), until I saw the photos. It’s coloring was much more reminiscent of a brown trout (salmo trutta, a close cousin). Coloring, however, is not a sure guide. Brown trout in a lake can get as silver as salmon. Spawning male salmon can get as olive-brown as a brown trout. The best determining feature is a subtle difference in the teeth pattern on the tongue, and the length of the jaw relative to the eye. I don’t know about the teeth, but the jaw is not conclusive in the photos.
And my friends are evenly split in their votes. I’ve learned that some record members of the salmo genus have required genetic tests to determine which species they are.
For now, I’m calling it a salmon. But I don’t really care. Salmo salar or salmo trutta, it’s a personal record either way. And a pretty good way to end the 2010 season. Which is to say, I’m already thinking about next October.

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