The Streamside Guide - Fall Fishing on the Winooski River
In the second of his new column bringing thoughts and insights from the USA, our Streamside Guide, Peter Cammann looks at what Autumn brings on this particular river in Orvis country - also known as Vermont.
by Peter Cammann
There are days when the water in the Winooski River is so warm that if you wade in it during the early morning on a fall day, your head and body may envy your legs and feet. The Winooski is one of the three largest rivers in central Vermont, the other two being the White and the Lamoille. It holds a remarkable variety of game fish, including trout, walleye, smallmouth bass, and landlocked salmon.
When the water is warm, many of the species you find on the Winooski tend to be lethargic, if not downright somnambulant. Rainbow trout are hard to locate and forget about walleyes. You won't see that member of the perch family again until next spring.
Like most large rivers, the Winooski has been dammed along several places to provide hydropower. The water that flows out of the bottom of those dams runs cooler than on the upstream side of the dam and it's here that you'll find fish congregating. They're looking for oxygen too and the turbines and overflow provide plenty of that.
I waded in at one of my favorite spots, about a mile below one major dam. The water was much warmer than the air, by about 20 degrees. I saw tricos in the air, pushed up against the far bank by a strong wind and fallfish were feeding on them. I had brought a fly rod, but quickly went back to my car for an ultra light spinning rod. The breeze was simply too strong and I found it very difficult to land my fly anywhere near where I wanted it.
I tied a 1/8-ounce, gold Phoebe lure on and started to work the upper reaches of a long deep pool. I had a few small fallfish nip at it before missing a good strike. Instead of working back over the water where the fish had hit, I elected to move further upstream, into the next rapid. I hooked into a brown trout almost immediately.
I fought the trout in quickly. Even though browns tolerate warm water better than rainbows or brookies, it makes sense to keep the fight as short as possible: better to lose a fish by horsing it in under these conditions than to injure it. The fish disappeared among the rocks at my feet as soon as I removed the hook.
The wind had picked up even more and so I switched to 1/6-ounce Phoebe. This allowed me to make longer, more accurate casts and I was able to flick the lure under an overhanging tree branch, into a very fast moving piece of water. I retrieved ahead of the current and got a strike. The small fish ran and jumped, showing me it's silver belly. I figured it was a rainbow trout until I brought it in and discovered that I'd actually hooked into a small salmon.
Salmon, like brown trout, aren't at all bothered by water temperatures in the 70s. In fact, this little fish seemed remarkable energetic and I had a hell of a time getting the hook out of its mouth. It splashed around in the water and I was obliged to wet my hands and then gently pick it up.
The most remarkable thing to me about a salmon is the streamlined design of its tail. There are some very powerful muscles there and adult salmon take full advantage of the long, tapered, forks at its end to shoot through the water at speeds of up to 60 mile per hour. An old timer I used to fish with told me I should never worry about retrieving or trolling too quickly for salmon. If they want something, they'll catch up with it. This made sense as the water flow I'd caught my little salmon in had been moving along at a very fast pace and I'd reeled furiously to keep my lure ahead of it.
I released the salmon and continued upstream. About a half hour later, I hooked into another brown trout. Again, I worked it in as quickly as I could and released it. One thing I noticed was that while the browns were quite active, I really hadn't seen much surface activity outside of the fallfish grabbing their breakfast on the tricos downstream. I decided to head back down to them.
By the time I got there, the trico hatch was over and the sun was getting pretty high, so I decided to grab a little lunch and wait for the afternoon. I went right back to that same spot on the Winooski at around 4:30 and again, the wind was causing all sorts of trouble. Still, there were lots of fallfish hitting the surface, as well as what appeared to be some good-sized trout.
I took another brown trout at the top of a rapid and it fought very hard before I was able to land it. The fish showed some very deep, red markings along the edge of its stomach, similar to a male brook trout during spawning. Brown trout will be spawning shortly and the competition between brookies and browns for places to dig out redds and fertilize their eggs can be fierce. Salmon will be spawning later this month as well, although the Winooski River isn't the best place to fish for them. Still, it was interesting to see two out of the three fall spawning species so active so early in the month.
Before leaving, I hooked into and fought a robust, 13-inch fallfish and a young smallmouth bass. The bass was a nice surprise, but the fallfish was a real treat. It pulled out quite a lot of line and made three long runs into the upstream side of the rapid where I hooked it. It was fat and healthy, weighing close to a pound and I found that I was at least as happy about landing it as I had any of the brown trout.
Copyright 2008 by Peter Cammann
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