Early angling adventures in Vermont….
If you are an angler, you probably remember the first time you went fishing. Certainly, you remember the first fish you caught. And your memories of childhood fishing events may even get more detailed and specific. The first time you used an artificial instead of bait or, better, a fly and a fly rod. The first time you actually cast to a fish you could see; one that was feeding and you knew just exactly where you had to put your fly or lure and even though you were trembling with nerves, you made the cast. Running through all those memories is a sense of wonder and excitement that is utterly pure. When you are young, catching a fish seems like such an improbable and delightfully strange thing. There are kids who just become totally absorbed by fishing; for whom all other youthful distractions—including, even, television—take a distant second place.
I was one of those kids and when I moved to Vermont, there was still a lot of that kid in me. In early May, when the Hendrickson hatch was on in the early afternoon, I wanted to be on the Battenkill and no other place on earth. Then, as the days got longer, it was sometimes almost midnight when I returned home. There was a big, yellow mayfly—known to anglers as a “sulfur”—that hatched in the evening and large brown trout would come out from the protection of cut banks or fallen trees to feed on them. Sometimes it would be late enough and dark enough that I could hear the sound of a rise that I could not see. So I would cast to sound and strike if I heard the fish rise when I thought my fly should be passing over his heard. Occasionally, this worked and I took some nice fish this way.
Coming home after one of those evenings, I felt some of the old sensations I could dimly remember from times when I’d gone fishing and stayed out past supper time and bed time and the time that had been set aside for homework. There would be a price to pay but it was worth it. Even when I hadn’t caught anything.
But now, I had children of my own. They had friends. Eventually, I imagined that they would want to try fishing, at least, and that maybe they would become absorbed by it the way I had been.
Well, it was a good place for it. Then and now.
There is a lot of good fishing water in our part of Vermont. Some, like the Battenkill, is probably a little too demanding for a kid just starting out. Though I have found some very young anglers fishing the stream, especially in the early season when the water is high and worms work better than flies. Now and then, one of those kids will take one of those ancient, large brown trout that live in the river and get his picture in the paper with his fish.
But the Battenkill is not the place to start a kid. There are too many better alternatives.
I got my kids started on local ponds. One of them was down in the woods below our house. It had been built by the owner of the property next door but he had long since lost interest in it and now it was silting up and its banks were growing up with briars. But it still held a few brook trout that had heads that were too big for their bodies. Not enough food or oxygen in the water.
The fish might have been stunted but they were still hungry. So we would dig some worms in the garden or, if it was later in the summer, catch some grasshoppers in the meadow, then head down to the pond that wasn’t exactly ours. But it was.
The pond was surrounded by trees so we couldn’t get much in the way of a back cast. But, then we didn’t really need one. I would roll the line out and whatever bait we were using hit the water with a soft “plop.” This would send fish darting out of the weed cover. Alarmed at first. Then curious. And hungry.
The good part—the neat part—was that the water was stained from all the decayed vegetation but still clear, so after I’d handed the rod to one of the kids, we could view this action. And, also, see the fish clearly when they came back out into the open water to investigate the source of the disturbance in their universe. And we could watch with rising excitement as the fish nosed our bait and then—oh boy, oh boy—actually took it.
We caught maybe a dozen little deformed brookies that way, one summer, and that was it. We had fished the pond out. There was wasn’t any happier possible outcome. They would have been killed by winter or a raccoon if we hadn’t caught, cleaned and eaten them. They were good eating; sublime memories. When we are walking in that woods these days—usually on the hunt for mushrooms—and pass by that pond, one of us will inevitably say, “Do you remember how we caught those brook trout …”
Walk a little downhill from that pond and you will hit the Mettawee River. You are only four or five miles below its source, here, but the stream does hold fish. They are hard to catch. Too hard for most adult anglers who are not interested in fishing for trout where you cannot make a cast because of the tree cover. They prefer to fish further downstream, in the Pawlet valley and beyond, where the stream opens up.
But kids who like fishing have a different take on things. They are resourceful and certainly not purists. If you can’t roll out a perfect cast and drop a dry fly delicately on the water, then you find another way. The son of one of my friends had the same love for fishing that I’d had as a kid and he fished the Mettowee with that combination of concentration and oblivion that causes boys to miss dinner and bedtime. He worked that stream. He lost a lot of lures in trees, missed a lot of strikes from small fish and spooked a lot of big fish before he could make a cast. But he kept going back.
I was touched by his spirit and I bought him replacement tackle and gave him tips and offered to come along and coach him. He said “Thanks,” but I knew a brushoff when I saw one and remembered that feeling of wanting to do it without the all-knowing assistance and advice of some grownup. And, then, that boy probably didn’t want to give away any of his secret spots. I could understand.
So I didn’t push it and my delicacy was rewarded one afternoon when he called and asked, his voice full of excitement, if I’d like to come up to his house and see something.
“Sure,” I said. “What’s up?”
“I’ll show you when you get here.”
When I arrived, I was greeted by a proud 9-year old boy who showed me a fine, 18-inch brown trout that he had been stalking for a month and that he had taken that morning on some kind of small gold spinner that he had managed to cast into a tiny pool, guarded by overhanging hemlock branches.
He certainly hadn’t needed my help. But he was happy to accept my praise.
Not all kids are that keen on fishing. But there is almost no kid who isn’t at least a little interested in trying it. For them, there are easy, public opportunities. The pond on Church Street in Dorset is an excellent spot for introducing kids to fishing. It is stocked with trout every year, and it is possible to fish from the bank. The Dorset Sportsman Club held a tournament for kids at the pond for many years but that organization has, sadly, disbanded so there will be no more tournaments. But the water and the fish are still there.
I remember driving by the pond, several years back, on some pointless errand and seeing a kid fishing alone from the west bank. I pulled off and parked next to his bike.
“How’s the fishing?”
“Great,” he said. He was grinning and entirely unselfconscious about his missing front teeth.
“Oh yeah. Can I see?”
He held up his stringer which held a half-dozen brook trout. I had a camera in the truck and I took his picture. It was a digi and I asked him for his e-mail address so I could send him the image.
We weren’t far from the spot where a friend—a seventh generation Vermonter—caught the first fish of his life. That was long before the days of digicams and e-mail. But there is a good story about that fish, even if no image survives.
“It was opening day of trout season,” my friend recalled for me, “and that was always the first of May, back then. I was wearing my winter jacket even though it was too warm for it. But that’s what I was told to do. On my way out, my mother stopped me and said, “Legal limit is six inches. Do you have anything to measure with?”
I didn’t. So she got a yardstick and measured the distance between buttons on that coat and it was exactly six inches. I was fishing a little pool down by the golf course and when it was almost time to quit, when I finally caught my very first fish. I was six years old and I was really excited. I wanted to take that fish home but I wasn’t sure it was legal. So I held it against my coat and the fork in its tail touched the center of one button and its nose touched the center of the button below it. My hands were shaking so much, I had a hard time doing the measuring. But I made sure and he was legal. I’ll never forget it.”
The tournament for kids at the Dorset pond may be no more but the Manchester Rod and Gun Club still holds one at the Dufresne Dam on the East Branch of the Battenkill. The pond is stocked with hatchery fish and they can be fooled by a worm, artfully presented by a six year-old angler. And while fishing tournaments and derbies are good things, and it is fine to start kids on trout, there are plenty of places where they can fish, non-competitively, for those species that had been enchanting kids for years and years.
Bluegills, pumpkinseeds, perch, bullheads, pickerel, bass … these can all be caught in public waters like Gale Meadow Pond in Londonderry or Hapgood Pond in Peru.
There is, in short, no scarcity of places where kids can acquire those first, durable memories of angling that will, no doubt, come flooding back many years from now, when they are wading some celebrated stream, casting to fussy trout and recalling those days in Vermont when they caught their first fish. ◊
Geoffrey Norman is a Dorset author and the editor of Vermont Tiger.com