Matt Dickenson: Spring into summer with pike

Wyatt Allenson caught a big pike. But I’m getting ahead of myself. My story this week is supposed to be about trout fishing in May.
Hour for hour, the middle of May through early June is my most productive time of year for fishing Vermont trout streams. Waters have warmed enough to kick trout metabolism into high gear, but not so much to make them sluggish again. River levels are low enough to be easily waded — even in my favorite parts of Otter Creek, the biggest river in this neck of the woods. But it is not yet so low that the trout are perpetually spooked or that they all have moved back out of the riffs and into the deep pools.
Mid-May we also start to see significant hatches of larger aquatic insects, which can spur trout into a feeding frenzy. Our local rivers boast dozens of species of mayflies, caddis flies and stoneflies that come out in somewhat predictable succession at different times of day all through the late spring, often three or four different hatches in a morning or afternoon. The large numbers of fish stocked in the local rivers in mid and early May doesn’t hurt the chances for success. It all results in late spring fishing at its best, when trout can be often hooked all day long.
Unfortunately, mid-May is also the busiest time of year for me in my day job as a college professor. I have to give finals, and then grade finals as well as the term projects and papers I so foolishly assigned six weeks earlier. Then there are all of the activities associated with the annual college graduation: receptions and dinners with students and families, along with the commencement ceremony itself, which takes up much of a day. In the midst of all that, I get to spend four days teaching at a creative writing conference for high school students at the Bread Loaf campus in Ripton. Great days with wonderful kids and writers. But not fishing days.
It seems, then, like I just bat an eyelid, and all of a sudden spring trout season is over and it’s pike season. So late on a hot afternoon just over a week ago, when the last of my meetings had concluded, I ignored the big stack of ungraded exams on my desk, grabbed my fly rod, and headed down to the river, refusing to let another trout season slip away.
It was almost 6 p.m. by the time I had my waders on and was stepping into the river. A few large, tan stoneflies were coming off the water, but not so many as to qualify as a hatch. I knew I would be fishing some deep holes where the current swirls beneath log jams. I was not in a mood to lose a bunch of flies, and to spend my limited time tying on new ones. So I decided to fish with a little streamer: an imitation of a small trout I could dangle in the current just in front of the logs without actually having to risk wrapping it around a branch.
I fished the streamer for about an hour without success when I started to notice another species of stonefly start to emerge in significant numbers off the gravel riff upstream. It was a smaller brighter species, more gold than tan. Soon the air was full of them. It was the sort of hatch I’d been hoping for. I switched to a stonefly nymph and drifted it through the next hole. As it swung off the bottom of the river and started toward the surface, there was a flash in the water and a quick tug on my line. My first rainbow trout was on. A second one followed within a minute or two.
It was as I moved down to the next hole that I began to notice another evening hatch. The kind I am not excited about. Within minutes I was swatting mosquitoes off both hands. My arms. My neck. My face. They were even getting me through my shirt. When I fish in Vermont on a summer evening, I usually come prepared for the bloodsucking pests. But I was not expecting a mosquito hatch of this ferocity so early in the year. The recent rain followed by a day of nearly 90-degree temperatures had brought them out, and I was unprepared. And not even the best stonefly hatch I’d seen all year could keep me on the river. I made a beeline for my car and barely made it inside alive.
A week later I made it out again to the same spot, fly rod in hand. This time I was prepared with my mosquito repellent clothing and bandana. There were no stoneflies coming up, but two different types of mayflies were hatching sporadically. No sign of trout, though. I fished two hours and went home without so much as a strike. What was going on?
At home I logged onto Facebook. My friend Courtney Allenson from New Haven had just posted a photo of her son Wyatt holding a 32-inch pike. He hooked the behemoth on a Rapala crank lure fishing with his dad, Cris Allenson, from a boat on Otter Creek. “When I hooked it I felt a big tug and I was pretty surprised,” he acknowledged. It would turn out to be the largest fish he had ever caught. Still, the nine-year-old was able to reel in the big fish on his own, requiring help from his dad only for the final stage of getting the fish into the boat and then holding it for the photo.
“Fishing is my favorite thing to do,” says Wyatt, who has been fishing since he was three or four years old. “I love it. I will definitely go fishing again.”
Wyatt was not the only one to hook a big fish in Otter Creek that day. Posted a bit lower was the photo of another monster pike the nephew of a mutual friend had also recently landed. I was excited for both of these successful anglers. But somewhere in the back of my mind a little warning bell sounded. I had just spent two hours trout fishing without a strike while two acquaintances were landing big pike. I think I must have batted my eyelid.

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