I Hated You Until I Loved You

Posted on July 18, 2016

0



Picture by Richard MacInnis

Small Mouth King

The town where my family lives is one of those old mill towns whose downtown is full of crumbling brick mill buildings dating back to the early 1800s before their ultimate demise in the early 1900s which almost none of these towns has ever recovered from. Almost 100 years later I find these Brobdingnagian hulks both sad and terrifying.  Some of them loom seven stories above where you stand in the river constrained by granite walls to form the race way, their peaked roofs going two stories above that, like some castle. Only now are a few towns beginning to reuse the buildings, converting them into housing, artists malls, or offices.

As always when I go home, I try to stop by the Greviors’ Furniture store, now on it’s third generation. When I first started fishing, the father and son owners were free with advice, which I have tried to repay with rod repair and building.

There is a dam behind the Greviors’ that creates a raceway on the Winnipesaukee river. The raceway goes from the dam up to the rapids below the old railroad trestle, taming that wild fall into a granite lined channel about 70′ x 400′. I know there are fish there, I’ve caught a few. But standing up to your waist on top of 100 years of trash, with your back to the wall and the deep, black-tea dark waters in front of you, makes for challenging casting (and wading), to say the least. I have a 13′ Spey rod at my parents to tackle the width of the main river, but never remember to bring a reel for it, and so haven’t cast it in a decade or so. This year I brought a reel, more to see if Spey casting would help my friend Mr. Grevior out as I know he is having trouble getting around on his beat on the Miramichi these days.

So, first chance I got, I went down to his store, which takes up several of the old buildings along the raceway. He wasn’t in, but his son was. After picking up an armful of broken rods to mend for them, we went out to the water. I hopped out to a rock about 10′ off the boat ramp to try out the Spey rod, and there in right in front of me was a hover with at least six brookies, from 10″ up. As I watched them a school of fish began streaming by, taking a good 20 seconds. These were silver, very slender, with a deeply forked tail all about 15″ long, and I’m pretty sure they had an adipose fin, but I may be wrong. There were several hundred of them, almost touching my toes, and they circled the pool approximately every three minutes. Embedded with them was at least one good 18″ brown trout.

It took me a while to unlimber my cast, but within a few minutes I could just about reach across the river and gave the rod over to Jason to try. We were standing there for a while when the game warden came up. I was pretty excited by the school of fish, which were clearly anadromous, and asked him about them. Again, 117 miles from the ocean, and numerous (I want to say “innumerable” dams. After 25 years of trying to establish a salmon run here, the state just last year finally gave it up.) He remarked how it was nothing he stocked and that he had no idea what they were. (This is the second fish, I’ve discovered in this mile of water the state doesn’t know is here. The other was a redhorse.) He said they weren’t Atlantic Shad (alewives).  We talked for a while longer. I admitted that I didn’t have my license on me, but that I also didn’t have a fly on me, and he allowed that he didn’t care because he’d never checked a fly fisherman who didn’t have a license. Then everybody had to go.

goldenredhorselargenorrisnegus_jpg

Redhorse

I have spent a lot of time trying to identify this fish. To me it looks just like a Rainbow Smelt, only problem is that according to Wikipiedia  “The rainbow smelt face several barriers. They are weak swimmers and cannot overcome most fish ladders. This prevents them from making it past the dams to the headwater streams where they spawn.” and the clincher is  that although the description matches these fish to a T, the fish we saw were twice this size “The body of the rainbowsmelt is slender and cylindrical. It has a silvery, pale green back and is iridescent purple, blue, and pink on the sides, with a light underside. When full grown, the rainbow smelt is between 7 and 9 inches (18 and 23 cm) long and weighs about 3 ounces (85 g). Individuals over 12 inches (30 cm) long are known.

rainbowsmelt

Rainbow Smelt

I was pretty darn sure that the fish we were watching had that adipose fin, the fin between the dorsal and the tail, which is why (I think) the game warden ruled shad out so quickly.  Here is an image of other NH shads. they were way too fat to be alewives (and besides we used to, literally, catch those by the pick-up truck load for lobster bait, so I know what they look like), and the Atlantic Sea Herring is not anadromous.

Atlantic Herring

 

Well, seeing a bunch of brookies, a huge brown, and a huge school of mysterious sea-run fish just about ruined my vacation. I pretty much never left that pond for the rest of the trip. After dinner I dragged my sister down to the pond. With so many fish, I just had to catch one of the beauties I’d spotted. Honestly, I’m kind of a junkie for brookies, and that was my main target, but I thought with such a huge school of fish it would be almost impossible not to hook one of them for a picture and positive ID. And then, of course, there was at least one huge brown trout….How could I go wrong?

Fucking bass is how I went wrong. I was catching small mouth on every cast. I was catching them when I was roll casting the line to straighten it out to reel it in. In fact, I had to cast my line twelve times, to get one clean cast so I could reel up and go home. The day before my nephew and I had driven to the western part of the state to fish the Contookook, watching nice 15″ browns rise, and catching bass the whole time. I was done with these things. I just don’t get bass. Every bass I ever caught I was fishing for trout. People actually target these things?

No matter. The next day was my parent’s 59th anniversary party. My best friend Richard, his wife Emily, and their son were coming up and she wanted to practice her fly fishing. We met at the boat ramp before the party. John Thomas, the three-year old had this little toy rod that had a plastic fish on it. When he wasn’t smacking his dad in the face with it, he had a pretty decent cast. I was just sure it would spook the brookies when it crashed down, but instead they circled around it and followed it to the bottom. Go figure.The mystery fish were significantly diminished, about 1/3 of the school was left and not as active. I assume the rest continued upstream.

I put her on “my” rock, made sure she could get a fly in the water, and pretty much left her alone. One thing I’m quite sure takes the fun out of any endeavor is having somebody lurking at your shoulder with a constant stream of advice which you cannot process. Occasionally I would offer to tie on a new fly and perhaps offer a remark from my meager store of fly fishing wisdom, but other than that I selfishly continued my quest. Between me shaking bass off, she caught a gorgeous pumpkinseed sunfish, which we dutifully showed to her son to encourage his development into a fisherman.

pumpkinseed-sunfish

Image courtesy of Matt Paterson

I sulked my way upstream, dragging my line in the water as it was too much work to reel in, and caught 3 bass in 50 yards of this low-grade trolling. I worked my way out to the bottom of the fast water from under the bridge and started casting out to the beginning of the seam on the far side. A spot where with much single-handed travail I had hooked a trout I predicted to my sister would be sitting there, I was now able to put flies to with ease. In fact at that moment my anchor came back and I started putting flies easily across the river and into the blackberries on the other side. There went a Grey Ghost and a nice Matuka style streamer.

And there, in the sweet water, I caught bass. Even big bass, which somehow are so much more disappointing, as until you see that white belly you are just sure you have a trout. Had I a laundry basket, I could’ve harvested enough smallmouth to feed a family of five for a week, and probably I should’ve if only to make room for trout. I would suffer this humbly could I but bring in the smallest of the brookies; or a single mystery fish. I no longer thought of the brown who should’ve been in that lie, had there been any justice in the world. At some point, I must’ve managed to bring a line in clean, rolled up, and walked back down to Emily.

At this point it was time for the party and some much needed beer to wake my little lauded fishing career. I was happy to be with family, especially as I was sure I would be spending more time with them now that I had decided fishing wasn’t for me, but as the party wound down and the sun dropped, Emily insisted we revisit the raceway. Well, I had actually forgotten to breakdown my Spey rod and there it sat under my windshield wiper, so off we went. Even though I hadn’t seen a rise in four days, we decided to tie on a dry fly in desperation to catch a trout, and within a few casts she hooked her first fish on a dry, at which point she said “I hated you until I loved you.” I will never be sure if she was talking to me or the fish, but since it was a bass and not a trout, I fervently pray it was me, because I could never rest easy knowing I had been there when she fell in love with a bass.

The next morning was my last in town. I meant to be on the water at dawn, but it was raining, so I came a half hour late. Since I stayed at my sister’s and my waders were at my parents, I put on my cold, wet clothes and slogged my way upstream to the bridge starting my wet wading and casting with my back to the cement walls. I was expecting my nephew, but he could not come. My wallet full of tips also was at my parents, so I Franken-tipped up the Spey line with a 7 wt. single-handed tip in my kit, hoping maybe to get under my nemeses.

I don’t know about bass, but I’d heard that browns feed most avariciously at dawn and this was my last shot at redemption. I admit, my hopes were not high, and I steadily beat through the run, cast-three-steps-cast. The new tip was requiring a shotgun lift to get it out of the water, with the occasional roll cast. Every freaking time I lifted it, I caught a  bass. Defeated by my success, I walked down through the beat and stood on my rock. Watching the the school of mystery fish slide by, and trying to get a shot of them without a polarizing filter (at one point I went to Concord and looked at buying one, just for this one image, but decided $80 was too much for one shot. Now, I know it was cheap.).

For all of the things going on in the world, surrounded by the hulks of ruined buildings in the cold rain, I felt hope for the fact that those fish existed these 160 years past the dissolution of their environment, even if I could not reach into their world and touch them as I hungered to do. I had fished with friends old and new, seen things I could not explain, and caught fish by the bushel without satiation. Who knows what a year will bring, if there will be fish in this run, if I will be back on this rock, and if so whom I will be fishing it with.  Like a school of fish circling you round and round that  you cannot catch, all there is is change, and for now that will have to suffice.

Of Rivers and Mills

AMOSKEAG_1880

The Amoskeag Mills in Manchester were so huge that entire immigrant families would live and work there, never leaving the miles of buildings.

Two rivers join in Franklin to create the mighty Merrimack, flowing 117  miles from here to the sea in Massachusetts,  the river that once had the largest mills in the country. From an article in the Boston Globe:

Franklin sits in central New Hampshire at the confluence of two rivers, the Winnipesaukee and Pemigewasset, that thread together downstream to form the Merrimack. Industrialists in the 19th century harnessed the rivers for mills that churned out woolen cloth, hosiery, hacksaws, needles, and paper. A downtown of stolid brick buildings and a classical revival library courtesy of Andrew Carnegie rose.

Mill managers lived in turreted Victorians in the hills above town. Below, cheek-by-jowl New Englanders housed mill workers who streamed downtown on weekends to take in a movie at the Regal Theater or skate at Odell Park or eat at George’s Diner. On the west side, tourists meandered up Route 3, then the gateway to the White Mountains, making a stop at the historic Daniel Webster homestead. (my dad)

Franklin was grand, and then, like so many New England mill towns, it wasn’t. Interstate 93 bypassed it, industries packed up and moved south. Big box stores were built in the adjoining town along the interstate some 4 miles away. It might as well have been a million. Traffic through town slowed to a trickle. The pharmacy closed, then the jewelry store and the shoe store.

Thoreau wrote about this river in his first book, a Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers over 160 years ago, and even then he counseled that we should blow up the dams. The mills are gone, but the dams remain. This creates an interesting succession of tailwater fisheries. I have no idea how many dams are on the river entire, but there are four within a mile in Franklin alone.

Here is some information about the mills. The Rise and Fall of the Amoskeag Denim Mills

 

 

 

Advertisements
Posted in: Fly Fishing