Draft for a book of fishing misadventures
By Michael Guy
Ryegate, Vermont, July 1989.
This was the first summer I ever fished for fresh water trout in Vermont, or anywhere else for that matter. Oh, I remember one or two times as a kid on Long Island going to a few of the local stocked ponds or streams and casting a lure to these imaginary, mystical, almost mythical fish. Then again, Long Island, New York is not exactly a trout fisherman's dream. Ever since reading a biography of Walt Whitman in 1984, I am very curious about the unspoiled beauty and original landscapes of this fish‑shaped island, where I also grew up. Maybe at one time, Long Island streams and ponds were jumping with native trout?
Chapter one: "When I begin to begin to be . . . " The first thing you learn about the world, is that you really can't do or be two things at once. You are doing either one or the other of something, although you may be alternating between the two things pretty quickly, or I should say erratically. Your concentration is on one thing, while momentarily you are ignoring the other. This is the case when you briefly look away from your fly to check your reel or drag or something and that's the very moment your strike indicator indicates. Which is a round‑a‑bout way of saying your bobber goes under. You no sooner strike only to find that Mr.Trout has already called your number. "Sorry Charlie, I like flies that taste good, not ones made in good taste!" Never take your eye off your goal, even for a second. Never get impatient or tired and never think for a moment that a trout doesn't know you’re there. He knows, he just doesn't quite know what you are doing there, and how to tell you he knows, (except by refusing your fly). But they do learn.
You can't be in two places at one time. You can't have your cake and eat it too. And most importantly, I learned you can't cast a fly or a lure to a trout twice, if you spook him once. However I can testify to the fact that you can toss a worm twice and sometimes more to a hungry trout. In fact he'll take your live worms all day if you are dumb enough to toss them to him in a haphazard manner. (As long as he knows you're there!) But surprise him with one out of the blue that floats along really natural like and he's yours, if you have fast enough reflexes! When the game is over, you might as well go change your rig, find a new spot, or go play volleyball, because no respectable fish around is going to touch that one.
My first summer trout fishing in Vermont was an unorthodox learning experience. I learned that you can't spin fish and fly fish at the same time (or, can you?) ‑ With trout it takes your whole mind and body and concentration as well, ‑ it's a reel (excuse the bad pun) one on one cibfribation (which is the word confrontation spelled at 2:00_a.m. when your fingers return to the wrong row of typing keys.
I love those saltwater boys, and the down rigger bunch, and the pier pals, ‑ who can fish with six down riggers to two fishermen, or 3‑4 rods lined up against the pier! ‑ SURE! You’re fishing deepwater, you don't see your fish and they don't see you! But TROUT! ‑ those clear, cold mountain streams, no wider then a country lane or two, fish darting out at 80m.p.h. spooked from an unlikely rock or hiding place. Speaking of ROCKS! Now there's something I'm an expert on. Not so much on how to fish them, let's just say, I've gotten to know more then my fair share up close and personal. SNAG‑A‑LOU, SNAG‑A‑LOU, SNAG‑A‑LOU! What can you do, what can you do, WHAT CAN YOU DO!?!
In Northeastern Vermont streams, there may be too many rocks! There could be a trout behind any one of them. If I'm methodical, I could be here all day, fishing one small stretch, so it seems. Well, luckily, I'm not methodical, as I found out during my first summer trout fishing. But I was usually fishing there all day anyway.
You see, I've always taught myself anything I wished to do or know by doing it and knowing it. And by reading everything I can find on the subject while listening and watching others and experts. But if it's a choice of waiting for a teacher, class, or money, or even the right fly rod, ‑ I just don't wait. I go ahead with whatever I have at hand and then I learn, (usually the hard way!). I learn by my mistakes and hope!
Chapter two: Defeat at Stevens River, My First Summer
Oh, I can hear those trout on the Stevens River now, communicating to each other (as they seem to somehow do), about the last week of July. You see, I wanted to limit myself to one local, unpopulated stream, (by fishermen, not trout). To learn to trout fish in peace. Like I said, I can hear those trout now: "Here he comes, for the umpteenth time, the guy in the WHITE HAT! Everybody out of here, clear the stations! Come on fellas, we're not going to fall for his junk anymore!" "Wow! says the fisherman, approaching each and every likely trout feeding station, his white hat, like a surrender flag, glaring against the sky and the green and brown landscape. One look at the hat, they know! "That's one of those things that throws worms plop down in the water out of nowhere. Worms that if you take it carelessly sting your mouth, then start dragging you into air. Those hooky things that sometimes taste not like food, but may look like it. Remember spit it out fast if you get one. Watch all bugs carefully! Look carefully!" Another trout is heard to echo, "I'd swear that's the same worm, there couldn't be that many today, in this kind of weather. SPOOK boys! Here comes the White Hat! (Little trout to a big brother: "What's a hat!?") "Never mind little guy, if you see any shadows above the surface that big, SWIM!"
FISHERMAN: (approaching each and every rock), "Wow, there isn't a trout in sight, where are they today? They were here the first week of July, right here under the bridge off the road. Harder to find the second week, but I found some. And the third week they were here. Not taking what I offered, but they were here. Where did they all go?"
First Rule: "Don't wear a white hat in an eastern trout brook." A "River" up here (the Stevens in my case) can sometimes be 15 feet at best wide and usually 2 ft. deep at most that is until you find the few 3-4 ft. holes. But rocks we've got - tons of them! And so we have trout, Native Eastern Brook trout, but not tons of them. Just a small population of them, not big ones mind you, but a small species that lives in the last, clear mountain brooks where the food at best can sustain a trout at not much more then 15 inches or 2 lbs. There are a few bigger ones but they are few and far between and not found in brooks that are cut off from the main rivers by dams or other obstacles. Most of these beautiful jewel-like fish, are 6-12 inches. Yet the native folks don't seem to let that stop them from food-fishing for the little fellas. I took a few small ones to taste the first trip or two but felt that "catch and release" fishing was more reasonable after I got to know the full population of my little Stevens River.
"Wow, there goes one now!" A shadowy blur streaked off downstream at the speed of light, my feet were about to splash and pound there way past his little nook under the side of a slanted rock. A rock, only a few feet wide and half dry out of water, just a foot deep. "Now, how are you supposed to sneak up on them when you can't even see them?"
I guess I just pick a likely rock and cast ahead to the side and drift it by. That fish was about all of six inches long! I wonder if it's worth all this work for a fish that size. I mean that's the size of the mullet I use back home in Florida for live bait. I can catch 24 - 36" Sea trout, Blues, Redfish or even Tarpon. No it is worth the effort, I want to catch FRESHWATER TROUT! I've got TROUT DREAMS! I'm crazy, I've got the fishing fever, trout fever to be exact."
Now I've seen my first trout (that was the shadow that was blurring by before). "How do they swim so fast? I've never seen a fish move quite like that. They make all Florida fish look lazy. Darting here and there like a spooked rabbit. Yea, you've got that right baby, I spooked another one. I spooked a ghost fish. I spooked a spook. Sort of like snooking for Snook with a hook back home on the river flats. That was a pretty hard way to find fish, but this seems impossible.
Where is my TROUT DREAM? At least, where is my 12-14 incher? He must be upstream in that deep hole (one of only 3 I found). You see, this wasn't my first day, though it sounds like it. But I was still beginning. I've been out here a dozen times in the last three weeks, and I'd caught some trout, at least a few. Well I at least caught some Freshwater Trout.
REALITY #one: In this size stream most of the "fellas" are 6-7", and the biggest I had gotten so far was a 9" Brookie. But when you hook one on a little black fury or a gold spinner, they always feel bigger in these fast streams. Next year, I'll bring the 6' Ultra Light rod. It'll be fun by then. I'm hoping they'll have forgotten all about the "Guy in the WHITE HAT" and we'll be on equal terms again. With trout, I know that they have very refined instincts to survive in such a narrow and transparent environment. One with such a seemingly limited food source as found in these plant less, cold, rocky, narrow New England streams. But it is almost that they think like a human, of course assuming all humans think. I mean they show what appears to be intellect, cunning and actually a sort of wisdom. But then I do believe NATURE, which is their mass-mind, is quite a bit wiser then people are collected into a society. No, trout don't talk, but it is as though they are telling you something when you visit their world. You learn, you see them up close and personal, how they survive, live and eat. You even come to respect their tactics and resources. And if you fish attentively enough and you are not just an insensitive moron with a pole(weapon) in your hand, you even start feeling compassion for them (yes, despite current trends in society, that is not a dirty word). At least I felt a sort of compassionate wonder, when I began pulling those little shiny gold and silver jewels from the sparkling water of a Vermont Brook only 8 ft. wide. A Brookie or Brook Trout - 7 inches of flash and dazzle with a strike like a frontal assault, unabashedly wild and primitive. Oh, how it must have been when these were unfished virgin waters 500 years ago.
I reel in just a short distance, pull in my Brookie on a long thin line like a snapper on a bamboo pole. This jewel fish, sparkling, glistening in the moonlight, thrashing and fighting on my gossamer thread. I swing it wildly toward land and out of the rocks, before I fear he will fly off, all in my first nervous excitement at catching a real trout. He lands in another crevice of rock almost thrashing his way back to freedom. Me, panicking and wildly grasping this slippery Jewel to treasure for a moment.
The first time, I realized that I'd never seen a Brook trout before, except in a book or on a video. I rested him in my hand, marveling at those red and blue dots and the green and white marbling, fading into the white, almost silver belly. I put him in my bait pail along with five others I had caught that day, all while I hid behind one huge rock and let a worm drift downstream around it. I immerse my pail in a small pool for oxygen just to look at and cherish my jewels for a moment. "Maybe I'll take them home and put them in the small brook that runs past my sister's home. No, I can't do that. That's no more then a cow ditch or gully that dries up in every dry spell. The pools are only 2' wide and they'd be trapped there to die, unless we had major flood rains.
I remembered the words of my neighbor, a gourmet cook and aristocratic Southerner by birth. "Yea, but those little 7" Brook trouts make a heavenly snack. You take six or seven of them, skinned and fried whole in butter sauce with heads and tails still on . . . " "SKINNED!" "How could I skin such a beautiful, artistic creation as this?!" This miniature creation of God's - which viewed underwater from the top looks as dull and ordinary as any old fish. But when first out of the water, - "the jewel of the Northeast Kingdom" appears far from ordinary to me. When I first learned about trout in such small waters, I thought nothing could live here. I was pretty sure there were no fish in these clear, cold and shallow waters.
I remember looking at that first baby Brookie with wonderment. Staring a little too long at this fish contrasted against the drab forest floor, my jewel began to gradually fade and become dull. I hurried him to the water's edge, thinking how there is nothing more ugly then a "dead fish,” especially a dead trout. And nothing more beautiful then that fish, sleek and wet, glistening in his rainbow colors against the sky, thrashing and fighting ALIVE! on your line or sparkling and soaring in his leap to freedom. Or even thrashing wet and alive in your net or hand. Then I thought of the stiff, dead corpse she would become on my stringer or floating belly up in a pail, or even tucked neatly away out of sight in my nylon creel. "No, not big enough to eat anyway."
That afternoon, I drove 20 miles back from home to the Stevens River, pail in hand, my little trouts still alive in ice cold water, well aerated. I gently slid them into the biggest secret pool I knew in "my section" of the Stevens that I had painstakingly reached by wading upstream from the highway bridge. No worse for the wear, I wished them well, and secretly hoped they would grow, and yes I admit, hoped to catch them again next year. And these wild fish are hardy!
"Come on fellas or maybe gals, back to your rocky new homes. I'll see you next year, and just maybe you'll be a bit bigger (come on at least 10 inches!). This is my last day on the Stevens River for this year. This guy in the white hat is going home to warmer waters in Florida tomorrow. I'll have to catch Speckled Sea trout for a substitute (not a true trout, but a drum). You all really taught me something about the pains and joys of freshwater trout fishing.
Oh yea, whatever happen to the "defeat" part of this experience that I mentioned in the chapter title? Well, speaking of the "pains" of learning to fish for trout . . . Let me just say I alluded to this defeat when I mentioned that it took me a full eight hours until four in the afternoon my first day, until I even saw my first trout in these streams! And that was one flashing moment of a little darting, spooked fish.
Well there is more to the defeat then just this. In the next few weeks on my outings around the Stevens and Wells rivers in Caledonia County, Vermont, I literally snagged every rock and tree that was snagable ( new word I guess, and so goes my song "Snag-a-lou, snag-a-lou, etc.). And believe me most rocks and trees are snagable, in this scrappy, wild country. I left so many lures and other assorted hardware in the trees along these river banks that it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas . . . ( as that song goes!). I thought maybe birdwatching would be a better sport to take up. If my folks were looking for me when I was late for dinner all they had to do was go down to one of my favorite spots and look for a tree shaking wildly on a windless evening. Parting is so bittersweet. Trout or not, I just couldn't accept the loss at first. All fishing priorities fell away as the number one objective was to develop some way of getting that brand new $5 spinner or lure down from a 15' high branch. Since at this stage of the game, I was in a transition stage of metamorphosis between spin fisherman and fly fisherman. Meaning of course, and I am sure to your surprise, that I didn't own a flyrod yet. But I had bought lots of strange looking artificial flies with even stranger names. I had even gotten so far as to get caught up in learning these things, what they meant as compared to the real bugs (they were all bugs to me). I enjoyed this part and rather then spending a horrendous amount of money on a flyrod, I bought a bunch (in this case 12-18) flies from the L.L. Bean Fly Fishing catalog. And though I had every intention of buying one of those cheap learning fly fishing outfits, I hadn't got around to it yet, I was still figuring out what a "weight forward floating, WFW 7 line was. So I heard that a couple of old timers always fished flies back in Ohio, (though not for trout), using an Ultra Light spin outfit with a clear glass bubble or float to provide casting weight. I was only learning about flies and trouts, so who had the time for that fly casting stuff anyway. I'd get to that when I went back to the eternal summer of my Florida winters.
Now along with the expensive hardware stuck in the trees, there were a few expensive L.L. Bean flies, which I must admit are some high quality flies from my point of view. But gee, a $1.50 for one #8 Olive Wooly Bugger with a marabou flash tail? I didn't find out what the trout might have thought about that one. But it was a beautiful creation flashing in the sunlight high in that beautiful spruce at the river bend. And I lost quite a few good spinners and flies under some fine rocks that summer, some no doubt still under there flashing at every passing trout until "rust do us part." I spent a good portion of my time in the stream just reaching for a good fly or lure. Precariously balanced, teetering on the edge of disaster, very stubborn and determined to retrieve my coveted fishing tackle. After all I was pretty broke that year, like most at this stage of the writing and fishing fame (oops, I mean game, an unconscious slip I'm sure).
You know by the end of that summer, I didn't care as much about losing 'em (the tackle I mean). After all I had lost some of those flies and lures and retrieved them again, just to lose them for the third or fourth time. I had gotten my money's worth!
By the way that reminds me of the Second Rule: "Never wade fish these rocky streams in tennis shoes!" If you can't afford or still don't have the wading boots with the right soles, fish all you want in sneakers, but don't wade the streams unless you prefer to live dangerously. By the end of the summer I still didn't have the flyrod, but I had found the money for the wading boots (no waders mind you but I had the boots.) I damn near killed myself one morning on the upper branch of the Wells. If there ever was a rocky Vermont stream this one would qualify as a leader among them. Some of these rocks are really just small chunks of Canada that some stupid glacier left behind in my stream a long time ago. Some are just small mountains with water running around them. Others such as the one I fell off of are actually an eroded bank, cut off by water on both sides and the river is a good 15 feet below. Not far enough to scare me off of climbing up there, where I thought I could get a good idea of how to work this stream. But enough so that when I fell onto a rock below, flat on my back, I should have broken it if it wasn't for a miracle prepared for me well in advance by an all-seeing Creator.
Those trouts I released, I am sure had a sore mouth, but they were amazingly hardy in this oxygen rich waters. The real enemy of these fish is a degraded environment or degradation to one in proximity to their immediate environment, which is of course, the waters, the streams or lakes that hold these fish. As I fished, I wondered if these waters were really as clean as they looked. Sometimes I saw what appeared to be clusters of suds floating downstream, especially in the Wells River branches, rather then the Stevens. The Wells River originates in more populated upland country, whereas the Stevens River is surrounded by more wilderness. Could someone be leaking effluent from a washing machine or other wastewater? Trout in particular need a very precisely controlled and naturally clean water environment to live in. They don't get along with towns, cities and suburbs, and the runoff and pollution sources associated with them. It's true from my interaction with them, they went away with a sore mouth or a little stunned at best. But these "wild trout" were disappearing from the invisible spreading presence of pollution from settlements, and the loss of wildness and wilderness. Then factor in an insidious factor being found in the Northeast and in New England lakes and waters in particular. This factor is the gradually declining pH values associated with Acid Rain into watersheds.
Speaking of empathy with my Brook Trout, I also had a taste of their rugged lifestyle. After all, this is not the kind of fishing that most of mainstream America does on weekends, high and dry and relatively comfortable from a clean, fast boat loaded with 90 plus H.P. outboards. By the end of that summer vacation, I had more cuts, bruises, insect bites, sore muscles, blisters and cold morning plunges into 55 degree rivers then I ever had been doing any other kind of fishing.
That's rock country for you. By September first a month later, I still had scabs and some bleeding cuts on my legs. Along with all the lost or broken fishing tackle, it was a rugged but exhilarating experience to say the least.
Well, I thought I had taken good care of my visitor fish. With a plop, I released my trout to swim again, kissed goodbye to the $6 Rapala across the stream jammed into a rock ledge, waved off a couple of a million mosquitos and reflected, "It's been a good summer. Just wait till I get to my BIG TROUT DREAM, NEXT YEAR.”