[Editor’s note: The essay by Vince Puzick that we posted yesterday reminded me of my own ruminations on the subject of fly-fishing success from last year.]
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.