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Matt Dickerson: One-fish afternoon

Alex and I had spent a couple hours fishing our way slowly up the Middlebury River. Though Alex had seen several small fish nipping at his flies, neither of us had yet slipped anything into the net.
Summer was stumbling to an end. A few streamside trees were showing off varying degrees of fall foliage. However, thanks to the drought that had plagued the state throughout 2018, much of the hillside was transitioning straight from green to brown, skipping all the orange, yellow and especially bright red that make our state famous. The stream was also flowing low even by summer standards.
Much as I delight in Vermont’s landscapes and colorful fall hillsides, what I really hoped for that afternoon was to come upon a fat brown trout or brook trout taking on its own fall foliage: the deep rich spawning brook-trout hues of red and yellow, or the rich golden tone of the trout named for its color. I had tied on the classic late-summer early-fall “hopper-dropper” fly combination: an imitation grasshopper floated on the surface as a dry fly, with a small mayfly nymph drifting underwater a couple feet below it on a long piece of tippet. Neither fly had elicited any sort of strike so far, and I was considering changing flies when I came up to a large boulder in the middle of the river. The current swirled around both sides. On the near side, it plunged through a narrow gap with a deep hole filled and covered in roiling white foam. I launched my flies up toward the top of the foam, dropping them down in the narrow channel of slightly calmer water up against the boulder. I could see the hopper floating along the surface. Somewhere below it, my other fly drifted in the column of water, invisible to my eyes, hopefully down close to the bottom.
When my hopper sudden plunged below the surface, I lifted my rod tip hoping that some foraging trout had nipped at the nymph beneath the surface. I was not disappointed. And when the rod bent over hard with throbbing tugs, I knew I had a good-sized fish.
Time moves at strange speeds when I’m fighting a fish. I’m never a good judge of how long it takes me to land a fish. I once fought a 40-pound king salmon in Alaska on a fly-rod for an hour and a half. By the time I landed it, it had pulled me a quarter mile down river, out of sight of where I first hooked it. I would have had almost no idea how long it took me to land except that my father videoed some of the battle and his video had time stamps.
This Vermont fish now on my line somewhere below my hopper was not a 40-pounder, but when — after something between five seconds and five minutes — I managed to lift it briefly up out of the foam to the surface of the pool and caught a glimpse of it, I was pretty sure it would be my largest Vermont trout so far this year. But only if I could land it. I was fishing with a small fly and light tippet that would not take much to break, and so I had to be careful. Over the next minute or so — or perhaps it was 10 minutes — I managed to lift the behemoth of the deep up to the surface a couple more times, and get enough glimpses to know my original assessment was accurate. My heart beat fast, like the pulsing of my rod tip connecting me to that fish. Even from the quick view, I could see that it was a brown trout in bright spawning garb. The size and beauty of the fish put more pressure on me not to lose it.
Eventually I enticed the fish out of the foam-filled plunge pool and out into a wider pocket of water. After another minute or four, I was able to lead it into my net. Though my heart still beat fast, I breathed a sigh of relief as I admired a golden male trout with hints of blue on its gill-plate and black circles giving way to vivid chocolate-brown spots on the lower back side.
Alex took a few photos as I unhooked the fish, and then measured it against the handle of the net. The measurement told us 21.5 inches. I wasn’t sure I was holding it steady, so I downgraded it to a mere 21 inches — still the largest trout I’d caught in Vermont this year. It also proved to be the only fish we caught that day. But that was OK with me. It was enough fall foliage viewing, at least until the following weekend.

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