Classic Story: The Trout Stream That No One Else Wanted

Hey . . . the FISH don’t know it’s a shopping cart.
Photo by Phil Monahan

[Editor’s note: With a foot of snow on the ground, I’m really jonesing for the beginning of Vermont trout season, which opens on the second Saturday in April, which got me thinking about some of my local haunts. Here’s a classic story about one of them.]

With a sparsely attended Catholic church at one end and a Taco Bell at the other, Benmont Avenue is representative of the hard times that have befallen many American mill towns. This is not the scenic Vermont of postcards, but instead a hardscrabble part of town that features rows of low-income housing, a couple of tire shops, and the dreary, hulking mass of the former Holden-Leonard Mill building. Built in 1865, the imposing brick edifice now stands half empty, its last manufacturing tenant having moved out in 2014.

When I had an office there a decade ago, one surefire method for relieving stress and clearing my head was to step out onto the fire escape in the back and listen to the babbling stream, the Walloomsac River, which runs parallel to Benmont, hidden by buildings and trees, and mostly forgotten by the people who live and work nearby.

It’s a pretty little freestone stream that has suffered the same kinds of neglect as the area through which it flows, so it’s not odd to find an old car battery or lawn furniture half-buried in the gravel riverbed. But despite this evidence of man’s folly, the stream is home to beautiful trout—some wild, some stockers that have migrated from elsewhere in the system. I’d been introduced to the particular hidden stretch of water along Benmont by a couple of colleagues, who referred to the spot as “The Sh*thole.” But soon after, they moved on; one left the state, while the other became obsessed with warmwater fly fishing. For several years thereafter, this was my personal trout stream, which I fished several times a week, never encountering another angler.

I never bothered to keep my fishing spot a secret because I knew that there was really nothing there to draw other anglers. The fish are small and sometimes tough to catch, access is difficult, and an odor of creosote or kerosene often emanates from the banks. When I told local folks where I’d been fishing, I’d get odd looks. And other fly fishers who knew my history as a guide in Alaska and Montana were even more astonished that I’d waste my time chasing trout that rarely exceeded twelve inches in length. But if you know anything about the five stages of a fly fisherman, it all makes sense.

* * *

I’ve never seen the original idea attributed to anyone in particular, but in a 2006 Sporting Classics column, my friend Todd Tanner described the “five stages” concept of how an angler’s desires develop over time: at first, a new fly fisherman just wants to catch a fish (Stage 1). Next, he wants to catch a lot of fish (Stage 2), and then a big fish (Stage 3). The final challenge is to catch a difficult fish (Stage 4), after which the angler achieves a certain state of grace, where he or she just wants to go fishing (Stage 5).

As a young man living in southeastern New Hampshire, I went fly fishing thirteen times (thirteen!) before I caught my first trout, a hatchery brookie that fell for a Parmachene Belle wet fly below Trickling Falls Dam on the Powwow River. I remained at Stage 2 for several years, traveling around New England with my older brother and some high-school buddies, but never experiencing one of those magical days where it seems like you can catch fish at will. When I’d read about an angler enjoying a “fifty-fish day” on the Madison or the Snake, I didn’t quite believe that such a thing was possible—even though I desperately wanted it to be.

That all changed in the summer of 1992, when I landed my first guiding job in Alaska. Suddenly, I was up to my neck in Stage 2 and Stage 3 opportunities, surrounded by huge fish and lots of ’em. For someone who had spent years reeling in smallish Eastern trout, most of them hatchery-bred, fighting a thirty-pound king salmon on a fly rod was a life-altering experience. That first year, I also caught cohoes, chums, and sockeyes, all of which made my previous angling experiences back home seem like child’s play.

The rainbow trout were often huge, as well, and they certainly didn’t seem very picky. There were days when a single Glo Bug would produce a fish on almost every cast. The trout that finally fulfilled Stage 3 for me was a 28-inch wild, lake-run rainbow that I landed on the Copper River one misty evening. When that silvery missile took to the air immediately upon being hooked, I turned to my friend, Gordon, and said, “Is that a salmon?” With a big grin on his face, Gordon replied, “No. That. . .is a rainbow.” I could hardly believe my luck when I finally cradled the massive trout for a photograph, which still hangs on my office wall.

In the summer of 1994, I decided to hone my angling skills by guiding in Montana, where I faced some of the wiliest trout in the West. Nowhere were the trout more difficult to catch than on the spring creeks of Paradise Valley, especially on those days when the fish decided to be finicky. Faced with a large brown trout finning in crystal-clear water and occupying a narrow slot between two weedbeds, you need to achieve the perfect cast and the perfect drift just to get your fly in the strike zone. And because these trout see so many patterns, you need to have chosen exactly the right fly to entice the fish to eat it. An angler experiences a lot of humbling rejection while casting to those trout, which live in such aptly named places as the “PhD Pool.”

After I hung up my guide hat, I spent the next dozen years working for sporting magazines, which gave me the chance to fish in some of the world’s most famous destinations—such as New Zealand, Argentina, Belize, The Bahamas, and Ireland. Every one of these trips produced sublime moments when skill, luck, and perseverance came together, and I have dozens of photos of stunning trout, salmon, bonefish, and barracudas. But while I was living this angling dream life, at some point, the experience of fly fishing stopped being about the fish.

Don’t get me wrong: I still love to catch fish, treasure those days when I land more than my share, and marvel when a real trophy comes to hand. I also still get frustrated when I miss a good fish or blow a presentation. But for a long time now, my ability to have a good time on the water hasn’t been predicated on angling success. There are so many other joys to be found in a day on the water: the pride of a perfect cast or drift, the sight of a kingfisher hunting his morning meal, the feel of a salty breeze blowing across your face, or the sense of being in rhythm with the river.

* * *

I fished that dirty little stretch of the Walloomsac for about five years without ever running into another angler. The bridge where I would drop in was just a minute’s drive from the office, so it was easy to sneak out for an hour and work a dry-dropper rig through a hundred yards of riffles and pools. I usually caught a few, rarely caught a lot, and occasionally got skunked. But even when I never saw a fish, I enjoyed the brief respite from the real world in my little urban oasis.

One rainy afternoon in late June, I found the river high and muddy, so I tied on a sinking tip and a Conehead Muddler Minnow. In the widest part of the river, right behind the Taco Bell, I swung the fly through a deep hole on the opposite bank and felt the strike of a very heavy fish. Unfortunately, the fight was short and I only got a glimpse of trout’s buttery, spotted side as it rolled to the surface and spit the fly. I stood there in the downpour and stared at the spot where the fish had briefly shown itself. The next day—in the same spot and using the same fly—I did manage to land the beast, which turned out to be a 20-inch brown trout, at the time the largest brown I’d ever caught in Vermont. Such an unexpected trophy only increased my affection for what I had come to think of a “my” river.

I no longer work in town, and I have a new home water—a pristine mountain freestone stream chock-full of tiny, wild brookies—but every time I drive over the Walloomsac on my way somewhere else, I’m reminded of the good times spent on the water no one else wanted to fish. One of these days, when I have my gear in the car, I’ll stop and say hello to my old, slightly stinky friend.

32 thoughts on “Classic Story: The Trout Stream That No One Else Wanted”

  1. I love that river also. I caught a 22″ Brown just below taco bell. Actually right behind McDonald’s in fact! Hit that river on the right day and you will pull out a beauty of a brown!

  2. I love this story. Thank you. it reminds me of a time when a friend and I fished the retention ponds on our college campus. “If there’s water, there’s fish”

  3. Great article Phil, this and other trout fishing reminiscences share two common elements, 1) you can’t step in the same river twice, and 2) it ain’t about the catching. Bravo my friend. cheers, g2

  4. Well another story about you just never know what you’ll find if you just try very well done makes me want to go try something different but hey that’s why I fly fish

  5. Phil – don’t know how long it took you to write that, but it is great writing and please keep it coming. Why can’t TU’s Trout magazine have more articles like yours? Onward. Corb

  6. Phil, I am a Wisconsin native and will live here all my life. I have a stream like the one in your story but this stream is clean but what connected me to this story is the DNR refurbished this stream but I have never seen another fisherman on this stream. I call this stream mine.

  7. This was a fun read. Thank you Phil for writing this story. I am like you now. I just like to go fishing and I have lost more nice trout than I care to admit but I get over it really quickly and get back to it. Tight lines Phil!

  8. Nice read…I thought you were talking about the Lackawanna…same story different stream

  9. Many memories sneaking cigarettes down behind that Taco Bell. And fishing further down behind the country club. This was a very touching article. Thank you.

  10. I used to fish there to but I would fish the stretch from the footbridge up to Taco Bell. I must have just missed you. The best fishing spots are close to home!

  11. Thank you, Phil. Great story, and I especially appreciated the tone. For me, it felt introspective, not quite nostalgic but contemplative. Very nice!

  12. Though not fly fishing, my best fishing spot was old deep hole, next to sand extraction machine. It was so ugly, noone wanted to come there. Basically, 15m radius hole, 10 deep, with rotten willow, whole car, and lot of trash and pond vegetation. And full of pikes, bullheads and frogs. Independent ecosystem. Just 50 m far, across the street, i caught huchos and trouts in clear mountain river. That was just dirty hole, noone else wanted ^^ lol

  13. You forgot to mention if you skip over bennington and start below the dam at the papermill bridge the creek becomes trophy trout territory all the was down to the NY border. Still not my idea of Vermont trout fishing. Drive over the Woodford mountain outside bennington in rout 9 south and hook a left on the other side to Sommerset a d Searsburg Reservoir and enjoy the many miles of clean natural waters loaded with multispecies aquatic residents. I on the other hand like to walk down the road from my house in Shaftrbury and take half dozen wild brookies for my dinner.

    1. You seem to have missed the point completely.
      It wasn’t a physical destination piece; it was a cerebral/spiritual piece.

  14. I recall reading an embryonic version of this a few years ago. It’s matured into a truly fine essay. “Why we fish” articles too often tumble into pretension, you’ve managed to keep everything under control and write a very genuine, very evocative piece. Congratulations… cut with not a little bit of envy. Some day I look forward to dragging you to the Sunrise Highway, somewhere close to the Nassau/Suffolk county line.

  15. It is so unfortunate that the ethos to have a pristine stream run through a town correlates directly to the town’s economic success. Not only Fly fishermen have an affinity for a spiritual side of flowing waters and its creatures. Lets hope and believe that soon this ethos can translate to the local folk at large and engage an effort of cleanup and restoration.

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