Tuesday, June 28, 2016


Time machines have as of yet not been invented, but cars have a century been in popular utilization, and I have found them to aptly serve a similar purpose, without sacrificing the experiential value in “getting there.” Given the right route, one can hop in a car, drive a few hours, and find themselves in the midst of a culture minutely varied, but so as to suggest the loss of a few decades of what they call forward progress. I have found this to be true of most routes leading out of Megalopolis and adjacent developments and into the North Woods.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    It’s commonly said that life is slower in the south, but I’d offer New England as more qualified for the classification. A northerly latitude lengthens days in the summer, and fewer people and less development breeds fewer distractions from some of the last remaining expanses of true wilderness left on the East Coast. A sporting culture permeates deeper in the day-to-day, compared to its relative absence in more urbanized localities.

    One such route recently transported my time machine and I to a township called Second College Grant, or “The Grant,” as it is referred to by citizens of nearby Errol, New Hampshire and others geographically related.

    With a population of zero, The Grant is more of a resource investment than a town. In 1807, its 27,000 acres were donated to Dartmouth College. Thereafter, the property has been actively logged to provide scholarship funds for students, and well-managed for public outdoor recreation. As such, it carries all the time-ago drama of a working northern forest.

    Unless you happen to be one of the oft-manipulated, Dartmouth-associated gate key-bearers, the gravel road that traverses the property is restricted to foot-travel. Therefore, much of the interior remains rugged wilderness.

    The Grant’s main road parallels the Dead Diamond River, which is the largest unstocked native brook trout stream in the state, and plays host to some of New Hampshire’s last remaining mythically proportioned brook trout.

    The river still has brook trout, but not like they’ve been written about finning the dark pools of the river in centuries past. Recent years have seen the illegal introduction of smallmouth bass in the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge downstream, and the resultant invasion of the bass upstream into brookie territory.

    Black bear, moose, deer, squirrels, and various other creatures thrive on the property. One could argue that active logging keeps up a healthy population of grouse, individual members of which seem to be so isolated as to be relatively unafraid of approaching humans, and which mystify my upland bird-deprived Virginia sensibilities upon every encounter.

    “Our grouse situation is still pretty good,” are the words that ground me.

    Another route took my time machine even further into the past.

    Kokadjo, Maine is a town of a trading post with one worker, no gas station, and a famous brook trout and salmon stream. KOKADJO. POP: NOT MANY are the words that greet the traveler, and I fear the plurality of the word “many” might be a subtle overstatement.

    13 miles by logging road north of Kokadjo sits a small homestead of old sporting camps on SpencerPond, owned by husband and wife—Dana Black, a registered Maine guide and lobsterman, and Christine Howe, also a registered Maine guide with an environmental education and a history with the EPA.

    That I ended up on their doorstep was by chance and grace, but I quickly found that my time machine had done its job satisfactorily. Among the Spencer Pond Camps, there is no electricity or running water. Just kerosene lanterns, a wood stove, a well pump, and a solar bag for washing behind the ears as is often necessary when bushwhacking through northern forest as I do every day, these days. And so there is room to wonder about the way life used to be and other things of rival romance.

    Between the camps and the closest incorporated establishment sit thousands of acres of “big woods,” complete with unnamed, walk-in brook trout ponds, and a population of bear and moose that easily outnumbers people.

    In talking about fishing, Dana, who is learning the art of fly fishing, told me of the brook trout pond fishing in the area.

    “Maine still has pretty good pond fishing for brook trout,” he said.

    Maine is widely held as our nation’s last foothold for vital populations of native brook trout, and so it struck me that I had been encountering the word “still” a little too often, and it made me nervous. To paraphrase the great conservationist, Aldo Leopold, given the chance to go forward or go fishing, I’d quickly choose fishing, but I fear the world is developing in the opposite direction.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian


I hate calling fly shops. It takes a remarkable quantity of suppression to overcome my do-it-yourselfing nature and query a local expert for directions to success on foreign water that they’ve come about the hard way. And yes I know that’s what they’re there for.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    The bulk of it is that my transient identity as a writer makes the dilemma all that much worse. I regularly set people straight on my life’s priorities—I’m an outdoor writer, which means I’m an outdoorsman first, a writer second. I’ve expended a substantial number of days--relative to my age--putting boots on the ground; finding the out-of-the-way, hidden spots that fish all the better for it; putting people on fish; and going out of my way to make sure those special places remain little more than carefully-crafted vignettes reserved for close conversation. What this more or less boils down to is that I have a darn-near medical aversion to shedding light on secrets, on pieces of this beautiful Earth somehow not already run over by human meddling, and to stepping on the feet of those locals who appreciate those spots on a regular basis or make their living revealing them to others in confidence.

    But, until I make the professional leap into the pool of the latter type of individual, who I have profound respect for, I resort to making money off of words and photographs of waters. A little ironic, isn’t it?

    I have a formula.

    This summer, the destinations I’ve chosen to write about are the furthest things from secrets I could find without writing the article another writer wrote for last month’s edition. The prime locations require a good deal of footwork to access, with the hopes that those willing to invest sweat are the kind to respect and protect the resource. However, though there may be plenty of existing information, I’m almost as allergic to writing about places I haven’t experienced thoroughly as I am giving away secrets. So, I spend my working days on the water taking photographs, flipping over rocks, fishing, and taking notes on said water, and my after/off hours fishing the places nearby that don’t have established fishing pressure and that I won’t tell you about.

    So yesterday I called the fly shop. With more than ten miles of water, not including tributaries, to check out in four days, I needed a logical place I could start with some kind of confidence. I talked to the young guy on the other end of the line like I knew him, because, at least as a fly shop worker, I did.

    “Don’t tell me any secrets, but do you have any suggestions as to good water on the…?”

    The question’s prefix is a formality. Having worked in a fly shop, I can say with confidence that you don’t give away any kind of true secret to a customer unless you’re on a first-name basis with their entire living family and attended some of their late relatives’ funerals. But you have your good information that a customer can tank to the bank and finish the day with fish-slimy hands. The young guy responded in such a way.

    The positive thing about out-of-town and first-time-on-this-piece fishing pressurers is that they live the tourist effect. You know the kind. Like how Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello may be the most popular spot in all of Charlottesville, but as locals, we have our own favorite haunts. What’s more, tourists sometimes randomly happen upon local gems that even some locals didn’t know about. It’s a real grab-bag, and there’s notable room for varying first impressions that either will, or won’t draw them back.

    And so it is with rivers and fishing them for the first time, and reporting on them, as I do. One day spent on a piece of water hardly serves as an accurate representation of a fishery. In the absence of streamflow gauges, you can’t precisely discern normal flow, water clarity, or temperature, and you surely don’t know where the best fish are, but you’ll go to Monticello until you realize you can get more Charlottesville elsewhere.

    So I invest as many days as I can to get a picture of the fishery for myself (however accurate it may be), and use that picture to qualify the opinions of local experts, guides, fly shop workers. There is no room for dishonesty in journalism.

    Thus, in fishing, I resort to cherry-picking, running-and-gunning, and pausing to put my time in where I think I should. That is, for now, and you may read about those rivers. But this time tomorrow I’ll be getting off an unnamed creek I spied on my way back to camp yesterday, with a head full of stories from rivers I won’t write.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Wednesday, June 8, 2016


I left home on a Tuesday. Little Blue didn’t seem as full as perhaps she should be with the intent of spending a month on the road in New England on a tight budget. But I wasn’t lacking in flies, food, or camera gear. So what more do I need? The jury is still out on that ever-standing question, though it’s only Day 1.

    When I found Cape Cod for the first time in two years, she was covered in darkness. Traffic held me up in the bold points of Megalopolis, and I didn’t make camp before sunset, as was the intention. Oh well. It’s all part of it.

    I regrouped in the morning. Day 1, officially, and pointed Little Blue towards Buttermilk Bay of Buzzards Bay, on the eastern edge of the Cape.

    Buttermilk is an uncelebrated fishery, itself, but it drains the 4.5-mile spring creek, Red Brook, which flows south from White Island Pond through classic Massachusetts pine barrens. Every year, around the middle of May and early June, Red Brook is the seasonal host of alewives and blueback herring, both herring species that run up the river to spawn, and the water is thick with them.

    But herring is not why people come to Red Brook. Hidden beneath undercut banks, and nestled up tight to woody cover and watercress edges, fin the speckled beneficiaries of a great conservation success story.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    I connected with one on the end of a delicate, tricky cast that floated through a tangle of trees and landed on the upstream edge of a watercress patch. In a flash of gold he darted out from cover and ate my Edison Tiger, fashioned in a vise weeks prior.

    A familiar face in a strange place, the small brook trout that came to quiver in my hand looked no different than any I had tricked from their mountain lairs back home. However, this fish’s life story is a bit different.

    He started his life as an egg in the slow, meandering Red Brook, but his childhood years were spent along the weedy banks of buttermilk bay, filtering saltwater, and feeding on small fish and crustaceans. In the creek, as a grown individual, he sits in wait for the chance to snack on a herring fry, as they, like their spawning parents, are thick in the river.

    Indeed, until recently, the “salters,” as they are called, of Red Brook were one of the last known populations of sea-run brook trout remaining, and like their Appalachian cousins, they too face adversity.

    Near the headwaters of Red Brook and White Island Pond is the town of Cranberry, aptly named, as the hub of a great deal of historical (and ongoing) cranberry farming. As a tool perceived to be ecologically harmless, Red Brook was dammed to flood acres of cranberry bogs.

    The dam spelled low and warming water on the downstream side, which made it impossible for coldwater species to thrive where they once had unhindered. Once the plight of the salters was discovered, a collaborative effort between Trout Unlimited, the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife, and the Trustees of Reservations got the dam removed, woody cover added to the streambed, and a regular stream monitoring protocol instated.

    Today, that stretch of river is managed under special regulations, and enjoyed by fishermen, birdwatchers, hikers, and photographers.

    There are other rivers like Red Brook, and all have fishable populations of salters that love to chew on streamers. If for some reason you needed to find me sometime in the next few days, you can be sure it’s somewhere under the branches, and within 40 feet of a watercress patch sliding flies to familiar faces.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


Excitement and anticipation seemed to boil within us, warding off some of the chill and threat posed by a heavy, oppressive sky. Fog hung thick and low, and drizzle fell from it to soak the alpine crest of Black Mountain. Wind slanted it sideways and drove the chill deeper.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Just a day before, my brother, Phillip, and I toted backpacks peacefully into the heart of West Virginia’s Cranberry Wilderness, set up camp, and angled for sprightly brook trout along the middle reaches of the Middle Fork of the Williams River. But on the peak of Black Mountain, we stood another day into a weeks-long cold, wet spell plaguing the region, on the opposite side of the wilderness area, poised a few hundred feet above the Forks of Cranberry, with enough food in our packs to last us four more days. Donning waders and rain shells, we began sloshing our way down the mountain, ready for what the coming days would have in store.

    Research, travel to, fish, photograph, and report on notable fly fishing destinations throughout the East Coast—herein lies my job description, at least for a large fraction of the summer. It’s a tough life, but it’s my life, and I’ll deal with it as such. The Cranberry Wilderness was the first on my hit list, and did its best to invoke the fictional dread I attribute to this lifestyle.

    It hardly succeeded, though we made camp and fixed dinner in a steady, cold rain that second night, after a six-mile hike through mud puddles and downed hemlocks and spruces. The next morning—Day 3—we awoke to the peaceful sound of snowflakes stippling the tent’s rain fly. The air outside of the sleeping bags was harsh and raw.

    The gurgling of the North Fork of the Cranberry just outside the door prodded us along. Snow is at least gracious, as elements go, for not soaking you to the bone. We boiled water for coffee and shoveled in some form or another of dried oats, and exchanged sleepwear for waders and rain shells, once again.

    Existing information can’t seem to make up its mind about the state of the headwaters of the Cranberry River. Do a few internet searches, and you’ll find as many people talking about wonderful brook trout and wild trout fishing in the Forks of the Cranberry as you will naysayers yelling “dead river.” This, and because I refuse to propagate commonly rewritten, un-researched information in my writing, is why I wanted to devote several days to experiencing these rivers before writing about them.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Phillip spent the morning plying the runs and pools of the small North Fork with a fly rod and various nymph patterns, while my industry was achieved with a camera and tripod. Snow grayed my compositions until noon when, fishless, Phillip suggested what had been on my mind all morning.

    We gathered food and water bottles, stuffing what we could in our wader pockets, and began hiking downstream as the sky opened to reveal a comforting blue that had been absent since the beginning of the trip.

    Not a fish was seen in the upper or middle reaches of the North Fork, and so a cautious eye was held to the stream’s course as we wound downstream at the mercy of the foot trail. The story was static, all the way to the mouth.

    At the bottom, we encountered a water treatment station, equipped to dose the inflowing North Fork with limestone powder just a few hundred yards before its confluence with the South Fork—a sign suggestive of an acidified upstream ecosystem.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    With the goal of netting a few fish before nightfall, Phillip waded into the main stem of the Cranberry River, just downstream from the confluence of its two headwater streams. I remained up on the cliff bank, shooting photos and giving instruction. A few casts in, Phillip nailed a stocky rainbow.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Our spirits were recharged that night, after a spirited walk back up the North Fork to camp, a strong fire, and a hot meal.

    The next morning, we high-tailed it downstream to the main stem. I did a quick study of the benthic macroinvertebrates in the South and North Forks, looking for signs of pollution-intolerant species—mayfly and caddis larvae—and found several. However, a few hours combined fishing on both forks yielded nothing from the North Fork, and two stocked rainbows and a single native brook trout from the South Fork. Not even a fin caught my attention in the former.

    Nevertheless, the latter half of the day we spent slaying chunky rainbows in the main stem of the river, having come to terms with the compromised system.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian