As anybody who has lived through mud season in Addison County knows, it is easy to slide into a rut. This is true of fishing. As the ideal trout conditions of May and June give way to the slower dog days of July, it can be tempting either to continue with the same fishing patterns (pursuing the same species in the same places that were productive the previous two months), or just to hang up the rods altogether until September. Not that trout fishing in rivers can’t be good in mid Summer. I’ve enjoyed plenty of evenings on my favorite local streams fishing productive hatches right at sunset for rising trout. But Vermont has so many incredible fishing opportunities in its variety of species and waters that there is no reason to get stuck in a trout rut.
My friend Wes Butler reminded me of this at the start of the week by taking me on a four hour late-afternoon-through-evening-drift down a stretch of Otter Creek, fly-casting in pursuit of pike, smallmouth bass, and fallfish. Joining us was fellow angler and guide Jesse Haller.
Now I have fished Otter Creek many times, for both trout and smallmouth. But I have never drifted the river, and I’ve never caught a pike in it. But Wes and Jesse had both had decent success in Otter Creek for pike as well as fallfish and smallmouth. Their expectations were high. And when showers started passing through the area on our drive south from Middlebury, those expectations went up.
After the requisite shuttling of cars to get a vehicle waiting at the take-out point, we braved the treacherous streamside mud of Otter Creek—as greedy to suck us under as any unpaved road in mud season—and with only minor casualties got Wes’s drift boat loaded into the water with our gear. The water level was exceptionally low for this time of year. It had dropped several inches just in the previous twenty-four hours. The lower water, and a pair of fallen tree that spanned the entire river, caused one good delay, but the drift boat worked very well and got us into a lot of water. We fished both a quantity of water and some great locations far exceeding what we could have covered from shore in that amount of time.
Fishing started out slow, perhaps because the lower water had the fish a little skittish. Before long, however, we started getting into some fish. We fished mostly with large pike flies attached to our fly line by heavy wire leader, though in a couple locations where the water was swifter and the shore rockier we switched to popper techniques and focused on smallmouth.
The first hour saw mostly smaller pike, a couple fallfish, and a few good pockets of smallmouth. Wes and Jesse both landed fish of all three species, and saw a few other good-sized fish that didn’t make it to the boat. But no lunker pike were landed. Meanwhile I missed several strikes and briefly hooked a couple fish, but landed none. Then one of two hard rain showers passed through the area. We scrambled for our raincoats, and kept casting.
During and just after the rain, the fishing seemed to turn on. Halfway through the float, at about 7:00pm, Jesse hooked into the first of two big pike he would land in a twenty-minute stretch. The fish was hunting right against the shore in a deep cut below some tree roots. Picking it as a likely spot, he landed his fly right on top of the fish. The water exploded. The battle lasted several minutes as the pike took a couple good runs right under the boat bending Jesse’s heavy-duty rod. On the first two attempts to land it, the pike did an impressive tail-dancing thrash and showered Wes in a spray of Otter Creek water. Eventually Jesse boated the fish, used pliers to free his fly from an impressive row of razor-sharp pike teeth, posed for a quick photo, and released the fish.
Despite several good missed opportunities, I would not land my first fish of the trip until dusk. After the second hard shower, I drifted my big pike fly through a deep channel under a log and hooked and landed a very healthy fall fish pushing two pounds that gave up a good flight pulling down hard and deep against my rod and the current.
We didn’t pull out of the river until after 9:00pm. I lost track of how many fish total we took into the boat over four hours of fishing, but it was a good evening’s take. Big pike are just a blast to land on any rod, and especially fun on a fly rod. Smallmouth bass, though not large fish, and tremendous fighters for their size. And fallfish are another good though oft-overlooked game species that can exceed two pounds and can fight about as well for their size as any fish.
The Otter Creek boasts a good population of all three, and has many sections that are easily navigated and fished by canoe, kayak or drift boat. It is yet another fishing treasure our state has to offer, and as good a place as any to escape the fishing rut. Escaping the three-foot deep mud on the bank proved another issue.