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Destinations East Coast Trout

The New Deerfield River

by Tom Keer   |  September 19th, 2012 0
Deerfield River

Dry for decades, the 3.2-mile Searsburg Bypass below Searsburg Reservoir has been rewatered and stocked with browns and brook trout. Hatch-matching has become important here and on the tailwater below Harriman Dam. Photo: John Randolph

When anglers talk about the Deerfield River, they discuss its trout-filled stretches in western Massachusetts near the Vermont line. But the river’s headwaters flow off the Green Mountains of southern Vermont, and few anglers are aware of the wild-trout rebirth going on there. Better water and fisheries management are creating rich rewards on three tailwaters, and fly fishers are finding excellent fishing on river stretches that have been dewatered for over 50 years.

It’s called the “upper Deerfield,” a manmade hydro-electric water system that runs from its 400-square-mile Vermont drainage basin in four river branches: the main Deerfield, and the East, North, and West branches. The improved water management on the these upper sections since 1998 has provided the Deerfield with constant flows, and its newly rewatered reaches now have some of the best fly fishing for wild trout in the state. Some stretches of the upper Deerfield for the first time have constant, reliable flows of cold water below three bottom-flow-release dams.

How has the upper Deerfield changed from the lifeless summer frogwaters of old? It was made possible by the new water flows required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) under its relicensing of the dams. There are no more flushes followed by manmade drought when the dams are shut off like faucets. The steady flows have created a fabulous bottom-flow-release river, tributary, and lake fishery in and below the Deerfield’s three upriver reservoirs.

The new regulated flows have changed the East Branch of the Deerfield from the Somerset Dam to the Searsburg Dam. The 3.2-mile “Searsburg Bypass” habitat from Searsburg Reservoir to Harriman Reservoir has been “rewatered” under new federal minimum-flow requirements. Vermont has stocked this stretch with brook and brown trout, enhancing a pre-existing smelt-based fishery in Harriman Reservoir. Landlocked salmon and rainbow smelt also run from the reservoir into the Searsburg Bypass stretch.

And during the past two years the Vermont Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, using an innovative trap-and-transfer program, helicoptered wild trout from the Deerfield and West River headwaters into the Readsboro stretch of the Deerfield below Harriman Dam to help restore a wild brook-trout fishery. Last fall that rewatered and restored two-mile stretch of water provided excellent fly fishing for wild brookies.

Deerfield River

Aquatic insects flourish once again in the Searsburg Bypass section of the Deerfield, where hatch matching is important for taking browns and rainbows. Photo: Jim Knabe

Starting in the Headwaters
In fly-fishing terms, the Deerfield flows almost from the Orvis Company in Manchester, Vermont, to the Thomas & Thomas rod company in Turner’s Falls, Massachusetts. It covers some 40 miles from its southern Vermont origins, then runs along the Mohawk Trail through western Massachusetts before it joins the Connecticut River below Turner’s Falls.

The main Deerfield (see map) runs south out of the Somerset basin, parallel with Forest Service Road 71, the dirt access road leading to the Somerset Reservoir. It joins the East Branch, which runs from the base of the Somerset Reservoir Dam to the Searsburg Reservoir. The main stem of the Deerfield then flows from Searsburg Reservoir south to the northwestern end of Harriman Reservoir (Lake Whitingham). It continues out of Harriman Reservoir southward through Readsboro, joining with the West Branch to flow into Sherman Reservoir. (The Massachusetts/Vermont line divides the reservoir.) The North Branch runs from West Dover along Route 100 through Wilmington, where it enters the Harriman Reservoir.

The Vermont Deerfield has dozens of small tributaries, most containing populations of native brook trout. They include Black Brook and the nearby East Branch north of Somerset Reservoir. Both can be reached from the Kelly Stand Road out of East Arlington or West Wardsboro and, from the south, along Forest Service Road 71, which runs from Route 9 to Somerset Reservoir and the Kelly Stand Road.

The lower North Branch has poor fishing for brookies, except in spring in its lower reaches and in Cold Brook. Wilder Brook on the western side of Harriman Reservoir has good fishing for small brookies.

On these streams, where there are few hatches to match, small streamers and bucktails fished downstream on short rods during the early-season runoff are solid choices, and #16-#18 Royal Wulffs, Trudes, and Humpies work well during the midseason. The tea-colored small streams fish better in spring and fall, when you can pick pockets through their bouldery runs, pools, and riffles. Vermont general fishing regulations prevail—a 12-brookie bag limit per day (no size limit), with bait and artificials allowed.

Deerfield River

Between three tailwaters and several productive tributaries, Vermont’s Deerfield provides more alternatives for quality fly fishing for wild trout than any other drainage in New England. Photo: Barry & Cathy Beck

The East Branch
The freestone East Branch, which enters the northwest end of Somerset Reservoir, has native brookie fishing a short hike from the trailhead parking lot on the Kelley Stand road via Forest Service Road 383. The fish run from four to ten inches in this small, easily wet-waded stream. When conditions are right, fishing the river’s combination of pools and pockets can be excellent.

Black Brook, which has excellent fishing for small brookies, is crossed by Forest Service Road 71. You should consider camping and hiking to investigate its upstream fishing as well as other nearby headwater streams and beaver ponds in the Green Mountain National Forest. You can receive an excellent map of the area by sending $3 (includes postage) for the Green Mountain National Forest (southern half) topographic map. Contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Forest Service, 231 North Main Street, Rutland, VT 05701-2417, (802) 747-6700, or write to the Manchester Ranger District, 2538 Depot Street, Manchester Center, VT 05255, (802) 362-2307. You can also buy a map at the ranger district headquarters there.

Somerset Reservoir is a three-square-mile lake, owned by the New England Power Company and formed by a 456-foot earthen dam. It can be fished by boat, but fly fishers will find few hatches and fewer fish rising in its relatively barren shallows.

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