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Matt Dickerson: On trout, new students and old memories

Thirty-five years ago this month, I headed off to college in a small, rural, New Hampshire town. I didn’t own a car and would go through my college career and most of my graduate school career without one. I didn’t even own a good bike until I purchased one before senior year so that I could participate in a 10-day, 500-mile bike trip to Nova Scotia with the college’s outing club.
What I did own was a fishing rod. In fact, I owned two: one ultra-light spinning rod and one fiberglass fly rod. I owned a few lures, too. I had a decent collection of largemouth bass lures and a small but effective collection of spinners and minnow imitations for trout streams. I doubt I had many flies, because I was still new to fly-fishing, but if nothing else I had a container of streamer patterns imitating smelt.
And I was determined to make good use of them. Fishing was my favorite recreation through middle school and high school. It was my way to relax when the world was too hectic. It was my escape to quiet and nature when the world grew too loud or industrialized. And, most importantly, it was my entry into peace when the world seemed too cruel or violent.
Since the world was altogether too often hectic, loud and cruel, I spent a lot of time fishing — hiking over the hill and through the woods to a secluded little bass pond on a neighboring property, or tromping along the tiny meandering trout stream that flowed of that pond. The shorelines of both the stream and the pond have long since fallen prey to development as the town quadrupled in population over the intervening decades. But when my family moved there in 1968, the population of the town was only 800. The shoreline of the pond had only one tiny, run-down cottage whose owners almost never appeared. It was a rare, under-fished pond that produced a lot of three-to-four-pound largemouth bass and a couple five-to-seven-pounders. The only other fisherman I ever saw there was my brother.
The sluggish little stream — more of a brook, really; definitely not a river — though it was narrow enough to leap or even straddle in places, held a few trout and a lot of peace. From where it crossed our road a hundred yards from my house, it ran for a couple miles through the woods with only one excursion through a backyard, before disappearing into a swamp at the edge of town. It was worth a full Saturday morning of fishing to work from my house to the swamp. Near the five road crossings and the two town fire holes it yielded stocked brown trout. If I followed it deep enough into the woods I would sometimes stumble on wild brookies.
So when I arrived at college one of my first tasks was to find some fishing. It didn’t take me too long. On the road heading out of town on the southeast side, I spotted a small stream flowing out of a neighborhood, under a culvert and down into the woods. I found it on a map. “Mink Brook.” A promising name. Even more promising, it flowed through a nature preserve and crossed the road heading out of town to the southwest. The nature preserve meant it was wooded and protected from development and not private property. The further crossing with the more promising water at the upper end of the preserve was 1.8 miles from my dorm. The closer crossing only 1 mile.
I asked a couple professors about it, including one who lived almost on the stream in the neighborhood just upstream of the culvert. Nobody seemed to know much about it, but they expressed doubt that it held any fish. I was not daunted. It was about the same size and character as the stream I had grown up fishing. Most serious fishermen ignore a stream that small. I did not ignore it. I walked there. I hitched rides. Senior year I rode my own bike out. And I caught trout. Not a ton. But enough.
It would be an exaggeration to say I spent countless hours on that stream. It was a little too far away to be convenient for a student without a car. And there were other things to be done at college. Sometimes I even studied. But it was important just knowing that the stream was there — knowing that when I needed it, I had a place to go. So much so that 31 years after graduation I still have a mental picture of what that stream looked like and where I’d lock up my bike on mornings I went fishing.
This past week, about 600 new students arrived at Middlebury for the start of their college careers. Most of them will fritter away their four years without ever picking up a rod and walking down to Otter Creek; or begging a car or bike off a friend and making the further trek over to the Middlebury River or New Haven River.
But I know there are a few in the class who headed off to college, like me, with a fishing rod packed in the car beside the sheets, pillow cases, posters and winter clothing. I know because several of them have already somehow found me! They have asked where to fish nearby and whether there was a fly fishing club on campus and if so how active it was. They haven’t yet asked for a ride to the river. When they do, I’ll be inclined to say “yes.” Then again, I might not wait for them to ask.

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