Taking a trout on a fly from a stream is rightfully considered by many to be one of the purest and most delightful forms of angling. But good trout streams are rare, and for years fishermen have been seeking the brook trout and his cousins in still water—ponds and lakes.
I have fished for trout throughout the eastern half of the U.S. For the past 12 years my experience has been largely confined to New Hampshire, a state that is an excellent example of how still waters are providing the trout fishing that was once found in rivers and streams.
New Hampshire more than a decade ago launched a remote-ponds program in which bodies of water off the beaten track—usually no closer than a mile and a half to a vehicular road—were cleansed of coarse fish, if such fish existed, and stocked with trout, usually brook trout.
Fly-fishing on a stream has its pleasant mysteries. A stream is alive. A stream is full of surprises, of sound and movement. A stream beckons the angler to go around the bend, to try the next stretch of fast water. A stream presents unusual challenges to the expert fly-rod man. Problems of proper drift, of pinpoint presentation, of slow water and fast water, of overhanging branches or log or brush jams must be met. And a thoughtful fisherman can spend an hour puzzling how to approach properly an inaccessible pool.
September 12, 1965
When I moved to New Hampshire I worked every decent stream I could find, traveling hundreds of miles to do so, but gradually I was driven to try the remote ponds. And when I began to fish them, I discovered that the few veteran anglers who were occasionally on the same waters with me were taking three fish to my one. At that time I acquired a fishing companion—a rare and priceless fellow who can cast for three fruitless hours without a hit and still enjoy himself—and together we learned to take trout on the fly from still waters. Much of what we have learned would apply to trout waters from Maine to California.
If you are a devoted stream man, gird yourself against ennui. Granted you have the basic skills, the ability to keep casting long after your wrist has begun to ache and long after you're convinced all the fish have died could be the key to your success. Take care that monotony does not dull your inventiveness. You may discover that you've been throwing the same fly the same way in the same place for an hour. Realize, too, that a pond or lake has deeps and shallows, shaded areas and a shoreline. If there are rises, cast to them. Chances are, unless your fly is a horrible mismatch or unless your presentation is dreadful, you'll get at least a playful leap. An exception to this is in the fall, when the size of the hatching aquatic insects is often exceedingly small. A tiny No. 22 fly on a 12-or 14-foot leader taped to a gossamer 4X tippet is usually required at such a time.
Look carefully for the rises. Sometimes you'll find them under shoreside bushes where trout lurk to pick up objects dropping into the water—terrestrial insects, berries or even the needles from hemlocks.
It would be presumptuous and foolhardy to suggest that certain flies are de rigueur for still-water trout. There are times when trout will hit anything, but each winter I spend some time at my vise tying half a dozen each of certain patterns that have taken fish with consistency year after year in New Hampshire. These include streamers, buck-tails and nymphs. A must for remote northern ponds is some form of a back-swimmer nymph. These nymphs are the erratic-swimming fellows you've seen cutting a jagged course through the water with an occasional short flight into the air. Incidentally, if you capture one, don't be surprised if you get sharply bitten. They have a bite all out of proportion to their size. Excellent patterns for this nymph include one by Bill Blades and another by Ernest Schwiebert.
My aforementioned fishing companion, Vic Pomiecko, and I have developed two flies which account for many trout, both rainbows and brookies. We call them the Careless Coachmen. They are tied on a No. 12 long-shanked hook. Both call for fluorescent floss bodies—one is orange and the other red—and both have a butt of peacock herl and a tail of golden pheasant tippets. The orange-bodied fly is topped with a heavy bunch of dark-brown bucktail, the other with gray squirrel tail. Brook trout favor the red one, rainbows the orange. Both these flies, if whipped back and forth a few times and presented gently, will float for several seconds and although they resemble no insect of my acquaintance, I have had many trout, especially during big Mayfly hatches, hit them on the surface.
A wet, or sinking, line is an absolute imperative for still-water fly-fishing if you wish to take trout with consistency. Most of the time trout are feeding under the surface, often near the bottom and near the bottom in some spots can be from 10 to 30 feet down. I prefer to angle for trout with a dry fly—it's more fun and a lot easier than wet-fly or nymph fishing—but I now use a wet line 90% of the time when fishing a pond. There are fast and slow sinking lines and, in my opinion, the faster a line sinks the better. There are times when it will get you into trouble, particularly when you're working in fairly shallow water, but over the long haul it will save many precious hours of waiting for your fly to get down where the fish are. Lines vary a great deal—even within the manufacturer's lot—in their capacity to sink. If you find a good one, treat it tenderly. With care it will go three years. Because throwing and hauling a wet line is rough work, I use a fairly heavy 8½-foot rod. It just doesn't seem right to use a fine, light stick for such fishing and, of course, more distance can be gotten with the larger, stronger rod.
A good fishing companion is a valuable asset to anyone fishing ponds for trout. If two men work together, the time required to find the right combinations of fly and depth and retrieve will be reduced. If the trout are reluctant to hit, each man should try different patterns and sizes and each should announce to the other what he is using, so there is no duplication of effort. Also, the speed of the retrieve should be varied, as well as the depth to which the fly is allowed to sink.
Fly-fishing at night on trout ponds is a much-neglected sport. Legion are those who will brave the chill mists of predawn as they assemble their rods for a day on a trout pond. Admittedly, the early morning often produces excellent fishing, but so do the hours after dark. One of the loveliest rainbow and brook trout lakes in New Hampshire is Long Pond in Croydon. It is accessible by car and has a boat-launching area. Often I have gone there in the summer an hour or so before the sunset, just in time to watch the fellows who had been there all day fish the evening rise, then depart as the sun slipped down out of sight. I have had the entire lake to myself when full darkness came. And in that darkness I have enjoyed topnotch dry-fly fishing. This, I hasten to add, applied only to the rainbows. Brook trout, to the best of my knowledge, do not feed during the night. Browns, of course, feed during the night as well as the day.
Legal night fishing for trout in the U.S. is the rule rather than the exception. Eighteen states have no restrictions; twelve more permit 24-hour fishing with some exceptions; seven allow fishing in the early evening with exceptions. The 13 remaining states have only a few scattered trout or none at all. New Hampshire permits trout fishing two hours after sunset.
Night fly casting is not an occupation for the novice. The mechanics of it must have been mastered and the ability to strike at the proper time is almost instinctive. I keep a lantern in the canoe while working for rainbows at night to assist me in handling hooked fish and in changing flies, and the light does not appear to trouble the fish. This does not apply in all rainbow waters—a veteran fly-fisherman from New Zealand wrote me that if a light is shown on any of the rainbow rivers he fishes at night the trout won't hit.
Daylight hours in hot weather provide the supreme test of a fly-fisherman's skill. Trout feed less and with more selectivity as the water grows warmer, and a fisherman must be alert and aggressive if he is to take fish consistently under such conditions.
A fishing trip Vic and I took in 1964 provided a good example of some of the difficulties encountered in warm weather.
Although it was only late May, the temperature was in the 70s at 9 a.m. when our jeep reached the shore of March Pond in Hill, N.H. We had been grinding slowly over a logging road for half an hour. Black flies and mosquitoes swarmed about our heads as we stood looking out over the water. One trout rose 10 feet from shore, then another came up 20 yards away.
Nine-acre March Pond contains both rainbows and brook trout, and it varies from three to 20 feet in depth.
The sky remained cloudless most of the day, but there was one blessing—a breeze blew from moderate to strong, keeping us fairly comfortable and ruffling the water. The conditions were challenging, but by midafternoon we had caught 30 fish, mostly rainbows, and released 15 of the smaller ones. During that time six other anglers—an unusually high number for a remote water—had tried their luck and departed without taking a trout.
The day at March Pond began awkwardly for me. Even though a few trout were still rising to the end of an early-morning hatch, both of us chose to use wet lines. I tied on a small wet Professor and made one cast, retrieving after the line went down a few feet or so. A good fish hit before I had moved the fly a yard. I reacted too sharply and the fly and the 14-foot leader, with its 4X tippet, parted company.
When we reached the center of the pond we saw an elderly couple, man and wife, anchored in a cove, worm-fishing. They were pulling in small horned pout, but had taken no trout.
Vic killed three 11-inch rainbows in a row on a wet March Brown. I tied on another Professor, but could not borrow a hit. Vic boated another rainbow.
As I cast my Professor out, Vic made an observation. "I think you're going down too deep. Your line sinks much faster than mine. Just let it go under about three feet."
I humbly took his advice and was rewarded by a sharp strike. Seconds later, a foot-long rainbow erupted into water skyward. He jumped twice more before I slid him, exhausted, over the water to the net.
There was a hiatus of an hour from about 10:30 to 11:30, when we worked hard with nymphs but to no avail. At the end of that hour Vic hooked and released four small brook trout on the red-bodied Careless Coachman, and I took and kept a slightly larger one on a back-swimmer nymph.
At noon the elderly couple departed empty-handed. During the remainder of the day four more fishermen, all of whom were throwing flies, came and went. They took no fish. I should note that this was more traffic than we usually encounter on a remote pond.
We went ashore at noon for tea, and grilled four of our largest rainbows. In the early part of the afternoon we were unable to find a fish. Shortly before 3, rises became more numerous—insects of various sizes, including dragonflies, were hatching—and I switched to a dry line. I had just accomplished this when Vic boated two nice rainbows in five minutes, down deep on a back swimmer. That was too much for me and I went back to a sinking line. For about an hour we had strikes on almost every other cast, always down deep. We kept a few of the larger fish; then, not wanting to overdo a good thing, went ashore, cleaned our fish and left for home.
The golden time for northern New England fly-fishermen comes in the fall. New Hampshire has a fly-fishing-only season for trout that extends from the day after Labor Day until mid-October. (Efforts are currently being made to have this season extended, as it once was in certain areas, to include the entire month.) The hills burn with the colors of autumn during those few precious weeks, the air is clear and cool, rafts of fallen multicolored leaves build up around the edges of the ponds and lakes, and for a little while the trout, perhaps anticipating the silent cold of approaching winter, feed with pleasing recklessness.
Although trout are often not very choosy in the fall, there are times when they seem to feed exclusively on tiny insects, and it is important at such a time to have some very small flies on hand. Size of the fly is most critical, pattern less important. A small gray midge on a No. 22 hook, attached to a 12-or 14-foot leader, will usually be all you need.
Not many years will pass before most of these remote ponds are lost to civilization. Already the land around some of them has been purchased by individuals interested in developing campsites and house lots. Logging roads and foot trails are being bulldozed so that ordinary cars can reach the ponds, and once the roads are completed it is only a few years before a remote pond loses its beauty.
But for at least the next decade most of the Granite State's remote trout waters will remain unspoiled, a perpetual challenge and delight to the fisherman who seeks his pleasures alone or with a valued companion.