"Summer's short in these parts," runs an old New England saying. "Last year it come on a Thursday."
Well, it's not quite that bad, but in the dead, dark days of the new year, when snow piles high on the windowsill and cabin fever creeps like rust along the nerve ends, winter can indeed seem 364 days long—especially to the man who lives for upland birds and fly-fishing. In Vermont, such unfortunates—and I'm one of them—must endure 3½ months of suspended animation between the close of the grouse season on Dec. 31 and the opening of most trout streams on the second Saturday in April. The only sure cure for cabin fever is a strong spring tonic. In the past that meant a scouring dose of sulfur and molasses or a bitter potion of dandelion and lamb's-quarters. But now there's something better. Last spring for the first time in the seven years I've endured the high-latitude wintertime blahs, I tried Vermont Spring Tonic. It consists of a good, stiff double dollop of cold-water trout and wild turkey—the bird, not the booze.
Vermont has always had the trout, but only recently did the state's Fish and Wildlife Department add another ingredient, a major and magnificent upland game bird that can safely be hunted during the spring without harming its nesting success. In 1973, after a careful five-year program of restocking wild turkeys in the southwestern quadrant of the state, the first spring gobbler season opened. And for the first time in more than a century, winter-staled Vermonters of the shotgun-and-fly-rod persuasion could creep out from under their rocks of wintry ennui, like emerging nymphs in a trout stream, to resume life with slam-bang, double-haul vigor.
Last spring I kept a day-by-day log of my own rejuvenation.
May 18, 1986
Saturday, April 13—Opening Day.
On the river shortly before 11 a.m. A cold, brown day, with the water rushing down the chutes as bright and strong as poured beer. Stale snow in the dark, wet hollows. Puffy clouds high on a cutting wind. Air temp. about 42°. Can't find my stream thermometer—just remembered I used it in January to test temp. of my tap water at home (a finger-numbing 40°)—but the river today feels no more than 50°. Too cold for any flies to hatch, not even caddis or the hardy Quill Gordon, our first mayfly hatch of the year. Toes numb in my waders despite three pairs of wool socks, fingers stiff on the rod grip. Can hardly feel the line as I work it out. Red-winged blackbirds bounce on the naked streamside branches, their metallic song and scarlet epaulets the only bright promise of spring. I work various nymphs, streamers, muddlers, even the all-purpose Adams dry fly—"The Adams hatch is always on," quips one of my trout-nut pals—but to no avail. This is a day for worm fishermen, not for me. Yet it's good to be in the stream again, to regain my balance on the rocks against the current and to let my muscles relearn the rhythms of casting. Best of all, the cold, clean air, still smelling of melted river ice, begins to dispel the miasmas of winter. Wading ashore and back to the truck after four hours on the water, I notice that the fiddlehead ferns haven't yet peeked through the leaf mold. Home to hot tea and cinnamon toast.
Monday, April 15.
Still no hatch activity on the river, perhaps too early although the sun has been warming the water to 50° plus, maybe 52°. Fiddleheads starting to show, just those distinctive dark green shiny knobs arching to the top, their crisp brown sheaths brighter than the dead leaves. This evening I walk Kent Hollow Road hooting like an owl. Odd behavior? I am trying to get a response from a turkey gobbler. The male turkey feels challenged, as he goes to roost at night, by almost any loud noise—a slamming car door, a barking dog, a gunshot, but especially the gobble of another turkey or the hoot of a great horned owl. Toward full dusk I hear an answer: the distant wobblewobblewobble, rising and then falling, wire-cored in its vibrato. But I can't pinpoint it. Perhaps the bird's over on Spruce Peak, or maybe Burnt Ridge, but not so far east as the Bear's Den. Or was it behind me? Or just my imagination? It's still three weeks to the opening of turkey season.
Wednesday, April 17.
The Gordons aren't just coming—they're here. I see the first duns appear in the riffles at 1:05 p.m. above the run I call Goldirocks (for the yellow boulders at its head), tiny ships with smoke-colored sails drifting bravely out of the white water. I quickly tie on a Quill Gordon emerger—really just the dry but with rearward-slanted wings—and take two trout, bang-bang, just like that. One a nine-inch rainbow that jumped six times, the other a lank, slashing brown of 14 inches, his red spots and pale gold flanks brighter than money as I flip out the hook. Both hang briefly in the current after being released, then dart back to the deep run under the bank. I switch to a Quill Gordon dry soon after and prospect upstream from Goldirocks, watching the gray wings and the sun catching the brown stripes on the fly's body and seeing the trout come to it, some just sipping, but most still hungry from winter. I catch and release five more. An osprey beats upstream about 3 p.m., the spring sun blinding on his white coverts, those sleek and awful wings. If I could see what he sees.... Off the water at four. Pick a dozen fiddleheads on the way back to the truck. They'll make salad for Louise and me tonight. Could have killed a couple trout to go with them but my heart isn't in it. Too early yet, I tell myself, let them get fat first. But it's more than that: too joyous a day for death to anything but lettuce and fiddleheads (and maybe not even them).
Wednesday, May 1.
A dry spring so far. The backroads were hub deep in mud two weeks ago. Now the pickups announce themselves half a mile away with great ballooning plumes of dust, and you have to crank up your windows fast or spit mud for five minutes. If it stays dry it should be a good nesting season for the birds. Cock grouse are drumming like reluctant chain saws from every ridge. Last night, out hooting and yelping for turkeys, I heard two male woodcock. Saw one of them outlined against the lemon light, stubby wings and out-sized head, with the bill tucked down on his breast as he danced in the sky for his ladylove. Farther on, my hoot drew a response: There is definitely a gobbler up on Burnt Ridge, as I suspected, and another up on Shatterack across the road from my house but about 1,000 feet higher. The turkey opener is only seven days from now.
Because of the dry spring, river levels are down all over, water temperatures already up to mid-May range. As a result, the Hendrickson hatch came on nearly two weeks early. I noticed the first of them on April 26. The Hendricksons make up our best and biggest hatch of this early season, provoking feeding frenzies every afternoon almost precisely at 2 p.m. and not just among the trout. Newly returned barn swallows, phoebes and kingbirds join in, first waiting patiently along the bank and then, when the duns begin to pop off the water, creating a mind-boggling aerial ballet. The swallows soar and dart like midget MiG-15s painted iridescent blue, while the phoebes and kingbirds hover on backed wings and then stoop like kestrels to pick individual flies from the air, or nip them right off the water. Goldfinches hop in the bankside brush, grabbing the mayflies as they land in the branches to perform their final moult from dun to sexually mature spinner. What with the trout below and the birds above, it's amazing any mayflies survive, yet when the spinners appear in the late afternoon to mate in midair, then drop their eggs and die, they thicken the air to a vernal blizzard. Their dying bodies on the water form glossy rafts through which the trout slash like tiny sharks.
Thursday, May 2.
Great day on new water. Instead of fishing my usual beat from Goldirocks on up, I check out a stretch of the river a mile upstream. Hike in through corn stubble a quarter of a mile, flushing mourning doves all the way, and then jump two American black ducks off the river where I hit it. Right after that a pair of mallards get up out of the reeds, furious at having their honeymoon interrupted. Love is indeed in the air these days: not just the ducks but a skyful of Hendrickson spinners. Yesterday was chilly and blustery, so they had to wait till this morning to mate and die. Up above the place where I jumped the ducks I find a beautiful pool at a bend in the river, all smooth-worn underwater ledges and braided currents. The water, bluegreen as any Caribbean lagoon under today's bright sun, is pocked with steady trout rises. On my second cast of a Rusty spinner I hook a chunky 11-inch brown at the tail of the pool, then a rainbow the same size at the top. The feeding continues despite the disturbance caused by the fights. On my fourth cast, toward a fish rising steadily across three separate strands of current in a quiet back eddy, I see another fish begin taking much closer to me—a good fish by the look of him—and, fuddled by so much abundance, check my cast and drop the fly just two feet above him. Bam! He comes up like a miniature Poseidon missile, tail-walks to the head of the pool, then comes grey-hounding right back. When I finally wear him down, he measures an even 12 inches against the markings on my rod handle. Not as big as I'd thought, but trout steel to the core. Back he goes. His rage against the hook has put all the other fish down. I sit in the grass along the bank and let my blood cool. Up in the hardwoods across the river two grouse are drumming. At first I thought it was my heart.
Before I left the river today, working upstream and back for five hours, I'd caught and released 16 trout. But that was the least of it. Measured against other fishing I've done—on Pennsylvania's Spruce Creek during the Green Drake hatch, on Wisconsin's Wolf or Bois Brule when I was a kid, or even the Togiak in Alaska more recently when the sea-run Arctic char were in—this is pretty pallid stuff. But it's intimate. And it's right in my own backyard. I'm put in mind of some words by Gordon MacQuarrie, the former outdoor editor of The Milwaukee Journal and the first outdoor writer I ever read. "No, not wilderness fishing," he wrote of a small stream he loved in southern Wisconsin. "Not in the slightest. Pastoral is the word for it. No big fish to brag about. No heavy water to breast in waders. Just fishin' in nice country."
Wednesday, May 8—The Turkey Opener.
Up at three in the cold and the dark. A front moved in from the northwest last night, and it's snowing—crunchy corn snow as gritty as gravel. "Two months back in the middle of March," as Frost put it. The thermometer on the barn reads 38°. I drink a cup of hot black tea, eat a hunk of my wife's strong-crusted rye bread and a slab of Cabot cheddar, then suit up. It's more like deer season than spring turkey: long Johns, green wool turtleneck, long-sleeved camo shirt and pants, two pairs of socks under my bird-hunting boots, and over all that a down-filled camo jacket designed for duck hunting. I apply black and green camo greasepaint to my face. The cat takes one look and, horrified, scuttles for the cellar. Hope the turkeys won't feel the same. Soon Arthur's truck grumbles into the driveway.
Arthur Joy, 52, of Bath, N.H., is the best turkey hunter I know. He has been hunting in my town and across the line in New York since 1979. Counting fall and spring seasons in both states, as well as his own, he has killed 28 turkeys so far—all of them deep in the woods, after miles of hiking up and down. Not bad for a guy who suffered a severe heart attack in 1978. "It's some nippy out this mahnin'," he says through his well-ventilated grin as I climb into the truck cab. Arthur never wears his teeth when he is hunting. Too flashy, he says. "Tuhkeys is wicked sensitive to anything that gleams." We head down the road a mile and stop briefly where Arthur's partner, Mickey Meier, is preparing to head up Shatterack Mountain. Mickey, 51, is a retired New Hampshire state police lieutenant and sometime private investigator who now serves as special deputy sheriff for Grafton County, N.H. (Arthur is also a cop—Bath's police chief—in addition to farming 600 acres with 75 cows on them.) Mickey is sliding shells into his shotgun and smiling through his camo net. "Are you ready for 'em?" I ask. "Yeah," he says, "I got my snowshoes." The snow is still coming down.
Arthur and I drive around the mountain and park below the notch on Fan. Then up through the cold and dark. It's all briers and whippy branches, unseen barbed wire, frost-loosened rocks that wobble underfoot. Up, up, up. Art moves loose-hipped as a break dancer, his ankles working like shock absorbers to produce a lumpy gait that can far outstrip me on any gradient. He's 5'7" and built like a fireplug. I'm half a foot taller, but I can't keep up with him. We stop on the mountainside and look back down. Lights gleam from Bill Lourie's big cow barn, and we can see the headlights of other turkey hunters oozing up the mountain roads. The camo-taped Remington Model 1100 automatic shotgun slung over my shoulder feels like a small cannon. Art's got not only his own gun but also a camera with a 200-mm. zoom lens. I'm puffing, he is grinning.
We go up and across from Long Ridge, heading toward Egg Mountain. Art stops now and then to call, either with his Quaker Boy Easy Yelper box or with the mouth call he holds against the palate with his tongue. From him come the most amazing sounds I've heard this side of the African veldt: clucks, cackles, wheezes, purrs, whines, gobbles. Or else a great-horned-owl hoot that puts mine into the kindergarten category. The guy's a walking aviary. We sidehill it into a rolling intervale grown with hop hornbeam, young oak and grass. It's coming on light now, under a racing, smoke-colored sky. Art gets an owl talking back, and after five minutes it flies right toward where we're lying against a couple of trees. Then it spies us and slopes off, dead silent on its great soft wings. For a while we have a turkey answering us from across the way—a "jake" or young gobbler, Art reckons—but before we can get it over to our side, we hear a shot. The hollow boom shuts the turkey up. Whether his sudden silence means death or wisdom we don't know. Soon it's almost 11 a.m., quitting time for spring turkey hunting. All spring seasons are set to begin after the peak of the mating season, so most hens are already on their nests. They begin feeding in late morning, so it's best to have hunters out of the woods by then to avoid disturbing them.
"Well, Mistah Man, we'll do some bettah tomorrah," Art says as we drive back to my place. "This was just a wahm-up." But not for Mickey. When we pull into my yard, we find him flaked out in the sun in front of my woodpile, snoozing, his cap brim pulled down over his eyes to shade them from the spring sun. Beside him, their feathers coppery in the light, lie two bearded gobblers. One will weigh in at 18.6 pounds, the other at 13 even.
"Got 'em both up on Shatterack," Mick says later over coffee. "Raised the big gobbler first at 10 after seven. Kept him talking while I worked across to a flat shelf about opposite where you guys were on Egg. He was there, right where you were headed, but I got him to come down and across the road, gobbling like crazy all the way. I got back off the lip of the shelf so that he wouldn't see me till he was over it. He come on like gangbusters, boiling up over the lip and gobbling like 60. When I saw that big white knob of his [their heads turn white when they're sexually aroused] I was right on it with the bead and, blam, he was down with hardly a flutter. Then, by god, this jake came over right behind him." He pats the smaller bird. "Saw me, squawked and got airborne. I hit him in the head with a load of Number Four shot." He sits back, all smiles, his eyes gleaming. He has limited out in 20 seconds.
Arthur is pleased that his partner has done so well so fast—Mickey admits that he learned all he knows about turkey hunting from Arthur Joy—but I can tell from the wicked little glint in his eye that he won't be satisfied this season till he himself limits out, and in 10 seconds, and with birds that doubled the weight of Mickey's.
As for me, I am bone weary but hopeful. There are 23 days of turkey hunting left, after all, and if anyone can teach me the right way to do it, it is Art. But right now there are other ingredients of Vermont Spring Tonic to collect. I look at my watch. It is nearly noon.
"All right," I say. "If we hustle we can catch the Hendrickson hatch. Let's grab the fly rods and get movin'."