Matt Dickerson: Finding familiarity in change we see
May 20. I stand wading in the New Haven River. There may be no such thing as a stereotypical Vermont May day. I’ve seen snow squalls as late as Memorial Day, and temperatures in the 80s before the start of turkey season. It can cloud over and rain for a week, and we can see nothing but sunshine for a whole month. Or we can see all four of the above in the span of four days.
Still, today is my image of a classic — and I might even say perfect — May day in my home state. The sky is unadulterated blue. The air temperature is still in the 50s. Within a couple hours, however, it will be 10 degrees warmer. Snow melt is over except in a few sheltered hollows along the Long Trail. The river is running clear and low enough to be easily waded, but high enough I might consider venturing down in a canoe for another week or two at least. I check the water temperature. My stream thermometer reads just short of 55. Perfect for trout.
Which is what I had hoped for, and why I am standing in the river with my fly rod. The river is not yet full of trout. After what we all know — and know all too well — has been a long drawn out winter, this late-arrived spring has been a good one for wild trout. The state trout stocking efforts, however, are well behind the usual schedule. According to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife home page, neither the lower New Haven nor the lower Middlebury rivers have received their annual injection of hatchery-raised brown and rainbow trout. So despite near-perfect conditions, fishing is slow.
Still it is good to be out here. It has been an unusual busy spring for me at work, and I’ve not had the opportunities I’ve wished for to be out in the water. I am only now going through the annual process of seeing how my favorite stretches of river have changed over the past few months when we have been apart — carrying out our ongoing courtship as a long-distance relationship.
Because the river does change. Constantly. Like the weather of Vermont, it seems to stay the same even as it changes; it changes as it stays the same. Fishing holes come and go. Sometimes slowly. Sometimes in dramatic fashion. Today I will stand on a soft new gravel bar two feet above the water level where just last year there was a nice trout-friendly thigh-deep run swirling around the edge of a sunken log. Altogether gone. It is a dramatic change. It would take Moses to turn water into dry land any more quickly. I update my mental map of the river.
Upriver 75 yards is another bend that has been good for several years, but which over the past two has begun to shift and fill as the river’s ever-changing path finds a new way through. It is a more gradual change. I continued to fish the corner last year out of habit, because I had caught so many fish there over the previous decade. But it wasn’t very good. It yielded perhaps two fish all year. Today I will simply walk past it, looking for new water.
Yet what the river takes away, the river also gives back. Downstream are two lovely new stretches of trouty water where trees fell during the winter and carried downstream until they lodged on a boulder or stuck in a bank. Now the current swirls in and around them where it has already formed a hole deep enough to hold at least a couple lunker trout — lunker trout protected by branches ready to grab the fly of any angler foolish enough to try for them. A branch that already holds one of my flies, because I was one of those anglers, and because the hole also is deep enough that I could not wade in and retrieve that fly.
So I move upstream, looking for other new holes formed over the winter, saying my last farewells to old ones I will not fish again in this lifetime, and greeting others that seem to last through decades. It is a mix of familiarity and change I love, and perhaps one reason that — despite the Siren’s call of new exotic faraway streams — I continue to fish my favorite stretch of my favorite local stream. Even though it is not the best stretch of the river, nor the best river in the state or even the county, it is the one whose continual changes I know the best.
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