Trout Bum of the Week LXIII: Jason Gragen

The author on his way into the woods to visit one of myriad backcountry streams he fishes.
Photos courtesy Jason Gragen

Welcome to our series called “Trout Bum of the Wee,” in which we highlight some of the folks living the good life. . .of a sort. (See the bottom of this post for a link to the previous installments.) Most of the subjects are guides who have turned their passion into a vocation, spending their time in an outdoor “office” that may include a drift boat, gorgeous mountain scenery, and crystal clear water. Others do have day jobs but manage to spend every other available minute on the water with a fly rod in hand. Whether you aspire to one lifestyle or the other, it’s illuminating to explore the different paths these men and women have taken on their way to achieving “trout bum” status. 

Jason Gragen is an elementary school teacher from Vermont. When he’s not chasing brook trout, you’re likely to find him hiking, hunting for ruffed grouse and woodcock, ice fishing, mountain biking, paddling, picking wild fruit to can, or snowshoeing in the southern tract of the Green Mountain National Forest. His gorgeous images of brook trout have appeared fairly regularly on the Orvis Fly Fishing Facebook page.

1. When did you start fly fishing?
I’ve been on the water with a fly rod for about 25 years. I spent many of my early fishing years spin-rodding for various species during the summer and jigging for perch through the ice on Lake Champlain in winter. My first introduction to fly fishing was at about eight years of age, as I recall being sandwiched between two maestros in an 18-foot Grumman canoe during an evening hatch on a mountain pond. They worked the rising brook trout, and I worked the pump plunger on a Coleman lantern.

Through the kerosene-fueled glow, I watched in awe at the show they put on, and knew this was a type of angling that I wanted to aspire to at some point. Several years later, with the guidance of my father, I learned how to cast in our yard with my grandfather’s 6-foot, 6-inch Orvis Battenkill impregnated-bamboo rod. Eventually, I would get on the Mill River with a fly rod, and I have been at it ever since. When I secured my first teaching job, I visited the Orvis Flagship in Manchester and ended up purchasing two rods that would change my thoughts about both fly casting and fly fishing: a brand new 6-foot, 6-inch 2-weight Superfine and a reconditioned 7-foot 4-weight Superfine. It was during this time that I began to get serious about fly fishing.

Gragen’s grandfather (left) and father were his most important angling mentors.

2. What’s your favorite water?
The “blue lines” found in the backwoods of the Green Mountain National Forest. Although the streams are small in size, ranging between 4 to 12 feet in width, you’ll be greeted by log snarls, bank washouts, exposed root balls, blowdowns, boulders, and an occasional stacked-stone bridge abutment. There’s plenty of riffle, deep water pools, cascading tiered drops, and 10- to 20-foot long runs. These brooks not only challenge your casting skills, but also your wading abilities. They will keep you honest too! You’ll be provided with an opportunity to throw flies at and be rewarded with 6 to 12 inches of speckled beauty pulsating on the end of your line. The 16 years that I’ve spent in the southern tract of the GNNF have not only shaped who I am as a fly fisherman, but also as a fly tier. The fly fishing pressure is low, the action is fast, and the brookies are spirited!

3. What’s your favorite species to chase with a fly rod?
Wild brook trout. They encourage me to explore the Green Mountain National Forest. With over 200,000 acres of land, and several hundred miles of flowing water, the southern tract of the GMNF in southern Vermont stretches just about one-third the length of the state, and is my idea of the ultimate fly-fishing playground. Recognized by its green hillsides, slopes, and ridges composed of both softwoods and hardwoods, it’s crisscrossed by a network of trails, forest service roads, and skidder paths leading toward blue-ribbon brook-trout habitat. With a steady supply of clear, sparking water, its streams are ideal for the production of aquatic insects, native trout habitat, and are a pleasure to visit. Not to mention, it is home to the headwaters of the Battenkill, Deerfield, Hoosic, Mettawee, and West Rivers. Generally mountainous, this parcel of public land offers lively freestones, top of mountain pools, spruce-backed ponds, and sizeable beaver meadows holding excellent numbers of brookies.

4. What’s your most memorable fly fishing moment?
On the water memory: I forget the year now, but it unfolded on the Sacandaga River in Speculator, New York, about a decade ago. Watching my father hook, play, and land a 20-inch brown trout on his Orvis Ultralight. We were working a section with some overhanging scrub, had rolled a few small trout, and then out of nowhere. . . an explosion! I was about 20 yards upriver with the net, felt the ripples of the frenzied take, heard the screaming of the reel, and spied father swinging his rod into a steeple position. Surveying the situation, and knowing that things were under control, I continued working another trout that was sipping dry flies.

After a few minutes, he asked for a “little help” with the net. I pretended to act busy, and lollygagged around for a minute or two just to see if my old man still had it in him. The fish peeled left, rod tip swayed left. Fish peeled right, rod tip swayed right. Fish ran line, line was given. The “don’t horse him” mantra that father reminded me of from time to time during childhood lessons on the water when I had a sizeable fish on my line echoed through my head as if I wanted him, the teacher, to hear my thoughts. What seemed like an eternity, but only a few minutes later, that slab was in the net! Although I was witnessing a master in action, I had also come to the realization that my fly-tying skills were improving, as that fish had been taken on one of my very own ties. It was during this time that others had also started catching fish with my flies, and began asking for more samples of my old standbys, as well as custom-tied creations.

Jamaica Village Fly Fishing Club taught students about fly fishing and the outdoors.

Off the water memory: The formation of the Jamaica Village School Fly Fishing Club. What began as one student wanting to tie flies during recess eventually transformed into an after-school program that I offered to 4th, 5th, and 6th graders at the first school that I taught at. With the help of Orvis, Bill Keough, Chuck Kashner (local guide), Central Vermont Public Service, Stratton Foundation, and Whiting Farms, about six dozen youngsters learned the art of fly tying and fly casting. It was always a popular offering, and its participants were not only introduced to the basics of fly fishing, but also to the concepts of nature conservation, a lifelong love of the outdoors, and sportsmanship. It lasted for 15 years, and I enjoyed every moment!

5. What’s your most forgettable fly fishing moment?
My first time on the water after Hurricane Irene, although it would be about a month before I could reach some of my old haunts up in the mountains for an autumn outing, due to the destruction that this tropical storm had caused. While flood waters wreaked havoc all over of the state of Vermont, my hometown of Jamaica was subjected to about $5 million of damaged infrastructure—including roads, culverts, and bridges, not to mention large sections of streambank being completely defaced. Viewing the disfigured landscape, I was left dumbfounded, never to forget the sights, sounds, and smells associated with that experience.

The riverscapes were altered and suffered extensive damage when the mountain waterways that I had fished for the better part of two decades swelled into torrents filled with 10 – 20 feet of water on the heels of Irene’s wake. The first outing, and the several that followed were quite bleak for the remainder of that 2011 Trout Season. But there was also a message of hope that would soon be discovered. While we lost some classic fishing holes and stretches, many of the brooks were not only refaced, but also refreshed. The waters that I had grown to know and love had been rejuvenated to some extent. And while it’s been up for discussion, I believe that the first three years of brook trout fishing after this flood turned out to be superb..
6. What do you love most about fly fishing?
Chasing the unknown. The multi-sensory experience of discovering the undiscovered, exploring the unexplored, and identifying the unidentified.

7. What is your favorite piece of gear?
It would be real easy to say a 7-foot 4-weight with a “willowy” action, but I would have to say my experimental flies. When you’re on the water as much as I am and not too worried about catching fish, you have a lot of time to experiment. These specimens have gone through a process of change and are imitations of insect life present in post-glacial Vermont. River tested and fish approved, they often include moose-mane tails for improved tracking, bushy hackles for better flotation, palmered ribs for added texture, lack of wings for thrift, and multi-colored layers for effect. Not to mention, they are generally tied on size 12 or 14 hooks, yielding better visibility for both the brook trout and myself in riffle-laden waters. They really are practical in nature, and offer a glimpse into an impressionistic tying style representing a particular mood, and place – the Green Mountains of Vermont.

Despite its name, tier Tom Pelotte’s Michigan Stonefly seems made for Vermont’s rough-and-tumble streams.

8. What’s your go-to fly when nothing else is working?
Michigan Stonefly.

9. What was your favorite fly fishing trip?
The last time that I fly-fished with my grandfather before his passing. It was a weekend trip to
our family’s deer camp—near Indian Lake, New York in the southern Adirondacks—to fish the
Cedar, Indian, and Jessup Rivers. When I was younger, my grandfather taught me many
lessons about life, being a Vermonter, and fly fishing. Practical in nature, they focused
on mastering the roll cast, tying an improved clinch knot or a surgeon’s loop
(because they’re the only ones that you need to know), working a pool like a
clock face, approaching the stream bank stealthily, matching the hatch by resizing your
fly, using the glowing cherry of a cheap cigar to singe its hackle, eliminating your shadow
from the water, and about the Hare’s Ear Nymph, of which he’d say with a chuckle, “It
doesn’t look like much, but it catches fish like a grifter.” And, I recall that being the last
fly that he selected out of my fly box to dress his line, and would ever fish with.

10. How do you define the difference between someone who loves fly fishing and a true trout bum?
Ummm, not sure? I only have 2,000+ outings with a fly rod over the course of the past 16 years.

A fine example of a trophy-sized speckled native from the Green Mountain National Forest.

9 thoughts on “Trout Bum of the Week LXIII: Jason Gragen”

  1. Nice to see Jason here! Over the years we’ve had many of his students in the store following their passion to fly fish. Great job man!

  2. Hi Jason,
    I really enjoyed reading your article. Thanks and keep up the good work! I’m glad you’re in Newfane now and hope we can get on some thin blue lines together.

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