Wild Brown Trout On the Deerfield River

Rugged terrain and a focus on wild fish make the Deerfield River a must-visit destination for New England trout anglers.

Deerfield River wild brown trout
The Deerfield River offers anglers an accessible wild trout fishery in central New England. Photo by Matt Rissel

I threw my sling pack down and wiped the sweat from my polarized sunglass lenses. My bare eyes adjusted to the brightness as I began to survey the dramatic topography that I had hiked my way into. The deep ravine bisected two peaks that rose some 1,000 feet from the riverbed in some of the most aggressive terrain in Massachusetts. Today, I was exploring a remote stretch of the Deerfield River on the hunt for wild brown trout, and so far, I’d struck out. Crawling, sliding, and jumping up and over huge boulders was the only way to get to the pocket water that holds these fish, and it was taking a toll on my feet and knees. Hydrology buffs would identify this gorge as a high-energy section of the river, meaning all of the silt, sediment, and smaller rocks washed away across thousands of years of spring runoffs, hundred-year floods, and other high-flow events. All that remains are boulders ranging in size from basketballs to large SUVs. The studded soles of my boots and my better judgment were the only things keeping me from a sprained ankle or worse.

Deerfield River terrain
The Deerfield runs through some of the most scenic and rugged terrain in Massachusetts.

My frustration had grown as I covered multiple sections of great-looking pocket water, with no success. Just as I was about to throw the sling pack back on and continue the treacherous scramble to new water, I noticed a strange shape on an adjacent rock. I leaned over to inspect a lone stonefly husk, which was all that was left after the insect’s metamorphic transition from its subaquatic larval stage to a winged adult. Immediately, I reached for my fly box and tied on a Pat’s Rubber Legs, a stonefly imitation that is a staple in the fly box of any serious trout angler. Equipped with this new information, I confidently scrambled to the next likely piece of water and slung my indicator rig up to the head of the pool. An additional flick of the rod sent a coil of line next to the indicator, ensuring the stonefly imitation drifted naturally through the seam. The bright orange indicator sank below the surface of the water, then I instinctively raised the rod and came tight. The fish pulled hard on my 4-weight fly rod as it dove for the deepest part of the pool, testing the limits of the 4x tippet. After an intense fight, a battle-weary wild brown came to my net. Its incredible golden color was broken up by a series of maroon spots along its side. After a quick release, I sat back on a nearby boulder and contemplated how lucky I was to have access to a wild trout fishery so close to home. More than that, it made me want to learn more about the Deerfield River—both how it has gotten to where it is today, and what the future holds for it.
scenic fly rod shot with Deerfield River in background

The Deerfield River winds through the scenic foothills and steep ravines of southern Vermont and western Massachusetts before eventually flowing into the rich farmland of the Pioneer Valley and the Connecticut River. Along its 70-mile length, 10 hydroelectric dams take advantage of the steep elevation change caused by the rugged terrain. This creates unique tailwater conditions with timed release schedules that can fluctuate the flow from 800 to 80 cfs each day. The river is divided into sections based on these dams, with each section having its own release schedule and flow. Despite the prolific hydroelectric development, trout populations in the Deerfield are thriving. Steep mountain ravines and regular water releases help keep large sections of the river cool and oxygenated most of the year.

Deerfield river fly anglers
Due to the moderated flows, some sections of the Deerfield fish well throughout the winter.

Mass Wildlife has recently concluded a comprehensive 4-year study of the brown trout population from the Fife Brook Dam to the Route 2 bridge in Charlemont, a section of the river heavily used for both whitewater rafting and catch-and-release fly fishing. Their mark-recapture study sought to investigate the proliferation of wild trout in this section. They found that 80% of the brown trout sampled were wild, a finding that spurred the decision to stop stocking this area with hatchery-raised trout. It was a huge win for groups such as Deerfield River Trout Unlimited and Mass Wildlife, who have worked tirelessly to maintain this beautiful section of the river through strict regulation, community outreach, and scientific study. Fly fishermen should be equally excited at the prospect of a wild trout fishery in the foothills of western Massachusetts since it’s an area accessible to most of us in central and southern New England within a two-hour drive.

Deerfield wild brown trout colors
The stunning beauty of the Deerfield’s wild brown trout justifies the challenge of targeting them.

To the uninitiated, an angler’s obsession with wild fish may seem trivial. After all, regardless of whether it was born in a hatchery or a gravel bed in the upper Deerfield River, a trout is a trout. However, there are significant behavioral differences between hatchery and wild fish that anyone who has spent time targeting both can attest to. Trout raised in a hatchery are conditioned to be bold and eat aggressively in order to outdo the other fish in their pool. This means that freshly stocked fish are generally easier to fool with a wider variety of flies and less than perfect drifts. Bold feeding habits also do not bode well for long-term survival rates when fish are introduced into a wild setting complete with predators. These factors, combined with the romance of targeting fish that have spent their whole lives in the river, makes wild trout fishing a special pursuit. Some stocked fish do adapt and survive in a new environment for years. Any fish stocked by the state has its adipose fin clipped off, which makes it possible for both researchers and anglers to identify its origin.

Deerfield River C&R Map

Just about all standard trout gear has its use on the Deerfield. Rods in the 3- to 6-weight range from 8’6 to over 10’ are all viable, depending on the technique. For the novice fly angler, it is hard to beat a 9’ 4- or 5-weight. It allows you to do a little bit of everything, from tossing size 18 dries on 6x tippets to chucking moderately sized streamers and nymph rigs. For the more advanced fly fisherman, you could make a good argument in favor of 10’ 3- or 4-weight rods, especially for the more technical situations inherent in chasing wild browns. The increased reach helps to maintain effective drifts, which is essential when hunting these spooky fish. Instead of making complex mends with a shorter rod, you can reach over current seams and keep your line off the water with a longer stick. However, this increased reach comes at the expense of pinpoint accuracy, something to keep in mind if you are looking for a dedicated dry-fly setup.

fly box with selection of flies

Fly selection varies throughout the year, but standby trout patterns remain productive all season. Stonefly and mayfly nymphs are constantly in the drift, with increased activity before and during a hatch. The bulk of a trout’s diet consists of these subsurface insects, which is why nymphing is the most effective method. Pheasant tails, hare’s ears, Pat’s Rubber Legs, Copper Johns, and most other well-known mayfly or stonefly nymphs will produce throughout the year. Caddis larva imitations are always worth a place in the box as well. Flies such as Squirmy Wormies and mop patterns are also deadly all year.

Indicator nymphing is the simplest way to target these fish and usually produces the greatest number of fish. It pays to use the smallest indicator possible to avoid spooking wary fish. Tight-line euro techniques are also extremely effective.

Although it is not as productive as nymphing, fooling a wild brown trout with a dry fly is a worthy challenge and provides a thrill that’s hard to beat. The Deerfield has prolific hatches of Hendricksons in spring, followed by the Sulphurs, which signal the transition from spring to summer. Cahills and Isonychias hatch sporadically in late spring and summer as well. Catskill-style dries and comparaduns in a range of sizes and colors do a great job of imitating mayfly duns riding the surface before spreading their wings into adulthood. Caddis hatches are also commonplace and can be thick at times, especially in the spring and fall. Flies such as the Elk Hair Caddis and the X Caddis are great options.

Deerfield River pocket water
Rugged pocket water can be strenuous to reach, but it offers the ability to target low-pressured fish.

Getting a wary wild brown to eat a dry fly often proves to be a difficult endeavor. Sometimes, the best way to fool the picky risers is to ditch the high-and-dry surface presentation and focus on emergers. These fish are much more comfortable gobbling up subsurface emergers than exposing themselves by eating from the surface. A tandem rig with a soft hackle as the dropper behind your dry fly can be absolutely deadly when fish are unwilling to commit to the dry. Swinging small soft hackles in front of rising fish can be equally as successful. Try downsizing your soft hackle by one size from the natural adult size.

Warmer temperatures and longer days bring out the big bugs, which makes for some of the best fishing of the year. Stimulators and Chubby Chernobyls from size 6 to 10 are must-haves from June to September. Big, fluffy dries do a great job of imitating adult stoneflies as well as terrestrial insects such as grasshoppers and moths. These high-calorie offerings also have the uncanny ability to pull fish up from deeper lies. A super-buoyant dry fly can also work as an indicator in dry dropper rigs, allowing you to fish vertically across the water column with one rig. This can often be the most effective presentation when there is no apparent surface activity in the warmer months, and it is a great way to cover a lot of water.

mouse streamer
Throwing large streamers is a low percentage game, but it is the best way to target the largest browns in the river.

If you have your sights set on the biggest wild browns in the Deerfield, throwing the big, meaty stuff is the way to go. These low-percentage, high-reward techniques require specialized gear to be the most effective. You can get away with a 5-weight for moderately sized streamers, but for the real meat, you need a dedicated 6- or 7-weight streamer rod. These help you effortlessly deliver big, wind-resistant patterns and lift heavy sink-tips from the bottom of a deep pool. Sink-tip lines are preferred because they have the ability to get big, buoyant flies to depth, while the floating running line can be mended to modify the drift.

stonefly husk
Fresh stonefly husks are a great indicator of what the trout may be keyed in on.

When choosing streamers, rather than having an imitation for every prey species in the river, I opt to have as many colors, profiles, and actions as possible. One day, they may be keyed in on small black streamers; the next day, they may eat only huge white offerings. Covering water when streamer fishing is essential. If a trout does not eat a streamer on the first cast, the likelihood that it will go for subsequent presentations drops dramatically. Dead-drifting streamers under large indicators can be a sure way to connect with wary browns throughout the year. Slinging big mouse flies after dark can bring up some of the biggest brown trout in the system. The hookup ratio is poor, but the sound of a huge brown exploding on a mouse imitation is enough to keep adventurous anglers coming back.

releasing wild brown trout

Whatever your tactic is to bring these beautiful wild fish to the net, practicing safe handling and release is of the utmost importance. Keep a stream thermometer handy throughout the warmer months. When water temperatures are in the upper 60s, trout show higher rates of release mortality. When the water temperature crests 70 degrees, it is best to leave the trout alone and go after local warm-water species such as smallmouth bass.

Though the challenges are great, the rewards of exploring this burgeoning wild trout fishery in central New England is well worth the effort.

For more information, contact the Deerfield Fly Shop for river reports and the most up-to-date seasonal intel.

1 thought on “Wild Brown Trout On the Deerfield River

  1. Ed galvin

    I am an old time deerfield river fisherman who lived on main st Shelburne falls for 17 years also greenfield and colrain 12 years retired in Sarasota fla now living the dream in park city utah 83 years young trying to keep the knees moving so I get to the provo and webber here have heard great things about your shop from Brian lynch Eric yetter and the late Jim gariepy just started tying some flies to use my vintage cortland and Fenwick glass rods from the past I will follow your news letter and hopefully make some purchases from you thanks for reading my story do love the deerfield from Vermont to the ct River thanks Ed Galvin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *