A Fall Day on the Deerfield
Matthew Dickerson, 2008
A few years ago I hiked into Stratton Pond, which sits in a secluded bowl on the western side of Stratton Mtn. It was a nice hike, and I caught a few brook trout, so I went back again the next year with some other friends. (Stratton is one of a small cluster of alpine ponds, along with Bourne, Branch, and the Lye Brook Meadows, all up around 2500’+/- in this road-less stretch of the Green Mountain National Forest. But I’ve never hiked to the other three ponds, and anyway that’s another story.)
The trailhead to Stratton Pond is off one of those pot-holed gap roads common in Vermont, that winds its way over the Green Mountains, and is closed in the winter. On the west, it is known as Kelly Stand Road. On the east, it is the Stratton-Arlington Road. For a while on the west side, it follows the Roaring Branch. In its higher portions, it also crosses several other streams. One of those is right at the trailhead for the Stratton Mtn trail—the more circuitous route into Stratton Pond that goes up over the mountain. (I usually take the trail over the mountain on the way into the pond, when my legs are fresh, and the shorter route on my way out. But that is only vaguely part of this story.)
Since the brook at the trailhead was a clear, cold, beautiful stream—the sort that ought to hold some small brightly colored wild brookies—and since I had my fly rod anyway for use at Stratton Pond, on my second trip I stopped for fifteen minutes or so and fished in the brook, without even knowing its name. (Unlike certain other details, I don’t even remember whether I caught any trout, and oddly enough, this is part of the story.)
Turns out, the brook, or stream, was actually a river. In fact, it was the highest half-mile of the headwaters of the East Branch of the Deerfield River that I hiked alongside of and fished and may (or may not) have caught trout out of. Flowing down off the southwest side of Stratton, the East Branch quickly loses 500’ in elevation and feeds a picturesque mountain reservoir known as Somerset, which is nestled between two ridgelines of the Green Mountains, with Stratton to the north, Haystack and Mt. Snow to the southeast, and Glastonbury to the southwest. From thence the East Branch continues south to its confluence with the main stem of the Deerfield and into the much smaller Searsburg Reservoir. It flows out of Searsburg and into the long and narrow Harriman Reservoir, which is also fed by the North Branch of the Deerfield (which, oddly, is further east and south of the East Branch).
One final reservoir, the Sherman (which straddles the Vermont Massachusetts border, and is really two separate reservoirs that share a name), stops up and cools down the water, and then the Deerfield plunges down through the Zoar Gap—a well known kayaking destination—before turning east, wandering out of the Berkshires, and flowing into the Connecticut River.
This past Sunday, I spent the better part of a day—and I mean the “better” part in two senses of that word—with fishing guide Tom Harrison (of Harrison Anglers, www.harrisonanglers.com) fly fishing the Deerfield River in the Zoar Gap. We met at 7:00am, and from about 7:30 until 10:00am waded a stretch near one of the river’s better (and better known) pools, mostly casting to one pod of very large trout feeding on midges in the foam along the eddy line. We then went up to the Fife Brook Dam and put his raft in, and spent the next four hours drifting the Deerfield through the gap into some of the more difficult to reach stretches of water.
It was one of those incredible days of fishing that was both productive (in number of fish) and very scenic. The wooded slopes on both sides of the river lining the gap were scattered with maples just coming into color, and an osprey was staying just a half-bend ahead of us. I caught about fifteen fish, a mix of rainbows and wild and stocked browns, three of which were in the 15” to 17” range and the rest between 10” and 15”. We saw only two other anglers the entire day, plus a half dozen kayakers.
Tom knows the river well. He guides it regularly—along with his brother and partner in Harrison Anglers, one of a very small number of guides to do so—and has been guiding it for a few years. On several occasions he told me to cast in some stretch of river I wouldn’t have thought to cast in, and when I did so I landed a fish. He also led me to a few pools that had large rising fish. (I saw far more trout than I caught, in part because they were feeding on very small flies difficult to imitate, and were very picky that day. Still, I was happy with the size and number of those I did catch.)
In fact, it felt like I got four rivers for the price of one. Like many autumn days in New England, it began overcast and rainy, and at noon the sun broke through and we had two hours of bright skies and warm. We were also on the water when they opened up the dam at noon and increased the water flow from about 200 cfs to about 800 cfs—a factor of four increase that really made the river seem like an entirely different place. It was then that I especially needed the guide, as I never would have been able to read the higher water, yet a couple of our biggest fish were caught after the flows increased.
It was only after I returned home, however, and began studying the maps of this wonderful trout stream—which I had seemingly only recently discovered while doing research for a new book—that I realized I had unknowingly fished it long before and many miles upstream. On that fall day, the stream with all its varied parts, like a story, changing from mile to mile and even minute to minute, began to fit together in a fluid whole. And I was fortunately enough to get a glimpse of a couple parts of the tale.