I grew up spin casting on rivers and lakes, received my first fly rod, a fiberglass Fenwick 7 foot, at age 12. I fooled around with this a bit at that age on the river near my home in North Jersey. Although I still join my family on an Ontario lake in the summer and fish New Hampshire ponds and lakes for brook trout or smallmouth bass, most of my fishing hours now are spent on moving water and almost exclusively with a fly rod in hand. I like moving water, especially the water tumbling over craggy granite like we have in northern New England. One of the things that always intrigues me about rivers, is how the dynamic force of the water changes the river each and every year. Yes, lakes and ponds change, but at a slower successional pace. With rivers your favorite pool at a cut bank can be transformed with one spring storm, the broad sand bar present last season can be bisected or moved down river this season, a fallen tree can create an obstruction that can create the most beautiful holding water for trout. When I was younger, I used to get upset by these changes. Some have been symbolic; for instance when the log that my dad and and I would sit on to fish when I was young on the Pompton River got washed down with a storm. This happened just as I entered my teen years when parents aren't cool to hang with and don't know much. It's amazing how wise my Dad became again when I was in my twenties and I'm glad I returned to the river with him while there was time. I now come to expect changes to rivers each year and in fact welcome them to a certain extent. As we move into another season of fly fishing I look forward to finding that new hole formed by erosion, in-stream wood or deposition. Exploration and new discovery in places that are well known is the stuff of life.
There is so much talk in the trout angling community about how far stocked fish move in a river and how many holdover. There are opinions on all sides and many speculations. I talk to people who claim to know for sure that certain fish are "wild" or that any fish stocked in a particular year have all been caught or have died or that a sizable fish is a holdover from a previous year's stocking. Well, I figure I will throw my hat in the ring. Now there are actually studies on all this but I don't plan to site these, but rather use anecdotal evidence for the most part. In general, however, the studies indicate that stocked fish do move and quite far at times, they generally move down stream and although the percentage is low in a lot of locations, fish do holdover.
Now, what I have seen by spending many hours on rivers over many years. I have the good fortune to have access to two private stretches on the Cold River. I fish these myself and I guide on both stretches along with guiding on many miles of public stretches on several rivers. On both these private stretches the landowners decided to post their property because of certain abuses by individuals. One of the properties was posted 25 years ago and there has been almost no fishing there for that time period. The state of New Hampshire will not stock a stretch that is posted and on this particular stretch there is a large natural water fall at one end. What I have discovered are brown, rainbow and brook trout with numerous fish caught by myself or clients being sizable. When I say sizable I mean larger than the average stocked fish. I have also caught brook trout in the 4 to 5 inch range. Many of the larger fish hold in a pool that is about 16 feet deep in the summer and has over hanging rock ledges providing shade. On the other private stretch many larger rainbows have been caught in a pool that stays at about seven feet in the summer. What does this mean? Well, to me it seems those fish were either stocked at a larger size and moved up to a mile up stream and are holding in these deep pools or they are fish that moved those distances and held over in those deep pools. As far as the small brook trout, they are wild fish. Now, could some of the rainbows and browns be wild? Maybe. I say that because of the distances these fish would have to have traveled from the spots I know fish are stocked and physical obstacles present.
Two other pieces of evidence are catching trout in waters that are not supposedly stocked and catching trout before the official stocking dates. I remember one exceptionally warm Easter morning in March when I took my three weight rod and walked out the back of my property to Warren Brook in Alstead. I was out there simply because I had the itch to be on the water casting. I caught an eleven inch brown trout in this small stream before any stocking dates in a body of water that is not stocked. I have gotten brook trout of a similar size in this same brook farther into the spring. I have also gotten brown trout in the Cold River in early April before stocking had begun. To me that possibly indicates several things, trout certainly move from where they are stocked and sometimes into tributaries, trout holdover in rivers when they can find suitable habitat and sometimes they spawn. In the South Branch of the Ashuelot in addition to the standard-sized stocked browns, I catch many that are in the five to six inch range. Wild fish? Probably. One of the wonderful things about all this is how dispersed the fish become. While Bubba is fishing by the bridge where Fish and Game dumped the trout in, you can put forth effort by hiking up stream and be into fish all day.
We need some rain! The rivers are running July low right now and this presents challenges. When water gets low and clear trout take cover. A place they would normally hold in early June might be vacated for an area with more rapidly moving water or a spot that is deeper. The moving water provides more dissolved oxygen but also it obscures the surface of the water so fish are not as easily seen by great blue herons, mink, fly fishers and others. The thing is, under low and clear conditions the fish can spot and in some cases examine things much easier. Have you ever noticed how that size ten glittery fly that worked last week or last year at this time is just not producing? Have you ever seen fish flashing at your streamer and then turning away or eyeing your dry fly only to refuse? The answer, size down and while your at it, tie something on that is duller in color and a bit realistic. I was guiding a client recently and time after time we watched trout emerge from under a log to chase a streamer. I suggested a size 14 marsh hares ear and in close succession two rainbows, one brown and one brook trout were brought to hand. Sometimes this downsizing can be accomplished by adding a dropper to the larger fly and sometimes the bigger brighter fly is best kept in the box. This is a great thing to keep in mind through the summer months and you know what else is important to keep in mind over the summer, some days it's best to let the trout rest so on those days, fly fish for smallmouth bass, have a beer on your deck or mow your lawn.
As a fly fishing guide I have to do my due diligence and get out on the rivers in all seasons, under all conditions, and on every stretch. I have worked the Cold River hard over the years, which I admit is not a bad way to spend a day. A few days ago I surprised myself, finding a stretch I have never fished. It is .3 miles with continuous riffle, run and pool. With at least two pools having depths of 5-7 feet, which is extraordinary for July. Yellow stimulator dry flies, muddlers and wooly buggers worked well in bringing 11 fish (rainbows and browns) to hand. Others were lost and still others were seen flashing or rising to flies. Of course overcast skies after several days of sunny weather aided in success that day. Not a bad way to spend a July evening.
I went out water testing with another member of the Cold River Local Advisory Committee this morning and here is report from that data and from overall observations from spending time on the river recently.
Temperature: Ranged from 63.8 in Aworth to 66.2 in Alstead.
pH: An average of 6.5
Dissolved Oxygen: 9-9.3 mg/L
Turbidity(clarity): Ranged from .47 in Acworth to .6 in Alstead.
Flow: 35 Cubic Feet per Second in Alstead
Hatches have been light with little yellow sallies being the most prevalent, although the shoreline is loaded with large stonefly castings as well.
Going far afield in search of native trout or a bird not usually found in the area is fun, but there is something wonderful when they come to us. I had the pleasure recently of seeing a Great Gray Owl for the first time in my life close to home in Newport, NH. Great Gray Owls are the largest owls in North America and an outdoor friend and I have had it on our target list for many years. This particular bird has been hanging out in Newport since late January and has created a stir among local birders, wildlife photographers and people who just appreciate wildlife. Many birds are migratory, while others are permanent residents. A third group displays nomadic behavior. Barred Owls, which are the most common species in the southern New Hampshire and Vermont, establish year-round territories. Great Grays, along with several other northern owl species, have nomadic behavior and during certain winters there are irruptions to lower latitudes. The Great Gray Owl is is a boreal forest species and its normal range is throughout Canada and into Alaska. Although scientists don't fully understand irruptive behavior, it is thought that at least part of the reason for this movement south during certain winters has to do with food scarcity to our north and food availability here during those years. Even during these irruption years, however, rarely do these owls go farther south than the northern part of New Hampshire and Vermont. For whatever reason this bird kept flying and seems to like Newport. The day I was there she put on quite a show, including pouncing on a vole and gulping it whole. I watched for an hour and took some pictures and went away with cold hands and a warm heart; it was one of those special days.
The temperature topped 6o degrees yesterday and instead of pondering the larger connection this week has to climate change I did what any river starved fly fisher would do, I got my gear and headed to the river. Despite through-the-roof air temperatures for February, the Cold River in Alstead lived up to its name yesterday; my thermometer read 28 degrees. It wasn't simply the air temperatures prior to this week that led to this below freezing reading, it was the fact that ice and packed snow were continually cleaving into the river.
Although I was potentially kidding myself in thinking that a trout might be interested in feeding under these conditions, I worked my way upstream to two deep pools, cleated soles on my Korker wading boots. Fish tend to congregate in deep, slow pools come winter in an effort to conserve energy . I soon noticed midges on the snow and a few flying. These small insects are hardy and according to the web site MosquitoMagnet.com "Regardless of the temperature, mosquitoes, midges, and black flies – along with their eggs or larvae – are always around.
Even in the winter when we don’t see them, their eggs are clinging to life and waiting for the arrival of warm temperatures. Eggs and larvae rarely freeze to death. Instead, they remain attached to vegetation or buried in mud under streams, lakes and similar bodies of water."
So the arrival of warm temperatures had come at least temporarily and I was having a great time casting, mesmerized by the flow of water when all of a sudden... I'd love to be able to say the unlikely happen and a large brown trout stopped my line, but that's not what happened. I tried floating and sinking line, putting finer tippet on, strike indicator, no strike indicator. I tried large streamers, stoneflies which are in the river all year long, as well as the aforementioned midges (both by themselves and as a dropper behind a larger nymph). Nothing! You know what, I enjoyed every minute because every opportunity, regardless of conditions, season or outcome, is a gift. I'll be gifting myself many more days as we move into spring in less than one month.
Trout can be temperamental to downright sluggish during the dog days of summer, but at times fly fishing is most about hope. Today I broke out the tenkara rod and intended on floating hoppers, Japanese beetles, and elk hair caddis over hungry trout. With a drag-free drift, tenkara is designed for dry fly fishing, but the fish were not cooperating. As I moved on to a private stretch of water on the Cold River that I have permission to access, two deep pools and the lack of rises led to tying on a stand by olive wooly bugger. Of course stripping the fly is not possible with the tenkara rod, but a method I use in which I use the supple tip of the 11-foot rod to jig and swing the bugger started to make good size rainbows start to appear from the depths. I managed to land three, lose one and see several others consider a take. Both tenkara and this beautiful private stretch of water are available through Cold River Guide Service. Enjoy the dog days the best you can.
I spent last evening fishing the fly-fishing-only stretch of the South Branch of the Ashuelot River. The water rushing around rocks had its normal tea color caused by tannins leaching out of vegetation along the river. Large may flies appeared sporadically in the air over the river and on the surface. There were no rises but I couldn't resist tying an adams on and seeing what happens. Long, drag free drifts are rare on this stretch of the river, as water tumbles, churns and changes direction often. Rod tip high, getting as much line off the water as possible is best and at times drifts are only a few feet. At this particular spot, however, ten linear feet of drift was possible. I love a first cast rise! A splash and then a run revealed the golden flash of a nice brown trout, but as fast as it rose and hit it was gone, having spit the size 14 adams. I stuck with the dry as a worked up stream, making my way over algae-covered rocks. Cover is abundant on the south branch of the Ashuelot and down logs as well and this structure along with boulders provides great pocket water with a nice small pool, riffle and run profile. The next brown trout hit the adams and I managed to steer him to hand before it headed down a rushing pinch point in the stream. A gorgeous 12-inch fish admired and released. Another was caught on a small wooly bugger and at other points golden flashes appeared in the water as fish gave my fly a look. The evening finished by bringing two small but beautiful wild brook trout to hand. I would love to guide you on this river; just get in touch.
The migration of nighthawks in the Connecticut River Valley is quite a spectacle. Over 3,000 were observed by Vermont's Don Clark in Westminster Station over the last two weeks, with the big push being last night when nearly 1,000 birds passed over the area. I stopped by to chat with Don and watch large flocks of birds circle over the Connecticut River and the fields adjacent to it. Nighthawks are not hawks at all, they are rather in the nightjar family along with whip-poor-wills. These birds open their mouthes wide as they fly erratically through the air, catching insects in a manner not that different from how baleen whales trap phytoplankton. The distinctive markings are white stripes on the underside of their pointed wings. Males also have a patch of white on the throat. If you get out in the next week around dusk, although you may not see numbers like last night, you may get a chance to see these acrobatic fliers traveling south through Western NH.
We've all experienced those times when we are throwing flies out, changing and casting, and then changing again. Then suddenly, things start to happen. I had one of those days yesterday and what suddenly turned the tide were stoneflies. I noticed flashes in the water along a long current seam and what I realized is that fish were turning there bodies to scrap nymphs off of rocks. One of the nice things about stoneflies, because of their long life cycle they are available to fish for most of the year. Bouncing a Siri's Stonefly Nymph on the bottom under a strike indicator led to sizable rainbows, smallmouth bass and, I'll say it, suckers (one being five or six pounds). Why shouldn't I mention the suckers? After all, fly fishing for carp is all the rage now. Just go to the Orvis web site and type "carp flies" in the search bar. Find what the fish are keying in on and it could be a good day.
Mitch Harrison's parents gave him his first fly rod at age 12 and almost 40 years later he is still casting, teaching and learning. Another passion of Mitch's is bird watching. Mitch is a licensed NH guide and a science educator in Alstead, NH.