Matt Dickerson: Important goals when fishing with friends

This past week I had a chance to take two friends fly fishing. When I take somebody fishing, especially somebody new to the sport, I have multiple goals. I want to be safe. I want to practice and model good conservation ethic while enjoying the outdoors. I want to teach something about fly fishing, including both the mechanics of fly casting and also the strategies for reading a river. Most importantly, I want to enjoy company with friends.
I also want my guests to catch fish. The last point isn’t necessary for the enjoyable time, but it does help.
For the sake of this story, I’ll call my guests on this particular day Ira and Linda. Ira and Linda have lived in Middlebury for more than 15 years, and have embraced many aspects of the rural Vermont lifestyle including traditional outdoor shooting and water sports. They are kayakers. They both love turkey hunting. Ira ran his first two primitive biathlons this year.
They had not, however, picked up fly fishing (despite owning kayaks). It’s not difficult to understand why. Prior to moving to Vermont, much of their growing up and early adult lives as a family (with two kids) had been spent in urban areas. And even after moving to a rural state, one can only pick up so many outdoor sports at a time. At the start of our morning together, Ira had never cast a fly rod before. And while Linda had gone out fly fishing once or twice, she had not yet managed to land her first fish on a fly.
So where should I take them? The water in my favorite smaller trout streams, the Middlebury and New Haven rivers, was running warm and low. The last month and a half had been relatively dry. I looked up the rainfall data at a couple government websites.
The city of Burlington had only about 55 percent of its average rainfall for the month of May. Middlebury was even farther behind. And June, with only one significant rainfall, had not come close to making up for it.
So I decided to work our way up a few favorite spots on the larger Otter Creek, where we could variously cast for trout, bass and pike. We met at 6 a.m. and made our way to Belden Falls. Through much of the year, Otter Creek is too deep to wade out very far there, but in low water stretches it become very fishable.
A high-pressure system had moved in recently. The good news was that we had gorgeous blue skies overhead, and lovely morning light as the sun slid down the trees across the river. The bad news is that a sudden increase in the barometer and drop in the temperature usually isn’t great for insect hatches and fishing. Despite recent warm weather, and some record-breaking hot weather on its way across the country, the temperature overnight dropped down into the 40s. That ruled out wet-wading. So we pulled on waders and jackets.
By the time our rods were rigged, another angler had moved into the spot I had hoped to grab, where a beginning caster could wade out and have room to back-cast without losing flies in the trees behind. So we made our way downstream to another spot. With no insects hatching, and no sign of rising fish, I tied on for both Ira and Linda a streamer fly: an imitation of a small trout fished below the surface. I set them both up at spots 30 or so yards apart where they wouldn’t have to cast too far to reach good water. Then I went back and forth between them trying to help out.
Linda was the first to hook a fish. Twenty minutes into the morning, a big brown swirled up out of a deep run and grabbed her fly. She had it on for at least a minute, battling both the fish and the swift current, before it broke over her line and disappeared. Though no fish were landed, it was at least a good taste of what it’s like to play a fish. Ira picked up the rhythm of casting, but wasn’t able to elicit any strikes.
Eventually I waded Linda out mid-river, and we worked some more runs in the pockets behind rocks. In the process of giving her a casting lesson, I dropped my fly up against a big boulder where the water dropped to five or so feet deep. Another big brown trout swirled up from the depths and exploded out of the water chasing the fly as I retrieved it. The trout missed, but we got a good look at it as it flew two feet through the air. I handed the rod back to Linda, and she spent several more minutes casting the same fly, then a variety of other flies, into the same spot. She couldn’t elicit another strike. When the air warmed after a couple hours, a few insects started coming off the water. We saw a couple fish rise, though not many. We cast dry flies for a while, but without success. Four more anglers moved down into the river upstream of us, so we decided it was time to leave.
We stopped at another spot further up the river and took some casts for pike with a heavy rod and big flies. When a boater walked down to the shore and started thrashing around in the water where we were fishing, we abandoned that spot and headed to our final destination for the morning: the falls in downtown Middlebury.
Nobody had yet landed a fish, and midday was approaching, so by this time the pressure was on.
Ira might be said to have saved the morning. While I took Linda up to the island below the falls, Ira worked his way down the shoreline below the footbridge and managed to land an aggressive and energetic bass — his first ever fish on a fly rod. Linda, however, was the one who saved the afternoon. When we gave up fishing at the noon, she pulled from her pocket a discount coupon for lunch at the cafe down the road at Otter Creek Brewing. My wife joined us, and we had a very nice meal and beverages under the blue skies and cooler air brought about by the same high-pressure system that seemed to have shut the fishing down. At least the most important goals were accomplished.

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