Fish America: New England

Maybe the last cast I made during week two on the road best sums up the seven days. I was fly-casting a nymph rig on the Deerfield River with Tom Harrison, of Harrison Brothers Guide services. Cloud cover, fog and a light rain had kept the sky hidden for most of the day, but we'd caught both rainbows and browns on dry flies, nymphs and streamers consistently throughout a stretch of the Deerfield in the Charlemont area of Massachusetts. We had put in at 8 a.m., and as I made my last cast, I asked what time it was, thinking it must be early afternoon. "Seven-thirty," he said. At first, his response didn't make sense, and then I thought he was joking. We'd drifted the river for nearly 12 hours and it barely seemed like the morning had gone by. Tom put me on enough fish so that I managed to land a few despite all the ones I missed, and the Deerfield put an exclamation point on a great week of fishing.
Week two on the road began on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire on the Monday prior. The 72-square-mile lake is enormous, and the first thing that strikes you about it is its beauty. From the Weirs Beach area in early June, you get the sense you've arrived on the fairgrounds a day early, as the community, crowded during the summer months, is still quiet. The rumored birthplace of Curly of Three Stooges fame and the fictional setting of the film What About Bob, the lake is a popular escape for people fleeing Boston and New York in the summer.
Oh, yeah, Lake "Winni" has spectacular fishing too. One of New England's largest lakes, it reaches depths of more than 200 feet and serves as home to largemouth and smallmouth bass, pickerel, bluegills, crappies, landlocked salmon, lake trout and more. Dotted with more than 250 islands, the lake has no shortage of weed-covered shoreline, and with boulder fields everywhere, it's a veritable fisherman's dream.
Many fisherman on Winni are targeting the large landlocked salmon that populate the lake, and for good reason. But this can leave some spectacular bass fishing that doesn't get as much pressure as it otherwise might. Thanks to guide Mark Beauchesne, I got a chance to take a crack at some of New Hampshire's better bass fishing. We ripped across the lake's surface in Mark's bass boat, and it wasn't long before we were both hooked up to smallmouth bass. I was fishing a topwater popper, pictured here, and the water was so clear you could see the flash of bronze before your popper exploded on top.
The impressive thing about the smallmouth fishing, which was steady for two hours in the morning, was that none of the fish were small. All were solid, chunky, aggressive bass that were crushing the topwater lure. The bass were holding on drop-offs surrounding the lake's many islands, and at times the fishing was every-cast good.
The wind started ripping about mid-morning, so we shifted gears and started to cross more species off the list. The interesting thing about Winnipesaukee in June is that you'll have areas of water where largemouth and smallmouth are mixed right in, and a cast is as likely to produce one as the other. We couldn't find any small largemouth bass, either, although we weren't looking that hard. The largemouths were equally anxious to punch at a popper on top.
Later in the day we rigged up some ultralight rods and tucked out of the wind in some coves, while harassing panfish. We found a school of crappies holding tight off a rock wall and some fat bluegills that were suckers for a small, curly-tail grubs. From 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., we bounced around the lake, adjusted for the weather, and targeted different fish. Never once was there a long let-up in the action, and the smallmouth crashing the poppers were just as fun as the big bluegills and crappies on ultralight gear.
Mark works for New Hampshire Fish and Game, and loves the sport genuinely and wholeheartedly. Much of his career has been spent educating children about fishing, designing and orchestrating programs focused around angling education. He even instituted an ice-fishing education program to help get kids out of the house in the winter.
At 2:30, Mark got a call from two friends who run charters out of www.fishlakewinni.com. A.J. White, of Lakes Region Fishing Charters, and Glen Leathers, of Island Fishing Charters, were teaming up to take Glen's 22.5-foot Starcraft Islander out for an evening salmon troll, and they offered me a ride. What choice did I have? Winds were gusting and it was hard to hold a track, but we found fish.
Glen is a retired fireman who moves around the boat with ease and purpose and sets the downriggers and trolling speed in a way that makes you think he's done this a million times. He maintains a quiet sense of calm alertness, waiting for a rod clip to go off like a four-alarm fire. A.J., who is younger, and the manager of a restaurant in town, bounces around the boat with enthusiasm, calling out marks on the depthfinder and trying to guess the best way to find fish in the changing and challenging conditions. Orange spoons proved the most effective lure, and between 5 p.m. and dark, we hooked almost a dozen salmon and a few lake trout as well.
The salmon were chunkier than the Maine fish I had found, but they had the same acrobatic tendencies, taking to the air when hooked.
After a day that started at 5:30 a.m. and went until dark, with only an hour on dry land, a beer tasted good. Giuseppe's in town had the Red Sox game on television. I asked Glen about the history of the fishery, and he shared some funny stories that all guides seem to have on hand. He'd found an impressive way to target big lake trout in the hottest months of summer, a method that even produced the largest specimens, but I know better than to publish that here. He talked about the challenges of guiding and the long days, and I talked about sleeping in parking lots and campgrounds in the pouring rain. But finally we had to stop and laugh. We agreed that working in the fishing industry was the worst job, except for all the other ones. An attempt to make it up through Vermont and across the border into Plattsburgh, New York, proved too much for one day, so I grabbed some sleep and headed out in the morning. The ferry across from Grand Isle, Vermont, to New York the next day is a quick ride back to my home state for some fishing on one of the few lakes in the Northeast larger than Winnipesaukee - Lake Champlain.
After a few hours of sleep at Cumberland Bay State Park, which is a bargain as far as campgrounds go and has a beautiful view of the lake, I was back on the water. This time with Champlain guide Mickey Maynard. Maynard grew up on Champlain and has been fishing it his whole life. He tells me we're going for a version of the "Champlain slam" - a largemouth, smallmouth, pike and pickerel. My ears perk up at the sound of pike.
We drift some rocky shorelines and find the smallmouths we're looking for to start the day, and fairly large ones at that. Rapala X-Raps and soft-plastic creature baits do the trick.
Ripping spinnerbaits over weedbeds gets us the largemouths we're after, and a few pickerel come out of the weedwork as well. You can see the largemouth bass harassing alewives on top in sheltered coves of the lake.
With three out of four down, we're on to the part of the slam that's got me most excited. I don't know what it is, but there's something I just find…well…cool about pike. They're bigger than pickerel, and they're meaner. Ripping your spinnerbait over the weeds, you feel like it might as well be a kid walking through a crowd of thugs counting his lunch money. With every crank of the handle you're just waiting for the thing to get mugged.
Mickey has a strong appreciation for bass, and is good at finding them. But he's a pike guy, too. The whole morning, I bring up pike in an intentionally offhand way as we target bass, and he assures me I'll get a few. With one eye on the time as the day ticks by, I hope he's right. Then, on a drift along the shoreline, over a weedbed, Mickey tells me to cast to a particular piece of sunken structure that I can't see, but he assures me is there, and promises a pike. I'm ripping my spinnerbait over the "structure," thinking it might not even exist, and wondering how this guy thinks he can guarantee a fish on a cast, when the spinnerbait stops and starts heading in the other direction at a rapid clip.
It turns out Mickey isn't full of it, and my largest pike to date, estimated at around 5 pounds, was hanging right on the piece of structure he pointed out. Not a monster, but a ton of fun on light spinning gear, and you've got to start somewhere in pursuit of pike.
With the Champlain slam complete, I thank Mickey and hit the road, back on the ferry, across the Lake, and back into Vermont. I'm headed for moving water, but I can see rain waiting in the distance.
After a rainy stay at the Little River Campground in Waterbury, I'm ready to fish Vermont. Vermont is a big state, with a lot of water, so I wasn't about to tackle it myself. If you're going to fish Vermont, you've got to fish with the guy who wrote the book on it…literally. Peter Cammann guided on Vermont freshwater for 11 years, and has authored two books. Fishing Vermont's Streams and Lakes is worth a read if you plan on wetting a line in the state. And his second book, Ultralight Spin-Fishing, is a must-read for fishermen in any state, and is equally applicable in fresh and saltwater.
Peter and I start by canoeing around a small pond near Waterbury, Vermont, taking advantage of some low-light conditions, with prevailing fog, to fool some largemouth bass on soft-plastics. Peter furthers my flyfishing education by a couple degrees, as he lets me practice on panfish. The slow-hitting fish can easily build your confidence with a fly rod, which would be taken back down a few notches by big brown trout before the week's end. We went on to fish the Winooski River, pictured here, where I miss a nice trout that slammed a Phoebe Wobbler in a pool. Heavy rains the night before and high water makes fishing more difficult than usual.
Adapting, we switch gears and hit the Waterbury Reservoir. This large, quiet body of water holds bass and trout, and we find smallmouths willing to cooperate on drop-offs, inhaling brown, 2 ¾-inch tubes on weighted jigs. Peter has more of the stories that only guides seem to have, like the one about the guy who tried to pull a fast one by disappearing and "fishing another pool," re-emerging with a monster rainbow. He was caught red-handed when freezer burn was found on the store-bought fish and the whole party had a good laugh.
The Waterbury area of Vermont puts you in prime position for some fantastic fishing. The Winooski River offers tremendous trout fishing, when conditions allow, and the Waterbury Reservoir does as well. The Little River, pictured here, which flows out of the reservoir, offers some smaller-water shots at trout for the wading angler.
If you're fishing the Waterbury area, there is one spot you can't miss. It's particularly promising when it's wet, you're soaked, and you've had to work for the fish you've caught. The Alchemist Pub and Brewery brews its own beers and has a long list of zany flavors. There's the "Shut the Hell Up," the "Holey Moley," and "The Flux Capacitor." Take your pick, you really can't go wrong.
On the way out of Vermont, I hit the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, pictured here. Well worth a stop for any fishing enthusiast, fly-fisherman or not. Before Sunday, it had been a good week on the water. Sure, I got real wet in Vermont, and not every fish came easily, but all in all I'd caught largemouths, smallmouths, pickerel, pike, bluegills, sunfish, lake trout and landlocked salmon. Not too shabby. But Sunday would prove the highlight of the week. I'd scheduled a trip with Tom Harrison, of Harrison Brothers Anglers, who guides by driftboat on the Deerfield River in Massachusetts. The forecast called for a chance of thundershowers, so I was nervous we might get shut out. I didn't know at the time that the Harrison Brothers had only missed one trip in five years because of weather. And, you guessed it, the client cancelled, not them.
I've been fortunate to experience a lot of varied types of fishing at a relatively young age, but I've tried few things that were as cool as fly-fishing from a driftboat on the Deerfield. It's half rafting, half fly-fishing, and it's amazing.
Tom Harrison, 28, honed his fly-fishing craft in Montana before bringing what he learned back to his home state of Massachusetts. And, as one of the only drift boat guides in western Massachusetts, he offers a type of fishing that's hard to find in the Northeast.
Tom talks about the fishing and the fish with the kind of energy you'd need to guide 12 months a year on the Deerfield. Together, Tom and his brother Dan totaled 350 trips last year, including an extra 50 in the stretch between January and March that they don't count. They expect to hit 400 this year. Clients come from all around the Northeast to the quiet western Massachusetts town of Charlemont for a shot at some fantastic trout fishing on the Deerfield, and the chance to do it from a driftboat.
Tom knows trout, plain and simple. He can identify the pattern on a particular brown trout, and shows me photos of a fish he's caught three years in a row. A biologist confirmed it was, in fact, the same fish, and Tom traces it's growth pattern, measuring it with each catch. He pulls out his iPhone on the water, goes online and checks the scheduled dam releases on the stretch of the Deerfield we're fishing, so he'll know where to put me on fish in certain conditions throughout the day. Plain and simple, he's a trout catching machine. Check out the dozens of photos of monster brown trout on harrisonanglers.com if you don't believe me.
I warn him that my fly-fishing experience is limited, and for 11 hours on the water, he tells me when to mend, where to cast and where the fish will be. He's so good that, when I do hook a fish, I turn around to find out he's already got the video rolling. He knew it would be there. I wonder how many fish he knows that I missed a shot at, and is too kind to tell me about.
Tom and his brother Dan guide on the river seven days a week, taking trips in January, February and March. He rows the entire stretch of the Deerfield each day, and says a 12-hour trip isn't unusual. I ask if all the rowing wears him down, and he says it's easy. Then again, he looks like he could probably bench press the custom flatbed truck he designed to haul his driftboat, with me in it.
The first leg of our float, we find good action to brown trout on dry flies. We're throwing big attractor patterns, and brown trout are flat-out tackling them. We'll drop anchor to fish productive pools, and move on. Before the day's over, I've caught countless brown and rainbow trout on dry flies, streamers and nymphs. We grab a beer at the Charlemont Inn, where Tom's girlfriend tends bar. In something you'll only witness in a small town like Charlemont, the cook passes us on his way out, stops and turns back around to throw something on the grill for us. A class act, Tom even offers me a couch for the night before I head out to Boston the next day.
Driftboat fishing for trout, especially big ones like those that are known to be caught in the Deerfield, is a blast. If you're in a 1,000-mile radius of Massachusetts, like to fish and have a pulse, I suggest you give this a shot. Tom says almost all of his clients are repeat customers, so that should be about all you need to know. The driftboat offers a surprisingly dry ride, and a thigh-high bar near the front allows you to stand almost the entire time. You're able to reach pockets and currents that wading fishermen simply can't get to.
Week two on the road flew by, and, as usual, was better than expected. Boston and Cape Cod are coming up in week 3 and there are some surprises in store.
If you go… Deerfield River: harrisonanglers.com | (413) 222-2607 Lake Champlain: lakechamplainangler.com Lake Winnipesaukee:
Smallmouth and Largemouth Bass: Mark Beauchesne
Lake Trout and Landlocked Salmon: fishlakewinni.com