Monday, June 1, 2009

Flyfishing the Deerfield: a float trip

For my money, there's nothing in flyfishing that beats a float trip, one that incorporates, in equal measure, good fishing, good scenery, and good company. Over the years I've done many float trips--in Wyoming (the Bighorn; the New Fork), Idaho (the Snake, the Henry's Fork), Montana (the Yellowstone, the Blackfoot), Arizona (the Colorado), and even Argentina (the Malleo, the Chimehuin). But until last week, I'd never done one in New England, where I live. Now I can report that the Deerfield River in the Berkshires, about two hours drive from Boston, offers a float trip that is, in its way, as beautiful and satisfying as any of them.
...Granted, it doesn't have the panache of Patagonia. Many of the trout are stocked. The Berkshires aren't the Rockies. And the Deerfield hasn't inspired volumes of angling literature like the Blackfoot or Henry's Fork. But the river is beautiful; many of the fish have held over and are wild; and despite its proximity to Boston, the Deerfield flows through secluded, even remote country, where the wildlife one can see includes bears, osprey, wood duck, mergansers, and even, occasionally, moose. On a perfect spring day, midweek in late May, in eight hours on the river, we passed two other fisherman, both wading. We saw no other boats, no houses, and passed through no towns. Compared to the renowned Bighorn, which can feel like a float trip during rush hour in Los Angeles, the Deerfield feels like a float through wilderness unspoiled.

....The float trip was an anniversary gift from my wife, Sally, who arranged it through Harrison Anglers, which is run by brothers Dan and Tom Harrison from Warwick, Mass. The Deerfield isn't the only place the Harrisons guide, but they considered it the best floating river in New England, with a dependable flow of water throughout the summer that's regulated by a series of dams. Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife stocks both rainbows and browns in the Deerfield, and the entire section we were floating is designated catch-and-release. As a result, many of the fish hold over and become wild. Plus there are wild brook trout in the upper stretches of the river, and smallmouth bass in the lower stretches. Some of the trout grow to be trophy sized by any standards, as the photograph below attests. This is Tom Harrison with a twenty-eight inch, ten-pound brown trout that he caught, and released, last winter.

....We fished with his older brother, Dan, with whom we rendezvoused at 9 a.m. in Greenfield, Mass. There wasn't much sense in starting earlier. The river had been unseasonably cold all spring, and the fishing tended to get better as the day went on and the water lost its breathtaking chill. Any insect hatches would happen later in the day. Dan and Tom had both grown up in nearby North Adams, and after guiding in the American West, and Chile, decided to move back home and introduce float trips to the Deerfield. They clearly were filling a need. With virtually no competition, and without advertising, they had already booked over 200 trips through August. (August, because of the insect activity, is Dan's favorite month to float the Deerfield.) So far, not one customer has canceled because of the poor economy, and Dan thinks the business has actually benefited from the recession. Fishermen are going to fish, in bad times and good. When the money is tight, though, they will fish a little closer to home.

...We put in below the Fife Brook Dam, at a public access area where Dan, unaided, easily slid his raft down the embankment and into the shallows, where we set up.

.... It was still early, and cool, so he rigged us up with streamers, wooly-bugger type flies, and rowed a short way out, and anchored at the head of a pool. I cast from a seat in the bow, Sally cast from a seat in the stern, and within ten minutes Sally, stripping upstream, hooked and landed a healthy 14-inch rainbow that jumped twice.

.... The water was clear, but the stones on the bottom gave it the color of tea. It was obviously a healthy environment for the fish, because every one we caught was thick around the shoulders and mid-section, almost like little footballs. Eventually we moved downstream to another pool and switched to nymph rigs, which involved using a bright red bobber and a bead-head pheasant tail nymph pattern. We didn't have much luck until a trout tried to eat my bobber, twice, which gave Dan the idea to switch my nymph for an egg pattern, which was orange and round, like a smaller version of the bobber. First cast, bang! Another rainbow, maybe 15 inches. He then tied an egg pattern on Sally's line, and she caught this beauty, a 17-inch rainbow whose deep, rich color and thick body made it clear it had held over from a previous year.

.... The air was warming fast under the bright sun, and as we drifted down alongside an abandoned railway track around noon, we began to notice small splashes on the surface. Then we saw the little sailboats--mayflies, drifting in the current. We'd happened upon a Hendrickson hatch, a springtime phenomenon that is an ice cream sundae for a New England fly fisherman. This is what the little devils look like:

...The Hendrickson dry fly, I happened to know, was originally tied by using the urine-stained tummy hair of a red fox. Modern dyes and, I suppose, a ban on fox hunting have made this ingredient expendable and obsolete. (If you ever pass a dead fox on the highway, though, pull over and bring your scissors. There are still purists who insist on pee-stained fox hair for their Hendricksons, and will pay handsomely for a swatch). Here's what a Hendrickson dry fly looks like:

....For the next two hours we never stopped casting to slurping rainbow. There were probably only five feeding fish in that stretch, all with size, and they kept moving up and down the foam line, sticking their noses up, inhaling mayflies. We hooked four, but landed none. The largest, which I had on for several minutes, must have been about 20-inches, though he never got very close to the boat. I had actually switched to a slightly larger fly, a March Brown. The big rainbow took it the first time I got the drift right: Here's the March Brown:

...The fish jumped once, showing us his size. In the heavy current, fishing 5X tippet, I tried to work him gently upstream as he shook his head doggedly. After a stalemate in what looked like a deep portion of the river, the rainbow managed to find a sunken branch to wrap himself around, insuring his escape. But we got that distant glimpse, and he was beautiful to see and feel. His buddies that were feeding alongside him were all highly selective, spooky, and focused on eating one thing: drifting mayflies. The slightest drag on your line would put them down, and they'd start feeding again elsewhere, usually downstream. We'd drift down to their new feeding location, and pretty soon, after a poor presentation, they'd move back upstream again. Always feeding, noses just breaking the surface. It was what you hope for, what brings you back. You didn't have to bring one of those wild trout to hand to make it the highlight of the trip.
....They eventually stopped, of course, and in the late afternoon, further down, I actually landed about an 18-inch rainbow in a tricky current on a nymph. Here's a picture of its tail and body, slapping against me as I tried to get it to pose for a nice portrait. It seems to me I am cradling the fish in the net much the way I cradled my firstborn son, Nate, when the nurse handed me his slimy, bluish, 8-lb. body in the maternity ward and asked me if I wanted to cut the umbilical cord. I'm sure I wore a similar expression then.

I'm not sure I've ever seen a bigger frown on anyone, in any situation. It's cartoon-ish. I didn't know my mouth could turn that far down. I didn't know anyone's mouth could--maybe Mike Tyson's. I must have felt surpassing angst for the trout's well-being, because I know I was happy to see him and to cradle him against my chest. It's a mystery. Sometimes my mouth doesn't reflect what I'm really feeling.
....Which, at the time, was pure, mindless happiness and a feeling of peace. That is what good fishing does for me. Writers often wax eloquently about the deep feelings and cerebral thoughts they have on the river, but that's never been my experience. I can't remember ever having a constructive thought on any river about anything that wasn't related to fishing. No flashes of inspiration. No brilliant investment ideas. No sudden insights. Only: where's the fish? What's he eating? How do I catch him?
... And occasionally a glance around at the beauty that surrounds me. Because great fishing, or even halfway decent fishing, is invariably found in beautiful places.
The Deerfield River in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts is such a place. Try to put it on your life list of rivers to fish.


  1. I'm no fisherman, and I agree with Jay Leno that fishing is a nap with a stick, but this kind of fishing sounds fun.

  2. Going fishing is my family is always a nice experience. For me, the company and the beautiful landscapes are necessary to have a good time. I also like walking around. In fact, I heard that generic viagra could be used when going hiking.

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  4. I love fishing, It's so relaxing, just you and the nature sounds, but once I went with my girlfriends and try everything, we try fishing like natives, years ago with a spear, rod many bugs etc etc, but was funny and we end all wet because she made us fall.
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