“People think they have to fly West to find this,” said Eric Gass, looking out at the rolling hills spread out before us, resplendent in their fall color.
That was last October. Gass is a hunting and fly fishing guide based in the Deerfield River valley. And he is onto something. For those who live in New England and enjoy chasing both feathers and fins, the conversation about where to go bird shooting and fly fishing for trout is so often about someplace else. The consistent call is to head to the American West. The assumption is that there couldn’t be anything worthwhile close to home. Could there?
While it is true that greater Boston — the cultural and financial center of New England — is not pheasant country, it can be remarkably productive trout and striped bass territory. I have caught fish under the commuter traffic — train, plane, and automobile — of this fair city, and had sightings of birds that, were they not so close to residential areas, would have made for a remarkably clear shot. If casting in the shadows of skyscrapers and condos is not your thing, you can travel a few hours west, to the Pioneer and Deerfield River Valley, or to the Berkshires, where you will find remarkably good bird shooting and fly fishing. It may not be the American West, but the Western-style fishing a short drive from Boston is often overlooked.
A number of rivers in Western Mass. are tailwaters (that is, they originate from a dam) that get steady releases of lake-bottom cold water. This style of fishing affords not only temperatures that sustain trout and abundant insect life, on which trout prey throughout the summer, but also enough water to float the river, fishing with a guide from a boat that can seat two anglers and one guide, allowing you to fish miles of river in a day. In comparison, even the most energetic fly fisherman wading a river could cover only a fraction of that distance.
This is precisely what I did this summer with my good friend Rob Robillard, the Boston Globe’s handyman columnist. We left Concord at sunrise, and headed west on Route 2 to Shelburne Falls. Along the way we drove along the Millers River, which has recovered remarkably from its chemical past is now a good early season trout fishery. We stopped for coffee and breakfast at Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters, where many days fishing or bird shooting begin. While here, you often see guides such as the Harrison Brothers meeting their clients for the day.
From Shelburne, we turned up a small road that wound along the Deerfield River. We put in below the dam, where I quickly caught a big, bright, and beautiful rainbow trout. We then floated down the river for hours, slowing to fish a pocket here and there, and to dodge some people rafting (the only downside of fishing here). At times, we were the only ones fishing our section; it was just the big blue sky, the gentle sloping wall of green trees lining the river, and the river bubbling away beneath us.
Andy Bonzagni, long-time owner of Concord Outfitters, described the experience nicely. “You can get away from Boston life and hectic travel with a two-hour drive and have a Western-like experience in western Mass,” he said. “That’s what drives me out there all of the time.”
This is true of trout rivers like the Hoosic, the Connecticut, the Housatonic, and, my favorite, the Deerfield. At certain times of year, you can float these rivers and hardly see another soul. At these times, your guide will be rowing from the center of a rubber or wooden drift boat, as you cast dry and west flies to beautiful trout pools. The sound of Boston, or of Hartford or Portland or Providence, will seem as far away as Idaho. At these moments, you leave the sound of traffic and the honey-do list behind, and are, if only for a series of fleeting moments, present in a place. The smell of the river, the sound of the wind in the tall grass, and the color of the foliage; they may last for as long as your last board meeting, but I guarantee you will be able to recount them more vividly afterward.
This was true of that moment standing with Eric Gass last fall. My dad and uncle had driven down from Maine that morning and, after coffee and old-fashioned donuts from Hager’s Market, we headed out with Gass and his indefatigable Gordon Setter. We walked along a river, around old quarries and bogs, and up a mountainside, scaring up birds along the way.
At one point, we walked up along a hillside into a big open field. Standing on top of the hill, we looked out over the river valley before us in its full fall foliage splendor. It was a spectacular wash of bright reds and golden yellows. My uncle walked up the hillside, gun over his shoulder, and the dog walking in front of him, panting and tail wagging. He hadn’t shot in years, yet a moment later he took his single shot of the day and, with it, took down a big pheasant. He beamed, and we still haven’t heard the end of it.
As someone who fly fishes avidly, and who grew up bird shooting (if that’s what you can call those long, fruitless walks with my grandfather through the woods), the conversation that I have heard at fishing and hunting clubs is as much about an unnamed desire to get away, and to travel, as it is to actually hunt and fish. That has kept the crowds low, and the fish and birds abundant.
“Unfortunately we can’t fly out to Montana every weekend,” Bonzagni said. “But you can get a taste of it every weekend in Western Mass.”
If you like to go West, by all means, go west. Meanwhile, I’ll be right here in Massachusetts.Ben Carmichael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.