I stood thigh deep in a favorite large pool on the New Haven River working the deep channel at the tail. Wes Butler stood on the far bank working the inlet and a swifter channel where the current undercut a steep bank.
Between us we covered the pool thoroughly with a mix of nymphs and black and white wooly buggers, drifting and bouncing along the bottom as well as stripping through the current. But nothing stirred. No flashes of silver, brown, or rainbow red to suggest anything hungry and tempted by our offer.
It was the last weekend of the 2011 trout season, and the air was crisp with the promise of approaching winter. We were wading the river that day hoping for lunker-sized brown trout: fish in the two-foot or longer range, described in pounds, not inches.
Brown trot are fall spawners, and this is the time of year when the big ones are on the move and aggressive. They have left their deep holes, moved out of big water (like Otter Creek) where they grew to trophy size on abundant forage, and headed up smaller rivers to lay eggs.
You can often spot them and sight-fish for them as they stake out redds. Though normally more nocturnal, at this time of year these monsters will feed mid-day. Even if not feeding, they will strike a fly that looks like another fish in order to keep it away from their eggs.
Those are the fish that make it worth wading in cold water on a 40-degree day. Just four days earlier on another nearby river I had hooked, landed, and released a 27-inch landlocked salmon (salmo salar) — close cousin to the brown trout (salmo trutta) and also a fall-spawning fish. I had spotted the huge fish feeding along the bottom at the tail of a deep pool, and had spent 30 minutes drifting nymphs past it before I enticed it to take a large imitation dragonfly.
The next 30 minutes were spent fighting the fish on my 5-weight fly rod. Since the fish weighed a bit more than the breaking strength of my line, I had to play it carefully. Hoping to keep it in the same pool, and make it work against the current, I jumped down to the tail of the pool so that it would swim upstream away from me.
That worked for about 20 minutes, but then it simply flashed past me and headed downstream. I had five minutes of scrambling 60 yards over rocks and under branches before it came to rest in another pool and I was eventually able to land it, remove the hook, snap a couple photos while the fish rested, and then release it in hopes it would reproduce its superior genes — and maybe even grow a few pounds by next year.
That experience was still fresh in my mind as I headed out with Wes on a similar afternoon just a few days later. And it did, most definitely, feel like late autumn — like the end of the trout season, and the start of deer season.
Though stubborn leaves of brown and dark gold still clung to the trees, there were few hints remaining of red, orange, or bright yellow left on the branches. I had on fleece gloves, and beneath my waders both heavy wool socks and fleece pants. In the sunshine, I was warm enough. But not too warm.
After convincing ourselves that any fish in that pool had been given the chance to strike a well-presented fly, we moved upstream. I had fished the New Haven only once and briefly since the Irene-induced floods of August. Though I knew in my mind how much a river can, and will, change in a catastrophic event like that, it was still startling to witness that change. The stretch of river 150 yards upstream had, for years, been largely barren: uniform, wide, and shallow, nearly devoid of any good holding water for trout.
Today it was a different river than the one I had known and fished for some 20 years. Falling trees, debris, and the scouring and shifting of gravel had created one beautiful-looking pool after another. They had to hold some fish, we kept telling each other.
But on this day nothing was stirring. The day before it had snowed. All up and down the east coast to the south of us, a blizzard had shut down airports, knocked out power, and taken down countless trees as it piled heavy, wet snow on branches still laden with leaves. In Vermont, we had gotten only a couple inches, which by midday had melted off in most places in the Champlain Valley.
Unfortunately, it had melted into the river. Wes wondered aloud what the water temperature actually was and how much impact all that that fresh melting snow might have had. If it had dropped the water below 50 degrees, that might explain the fish being sluggish.
I pulled out my stream thermometer and did a quick check. It read 43.8 degrees. Astounded, I checked again. Same reading. The melting snow had affected the water for more than we had imagined, and my hopes of catching fish that day plummeted.
We fished for another half hour, but caught nothing. Over several hundred yards or water, we saw only one fish: a large trout that we would have been happy to catch, but it was moving sluggishly downstream and disappeared before we could even cast to it.
We headed for the stream bank and started our trek back to the car. Though the final weekend of the season hadn’t produced, I couldn’t complain about the final week. But what I was really thinking about, as I filed away in my memory that series of pools newly created by Irene, was April.