"Summer's short in these parts," runs an old New England saying. "Last year it come on a Thursday."
Well, it's not quite that bad, but in the dead, dark days of the new year, when snow piles high on the windowsill and cabin fever creeps like rust along the nerve ends, winter can indeed seem 364 days long—especially to the man who lives for upland birds and fly-fishing. In Vermont, such unfortunates—and I'm one of them—must endure 3� months of suspended animation between the close of the grouse season on Dec. 31 and the opening of most trout streams on the second Saturday in April. The only sure cure for cabin fever is a strong spring tonic. In the past that meant a scouring dose of sulfur and molasses or a bitter potion of dandelion and lamb's-quarters. But now there's something better. Last spring for the first time in the seven years I've endured the high-latitude wintertime blahs, I tried Vermont Spring Tonic. It consists of a good, stiff double dollop of cold-water trout and wild turkey—the bird, not the booze.
Vermont has always had the trout, but only recently did the state's Fish and Wildlife Department add another ingredient, a major and magnificent upland game bird that can safely be hunted during the spring without harming its nesting success. In 1973, after a careful five-year program of restocking wild turkeys in the southwestern quadrant of the state, the first spring gobbler season opened. And for the first time in more than a century, winter-staled Vermonters of the shotgun-and-fly-rod persuasion could creep out from under their rocks of wintry ennui, like emerging nymphs in a trout stream, to resume life with slam-bang, double-haul vigor.
Last spring I kept a day-by-day log of my own rejuvenation.
Saturday, April 13—Opening Day.
On the river shortly before 11 a.m. A cold, brown day, with the water rushing down the chutes as bright and strong as poured beer. Stale snow in the dark, wet hollows. Puffy clouds high on a cutting wind. Air temp. about 42�. Can't find my stream thermometer—just remembered I used it in January to test temp. of my tap water at home (a finger-numbing 40�)—but the river today feels no more than 50�. Too cold for any flies to hatch, not even caddis or the hardy Quill Gordon, our first mayfly hatch of the year. Toes numb in my waders despite three pairs of wool socks, fingers stiff on the rod grip. Can hardly feel the line as I work it out. Red-winged blackbirds bounce on the naked streamside branches, their metallic song and scarlet epaulets the only bright promise of spring. I work various nymphs, streamers, muddlers, even the all-purpose Adams dry fly—"The Adams hatch is always on," quips one of my trout-nut pals—but to no avail. This is a day for worm fishermen, not for me. Yet it's good to be in the stream again, to regain my balance on the rocks against the current and to let my muscles relearn the rhythms of casting. Best of all, the cold, clean air, still smelling of melted river ice, begins to dispel the miasmas of winter. Wading ashore and back to the truck after four hours on the water, I notice that the fiddlehead ferns haven't yet peeked through the leaf mold. Home to hot tea and cinnamon toast.
Monday, April 15.
Still no hatch activity on the river, perhaps too early although the sun has been warming the water to 50� plus, maybe 52�. Fiddleheads starting to show, just those distinctive dark green shiny knobs arching to the top, their crisp brown sheaths brighter than the dead leaves. This evening I walk Kent Hollow Road hooting like an owl. Odd behavior? I am trying to get a response from a turkey gobbler. The male turkey feels challenged, as he goes to roost at night, by almost any loud noise—a slamming car door, a barking dog, a gunshot, but especially the gobble of another turkey or the hoot of a great horned owl. Toward full dusk I hear an answer: the distant wobblewobblewobble, rising and then falling, wire-cored in its vibrato. But I can't pinpoint it. Perhaps the bird's over on Spruce Peak, or maybe Burnt Ridge, but not so far east as the Bear's Den. Or was it behind me? Or just my imagination? It's still three weeks to the opening of turkey season.
Wednesday, April 17.
The Gordons aren't just coming—they're here. I see the first duns appear in the riffles at 1:05 p.m. above the run I call Goldirocks (for the yellow boulders at its head), tiny ships with smoke-colored sails drifting bravely out of the white water. I quickly tie on a Quill Gordon emerger—really just the dry but with rearward-slanted wings—and take two trout, bang-bang, just like that. One a nine-inch rainbow that jumped six times, the other a lank, slashing brown of 14 inches, his red spots and pale gold flanks brighter than money as I flip out the hook. Both hang briefly in the current after being released, then dart back to the deep run under the bank. I switch to a Quill Gordon dry soon after and prospect upstream from Goldirocks, watching the gray wings and the sun catching the brown stripes on the fly's body and seeing the trout come to it, some just sipping, but most still hungry from winter. I catch and release five more. An osprey beats upstream about 3 p.m., the spring sun blinding on his white coverts, those sleek and awful wings. If I could see what he sees.... Off the water at four. Pick a dozen fiddleheads on the way back to the truck. They'll make salad for Louise and me tonight. Could have killed a couple trout to go with them but my heart isn't in it. Too early yet, I tell myself, let them get fat first. But it's more than that: too joyous a day for death to anything but lettuce and fiddleheads (and maybe not even them).
Wednesday, May 1.
A dry spring so far. The backroads were hub deep in mud two weeks ago. Now the pickups announce themselves half a mile away with great ballooning plumes of dust, and you have to crank up your windows fast or spit mud for five minutes. If it stays dry it should be a good nesting season for the birds. Cock grouse are drumming like reluctant chain saws from every ridge. Last night, out hooting and yelping for turkeys, I heard two male woodcock. Saw one of them outlined against the lemon light, stubby wings and out-sized head, with the bill tucked down on his breast as he danced in the sky for his ladylove. Farther on, my hoot drew a response: There is definitely a gobbler up on Burnt Ridge, as I suspected, and another up on Shatterack across the road from my house but about 1,000 feet higher. The turkey opener is only seven days from now.
Because of the dry spring, river levels are down all over, water temperatures already up to mid-May range. As a result, the Hendrickson hatch came on nearly two weeks early. I noticed the first of them on April 26. The Hendricksons make up our best and biggest hatch of this early season, provoking feeding frenzies every afternoon almost precisely at 2 p.m. and not just among the trout. Newly returned barn swallows, phoebes and kingbirds join in, first waiting patiently along the bank and then, when the duns begin to pop off the water, creating a mind-boggling aerial ballet. The swallows soar and dart like midget MiG-15s painted iridescent blue, while the phoebes and kingbirds hover on backed wings and then stoop like kestrels to pick individual flies from the air, or nip them right off the water. Goldfinches hop in the bankside brush, grabbing the mayflies as they land in the branches to perform their final moult from dun to sexually mature spinner. What with the trout below and the birds above, it's amazing any mayflies survive, yet when the spinners appear in the late afternoon to mate in midair, then drop their eggs and die, they thicken the air to a vernal blizzard. Their dying bodies on the water form glossy rafts through which the trout slash like tiny sharks.