Everyone knows that a good fishing day starts with a hearty breakfast and some hot coffee. It’s not something you want to mess with, especially when you’re exploring new water.
Joe and I hadn’t gotten an early start that morning. It was late November, and the temperature had been decreasing by the day. We weren’t rushing, so we made a stop at a new bakery in Gorham, NH. We made small talk with some locals, then headed on our way.
We drove under old railroad bridges, past car dealerships, near a pizza shop, and by one, two, no–three–gas stations. A small dirt parking lot marked our arrival.
We dragged my boat over rocks and trees, then down a steep bank. We loaded up and ran shuttle. I back-rowed upriver, anchored, and we started nymphing a seam. It had been a lot of effort to get here, but for what?
Within minutes, Joe’s indicator went under and a trout went airborne. He reeled, and the fish ran. It jumped again, and again. It wasn’t a large fish by any means, but it was as perfect as they come. A bright silver color with dark spots and clean fins. Without a doubt, it was a wild rainbow trout.
Running from Errol, New Hampshire, through Berlin and Gorham all the way until it joins the Kennebec River at Merrymeeting Bay in Maine, the Androscoggin River wasn’t always a destination for wild trout. From the 1850s onward, the river was dammed for milling, and there was an annual log drive. During these drives, the entire surface of the river was covered in logs as they floated downstream to be processed at the mills.
The quantity of waste released into the river during these years was immense. The damage was severe. In many places, the bottom of the river is still covered in logs.
That went on uncontrolled until 1972, when the Federal Clean Water Act of 1972 was developed. It’s taken time and has been a long journey since then. Over the past couple of decades, however, the river has been cleaned up considerably, which has slowly allowed for the growth and reproduction of these wild trout.
You must understand that there are two ways a fish can end up in a water body. It can be born there (wild), or it can be put there (stocked).
In New Hampshire, many of our lakes and rivers are stocked by the state. This means that these trout, which are farm-raised by the state in holding tanks, are put into the water. The practice of stocking trout has been used in the U.S., since the 1800s, and it’s done so that anglers can go to the river and catch trout. Whether rainbow trout, brook trout, or brown trout, these are known as stocked trout.
A number of lakes and rivers in New Hampshire also have self-sustaining wild trout populations. In the case of rainbow trout, they spawn each spring, their eggs incubate for three to seven weeks depending on water temperature, and then hatch into a new generation of trout.
You might be asking: What difference does it make how they get there? A trout’s a trout. In fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Wild trout are important.
Wild trout are smarter than stocked trout. They’re genetically superior. They’re self-sustaining and thrive without human interference. They’re strategic, and they know how to conserve energy in order to survive. They’re naturally fearful of predators and don’t take unnecessary risk. They’re more discerning when presented with a fly. They live longer—and in the right ecosystem—can get very large. They fit into the natural balance of the river. Most of all, they fight like hell when hooked.
Keep Fish Wet
Keep Fish Wet. If you’re chasing wild fish, you should make sure you’re well versed in ethical fish handling practices for catch-and-release. These fish are special, and as anglers we should do everything we can to ensure their safe return to the river.
As recommended by Keep Fish Wet, a nonprofit with a mission of promoting science-based best practices for handling fish, you should aim to
1. minimize air exposure
2. eliminate contact with dry surfaces
3. reduce handling time
Photo by Nicole Handel
It should be noted that while these rainbows on the Androscoggin River are wild, they are not native. This means they didn’t originate naturally there and were, instead, introduced by humans many years back. If you want to chase a wild and native fish, heading into the White Mountains in search of brook trout is your answer. When the Androscoggin becomes too hot to practice ethical catch-and-release during the mid-summer heat, these wild trout are there for you.
For the devout New England angler, chasing brook trout deep in the woods is a rite of passage. It’s a sacred tradition, reserved for warm summer days when everyone—both fish and human—at lower elevation needs an escape. We call this blue lining.
By definition, blue lining is the act of chasing fish on the little blue lines that appear on a map. They’re not the big streams, but in the little trickles that rarely get any attention. They’re often colder than the main rivers during the summer due to their elevation, and thus, are safe to fish.
In truth, half the fun in chasing wild brook trout is the exploration; it’s hours on end without another human in sight. The long, wandering hikes keep most others at bay. The prospect of the unknown keeps them in the same pools they’ve always known. For those who consider making the trek … the mosquitos and black flies guard these mountain treasures with their lives.
Brook Trout Habitat Restoration
Since 2010, Tin Mountain Conservation Center (TMCC) in Albany, NH has been angling for trout in Carroll County. Yet no rods, line, hooks, or bait, have been used. Instead, TMCC has been improving habitat and drawing them in. At now 24 sites in 13 towns, the “Trout Crew” at Tin Mountain has successfully treated over 16 miles of native run trout streams. The reasons are simple: improve trout habitat, improve water quality, and prevent downstream flooding. The process is anything but simple, however, and has involved over 10 partnering organizations, state and federal agencies, municipal government, land trusts, and most all, cooperative private landowners.
Up until 2020, the fine art of capturing all of these partners and getting them to work together to achieve these restoration actions has been practiced by the now retired, Richard (Dick) Fortin. A long-time resident of Eaton and member of the Eaton Conservation Commission, Dick has used his fish savvy to “chum in” the necessary partnerships, money, and personnel to create a model program that has benefited thousands of eastern brook trout and all of the critters and anglers that love them. After all the landowner agreements have been signed, the permits applied for, and the staff resources lined up, a pre-treatment assessment is completed that documents baseline habitat conditions in order to compare with post-treatment conditions. NH Fish & Game has graciously offered to electrofish (“efish”) each reach of stream before and after to determine the success on native run species.
After 10 years of data, TMCC has documented an increase in trout density to over 1.2 per meter of stream, a doubling of biomass in streams with deep pools, and an increase in resting cover of over 35 percent. In addition, riffle and pool depths have been increased, water temperatures have dropped, and small floodplains have been re-engaged that have otherwise been left high and dry by storm erosion.
With exceptional cooperation from the federal government (through NRCS EQIP grants and National Fish & Wildlife Foundation grants), TMCC is on tap to improve another 3.5 miles this year. Keep an eye out for training programs for landowners, as well as regular updates of the progress at www.tinmountain.org. Dr. Rick Van de Poll, also of Ecosystem Management Consultants of New England, LLC, is the Research Director at TMCC, having taken over the program from Dick Fortin in 2020.
Tin Mountain Conservation Center • www.tinmountain.org
Sometimes these exploratory missions don’t pan out—but when they do, you’re in for a real treat.
All you need is a pocket full of flies, a small rod, a light reel, and a few snacks. In a sport that leans heavily on technological advances in gear, it’s a welcome change. Gone are your worries about line taper. Erased are your anxieties that you don’t have the right rod flex. Is your drag adequate? Yes. Do you have enough flies? Yes. It’s not about the gear. It’s about finding the right place.
A hopper, or perhaps a beetle? Maybe a caddis. You don’t need much else. Sure, you can catch them on nymphs or streamers. But for me, if they don’t want to eat dries, I prefer to leave them alone. I like to meet these fish on their terms. They deserve it.
Let’s not forget, there’s nothing like the voracious eats you can get on the surface. When they dart out of their lies to eat, they make a 2-weight rod seem like wet noodle.
These fish are true treasures. While they don’t get large—a 10-inch fish is considered a trophy—due to their limited growth window, they make up for it in jaw-dropping splendor. The white leading edges on their fins are flawless, their bellies fiery, and their spots like fresh drops of ink. They’re some of nature’s most beautiful artwork.
After exploring and finding some fish, I never overstay my welcome. These wild fish have lived here much longer than humans have, and I don’t want to change that. It’s time to let the stream fade back into obscurity. On my next outing, I’ll seek out somewhere new.
After five or so hours on the river, a couple of wild rainbows to the net, and some cold toes, we dragged my raft over a bank and onto a side street. I tucked my trailer between a fire hydrant and a boulder, and we heaved the boat on. Some homeowners looked on suspiciously; a dog barked. While we didn’t get stuck talking to anyone, my day with Joe ended much like it began.
We drove under old railroad bridges, past car dealerships, near a pizza shop, and by one, two, no–three–gas stations. A small dirt parking lot marked the end of our day.
Wild fish are beautiful. They are the fish that make endless hours of exploration worth it. They justify the awkward put ins and the long walks. They force us as anglers to truly understand the rivers they call home, and we share as guests. They are the fish that humble us and keep us learning.
If you’re willing to look for it, wild fish can be anywhere. Whether it be deep in the woods, or hidden in plain sight, they’re there. Their environments are changing. Their water temperature is changing. Their food sources are changing. Human influence is increasing. Their survival is in danger. But for now, they’re there.
How to Identify a Wild Trout
How do I know if the fish I caught is wild?
It can be tough to tell at times, but there are a few clues you can watch for.
Does the body of water you’re fishing get stocked?
Knowing that could rule out your questions quickly!
Credit: Shannon White-Penn-State
How colorful is it?
Because stocked fish are fed a pellet diet, they often have more muted colors than their wild counterparts.
How fat is it?
Because stocked fish don’t have to swim hard to survive and because they have a fat-rich diet, they’re often referred to as “footballs.” They will look much too round for their length.
How are its fins?
Stocked fish are stuck in the hundreds together in concrete tanks, which results in abrasions, fin wear, and body scrapes.
BOOK A TRIP with Dominic!
Dominic Lentini is a licensed New Hampshire fly fishing guide in North Conway, NH. He owns Fly Fish NH, a guide service specializing in float and wade trips on the Androscoggin, Saco, and Connecticut Rivers. From beginners to experts, he loves sharing his passion for rivers with others.
To book a trip, visit www.flyfishnh.com