The migration of nighthawks in the Connecticut River Valley is quite a spectacle. Over 3,000 were observed by Vermont's Don Clark in Westminster Station over the last two weeks, with the big push being last night when nearly 1,000 birds passed over the area. I stopped by to chat with Don and watch large flocks of birds circle over the Connecticut River and the fields adjacent to it. Nighthawks are not hawks at all, they are rather in the nightjar family along with whip-poor-wills. These birds open their mouthes wide as they fly erratically through the air, catching insects in a manner not that different from how baleen whales trap phytoplankton. The distinctive markings are white stripes on the underside of their pointed wings. Males also have a patch of white on the throat. If you get out in the next week around dusk, although you may not see numbers like last night, you may get a chance to see these acrobatic fliers traveling south through Western NH.
We've all experienced those times when we are throwing flies out, changing and casting, and then changing again. Then suddenly, things start to happen. I had one of those days yesterday and what suddenly turned the tide were stoneflies. I noticed flashes in the water along a long current seam and what I realized is that fish were turning there bodies to scrap nymphs off of rocks. One of the nice things about stoneflies, because of their long life cycle they are available to fish for most of the year. Bouncing a Siri's Stonefly Nymph on the bottom under a strike indicator led to sizable rainbows, smallmouth bass and, I'll say it, suckers (one being five or six pounds). Why shouldn't I mention the suckers? After all, fly fishing for carp is all the rage now. Just go to the Orvis web site and type "carp flies" in the search bar. Find what the fish are keying in on and it could be a good day.
I spent a few hours yesterday working my way up a stream in Langdon fishing for native brook trout and this spectacular setting got me thinking. A big part of the appeal of fishing for native trout is the places I need to go to find them. There are certain factors, regardless of location, that are important for native trout habitat. Things such as in-stream boulders and logs, shade, diverse water types containing riffles, runs and pools and of course cold, oxygenated water must be present. In the east, often this means hemlock ravines which create micro-climate. If you want relief on a brutally hot August day go to one of these places. At the location in Langdon the trees form a complete canopy over the river and steep, moss-covered ledges rise on each side of the stream. The dozen brook trout caught yesterday would be considered small by the standards of most people, but there's more to consider. First, the beauty of these fish is unparalleled, but beyond that, what native brook trout are does not end at the tips of their fins and tail. What they are extends to the swirling, mesmerizing water, the hemlocks who's massive roots jut out from the bank, the moss that blankets the rocks and the solitude this place provides. They are the complete package and this package brings me back again and again.
Through personal experience this spring and through talking with people who have fished rivers in NH, VT and MA, the consensus is that things have been slow. The common denominator for these rivers has been the lack of rain. The low and clear conditions make fly fishing for trout a challenge. For one thing, crystal clear water allows trout to see you more easily. It also allows them to inspect the authenticity of flies more thoroughly.
With the rain we have had the last few days, the water is slightly deeper in many rivers, but more importantly it is slightly stained, which benefits fly anglers. Rain also starts displacing food from under rocks, overhanging trees and from the soil on the banks. This leads to more feeding opportunities for trout. I have a feeling with the soak over the last three days that things should pick up.
The reasons why I fish are many and they are deep-rooted in my childhood. Fishing is the first thing that brought me into the woods, down to the river, onto the glass-still lake and away from the clutter of our too-busy world. It is fishing that led me to hiking, cross-country skiing, birding, canoeing and many other outdoor pursuits. These outdoor pursuits brought me to certain understandings about the natural world and certain appreciations. This led me to want to teach, conserve natural resources and protect beautiful places.
It's with this exposure and with these realizations that I approach fly fishing today. Catch and release fishing is an ethic indelibly part of the fly fishing culture and thank goodness. Catch and release fishing has helped bring back fisheries that have been decimated by a myriad of excesses. That being said, keeping a fish or two to feed yourself and your family should not be a sin. Let me be clear, I have strict rules for myself that far exceed state fish and game laws. I have these personal rules for aesthetic, emotional and ecological reasons. The first rule is that I fly fish rather than fish with bait or lures. I fly fish because I feel a true connection to the environment I'm in when I fly fish. It's also because fly fishing does less harm. If I plan to release 85% of the fish I catch I want to use small, single hooks (often barbless). Secondly, I always release the first fish of the season as a tribute to my father who first brought me to the water. Third, I never permit myself to keep more fish than I release on a given day. To ensure that this happens the first one I catch always gets released just in case I don't catch another. Fourth, I rarely keep native fish because I feel they provide a certain balance in our ecosystems. There is also something so beautiful about watching a fish swim from my hands.
All that being said, it is important to have connections to where your food comes from; to grow your own vegetables, to get eggs from a local farm and to keep kill and eat a fish once in a while. I am off to the Rapid River just over the border in Maine to catch and release some native brook trout and perhaps I will bring home a landlocked salmon or two. After all my better half loves fresh fish fillets.
With a week of above average temperatures and very little rain here in Alstead over the past week, the water is over 60 degrees right now. Hendrickson May Flies have been hatching in earnest with a small hatch of Yellow Sally Stoneflies happening simultaneously two evenings ago. The fish, however, are not looking up and I had now surface takes. The only fish willing, was a thick 15-inch rainbow caught on a wooly bugger.
With daytime air temperatures 10 degrees below average and dreary skies over the past week, the river has been slow to warm. Yesterday's water temperature was 40 degrees and with trout having an optimal water temperature of around 54 degrees, their activity level is low. The Cold River is in deed cold! Until water temperature gets into the upper 40's, catching trout will be difficult. The best chances are focusing on deep pools and and slow runs. The water level is just a little above perfect right now and with the weather forecast calling for sunnier, warmer weather Wednesday through Sunday, the river could fish better by May 1st. May flies are in smaller instar stages right now, so nymphs in size 16-20 are best right now. Stone Fly nymphs in size 12-14 are a good choice. As far as hatches, all that was seen were a few random small caddis.
Spring is my favorite season, especially after the winter we've had in New England this year. There are changes each day as snow and ice retreat and rebirth begins. Some migrants begin arriving before the calendar officially says spring, most notably waterfowl as they look for open water. For example, I got good looks at Common Goldeneye below the Bellows Falls Dam recently. With the arrival of spring, however, there are some departures as well. We have visitors here in New England, numbers varying from year to year, that spend there spring and summer in arctic tundra areas north of here. A few seen recently in New Hampshire were snow buntings, bohemian waxwings and lapland longspurs. See the lapland longspur range map below and as we prepare for the arrival of phoebes, the pushing up of fiddleheads, the rising of trout and the sound of spring peepers, don't forget those visitors from the north that make winter more interesting.
A fly fishing technique that developed in Japan and is becoming more popular in the United States is Tenkara. This ancient style simplifies the sport by eliminating the reel. Longer rods, from 8 1/2 to 14 1/2 feet are utilized and line is attached to the end of the rod. One of the biggest advantages of this technique is when a dry fly or nymph is being fished because there is no weighted line and the rod is long all drag is eliminated. This allows for natural drifts of flies. Watch the videos below to learn more.
See the bugs and patterns that will work this spring in then east. Early Season Sampler, by Tim Flager.
Mitch Harrison's parents gave him his first fly rod at age 12 and more than 40 years later he is still casting, teaching and learning. Another passion of Mitch's is bird watching. Mitch is a licensed NH guide and a science teacher in Alstead, NH.