Matt Dickerson: Sluggish spring and wintery waters

Standing in the warmth and comfort of my living room looking out the window, the temptation was too great to resist. Though the trees had not yet budded out, the grass was greening up nicely. The sun was bright in a blue sky with only scattered clouds. A winter that seemed unusually long and cold was giving way to spring. Except on the highest altitudes and north facing slopes of the Green Mountains, the snow was gone. We’d already had a spate of days with air temperatures over 60. So I grabbed my 5-wt rod and reel, selected the most likely early season flies from my shelf, threw my waders and wading shoes in the trunk, and headed down to the Middlebury River.
When I stepped out of my car at the river’s edge, however, the story was a bit different. A chill north wind made me glad for my hat and fleece jacket, and left me wishing I’d grabbed my gloves too. Meanwhile those scattered clouds had expanded, and the sun suddenly disappeared, leaving me in shadows. Most importantly, the water temperature was still only 44.3 degrees.
The various trout of Vermont’s rivers are known as “cold water species,” but “cold” is a relative term. Arctic char — the northernmost freshwater fish species in the world and a close cousin of the brook trout — do prefer water temps in the low 40s. So do lake trout. But for brown trout, rainbow trout and even brook trout, temperatures that low are still on the cold side and their metabolism is slow. They don’t move as much, and they don’t need as much food. Also, there simply isn’t as much food present in the river. So the trout are not feeding actively.
Still, it can be an enjoyable time to fish, in part because the rivers tend to be much less crowded at this time of year, and also because the rivers have not yet been stocked and so any fish you find are either wild fish or “holdovers”: stocked fish that survived at least one winter.
Local fishing guide Jesse Haller from the Middlebury Mountaineer has some advice for the early spring angler. He notes that in these conditions trout are still holding in their “winter scenarios”: deeper slower water where they stay in resting positions not expending as much energy. “I see people spending too much time … fishing shallow runs and pockets,” he notes. “It’s OK to take a few casts as you work through this but … most of the fish will not be in there yet. Fish in these (winter) conditions will usually move (at most) 6-18 inches for a fly.” In a few weeks when the water warms, of course, their habits will change. Though actively feeding fish in warmer water might move up to four feet for the right fly, “they won’t be feeding in those areas until the amount of food in the water column justifies it.”
That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth fishing. What it means is that you need to use enough weight to get your flight right down to the slow moving bottoms of the largest, deepest pools. Haller points out that trout will always face into a current, which in most situations means facing upstream, but in a pool with a swirling current they may actually be facing downstream. “Pending the water type, food options preferred by trout this time of the year range from stonefly nymphs, caddis larvae, cranefly larvae, and Hellgrammites.” Sometimes a flashy unnatural color accenting an otherwise small and naturally color nymph can attract attention. Trout may also be enticed to work a bit harder for a bigger meal — like a small fish. So don’t overlook big flies like streamers or wooly buggers. Though my favorite wooly bugger color is black, I’d have good early season success with white marabou buggers with some red hackle. Haller suggests also a white streamer. In either case, though, even the big fly still has to get down to the bottom to find the mouth of a fish.
Approaching the river carefully is also important. Wild fish are far warier of anything unnatural, or anything that may seem like a predator. Unlike hatchery fish, they are not accustomed to humans coming to feed them. And Haller notes that even the holdovers will behave more like wild and wary fish after a winter in a natural river — and thus you should fish for them as you would a wild fish. “Stealth is always a suggestion when targeting fish that are wild. Positioning, visibility, tippet and leader sizes, and presentation should be a top priority when fishing at this time of the year …. Consider the trout’s ‘window’ (of visibility) and avoid being detected prior to presenting flies.” He adds the obvious but important comment regarding wild fish: “You can’t catch fish you spook.”
For more tips and conditions, check out the Middlebury Mountaineer’s fishing reports webpage (www.mmvt.com/fishing/reports). Or check the river conditions site for Stream and Brook Fly Fishing (www.streamandbrook.com/index.php/river-report/) and get the report from local guides Brian Cadoret and Brian Zinger.
As for my own recent day on the Middlebury River, it turned out to be pretty slow. I fished small midge nymphs and stoneflies, including a black stonefly with a bright turquoise bead. Most of them ended up stuck on the bottom of one or another deep pool. I ended the day drifting a big black wooly bugger with black brass dumbbell eyes. It didn’t entice any feeding. With a slightly lighter fly box, I headed home.
My consolation for lack of fish on the line is that this year’s New Haven River Anglers’ Association annual banquet is this Sunday. So I can at least hear some stories about other people’s successes, or find solace in their failures. The banquet will be held at the Brandon Inn. There will be fly rod demos, raffles, silent auctions, and good food and drink. Proceeds from the banquet will support many of the club’s conservation and education efforts within our community. And generous donations from local merchants — including Rock River Rods, WhistlePig, Autumn Gold, Vermont Field Sports and Orvis, along with Middlebury Mountaineer and Stream and Brook — will ensure plenty of merchandise to go after in order to up my odds next time out on the river. 

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