Dirty Water, Part 1

In full disclosure, I am not Ted Leeson. I have never caught a Coho salmon, and I’m a self-taught fly-fisherman. Without Pete Kutzer’s YouTube videos, I doubt I ever would’ve gotten into the sport. 

None of my closest friends fish, I can’t exactly afford to stay at remote lodges, and only after I moved to Michigan for school did I live within reasonable driving distance to a fly shop. I’m absolutely obsessed with our fair sport, but due to the constraints of a modest college budget, I tend to fish in some pretty funky places. I’m not ashamed to admit that one of these is my home river, a stretch of water in Southern New England that has a fairly turbulent history.

My preferred access point is nestled some 20 miles inland, just behind a highway rest-stop. Once you enter the woods, and after an unreasonable amount of bushwhacking and animal encounters, you’d think you’re in a far more remote region of the state (if such a thing exists in Connecticut). Angling here is pretty damn tough, and that’s probably why few people do it. There are no rising fish, the water is opaque in only the best conditions, and there’s basically no room to backcast unless you’re wading in the middle of the river. The quarters are tight and things can get messy, but to optimists like myself, all of these are indicators of low fishing pressure. And to me, that basically the same as a promise of angry and aggressive takes.

If you were to track some 20 ‘river-miles’ upstream from where I grew up, you’d find cold, clear riffles and numerous holding pools. These upper reaches meander in between some impressive and sprawling homesteads (… a lot of “bamboo and caddis” sort of folks live up there). Where I grew up, where the river runs approximately parallel to major state highway, the water becomes sluggish and tinted to a powdery green. As unappealing as this might seem to some, a significant portion the river is out of earshot from the highway, and it holds a surprising number of native fish; here, there is no entry fee and weekend warriors usually stay their distance. There are no pellet-fed rainbows, no combat fishing, and no fuss.

Near the river’s origin, conservation measures run by the state, by a local chapter of TU, and a growing watershed association have admittedly made a significant impact on making the water “fishable” once more; together, these groups have replaced a handful of broken culverts, installed a fish ladder (for sea lamprey), and have done great job in spearheading clean-up initiatives. Some larger browns are stocked farther north, but these almost always outcompete the few straggling brookies that are rumored to still exist (obviously, this is problematic in its own right). Downstream of where I fish, recent and similar efforts — organized by Ducks Unlimited, some boy-scouts, and local student groups — have also had some success. But for the most part, this sort of activity is incredibly expensive, and often falls to the wayside with public funds being directed towards addressing our “crumbling infrastructure” (here, this meant clear-cutting trees along the highway, which most recently led to a massive influx of sediment into the water).

Marshy and brackish water can hold absolute gems.

This river, which for its own protection and growing integrity shall remain unnamed, hasn’t been featured in glossy magazines nor has it been filmed in 4K — and frankly, I’m not surprised. From its eroding banks seep possibly unsafe levels of contaminants, and not a week goes by where I don’t see a peculiar piece of debris drifting downstream (e.g., a blown tire, an empty jerry can). This stretch of the river is far from pristine, and it’s not even really a known ‘destination’ for local anglers of any stripe; in fact, after a decade on the river, I’ve only encountered one other fly fisherman (who, unsurprisingly, was a member of the local chapter of TU).

This river once ran thick with native salmonids (and apparently the occasional gray seal), but after 300-plus years of over-harvesting and pollution, these have gone locally extinct. However, various species of baitfish and the native sea lamprey have returned in force, signaling migratory runs of striped bass and bluefish.

Larger specimens, given the prolonged near-drought conditions across Southern New England, were unable to push upstream: on the one hand, little rain means less (contaminated) runoff, but this also means that water levels are low during the warmer spring and summer months. On top of this, there are countless out-dated and unnecessary dams across the region’s old mill towns. On a high note, after numerous dam-busting initiatives in the past few years, stripers can now be caught some 75 miles inland on the Connecticut River, and the southernmost strain of Atlantic Salmon now has a significant increase in breeding water.

Dams, however, are just one of the problems faced by my local run because this river is like a minefield. A sizable number of stripers manage to squeak past the poachers and snaggers at the river’s mouth; a subsample of those fish push northward through brackish marshes, where they dodge ospreys and eagles until they reach the abandoned train yard; there, if they evade the ever-growing population of pike that inhabit logjams and undercut banks, they eventually arrive at what locals call “the ghost town” – a village that was once home to a several dozen families until a disastrous winter flood in the early 1970s. Next to submerged foundations of abandoned homes, rows of massive oak trees claw their roots directly into the water. This continues for almost six miles, where the tree cover is so dense that you can barely see the sky.

On this river, there’s no significant hatches and there’s no fishing reports for any water upstream from the estuary; late spring and early summer fishing is somewhat inconsistent, and it will result in a mixed-bag of stripers, snapper blues, large and smallmouth bass, perch, Esox, and even the occasional brown trout that got washed downstream (in full disclosure, I seriously doubt the allegations that these are sea-run fish, although you can find these in two other spots in the county). While it’s technically “freshwater” in its constitution, traditional freshwater methods don’t do that well. Even that schlappen bugger you tied just for the occasion will produce nothing more than a subtle nudge from a rockbass.

In order to have any “success” on this river, you must first identify whatever forage happens to be around. Then, you match this “hatch,” and tie big articulated streamers or massive gurglers. Once this is done, you wade atop the crumbling and half-submerged ruins of 19th century houses, and proceed to fish past the snapping turtles and chain pickerels that come out of the woodwork (literally). You’ll immediately recognize that this some fairly tactical fishing; yes, you’re not targeting permit, or golden dorado, or trophy cutties, but striper fishing in the woods is nonetheless pretty difficult.

Despite the fact that the same fish can be caught on picturesque tidal flats in Cape Cod, you’re situated in thigh deep, post-industrial runoff, and for this you need to fish ugly. In fishing ugly, I can say that I’ve caught and released numerous native species, and helped to clean up a largely mistreated river. In finding the beauty in a place that some might deem unremarkable, I’ve landed ‘keeper’ stripers on 4wt rods in the middle of the woods; I’ve caught 9” yellow perch — giants, by local standards — on 6” perch imitation streamers meant for Esox. All of this in solitude, all of this without spending more than what’s needed for gas and a fishing license.

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This short stretch of water, in all of its glorious grit, is one of the most under-appreciated places in the state; it’s where I honed my fly fishing skills, and it’s where I was taught to appreciate just being outside more than anything else. In having to cope with dirty water, tight quarters, and wild fish, I learned how to execute difficult casts, how to wade quietly, and perhaps most importantly how to be patient.

(My descriptions of the river have not been particularly thinly-veiled. It’s very possible that some of you know exactly which river this is, and it’s even possible that you’ve already fished it. Just please help keep it clean, and don’t tell to many other people!)

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