August 03, 2022
Nobody ever tells my wife to sit down, but when Josh Adams asked her nicely to find her seat she fully understood. Adams was rowing his drift boat toward a small, churning section of rapids on the Connecticut River, and my wife was fishing from the bow. It was her first time fly-fishing from a drift boat, and Adams had been giving her wise and helpful instruction the entire day. She took one look downriver at the roiling water and quickly heeded his advice.
Adams turned to me. I had a streamer on my 5-weight flyrod, one that he'd tied on just after we stopped for a streamside lunch some 30 minutes earlier.
"Just as we get through the whitewater, there's a series of big boulders on our left-hand side," he said. "Chuck that streamer up in there and strip it in quickly. Let’s see if there’s anybody home."
We got through the rough water and I threw the streamer up against the rocks on the bank. Three strips later a feisty rainbow flashed and I hooked up. Adams rowed the boat to a calmer section and netted the fish. "They do like that fast water," he said. "I’m not sure I do," laughed my wife.
Other than the 20-second shoot through the mild rapids, she sure did enjoy the June day we spent fishing on the Upper Connecticut River. Forming the border between Vermont and New Hampshire before flowing into Massachusetts and Connecticut, the Connecticut River is New England's largest river, cutting through some of the most urban and developed parts of the entire Northeast before it dumps into Long Island Sound. But up at its headwaters near the Canadian border, the 'Cut is a serene trout river that feels more like big Western water in both how it fishes and the stunning scenery it provides.
ROW vs. WADE
Our trip with Adams on the Connecticut started just a few clicks south of the Canadian border. We floated from Canaan, Vt., to Bloomfield, Vt., although technically we launched in the New Hampshire town of Stewartstown. Either way, since it’s boundary water, either a New Hampshire or Vermont fishing license will cover you here. There is good access to the river from roads on either side, but the wading can be tricky and technically demanding. The best way to fish this stretch of river? Float it.
Adams, owner of Vermont-based Great Drake Angling guide service, is one of a handful of guides who run drift boat trips on the upper stretches of the Connecticut. His Stealthcraft would barely get a second look pulled through river towns in Montana, Colorado or Idaho. But, in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, people tend to gawk at it.
"There are a handful of people running drift boats up here, but it's not like you're bumping into other boats all day long," Adams said. "That's one of the great attractions about this stretch of river. You won't find a lot of boats."
What you will find is fish. And bald eagles. And various species of waterfowl, beavers and otters. While there are roads on both sides of the river, you’re more likely to see a line of cyclists or farmers working in their fields than motor vehicles.
Those who don't have access to a drift boat or a fishing raft can cover this stretch of river fairly well in a canoe or kayak. That will mean more wading, since the big advantage of drift boats and rafts is the ability to cast-as-you-go, but it's not particularly challenging water to paddle in the summer months when the flows are at manageable levels.
It's a long stretch from Canaan to Bloomfield—more than 20 miles by road—so if you plan on paddling, it will pay to scout pull-out spots before launching. And don’t plan on having cell phone service.
"Down the river, below the town of Pittsburg, it gets a bit easier to wade," says Adams. "There's a lot of water to cover in that stretch down from Canaan to Bloomfield. Too much to wade, really, and the water you can get to only by boat doesn’t really see that much fishing pressure."
’BOWS, BROWNS and MORE
Drift boats are just one thing the upper stretch of the Connecticut River has in common with the big rivers of the West. The other is trout. Certainly not as many big and wild trout as the famous rivers of the West, but there are trout just the same—and in good numbers. On the outing with my wife, we lost count of the number of fish we brought to the net.
While there are plenty of wild trout that live in the upper stretches of the Connecticut River, the population is sustained by extensive stocking by the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. Last year, at sites in Colebrook alone, more than 11,000 rainbow, brown and brook trout were stocked in the river. The department stocks similar numbers all the way to Pittsburg, N.H.
"It’s pretty heavily stocked," says Adams, "but when you get away from the access points there are holdovers and wild fish of good size."
What’s a good size? Thanks to the stocking, fish in the 12- to 14-inch range are fairly common. Anything over 16 inches is noteworthy, but every year Adams will put a few fish pushing 20 inches in the boat—big browns or rainbows that take up residence in some of the deeper holes.
As a general rule, some of the biggest trout can be found below Bloomfield, Vt., where anglers also find decent number of feisty smallmouth bass.
TIPS AND TACTICS
Wherever you find trout you’ll find fly fisherman, and the upper stretches of the Connecticut River are no exception. The hatches of caddis in late May and early June can be downright fantastic, and Adams always always has plenty of caddis fly patterns—both wet and dry—with him. He also never leaves home without a flybox full of bigger streamers.
"I've had my best big-fish success while streamer fishing," Adams said. "But if you just want to catch a lot of fish, nymphing is very effective." Bead-headed caddis pupas will do well, as will classic Pheasant Tails and Prince Nymphs.
Spin anglers will do well with in-line spinners and smaller stickbaits that can be fished like a streamer in the fast water. However you fish, Adams has one key for getting fish to bite.
"The water can be difficult to read, particularly where it looks slow," he says. "Pay close attention to any place there’s surface clutter: pollen, leaves, debris. Any place that kind of looks like an eddy is where you’ll generally find fish."
Late summer hopper-dropper fishing can be fantastic on the upper Connecticut, but summer fishing on the big river always comes with a caveat: There has to be water. Last year, even in June, flows were at low levels. "It's a pretty magical place when you hit it right with water levels and hatches," says Adams. "In a lot of respects, it does remind me a bit of the big rivers out West."
Places to stay and eat, and guides for hire
The Upper Connecticut River flows through some fairly remote and rural parts of northern New England. That’s part of the charm.
If you’re going there to fish, realize that you’re not totally cut off from civilization. The Vermont village of Island Pond (population about 800) has places to stay and eat, with The Essex House and Tavern offering both. Across the street, the Kingdom Grill and The Lakefront Inn are also solid options. On the New Hampshire side, Colebrook (population about 2,100) has a number of amenities, including the Colebrook Country Club and Motel and the Colebrook House of Pizza.
For almost two decades now, the two villages on either side of the river have become more reliant on four-season visitors and vacationers. This means you can find private cottages to rent on the popular vacation home rental web sites. There are a couple of sporting lodges in the area as well, including Quimby Country Lodge and Cottage in Norton, Vt., (quimbycountry.com) and Lopstick Lodge in Pittsburg, N.H., (lopstick.com).
Both private and public campgrounds abound in the area. Maidstone and Brighton Vermont State Parks are excellent choices.
To fish the upper Connecticut best, consider hiring a guide for a float trip. Josh Adams at Great Drake Fishing is superb (greatdrakefishing.com). Lopstick Lodge also runs trips.