Matt Dickerson: Escaping the rut with summer fishing
July is here. It came rolling in on a ponderous thunderhead, announcing its presence not so much with peals of lightning (though there were those) but with its oppressive air — like the heavy hand of the 1980s Soviet Union.
I grew up fishing for warm-water species: pan fish in the pond behind my house, perch and crappies in the quarries of southern Indiana and lakes of Michigan during family reunions in the 1970s, chain pickerel in the backwaters across central Massachusetts. And my favorite quarry: largemouth bass. Most especially largemouth bass. I spent two consecutive years pursuing one particular largemouth before I finally landed it. And I landed countless others along the way.
For reasons that may be obvious, July is the month when my attention often turns away from trout and to my warm water fishing roots. Except in Vermont, instead of settling for pickerel I get to pursue their jacked-up cousins: northern pike. And instead of largemouth bass, it’s smallmouth — which make up for their smaller size with a great fighting instinct.
When I moved to the Green Mountain state 25 years ago and saw a state map veined with mountain cold-water rivers, streams, brooks, and creeks of all sizes, it was the trout fishing I was most excited about.
But it turned out that my early memories of fishing in Vermont would be for pike, with Randy Butler on Bristol Pond in the summer of 1990, or with my New Hampshire uncle-in-law Jerry on the Connecticut River (where both of our fishing licenses were valid.) Later I would discover the great pike and smallmouth fishing on Otter Creek, as well as the many summer opportunities on Lake Champlain.
Though I still prefer wading in a cold stream and casting small flies for trout, pike fishing is a great change of pace. The older I get (and I am getting older) the easier it is for me to get into a fishing rut: going to the same old places, using the same old fly patterns, taking no risks. Shifting gears (or, rather, shifting flies and waters) from trout patterns and habitats to those for pike is one way every July to break out of my fishing ruts.
Not the only way, though. When my good friend Dave O’Hara lived in Vermont, I used to be more adventurous. Certainly we had our favorite places to fish. But we were also more willing to just find a stream on a map, or listen to some wild rumor of trout, hop in a car together, and go exploring. We ended up on more than one wild goose choose that left us with empty creels but full of good stories. We also discovered some really nice water.
And all those hours exploring and fishing together — even the hours on wild goose chases — led to other fruit as well. In two months, the third book we’ve written together will be appearing in stores. Appropriately enough, given the roots of our friendship, it is about fishing. The full title is Downstream: Reflections on Brook Trout, Fly Fishing, and the Waters of Appalachia.
Now that most of my fishing is alone, I am less motivated to explore new stretches of river. Especially when I have only a 90-minute window to fish, the easy and lazy thing to do is just to pull into some spot I know very well where I can use the full time fishing and not risk “wasting” precious minutes exploring a spot that might prove fruitless. (Of course fishing is never really a wasted effort, even if I catch nothing. But that is how my mind sometimes works.)
This past week, however, Dave was back in New England, visiting from South Dakota, where he now works. Living a half a day’s drive from the nearest trout stream, he was eager to get out and do a bit of fishing while he was in the area. I obliged him.
Our first several excursions were to old stomping grounds on a favorite small trout stream. Among the places we could easily drive to, it was my lowest-risk highest-probability water. Dave’s time in New England was limited, and so we wanted to make sure we didn’t “waste” it on fruitless exploring.
Though summer weather was upon us, recent rain had the waters at a decent level and in the early morning and late evening the trout were active. We caught several brook trout and brown trout between us. Since the streams were stocked, we had no qualms about bringing a few home and feeding the family.
I’m not sure if it was successfully landing a few fish that gave us the freedom to go exploring, or simply the fact that we were fishing together again. But on the second morning after landing a few fish at first light, as the air warmed up and the fishing slowed down, we decided to escape the rut and try someplace new.
It was only a couple hundred yards further downstream, into the woods and away from the road. We had to traverse a slow, sloggy and un-trouty stretch of water that in that past had always been the final barrier for my excursions. But we ended up at a stretch of river I had never fished. A very beautiful 100-yard stretch of a small trout stream, deep in the woods, against a steep bank overhung by trees, away from any roads.
And suddenly some wild brook trout were dancing at the end of my line, like a tow truck hauling me up and out of the rut.
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