Do rivers speak? Well, if you listen.
Cool, sunny Sunday morning, 10-ish, variable wind gusting to stir small, random oak-leave tornados out in the open along the north wood line of a closed, two-acre meadow. A splendid day for a walk with the dogs — nose-dominant beasts that rely on winds to deliver information that can quickly accelerate their pace.
Descending the earthen ramp down into Sunken Meadow’s north end after finishing the top loop, the swollen Green River below spoke from surging flat water riled into semi rapids, the water displaying that trademark, clay-based, gray-green hue from which it likely got its name. Suddenly, a large, heavy splash and its lingering disturbance drew the dogs racing to the water’s edge as I curiously observed.
Despite many years of using this short, double-rutted farm road and even walking midstream during the summer with my wife, grandchildren and pets, I had never before seen a trout or any fish rise in that typically placid section of water. But there was no mistaking the sound, a large trout rising aggressively through the surface and landing loudly, likely enticed by some tasty aquatic insect capable of escape. What type of insect I can’t say, but from the sound and aftermath rings on the water, some type of fast emerger must have shot to the surface like a tiny air bubble — or possibly even a large terrestrial of some sort had been blown down onto the surface. Who knows? It could have even been a waterlogged mouse or small snake swept into the stream and gobbled up in a flash by a big, opportunistic brown or rainbow.
Anyone who fishes hatches learns to differentiate between quiet, rolling, slurping rises and fast, furious, splashy ones like Sunday’s. The prevailing type of rise is always the one to fish, because trout feed on the preferred food of the moment. Fickle, they’ll take something else if tantalized by enticing movement, shape or bright color. But if you want continuous, cast-after-cast action, you must figure out what they’re feeding on, then find something similar in your fly box. In fishing jargon, that’s called matching the hatch, which isn’t always easy if you haven’t studied stream entomology focused on Mayflies, stoneflies and caddis flies.
I stood motionless, looking down and hoping to catch another quick rise that never came before impatience pulled me away. Maybe the fish was aware of my dogs’ presence, or maybe the rise was just one random opportunity answered, the taking of unexpected prey the fish happened to spot passing in the strong, cold, cloudy current. Can’t say for sue. But I didn’t have time to linger and moved along on my merry way, whistling the dogs up from the river’s edge for a wetland romp they know and love.
As I followed the base of the escarpment along the western edge looking at the infant skunk cabbage populating its wooded underbelly and wetland below, I wondered when the wild, immature plants would attract the first foraging bears, which eagerly hunt it as a preferred spring food. Last year, right there, we had jumped a bear from behind thick wild rose bushes. Then, after writing about it here, a neighbor I still have never met sent me a cell-phone photo of the big black beast ripping apart a large, round hay bale wrapped in white plastic just around the corner. Ah, for the wonders of cyberspace news.
As I observantly walked on full alert, my springtime imagination, always fertile, carried me back to the deep history of the river known to natives as the Picomegan. Those were the days before rainbow and brown trout were introduced to area waters by state hatcheries. Our first people, for many millennia before European invasion, would have caught beautiful brook trout the likes of which few locals today know. These native trout would have populated the river when the temperature was right and migrated up colder tributaries for summer refuge and fall spawning. Plus, our Pocumtucks, named by those who discovered them here in the upper Pioneer Valley, would have taken advantage of the anadromous fish — shad, herring and occasional Atlantic salmon — migrating each spring upstream from the mouth of the Connecticut River at Long Island Sound to spawn in freshwater. The Green River would have attracted these migratory saltwater fish annually, as would the Connecticut’s other local major tributaries, namely the Deerfield, Falls, Millers and Sawmill rivers. Even Deerfield River tributaries like the South and Bear rivers and Poland, Clesson and Dragon brooks would have pulled in a small sampling of anadromous fish, not to mention big brookies seeking summer refuge and fall spawning beds.
It’s not difficult to fantasize about deep history so far in the past, bygone days when people respected the earth, air and water, birds, beasts, fish and reptiles, and treated them with reverence, even when hunting and eating them, wearing their skins for clothing, or adorning themselves with teeth, claws, quills, feathers and fangs. These indigenous people viewed themselves as part of the whole, no better or worse than the other components of nature, just beings living in harmony with the rest, animate and inanimate, wet or dry, dangerous or harmless, poisonous or benign. They knew that it only takes one selfish violator to disrupt the delicate balance and make life tougher for all. Somewhere along the way, we Occidentals have forgotten that formula. Sad indeed.
Enough! Back to that Sunday walk disrupted by a lunker splash. On the upper leg we had first walked, peering through tall budding hardwoods and underbrush standing on the upper terrace, I thought I spotted a rare human form moving along the riverbank near a big riverside apple tree standing tall in the southeast corner below. As I approached from afar, I smelled smoke and, turning the corner, saw it rising from near the river, presumably on my side. Wrong! What I found was two young fellas, 30ish fishermen with a campfire burning across the river in a safe, stone enclosure on the stony opposite bank. Upon inquiry, they bemoaned a strong, rapid current limiting their success. They had caught a couple of holdover rainbows and one small brookie that had likely made its way into the river from the nearby mouth of Allen Brook.
Lily and Chubby looked across the river with friendly wags but weren’t going to bother swimming across the swollen river to meet strangers, who I told about the nice trout I saw rise a short distance upstream. I immediately regretted sharing the information, wasn’t crazy about the idea of them catching and removing that nice trout from the river. Maybe grandson Rynie and I could chase it down later in the week. The 9-year-old boy had arrived the previous evening and is here from Vermont for school vacation. I had planned to ask him to help me replace floating flyline on the reel for a classic bamboo fly rod. I’d like nothing better than to hook that big, heavy trout and hand the boy the rod for battle. If he wins and wants to take it home for display and breakfast, so be it. I’d be fine with that. But at some point I’d like to tell him I hope he’ll one day be a catch-and-release man committed to conservation.
Somewhere along the line, I’ll introduce him to a motto I’m confident he’ll remember. It’ll go something like this: If you’re hungry, kill and eat it; if not, throw it back for another day. A stream harboring trout is better than one without.