Matt Dickerson: Wild brook trout put on a big show during an unusual April
I admit that I don’t usually do much trout fishing in April. Sure, after spending more than five long months (starting Nov. 1) with few opportunities to get out on a stream or river and cast flies, I always look forward to opening day of Vermont’s trout season (second Saturday of April.) But it’s mostly symbolic. I dust off my rod and reel and pull my vest and waders out of the closet. I dig through my collections of flies, tapered leaders, tippets and weights, see what I need for the new year. I pretend to organize. If the weather is not horrible, I might get out for a couple hours on opening morning just to wet my feet and say I fished. But beyond that, I usually don’t start fishing in earnest until May rolls around.
It’s partly that April is a busy month for me with work and work-related travel, including several annual conferences that fill up most of the weekends. But it’s also the fact that fishing conditions in April are rarely good, and I never do very well. Otter Creek as well as the Middlebury and New Haven rivers — and really all of Vermont’s streams — are usually running high, murky and cold from the runoff of spring snowmelt and those famous April showers that supposedly lead to May flowers. Even when I manage to get out on the water, I usually don’t expect to catch anything.
But 2020 has been unusual.
Yes. It’s true. That sentence deserves a paragraph of its own, with several exclamation points. It’s been an unusual start to the fly fishing season. For one thing, the local rivers are running unusually low for this time of year. It’s often the middle of May or even early June before they are as low, wadeable and fishable as they are right now.
Then there’s the fact that all of my work-related travel has been canceled. All five conferences I was supposed to attend or speak at from April through the middle of May have been postponed, leaving me home on weekends. Five weeks of “sheltering in place” during the COVID-19 pandemic has also proved to be the motivational equivalent of five months of cabin fever in a normal year. Not that my household has been unpleasant. Actually, I have really enjoyed the time spent with the six people sheltering together under our roof. We’ve eaten well, and gotten along well. I also can’t complain about working at home because at least I’ve been working. But staring at a computer screen all day and carrying out all human interactions through that screen does get old.
So each of the last two Sunday afternoons, after my remote church service has wrapped up, I’ve headed up into the Green Mountain National Forest with my fly rod and sought out a little wild brook trout in some small wooded stream — some stream that most years would still be running high and murky as it tumbled over ice-covered rocks, and meandered through muddy woods still patched (or even blanketed) with snow. But not this year. This unusual year.
I traipse a familiar section of stream, admiring the varied shapes and hues of the fungi growing on old logs or the sides of dying trees. I admire the first shoots of skunk cabbage and the aptly named trout lilies poking up through leaf debris.
I happened to choose one of many tributaries of the Middlebury River. Almost any of then will do. Indeed, nearly any stream that runs year-round in our state’s national forest will do. Nearly all of them support wild brook trout, while the woods through which they flow will happily display their spring wildflowers. And what the small-stream trout lack in size — it’s rare to find one over seven inches long, and most are only four to six inches — they make up for in color and beauty. Though not currently attired in their bright red fall spawning colors, the males still flash tints of red on their undersides, while their sides and backs are spotted with yellow and garnet pearls. The females tend to have darker green bodies, without the red underbellies, but with more pronounced blue haloes around the red pearls. Each little wild brook trout is a unique work of art.
I tie on a small, brightly colored stonefly nymph. The deepest pools are only knee- to thigh-deep, and the current isn’t especially swift. I need no weights, or strike indicators. If a trout flashes my fly, I catch a glimpse of it darting out from a rock or log or undercut bank. The action isn’t steady. The water is still cold and the fish aren’t yet highly active. But both Sundays I see four or five fish over the course of two hours, and each time I manage to find one fish longer than my hand that ignores the social distancing guidelines and makes me reach into the cold, cold water to gently release it, after a quick photo.
These outings were not about putting food on the table. Unless I find myself in a stream that is heavily overpopulated with fish, I prefer not to harvest any wild native trout. Later in the year when stocked fish are dumped in, I’ll bring a couple home for a meal. But not one of the wild native beauties. It’s a far greater delight to hold one briefly under the water or at the surface, appreciate the sublime extravagance with which it was adorned, and let it go to keep its population going.
It’s a delight that stays with me for several days afterward. When yet another video conference, another hour locked in my home office, makes me feel anxious, I pull out my photos, admire them for a moment, take a deep sigh, part contentment and part longing, and Zoom on.
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