Fly Fishing: Adventure and Ecology
A flick of the arm, a long graceful cast. You can hear a faint swoosh of the line through the air, if you are listening closely. A faint plop as the fly hits the water and floats along for a bit. The next second, another swoosh as the skilled fisherman pulls the fly out of the water before it sinks.
A moment later, a less graceful throw back of the arm with some wrist action thrown in, making a louder swoosh. The fly plops into the water, in a lingering, unnatural way that alerts the perceptive brook trout that something is amiss.
As the unsuccessful cast is taken back, the experienced fisherman – my friend, Ford – studies me for a second, considers what might have gone wrong, and then, a deluge of tips.
“Yo, Jan, remember keep your wrist steady, and keep the cast back for a bit longer. Watch the fly when it hits the water, to make sure it doesn’t sink.”
I try again, but my fly gets caught in one of the many trees overhanging the New Haven River. Ford helps me get it out of the branches.
“You’ll get it, it just takes practice.”
“Yeah,” I mutter, more worried about my own poor hand eye coordination than anything else. I stare down apprehensively at the rod in my hand, not confident in my ability to learn to cast.
“This end is the anode,” my biology professor, Steve Trombulak, explains, as he holds up a long pole with a ring on the end, and “this end” – a long strand of metal exposed wire – “is the cathode.” A battery and a current regulator are attached to both of these, with a current regulator mounted on a backpack. “When you’re standing in the water, place both ends in the water, and turn on the battery. This will create an electrical current in the water.”
Electrical currents attract fish. The “fish shocker” – that’s the technical term – is used to stun fish that get close to the current. We, my lab group, are using it to collect large amounts of fish for a survey of various ecosystems. This is my first introduction to freshwater fish ecology in Vermont. I am in class – well, I’m in class in the sense that we, a group of students, spend time with Steve, our professor, who teaches us things, but it’s not class in the sit-in-a-fluorescently-lighted-room-and-take-notes style. Instead, we spend some serious quality time out of doors, surveying vertebrates and hearing stories about the natural history of each of the species we see. We were out on the Lewis Creek in North Ferrisburg as a part of our lesson on the fish of Vermont.
We wade into the clear waters of the stream with nets, bucket and fish shocker in tow. I place the anode wand into the water and turn on the current. With it comes a horrendously loud, incessant beeping. Soon enough, we see a flick of silver rise to the surface.
The state of Vermont is home to an extensive and diverse, if not unrenowned, fishery. A wide range of cold and warm, stream and lake fish inhabit Vermont waters. From native small mouthed bass and brown and rainbow trout introduced to warmer lowland rivers, to big lake trout and salmon in the deep waters of Lake Champlain, and the famous native brookies in upland streams, Vermont fisheries are now plentiful and diverse.
However, these fisheries have a varied ecological history. Vermont fisheries were greatly damaged by the clearing of Vermont’s forests, and by the early 1800’s several sport fishes were in danger of local extinction. Since the early 1900’s, there have been extensive stocking and restoration efforts. However, introduced species still dominate the species distribution of Vermont fisheries, and the Fisheries Department still has to stock brook trout and Atlantic salmon in many areas.
Very few sports have such an extensive ecological management system associated with them. From environmental restoration projects organized by Anglers Clubs, to the extensive sea lamprey control program in the Lake Champlain basin coordinated by several federal and state departments, the sport of fly-fishing is deeply tied to ecology and environmental management. It is also a way for many to connect and enjoy the natural world. The search for perfect fishing in Vermont, however, occurs in nowhere near a truly natural environment.
Over the past three years in pursuit of a conservation biology degree, I have spent a fair amount of time studying all of the other things that live on this planet, how we affect them, and our cultural relationship to the environment. Through all this talk, all this theory, my own participation in “our cultural relationship to the environment” has been one step removed, distanced from the real practice. For example, I had picked up a fishing rod maybe once before starting this project. I don’t know a thing about being “outdoorsy.” So here I am, wondering what it means to experience nature in a constructed ecology, and honestly, what is so great about fly fishing, anyways?
After an hour of shocking the Lewis Creek, our bucket is full of fish. Catfish, minnows, a lone small-mouthed bass, and something long and, as the field guide would describe it, “sinuous.” We wade back out of the creek, heavy bucket and backpack shocker in tow. Back on land we sort the fish into smaller viewing containers based on ecological groups. The first day of fish shocking was focused on lowland species. This section of the Lewis Creek is fairly degraded habitat, which means little riparian tree protection and lots of agricultural runoff. The water here has more sediment and pesticides than upstream, but there are some fish species that are resilient.
“Hey, Steve, I think this is a lamprey!”
“Oh, yeah, would you look at that? Guys, this is a juvenile sea lamprey, Petromyzon marinus. The Fish and Wildlife guys will be very interested to hear about this.”
Sea lamprey are parasitic on sport fishes, and leave damaging wounds that can increase mortality among lake trout, Atlantic salmon, and all species of riverine trout. The sea lamprey is considered a pest species. There is genetic evidence that the sea lamprey is not introduced but native to Vermont as of 13,000 years ago, during the time of the salty Champlain Sea. There is more evidence, however, that sea lamprey are now highly damaging to sport fish populations. The sea lamprey is therefore subject to an extensive control program.
A tug at the end of the line. The rod is snapped back, in order to hook the fish. Ford looks back at me and grins – he’s got something. In the next second, the fish comes reeling in, a small brook trout. Most brookies are about six inches, and they are a catch-and-release species. But as the fish is scooped up with the net, I can see how beautiful it is, how gratifying it is to catch it. A quick picture is snapped, and the trout is released. As it swims back into its pool, I anticipate the day when I, too, might catch a fish.
We are standing in a pool created by a fallen tree, and the water trickles over a small rocky waterfall as it enters into the pool. The October sun is trickling through the orange-red leaves of an overhanging tree. This section of the New Haven near Bristol is cold, clear and has a gravelly bottom, making it perfect, classic brook trout habitat. There are places for them to spawn, for them to hide from predators. The water is cool enough for the heat-sensitive species – they can’t survive in temperatures over 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Fishermen often hike up and down this section of the New Haven, where you can walk for miles. A day can be spent in the mountains, catching fish after fish after fish.
On this day Ford and I drove up to this section of the New Haven on an impromptu fishing workshop. The first thing I learned about fishing is that many skills beyond casting are necessary. Before you can start fishing, you have to know knots, how to assemble a line, which flies to use when, and, most basically, how to assemble your fly rod. It took us an hour this afternoon to get set up – I have never tied so many clinch knots in my life. Clinch knots, not easy to tie on the first try, are used to attach the fly to the leader line and segments of leader line together.
The leader line is assembled of increasingly thinner pieces of line, so that it tapers out at the end, making it invisible to the fish underneath the water. Like all of the equipment for fly-fishing, it is designed to help the fisherman trick the fish. The fly fishing rod is made of a lightweight synthetic material, so the fly can be deftly maneuvered with minimal effort. The reel is designed to enable the fisherman to use the weight of the line to send the lure to the right location. The leader line ends with the fly. Different flies are constructed to look like different insects, dry flies flit or float on the surface, while nymph flies sink, to mimic different insect species. Several flies can be tied to the same leader, for varying purposes. Every part of the fishing rod can be customized and specialized depending on the target species, and many parts, especially flies, can be hand crafted. When you take out a fly rod to fish, you are taking with you a piece of craftsmanship and cultural history.
Once we had all of our equipment assembled, we began to fish the river. Dry fly fishing for brook trout involves a bit of trickery. Trout only feed on the surface about 1 time out of 10, so fish have to be coaxed to rise to the surface to eat flies that skirt the surface of the water. To know where to cast you have to observe the water and the environment around it, in order to recognize the factors that would attract trout. Calm water, deep pools and protection from overhanging vegetation are all things that may mean trout.
Ford was the first one to try to fish that afternoon. He was demonstrating casting to me, and explaining the basics. The trick is getting a little piece of feather sown to a hook with silk thread to land on the surface of the water lightly, like an insect and then pull up quickly before it sinks. In waters that have been fished before, the fish may be able to recognize that a fly is not really an insect, increasing the challenge. Before Ford caught the first trout, several trout rose to the surface, but managed not to get hooked by outsmarting us.
The north fork of the New Haven River is a popular spot in the Middlebury fishing community, but it is just one of many great fishing rivers that flow through or near Middlebury. These rivers attract and foster a vibrant, diverse fishing community, from obsessed fly-bros who are out fishing all the time, to old guys who have been wading in rivers for decades. A leader in this community is Jesse Haller, a guide and manager at the Middlebury Mountaineer. Whenever I asked someone about fishing in Middlebury, they told me first that I should talk to Jesse. I first met Jesse when Ford and I were on our way up to the New Haven River for the first time. We had stopped in at the Mountaineer to buy licenses and he was working there. I was not sure if I qualified for a resident license or not – It turns out I do, but as Jesse told me, “Having a fishing or a hunting license makes you more of a Vermonter than anything else.” It was these words that accompanied me as we drove up to the river.
I finally met up with Jesse again a few weeks later. The fall is a busy time for fly-fishing and while I had been out on the rivers, he had been out guiding groups as well as fishing for himself. During our conversation, he was effusive and a quick talker, almost rambling but full of details. It was obvious that he is completely, totally and absolutely obsessed with fly-fishing.
“It’s my addiction.”
Originally from Wisconsin, Jesse went to college in southwestern Colorado.
“Where’s home for you?” he asked me.
“Oh, H-town! My college roommate was from Houston – the Woodlands, actually.”
After graduating, Jesse stayed in Colorado, working as a fishing guide, and apparently met a ton of Texans. The rivers in Colorado are a fly-fishing mecca – you can fly in to Denver International Airport and be out in the mountains in less than two hours, so people come from all over the world and the United States to fish those waters. It is not hard to keep busy as a fly fishing guide there. Jesse was guiding every day for months at a time without a break, and he got close to burning out, because fishing “was becoming too much like work.”
Jesse was ready for a change. He met Steve, the owner of the Middlebury Mountaineer, and a little while later decided to move out to Vermont. “For the first year or so here, I’ll admit, I had the Colorado blues.” As time has passed, however, he has come to love this community and this area, and appreciates it more every day. Since he arrived, the community has grown immensely, or perhaps, people who were already fishing have come together in a new way.
The New Haven River Anglers Association, a group in the Middlebury community dedicated to improving the quality of the watershed and sharing fishing culture with younger generations and the outside public, was Jesse’s first exposure to the Middlebury fishing community. He attended his first meeting within a month of moving to Middlebury, and he has since become president of the organization. In the past five years, attendance at meetings and club events has grown.
“My first year, we had 12 entrants in the Season Opener fishing tournament. Last year, we had 60. And we also added the Fly Fishing Film festival and we were able to sell out the Town Hall Theater with over 200 seats!”
These events and their growth in such a small community as Middlebury are exciting. The club has also opened up opportunities for young fishers. When Jesse arrived, the club was dominated by a group of older guys, dedicated to traditional fishing practices. Now, however, a new group of younger guys has moved into leadership positions, a women’s group called Women in Waders has expanded, and the older crew’s ten-year-old children have started learning to fish. College kids have also started to get more involved in the fishing community. From the re-founding of MiddFly, the college’s fly-fishing club, and the many river clean-up projects that the alpine ski team is involved in, Midd kids have become increasingly involved in fishing in Middlebury. The team doesn’t have much of a choice, however, considering many on the coaching staff are avid fly fishers and involved with the NHRAA.
Jesse attributes much of the growth of the club to social media. The ability to share information “removes some of the frustration around fishing.” Fishing is a mysterious sport, but being able to quickly learn how other people have had success makes the sport more accessible. “Instead of standing in a river casting for hours and having no success,” you can know in advance what to do and there are new ways to ask for help, which gives more people more success. Social media also allows the NHRAA to share information about club events, and the Middlebury Mountaineer to share information and grow their business.
I, however, would not hesitate to attribute the growth of the Middlebury fishing community to Jesse’s energy. A person could only be excited about fishing after talking with Jesse about it, and it is obvious in his body language that he is not kidding when he says he is addicted. His energy is youthful as well – when someone told me later Jesse was in his mid-30s, I was shocked. The most striking fact about everything I talked about with Jesse, however, is that he is also beyond passionate about sharing the sport, developing the community and improving the Middlebury environment, not just for fishing but also for a healthy river system in general.
Jesse considers himself a “green” fisherman. He doesn’t believe in restorations that are just “band aids,” but supports efforts to restore the whole river habitat. Jesse considers stocking to be another “band aid” for larger problems, and he would prefer the state and federal agencies to do more restoration. The NHRAA is involved in many different streambed restoration programs, but there is only so much a community organization can do.
Undeniably curious, I set out to investigate the ecology surrounding this sport even further.
The week after we were at the lowland section of Lewis Creek, Steve took our lab group to an upland section of Lewis Creek to see how the species composition changes with elevation. The upland site was surrounded more fully by riparian buffer, had colder and deeper water, and was cleaner because there was less agricultural land upstream of our location. At the upland site we caught several large brookies, along with a whole variety of minnows. Since brook trout need such pristine conditions, the presence of brook trout in a river means a healthy river.
Like brook trout, Atlantic salmon in Vermont need specific and pristine conditions to breed, spawn and live. For example, Atlantic salmon need to migrate from Lake Champlain to upland streams, or from the Atlantic Ocean up the Connecticut River to upland streams, in order to reproduce. During the mid-nineteenth century, as dams were built on Vermont rivers, the forest was changed into pasture land, and pollution from agricultural runoff dirtied the water, both the Atlantic salmon and the brook trout populations were extremely depressed, and the Atlantic salmon were completely extirpated. Starting in the mid-twentieth century, there has been an effort to restore these Salmonoid species to Vermont rivers.
However, at the end of the nineteenth century, brown trout and rainbow trout were stocked in Vermont waters. Both of these species, but especially the brown trout, thrived even in degraded Vermont waters that brook trout could not survive in, and they have since established wild populations in many rivers and lakes. Brown trout and rainbow trout can grow larger and breed in less ideal conditions than brook trout. This means that brook trout are often out-competed by the brown trout. In areas where brown trout are introduced, brook trout population decreases soon afterwards, and in areas where brown trout are already established, brook trout cannot repopulate.
The VT Department of Fish and Wildlife and the US Fish and Wildlife Service manage the restoration and management of Vermont fisheries, as well as the sea lamprey control program, jointly. I was able to meet Nicholas Staats, a fisheries biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in late October to get a perspective on how fish in Vermont are currently managed. It took me weeks to schedule a meeting, and I was very excited to meet him. We set up a meeting in the library café. He was wearing khakis and a long sleeve shirt with a blue and orange “Fish and Wildlife Service” patch on the shoulder. I recognized him instantly, even though I had never met him. It was a Thursday afternoon and we had finally managed to find a time and a place to talk.
“Hi, yes, it’s so nice to meet you!”
I was so flustered – I was five minutes late to our meeting and I definitely was not prepared. After running around for weeks going fishing, meeting fishermen, and doing electro-fishing with my biology lab, I had a long list of questions for him and I didn’t want to mess anything up.
“I’m so sorry I’m late! I hope you haven’t been waiting very long!”
Nick laughed, loudly and fully, and said it was totally fine. He folded up the paper he had been reading, I sat down and we started talking.
Once he got started talking about his work, I couldn’t stop him. A 26-year veteran fisheries biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Nick has a great wealth of experience, and he is charged with a wide variety of activities. His work has been primarily focused on Salmonoid fish restoration in Lake Champlain and in Vermont’s rivers. An expert in his field, he leaned back in his chair, comfortably answering my questions.
Nick’s work often takes him out in the rivers and streams of Vermont, and on Lake Champlain. Being outside is “my favorite part of the job.” Its one of the reasons he was so hard to track down. Most days Nick is out of the office, working in locations strewn across the state. One day he is up on the Winooski River monitoring the fish lift, another night he is out trawling on Lake Champlain. As the seasons change, so do the main projects.
“My main job is to manage the Winooski river fish lift, to manage and monitor stocked Atlantic salmon populations.” Atlantic salmon in Lake Champlain is the Vermont species that has had some of the most trouble repopulating. The Service will stock over 100,000 fry per year and it is a good year when more than 150 of those fish return to spawn. The returning salmon are monitored as they come up the fish ladder, but the fry are monitored in the summer during fish shocking surveys. These surveys provide a baseline for the survival of salmon fry, and the fry are tagged so they can be monitored when they return. Nick’s favorite time of year is the fish shocking, because they “get all sorts of things, not just the salmon – the brookies and the brown trout. It’s just a whole lot of fun.” It takes a special kind of person to enjoy standing in a cold stream for hours, for days on end, with a heavy, loud electroshocker on their back, trying to get any fish you can. You have to be deeply passionate about fish, and the environment in general, like Nick.
Atlantic salmon is not the only fish species that is stocked. Brook trout and certain lake dwelling species continue to be stocked in areas that do not support wild populations. Even though the presence of introduced trout species may have hampered the reintroduction of native trout species, brown trout and rainbow trout are important to anglers, and therefore those species remain a part of the fishery in Vermont. In some areas they are stocked, just like brookies and salmon. Forty percent of the fish in Vermont streams have been stocked, either because there is no habitat for breeding left in the water body, or because the wild population is too small to support a fishery. Many stocked individuals do not survive over winter, but the native fish do because they are adapted to the local conditions.
Nick is also involved in the sea lamprey control program, which takes up most of his time in the fall. The sea lamprey control programs started in the early 1990s as coordination between the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, designed to remove the sea lamprey from the Lake Champlain basin. They are killed with lampricide, a specialized chemical that targets only the sea lamprey due to their unique biology.
The lamprey control operations take time, manpower, and coordination across state and federal organizations. In the weeks before, local residents and other water users must be informed of the poison and provided with fresh water. When the treatment of the lampricide begins, biologists and chemists are out on the streams all day, monitoring water chemistry and changing the concentration accordingly. Nick will go out on different rivers for several days in a row, keeping the concentrations of the lamprey control chemical at the appropriate level. Afterwards, the fisheries biologists stay out in the field to measure the effects of the treatment by collecting the dead lampreys and seeing if anything else has been killed.
The lamprey control program has been considered largely successful. This success means that wounding rates on sport fishes have decreased as the populations of sea lamprey have decreased. Some areas, however, like the Lewis Creek, are still prime lamprey habitat. Nick suspects the program will have to continue, but the costs of the lampricide and the man-hours could become prohibitive. There are some other ways to control lamprey, but the chemical is the most effective.
The effort to improve sport fish populations in Vermont includes more than just stocking and the lamprey control program. The state is involved in habitat protection and a small degree of habitat restoration. Primarily, the Department evaluates permits for new roads, bridges and culverts for their potential effect on fisheries. To protect the fish population, state agencies along with anglers clubs have been involved in reforestation projects around rivers, as well as erosion prevention measures and water pollution control in many areas. Properly designed culverts and bridges are now required to ensure fish passage. On several dams on rivers that empty into Lake Champlain, New York and Vermont state agencies have constructed and monitor fish lifts and ladders, to allow for the passage of Atlantic salmon. However, from the perspective of the biologists, it is more effective to prevent habitat loss than to try to restore habitat.
As I was speaking with Nick, I couldn’t help but wonder how he had become a fisheries biologist.
“I went to school with fisheries in mind. I just… like to fish. I grew up right here in Middlebury. My father would bring me out on Lake Hortonia, just down the road from here, every Saturday. I used to fish down on the Otter Creek below the dam all the time. I just… love to fish.”
He didn’t pause for self-reflection before answering, for him reasons were obvious. Recreational fishing is still an important part of Nick’s life, despite handling fish all the time.
“It’s funny, cause sometimes you handle a lot of fish and you don’t feel like handling anymore fish. In the fall, we’ll launch at Converse Bay, with 2 shocking boats, and we’ll head across the lake to do our sea lamprey wounding assessment and we’ll handle 300 lake trout a night, big 20-in fish, and you know, I sometimes wonder why would anyone want to fish for trout?”
He paused to laugh, perhaps at how ridiculous it is that he still likes to fish.
“But I still love to go out salmon fishing on the lake. Sometimes, on cool days, I’ll get a 22, 24-in salmon on the line and it’s just amazing, it’s just phenomenal.”
He started to sound not that different from Jesse.
The first frost of November always seems colder than any other day of the year. The leaves are all just gone and the light begins to go flat. On a gray Friday afternoon, Ford and I went fishing below Belden Falls on the Otter Creek. The fishing season had closed on the upland streams, but I still wanted to try to catch a fish. It was not a perfect day, but I felt like it was my time to finally catch a fish. I had seen plenty of fish through fish shocking, read all about the fish in a field guide, interviewed a variety of fishermen and biologists, and all of that was just building to the day, this day, which would end with me catching a fish. I could feel it.
Beneath the dam here the waterfall empties into a deep pool. A side stream around the damn cascades over boulders, through boulder-dammed pools, and back into the Otter Creek, The water here is warm, perfect for large brown and rainbow trout. They hang out in the pools beneath the falls, feeding on bottom-dwelling insects. It is too warm for brook trout, or perhaps they are no longer ecologically competitive here.
We had been casting with dry flies at first, because that is what I knew how to do, but we were not having any luck. Ford then showed me how to fish with a nymph, heavier wet flies that mimic underwater species. Fishing with nymphs does not look like the traditional image of fly-fishing, as the fisherman bobs the line with several flies through the water, instead of the graceful motion in order to land a dry fly on the surface. On the first cast, Ford got something on the line, and turned around and grinned that familiar grin. Taking his time, he pulled in the fish. It was a large brown trout, maybe 3 or 4 times the size of any of the brook trout I had seen. We could tell before it had even fully breached the surface that it didn’t have the characteristic black markings like a brook trout, but it was still a beautiful fish. I got everything on video, and Ford let the brownie go.
On the second cast, the nymphs got tangled on some underwater branch. After struggling for quite some time, Ford broke the line and the nymph flies stayed at the bottom. We could have replaced them, but it was growing darker and colder. My hands were frozen – knot tying would have been practically impossible. With dinner and hot chocolate in mind, we decided to leave, planning to come back another day.