By Matt Dickerson
I was eight years old when I went on my first fishing trip with my father: a five-day, four-night experience on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in northern Maine. It was late May, a couple weeks after ice out (and a week or so before the annual arrival of black flies). We trolled lures (blue, gold and gray Rebels and Rapalas) and streamer flies (Gray Ghosts and Blue Smelt) behind a 17-inch aluminum canoe with a 4HP Johnson motor on an outrigger, in the rivers above and below Umsaskis and Long Lakes. We caught lots of wild brook trout and an occasional lake trout, and enjoyed incredible wildlife (deer, otters and moose) and waterfowl (innumerably diverse ducks, geese, bitterns, blue heron, osprey), and wilderness river scenery of the north Maine woods.
I was 13, just out of middle school, when I first cast a fly rod, high up on the West Branch of the Colorado River in the mountains near Granby, Colo. The man who was teaching my brothers and me to fly-fish was casting two dry flies at once: a white No. 10 Hornburg and a No. 14 Adams. He hooked two trout at the same time on his very first instructional cast. I, by contrast, took a whole lot of casts that first morning with a fly rod without catching anything. But later in the day, when we moved to a different section of river, I managed to catch a good number of nice fish: a dozen or so cutthroat and rainbow trout, and a small lake trout. We also enjoyed spectacular scenery of the Colorado Rockies and the wildness of the Colorado River.
Both these experiences helped to form and shape my love of fishing, and more generally of outdoors, rivers, wilderness, trees, water and mountains. So did the people who shared them with me and helped to teach me to fish: my father, and a patient fishing guide and casting instructor in Colorado.
This Tuesday, I got to watch a flock of local kids also enjoy a “fishing experience” at Sycamore Park in Bristol. Most of them were in that same age range, between eight and 13 years old, when I was first learning to fish. The New Haven River Anglers Association hosted the event, their annual Youth Night. They had several stations where kids could learn and enjoy an introduction to the sport. The young participants received instruction on spin casting, fly casting, fly tying, and even stream entomology.
They had lots of equipment on hand so that everyone could get a hand at casting, both spinning rods and fly rods. Most interesting to me, in addition to the fly tying, they were also collecting insects (in nymph stage) from the river bottom, which the kids got chances to look at up close — even through magnifying glasses. At this time of year, they were finding mostly yellow stoneflies, but they also turned up a dragonfly, a hellgrammite, a mayfly (what species, I was not sure from the nymph), and a couple encased caddis flies. It was a wonderful chance to see not only how abundant and diverse is the life in the river, but also how flies could be tied to match specific species in the water.
Dale Whitlock, a state game warden, was also on hand with the 200HP Vermont Fish and Wildlife boat he uses to patrol Lake Champlain. Most of the kids had a hard time thinking of good questions for Dale, but they had a blast climbing into the boat. Those who listened for even a little while got a glimpse of just how much game wardens do, how invaluable they are to the state, and what tremendous services they supply under the general category of enforcing Vermont’s fish and game laws.
Which reminds me of my other early fishing and wilderness experience as a 13-year-old. After our week in Colorado, my family drove down to New Mexico to visit close family friends. Some of us took an overnight hiking trip to the top of Pecos Baldy, a 12,000-foot peak near Santa Fe, that happened to have a little trout stream near the top, loaded with small alpine brook trout. So of course I, the budding young angler, went along with my fishing rod. After setting up camp several miles’ hike from the nearest road, I set out to explore the stream in hopes of catching a few of those brookies for dinner.
Which I did. I probably caught half a dozen, none bigger than 7 inches. And there I was standing with my stringer of fish when out of nowhere, with no warning, up rides a New Mexico game warden on a horse. He does what a game warden does, which is asks to see my license. I, the respectful and law-abiding angler (even as a 13-year-old) reach into my pocket to get it … only to realize I had left it in the car. Of course he could have written me up for a violation right then, and made me stop fishing. Instead, he asked me where I had purchased the license, and he called down by radio to his headquarters, which called the store, which checked their records and confirmed the sale. The warden smiled, wished me luck, and rode off into the sunset.
I can’t say that 13-year-old’s first experience with an officer of the (fishing) law inspired me to love game wardens the same way I love the things they protect, but it sure gave me a great appreciation and respect for them (which I also still have today).