Fly-fishing, put simply, is not how most of us spend our time. The 7 million anglers who cast fake bugs tied to the end of long, lightweight rods represent just 2 percent of all fishermen and women, according to pre-COVID 2020 figures from the nonprofit Outdoor Foundation. But that’s still a record high, and there’s anticipation of a pandemic bump in participation. “Fly-fishing has built-in social distancing,” says Gerry Crow, a longtime fly fisherman and guide with New Hampshire Rivers Guide Service. “If you’re waving a fly rod around with a hook on the end of it, you’re not going to invade anyone’s personal space.” And in New England, with insects hatching and water temperatures reaching a still-chilly, trout-tempting sweet spot, spring is an ideal time to take up the art of fooling fish with fur and feathers. Even if you wind up getting skunked, just look around and take solace in an old truism: Trout don’t live in ugly places.
The narrower upper section of the Deerfield River conjures Colorado in the Berkshires: steep slopes, white birches, sedan-sized boulders, and fish lurking in pools and riffles. Hydroelectric dams segment the Deerfield’s more-than-70-mile run from the Green Mountains to the Connecticut River in Greenfield, reliably releasing cold water that stimulates stocked and wild brook, brown, and rainbow trout. Head north of Route 2 to the town of Florida and put in at the Fife Brook Dam boat access point off of River Road — winter runoff and high flows make a raft essential — and watch for the crumbled remains of a grist mill as you float downstream beneath a trestle bridge.
Tips from a Pro: Brian Lynch of Pheasant Tail Tours (413-834-7301, pheasanttailtours.com)
In early spring, look for deeper pools and cast toward the shallow edge (known as a tailout), Lynch says. If you can’t tell what’s hatching, a Krystal Flash wooly bugger, which is a baitfish-mimicking streamer, seldom misses. “That thing is responsible for more people’s first fish on a fly rod out of my boat than any other fly that I’ve got,” he says.
Grab A Bite: The Blue Rock Restaurant
The coffee-rubbed pork ribs are a constant on the ever-changing menu at this eclectic eatery, with porch seating overlooking the river. 1 Ashfield Street, Shelburne Falls, 413-625-8133, thebluerockrestaurant.com
The west branch of the Farmington River, a designated National Wild and Scenic River that winds through the evergreens and hemlocks of Litchfield County, has a reputation for dependability: like the Deerfield, it’s a tailwater — meaning downstream of a dam — that stays a little warmer than other streams in winter and a little cooler in summer, making dry-fly trout fishing possible 12 months a year. And despite being a go-to spot for anglers from Manhattan to Maine, the abundance of the Farmington has been increasing: In 2019, state authorities tallied 4,500 trout in a 5.6-mile catch-and-release segment, the largest count on record. The Church Pool in Barkhamsted, where a green steel truss bridge crosses at the junction of Routes 181 and 318, is in the middle of that stretch. Park in the adjacent dirt lot, walk down the footpath, and cast into a riffle that dumps into wide, deep water stretching a quarter-mile.
Tips from a Pro: Torrey Collins of UpCountry Sportfishing (860-379-1952, farmingtonriver.com)
For flies, Collins suggests tying on a black stone or blue winged olive in March, a blue quill in early April, and a Hendrickson in the weeks from mid-April to early May. Considering that this is one of the most heavily fished streams in New England, plan to show up early. “If you go to a place like Church Pool in the afternoon,” Collins cautions, “people will have already been in that riffle all day long.”
Grab A Bite: Royal Coachman Tavern at the Old Riverton Inn
Sharing space with an 18th-century inn on the Farmington River (and named for the Royal Coachman fly pattern), the tavern offers a comfort food menu that peaks with coconut chili wings and charbroiled burgers. 436 East River Road, Riverton, 860-379-8678, rivertoninn.com
Gerry Crow has a hard drive full of his rookie students’ “hero shots,” the look-what-I-caught snapshots of anglers hoisting their first aquatic trophies. Many of them were snapped on a portion of the Contoocook River, which runs a jagged parallel with Route 202 between Henniker and Hillsborough in southwestern New Hampshire. Oxygen-stirring white-water rapids — including Freight Train, a roaring Class IV — deep pools, and algae-slick boulders make this the best trout fishing habitat on the northeasterly flowing stream. Springtime anglers come out of hibernation to greet the browns and brookies feasting on the first hatches of mayflies. Park along Ramsdell Road east of the Route 114 bridge, where downtown Henniker fades among oaks and maples.
Tips from a Pro: Gerry Crow of New Hampshire Rivers Guide Service (603-889-5611, nhriversguide.com)
In early spring, wait until the water warms up in mid-afternoon when the insects are more active. If you can’t identify what’s hatching, try a mayfly pattern like a Parachute Adams. And no matter how placid the current seems, bring a wading staff to keep your balance just in case. “It could be nothing more than an old ski pole or a beaver stick — you don’t have to spend $150 on something out of the Orvis catalog,” Crow says.
Grab A Bite: Daniels Restaurant
With views over the Contoocook, diners can watch fishermen flail while chomping on butternut squash ravioli. 48 Main Street, Henniker, 603-428-7621, danielsofhenniker.com
Spring arrives late to Moosehead Lake, just above Greenville in north central Maine: In mid-May, water temperatures are still in the mid-40s. That’s when you’ll want to explore the East Outlet of the Kennebec River, 3Æ ledgy, spruce-and-fir-filled, signs-of-civilization-free miles linking the lake with Indian Pond, where sussing out all the pools and runs can take a few days. Along with brook trout, these dam-released waters are home to an abundance of landlocked salmon, a silver-toned species that frequently jumps when you set your hook. And while there’s plenty of wading access below the parking areas at the Routes 6 and 15 bridge, a drift boat or raft is the safer option amidst the season’s snowmelt-fed water flows.
Tips from a Pro: Wayne Plummer of Northern Pride Lodge (207-695-2890, northernpridelodge.com)
Start with a smelt streamer pattern in mid-May, work in sucker spawn imitations as the weeks pass, and tie on blue winged olives when the first hatches start around Memorial Day. And if you just want to net something, the salmon is a gullible target. “If you spook a brook trout, you can figure you ain’t gonna catch him,” Plummer says, “but I’ve had salmon that I’ve seen lurking behind a rock and caught after two or three drives.”
Grab A Bite: Stress Free Moose Pub
Meat loaf grilled cheese? Check. The humorous head of a zebra-moose mounted on the wall? Check. 65 Pritham Avenue, Greenville, 207-695-3100, stressfreemoose.com
The 57-plus miles of the Battenkill River are hallowed waters for fly-fishing east of the Mississippi. On the Vermont side of the border, the fish population is entirely wild — the only fish stocking occurs in New York — which means early-season patience, skill, and luck can bring in a wily, wary behemoth of a German brown trout topping 20 inches. Follow Route 313 West to West Arlington, park by the 19th-century covered bridge and steepled church, and take in a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting — the artist’s old farmhouse is across the river, in fact — and fish your way upstream or downstream.
Tips from a Pro: Martin Oakland of Quill Gordon Bed and Breakfast (802-375-6339, quillgordon.com)
Use streamers in mid-April through early May, then switch to Hendrickson dry flies when the hatch begins around Mother’s Day. And after a thunderstorm, when muddy waters clear up and take on a copper complexion, that’s your best chance to bag a big one. Oakland says, “It doesn’t happen very often, but [the last time it did] I caught three fish over 20 inches, and two others swam right up into the net.”
Grab A Bite: Mulligans
Eat beer-battered fish and chips in a cozy Irish pub, then take a quick walk over to the massive Orvis store just up the street. 3912 Route 7A, Manchester, 802-362-3663, mulligans-vt.com
NEVER TRIED FLY-FISHING? DIP YOUR TOE IN THE WATER IN 5 EASY STEPS:
1. Get a fishing license (every state in New England sells short-term nonresident passes) and learn local regulations on what you can catch and keep. Ever-changing water flows can be hazardous, so consult h2oline.com or call ahead for current conditions.
2. Buying entry-level essentials — rod, reel, weighted line, a few flies — can cost $200 or more, but a guide will likely loan everything you need.
3. Casting — making a fake bug hit the water like the real thing — is hard to learn through YouTube. Sign up for a free Fly Fishing 101 class at an Orvis store, or get a crash course from your guide.
4. The best fly for any given stream changes constantly. Contact a local fly shop or guide for up-to-date advice.
5. On the water, look for seams where slow and fast currents meet: fish hide in the former and feed in the latter.
* Official COVID-19 guidance changes frequently. Check state and local regulations before traveling.
Jeff Harder is a writer based in Connecticut. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.