Hidden deep in the hills of northwest Massachusetts is a river few fly fishers know of and even fewer fish—the Deerfield River from the small town of Monroe downstream to its junction with the Connecticut River. Thanks to cold daily hydropower releases from upriver dams, fly fishers now enjoy cool water temperatures on the Deerfield right through September, and some of the best spring and summer dry-fly fishing for wild trout in the East.
The best Deerfield trout water consists of two floatable stretches. The upper reach, from Fife Brook Dam to the Number 4 Dam, has 17 miles of fast riffle water, undercut banks, and the occasional deep pool, where 14- to 18-inch brown, rainbow, and brook trout congregate to feed on steady streams of mayflies, caddis, and stoneflies throughout the year.
The lower river, from Shelburne Falls downstream, has a mix of wild and stocked browns and ’bows, with long, technical slicks, and excellent wade fishing with delicate presentations and hatch-matching on long leaders tapered down to 6X tippets.
The upper Deerfield has wild rainbow, brook, and brown trout—as well as stocked trout. On the lower river there are numerous stocked trout as well as smallmouth bass, walleye, dace, and shad (in spring).
The entire river is floatable in the spring, summer, and fall, from the Vermont border to the Connecticut River. But due to environmental challenges, such as constantly changing water levels and nonnavigable rock gardens, the river is difficult for inexperienced whitewater river runners—especially the top 4 miles below Monroe.
To experience the Deerfield’s best fly fishing, you need to navigate class III and class IV rapids. Access in some sections is difficult, with winch-in and winch-out equipment required. Getting caught in low-water conditions can destroy fiberglass or wooden drift boats.
Large inflatable fly-fishing rafts and pontoon boats (like those from AIRE, Scadden, and Outcast) are safer bets for float trips. Inflatable rafts can easily handle fluctuating water levels, as well as access issues such as long hauls to and from launches and takeouts, and steep riverbanks. With the right equipment, practiced rowing skills, and determination, you can float most sections of the Deerfield River.
The Deerfield is one of the most heavily impeded rivers in the country, averaging about one dam every 7 miles for its entire length. Hydroelectric development began in 1910, when the New England Power Company formed to acquire water rights on the Deerfield and construct dams. The largest dam, Harriman, was built in the early 1920s. Fife Brook Dam—built in the 1970s—was the last dam built on the Deerfield.
In 1997 the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) signed an agreement for Deerfield River management and issued a 40-year license in conjunction with recommendations from local energy, whitewater recreation, angler, and conservationist interests. The Deerfield River Settlement Agreement assures comprehensive, coordinated water-release and power-generation schedules to enable more recreational use of the river, with minimum coldwater releases to mitigate dam impact on river habitat. It also guarantees free public access to the river and to project-related lands; provides fish passage facilities; and includes conservation easements on 18,000 acres to protect against development.
The dams from Harriman Reservoir downstream provide cool water temperatures on the Deerfield all summer—and wild trout populations have increased in numbers and health.
Rushing the Release
Deerfield water releases make floating the river a summer-long fly-fishing adventure. High water flows from Fife Brook Dam run daily (usually from 9 A.M. to 2 P.M.) at from 800 to 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) for four to eight hours. Although flows are not guaranteed, the releases are consistent enough to plan a fly-fishing trip. You can also drift the upper river at low water, but this could maroon you and your boat miles above or below the nearest takeout. Daily
Deerfield River flow tables are available at www.h2oline.com. Floats below Shelburne Falls are possible at both low and high water.
Water release schedules cater primarily to hydro generation, but they also power two whitewater liveries. Rafting is a major economic driver in the town of Charlemont, and because of the rafters’ reliance on timed water releases, the best fly-fishing times during the prime summer months on the Deerfield coincide with flotillas of competing kayaks, canoes, and whitewater rafts.
Despite the kayak hatches (especially on weekends), the wild-trout upriver fishery would be nonexistent without the structured-release program. Sharing the water with other recreational enthusiasts is part of the game, and patience is key. Once the kayaks and rafts have moved onto the water, you can enjoy good fishing either well ahead of (row hard!) or behind the crowds.
If you don’t plan to float, good wade-fishing options also exist from Fife Brook Dam downstream to the Connecticut River confluence. Upper river access points include the boat launch at Fife Brook Dam and the downstream railroad crossing at Hoosac Tunnel. During low water, the stretch from Fife Brook to Route 2 in Charlemont can be excellent for wading. When the water drops to 125 cfs, the whole river—upper and lower—is accessible by foot, and you will typically find good dry-fly fishing.
The wider range of evening hatches below Shelburne Falls includes mayflies, caddis, and stoneflies, and many of them come off simultaneously. When wade fishing, be aware of water releases for your safety. The river has slick rocks, and spiked felt-bottom wading boots and a wading staff make fishing safer and easier.
The Deerfield’s wild browns and rainbows swap population ratio balances from year to year. For instance, in 2006, my average float on the Fife Brook stretch typically produced 75 percent browns and 25 percent rainbows. But last year’s numbers were reversed, with wild rainbows making up most of the catch. We catch brookies, the native trout, only occasionally.
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