David A. Van Wie
Tie Flies When You're Having Fun
Lancaster, New Hampshire is a delightful little town.
The reason the per capita level of delight is so high in this northern village of 3500 souls is because my daughter, Rosa, lives there. She pulls the average way up with her zestful personality and love for life.
As a kindergarten teacher, she also spreads delight to the next generation, their families, and community members. She is the motherlode of delight tucked in the hills north of Mount Washington.
Crossing the Connecticut River into Lancaster, I went right at the rotary (a rotary up here? yeah, I know…) to turn down Main Street. There are only one or two back streets and just a dozen or so side streets in Lancaster, so there is not all that much to this, the county seat of Coos County, the largest and northernmost county in the Granite State.
“Downtown” is only a few blocks long, sporting not one, but two fabulous bakeries/coffee shops. Soon, the second major source of delight comes into view: the neon marquee of the Rialto Theater, a two-screen (and nicely renovated) movie house dating to the 1930s. This week they were showing Wonder Woman and The Mummy.
I didn’t get a chance to catch a show on this trip, but Wonder Woman seemed a fitting metaphor for my four night stay with Rosa and her friendly cat, Amy.
Sunday was very hot, so we went swimming at a nearby state park beach. I also badly needed aerobic exercise, so I hopped on Rosa’s mountain bike for a ride along the Connecticut south of town. After my ride, a Sunday dinner with Rosa's good friends, Lucy and Craig, was also delightful.
We capped off the evening watching the final game of the Stanley Cup playoffs at J.L Sullivan’s, an Irish pub with an outdoor deck looking out over the Israel River. This little town has all my favorites.
North to the Connecticut Headwaters
My plan for Monday was to meet Ron Ouellette, president of the Ammonoosuc Chapter of Trout Unlimited, at noon at the Magalloway Road bridge across the Connecticut River between Second Connecticut Lake and First Connecticut Lake. Ron and Art Greene were to be driving over from the Magalloway River in Maine on the back roads.
From Lancaster, it is another 90 minutes north to the Connecticut Lakes through Colebrook, Stewartstown and Pittsburg (no ‘h’ on this one), so I headed out about just after 10:00 to meet them.
The Ill-Fated Indian Stream Republic
This area along the Upper Connecticut River has quite a storied history. Corey Ford, writing in the 1950s about the trout fishing in the Connecticut headwaters, noted how the river north of Groveton gets more wild as you travel north, with raucous runs and rapids that make this prime trout water. Today, the upper Connecticut is also stocked with rainbows, browns and landlocked salmon.
At some point past Stewartstown, you realize the Connecticut River is no longer the border with Vermont. The New Hampshire/Canada border follows Hall Stream north of Stewartstown, except for a slim panhandle of Vermont (about 1000 feet wide) that pokes east from Hall Stream to the Connecticut. Then, a mile past Stewartstown, both sides of the Connecticut River are in New Hampshire to Pittsburg and beyond.
Both Corey Ford and Howard Frank Mosher tell the story of how this oddity of geography came to be. The area around Pittsburg, near where Indian Stream flows south into the Connecticut, was once literally “no man’s land” between Canada and New Hampshire because of confusion about which branch was the actual headwaters stream or source of the Connecticut. The 1783 Treaty of Paris set the US-Canada boundary as “the northwesternmost head of the Connecticut River.” The US and Canada submitted the ambiguity to the King of Holland for arbitration, but that led to further dispute when the US didn’t like his ruling.
In the confusion, and facing double taxation from both countries, the local settlers decided to take matters in to their own hands, declaring themselves an independent nation, the Indian Stream Republic, in 1832. They wrote a constitution and mustered a militia of a few dozen men. There were several disputes and skirmishes with Canadian and US law enforcement, resulting in a few prisoners that were jailed.
Four years later, the short-lived Republic decided to rejoin the United States, which apparently was a surprise to many folks in our nation’s capital who were unaware of that the Indian "Streamers" had left. The disputed boundary was ultimately resolved in 1842 with the Webster-Ashburton Treaty.
What is not disputed is that the scenery just north of the 45th Parallel is gorgeous, the lakes and rivers are clean and undeveloped, and people drive many miles to come here for the fishing and snowmobiling. I was here for the fishing.
Art Greene was not feeling well, so Joe Homer rode over with Ron instead. They had to take the long way around through Dixville Notch, making them a bit late. While waiting, I decided to eat a sandwich in a comfy patch of shade next to the burbling stream and tie some flies streamside, which I had always wanted to do.
The mosquitoes were tolerable, and I had carried some surplus delight up from Lancaster, because I was enjoying myself immensely winding feathers, fur, yarn and tinsel onto tiny hooks, when Ron and Joe pulled in. They admired the two small Wood Specials I had tied, and a similar fly tied with black instead of orange for the body, similar to a Brown Owl, which has been a good fly so far on this trip.
We rigged up and Joe went downstream while Ron and I fished near the bridge. The water coming from Second Connecticut Lake was fairly warm – about 65°F – after several days in the high 80s, so we didn’t expect too much action from bigger fish.
I had a couple trout splash unconvincingly at my Hornberg on the surface, but couldn’t get them to come back even after changing flies a few times. After 30 minutes, we decided to fish below the First Lake Dam, which is a bottom release tailwater known as the “Trophy Section.”
Alas, no trophies for me that day, but Ron and Joe combined for an Upper Connecticut Grand Slam: Joe caught a brown trout and a rainbow on nymphs above Bridge Pool, and Ron caught a landlocked salmon and a brook trout below the Bridge. The water in that stretch was running at 55°F, so wading was very pleasant (my feet felt a little numb after an hour or so). And obviously the fish were liking the cooler water.
The Big Chill
After Ron and Joe headed home, I stayed on a bit hoping to avoid being skunked. I went downstream a short distance to the covered bridge, but it was filled with cars and fishermen, so I went back upstream and parked near the dam where there were only two cars. As I walked downstream on the trail, I met two women with fly rods who told me “we left plenty for you!”
"OK," I thought, "let's see what I can do."
Fifty yards down the path was Ledge Pool, where the river drops about 10 feet in three stairstep falls. The cold water and mist at the falls and big pool below chilled the air wonderfully by about 20 degrees. I was sure I would find a big rainbow or brookie here, as I had the river to myself.
I fished a streamer below the falls with no success, then walked further downstream to a deep glide under an overhanging tree- very fishy looking! Again I tried my Brown Owl and Wood Special in the deep water and at the tail of the run. Nothing.
I rigged up a double nymph dropper and drifted a half-dozen nymph patterns through the run, including black and yellow stoneflies, green bead head caddis, and a prince nymph, certain that a hungry trout would find one of them irresistible.
Another whiff. And another.
I had struck out swinging nearly every fly I could think of. There were definitely fish there, but I didn’t have my mojo working on such a warm sunny Monday.
Ron and Joe told me that the “trophy” fish come up from the lakes in the spring when the smelt are running (I just missed it) and in the fall on the spawning run. I’ll have to come back on another day to avenge myself.
As I drove home, I was tempted to stop near Colebrook to make a few casts in a section where Lou Zambello and I had fished a few years earlier by canoe and kayak. We both caught several nice rainbows on a lovely evening. Corey Ford also had written convincingly about fishing this section for the evening hatch.
I did see a rise or two, but didn’t stop because I wanted to get home to see Rosa before her early bedtime on a school night. I still had over an hour to drive, and needed to grab a later dinner somewhere.
So I kept driving toward Lancaster until I saw the neon glow of the Rialto on Main Street, right across from Rosa’s building.
* Title credit: A witty comment from Phil Odence when I was tying more flies on a rainy day in the Dartmouth Grant later that week.