Home Is Where The Brookie Is
NEW ENGLAND BROOK TROUT
I consider myself lucky to call New Hampshire home. I am two hours from the coast, where I get a nostalgic taste of the salty air I grew up breathing, as well as two hours from Lake Champlain, the Canadian border, and Boston. Striped Bass are an easy day trip, Small and Largemouth Bass live throughout our territory, and Trout and Landlocked Salmon abound in the glacial lakes, rivers, and their tributaries to the north. There is no shortage of opportunity.
Still, since my days fishing worms and cutbait as a kid, there has never been a species as exciting, uplifting, and beautiful to me as New England’s native Brook Trout. Their spunky attitude and voracious appetite bring ear-to-ear smiles. They are distributed throughout New England and the adventurous can spend a lifetime discovering new, healthy populations. Degradation of Trout streams, as well as stocking measures and general misuse of waterways, has reduced the Brookies’ numbers, but you might forget that fact while camping on a small, cold Trout stream for a day or two.
When my friend Justin Hardesty invited me out for a weekend of Brook Trout fishing with a few friends, he told me how his grandparents had fly fished the region for 50 years, typically focusing on the smaller streams that feed into various lakes. Justin’s grandmother, Phoebe, had worked to restore and conserve some of the streams we would fish. Her work with a local conservation organization allowed her to work directly with towns and other state agencies in the region to install root wads and rock vanes to help bring streams back to their natural state. We had the opportunity to see if Phoebe’s work years ago had paid off.
I knew we were in for something special and got my dry flies ready. The plan came together over the course of two weeks. We established a planned route that would take us north from central New Hampshire, then east into Maine. Our group chemistry was bubbling in the first few nights of preparation—this was long overdue.
Mackenzie Cayer is a madman on the fly rod—very intense, very focused, but kind-hearted and hilarious to boot. Mack knows how to fish and have a good time. His tying is impressive, and he has caught some monster Northern Pike and NH Brown Trout. Maddy Zukowski is a fly fishing guru in our area. Her family knows a thing or two about New England wildlife, and she and Mack make an epic adventure couple who have the heart to stay on the water all day.
Justin is chair of the New Hampshire chapter of the Native Fish Coalition, an organization focused on conservation and protection of native fish in their home watersheds. Justin has a real soft spot for Brook Trout, and in addition to being a great photographer he’s been fly fishing since childhood. Eklutna Kenney is his partner. Though she’s new to small stream fishing, she grew up on the banks of Otter Creek in Vermont and is an experienced Northern Pike angler.
With a plan in place, we met on a Thursday to rig reels, plan meals, study the map, and organize the rest of our equipment. We lined up some CLICK reels for the DART rods, and I gave one a quick cast on my back porch after the others went home. I could almost feel the Brookies crashing on dry flies.
On Friday, I worked until noon then went home to pack. Mack and Maddy arrived in a spitting rain, and we finished loading up. Mack said their new cattle dog puppy, Fern, was ready for a long ride, and she fit right on top of my center console for part of the winding drive north. Justin, Eklutna, and their fishing dog, Ahna, were 15 minutes behind us. We stopped for Chester's Chicken and headed straight to our favorite sneaky parking spot on a popular river in northern New Hampshire with a healthy population of Trout and Landlocked Salmon.
We gathered at the water’s edge for the silent ritual of gearing up. We rigged the TROUT LL 490-4 for dries, with the same rod in a 5-weight for streamers, and kept some DART rods on standby for the pocket water.
There were willing fish, and some not so willing. I lost a Salmon that jumped me off in a two-second whirlwind—it came right at me across a spilling rapid and flew off into the pool below where Mack was fishing. He shook his head at me and laughed. It was a good start to the weekend.
That night we camped in the yard of friend and local guide Mickey Cunliffe after he met us on the river and shared some local tips. His polar bear-looking pup, Tilly, showed the other dogs how to fish, while young Fern tried to herd the two larger dogs. At Mickey's place we set up shop on the back deck, listened to the river flow through the woods below, and fired up the grill. The menu included whitetail venison courtesy of Mack, along with red snapper hot dogs, PBR, and Knob Creek. An early Saturday wakeup was in order, so we turned in early (but not before Mickey and I went looking for the Neowise comet, which was unfortunately hidden that night by fog.)
In the morning, we shared Eklutna’s homemade banana bread, then hit the road in the mist anticipating the day ahead. A moose met us at the logging road intersection that would take us to Maine, which felt like a good omen. Driving through the mountains, fog lay in the river valley and we saw multiple deer, a hummingbird, and no other vehicles.
At our first stop, the river was high and a bit crowded. We had a few good interactions, and one bad one, with a snappy dog who found out quickly that Ahna snaps back. The fish ate dries and nymphs, and one feisty Brook Trout took a three-and-a-half-inch flatwing mini-Buford tied and fished by Mackenzie in a sunny plunge pool alongside some big whitewater. After a solid morning of fishing, we headed for camp on a nearby lake to set up our tents, eat lunch, and swim.
With the day not yet done, a few of us went to a small stream nearby while the dogs and others rested. Now it was time for the DART to shine. We’d learned of this stream on a tip from Justin's grandfather, and it lived up to expectations. Native Brookies slammed dries with vigor and dangling a wooly bugger in a pool was equally likely to get a bite. The accuracy and feel of the DART in such intimate waters makes fishing small streams much more fun, as roll casts zoom across the 20-foot-wide plunge pools with ease. But the DART has legs too, and it showed when it came to fishing the few bigger pools and shooting line. One of my favorite uses of the DART is to wade slowly upstream in pocket water, casting a foam body caddis at one plunge pool, then the next, and so on, reaching as far upstream as possible without having to wade through each pool. A shorter rod, like the DART 366-3, allows you to line up your back cast with the flow of the brook, right under tree branches, and make accurate, quick drifts in upstream pockets.
I also love the action the DART provides when it comes time for a bow and arrow cast. Those tough, tiny spots that are too good to pass up sometimes evade anglers who only think in traditional fly-casting terms. Sometimes standing up on the bank, poking the six-and-a-half-foot rod through some brush and getting a fly on the water for a split second is the only way to fish those hard to touch, overlooked places where Brook Trout habitually lurk. The scramble from the bank to land a fish hooked this way is always entertaining for friends as well.
That night, chicken and veggie kabobs, corn on the cob, campfire potatoes, and ice-cold beverages kept us around the fire for hours. Some toads that apparently lived in the rocks of the fire pit eventually came out for fresh air and to tease the dogs. When we eventually crawled into our tents, we fell asleep to the unmistakable calls of loons on the lake.
For me, Sunday was the main event—the river I most wanted to fish. It is a small to medium-sized bronze-hued mountain stream with everything you’d imagine finding in Brook Trout heaven: pristine and productive pools and runs, with undercut banks, wood in the water, and waterfalls. Each of us caught our fill of north country gems. Eklutna caught her first native Brookie under the direction and watchful eye of Maddy. For all of us, the high point was seeing Eklutna’s smile at the end of the day and knowing how much it meant to her to learn the techniques required to catch such a delicate fish.
The DART rods were the stars here, and we enjoyed putting them through their paces on water they are perfectly designed for. High mountain creeks, deep woods brooks, and small roadside trickles are all a great match for the DART; they are lightweight, beautiful, and snappy, just like a wild Brookie. The native fish we find when exploring places like this—where not many other people venture—are rewarding and gorgeous in the most natural way possible. Like I said, I consider myself lucky to call this region home, and I consider myself even luckier that Brook Trout call it home as well.
Words & Photography
Editor / Writer Bill is a born-and-raised New Englander that now calls the north-woods of New Hampshire home. When he's not running his machine shop, volunteering for the local Ambulance Service, or helping out Loon Mountain's Ski Patrol, you can be sure to find him on the water whether it be the Striper flats of Maine or a small mountain Brook Trout stream right in his backyard.
Photographer Justin is a long-time native of New England, with his roots digging back into the north woods of Maine and the native Brook Trout that also call it home. Justin is also chair of the New Hampshire chapter of the Native Fish Coalition, an organization focused on conservation and protection of native fish in their home watersheds.