The Deerfield River
August 28, 2014
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.
The Massachusetts Department of Fish & Game supplements the rainbow and brown trout populations with downstream stocking throughout the spring and fall. There is a higher concentration of wild browns in the upriver Fife Brook section. Stocked and wild trout populations intermingle downstream to the Stillwater Bridge. Below the bridge, there are fewer trout per mile overall than in the upper river. Nevertheless, these slower flats provide excellent evening dry-fly fishing in some of the Deerfield's most scenic countryside.
Planning a Menu
Hatches are diverse on the Deerfield River. From Fife Brook Dam downstream you'll see mayflies, caddis, and stoneflies throughout the season. Zebra Midges, San Juan Worms, and caddis larvae imitations are successful patterns, and Elk-hair Caddis and Adams in different colors and sizes also take fish. The major spring mayfly hatch (March through June) is March Browns (#10-12), which fish best at high water.
Golden Stones (#6-8 Stimulators) also hatch sporadically throughout the spring and summer and keep fish looking up for bigger bugs. Yellow Sallies (#10) often hatch during midday high-water spurts in summer. Use a LaFontaine Sparkle Pupa for rising fish in the slower glassy water.
Sulphurs and Blue-winged Olives emerge during late summer's low-water flows. I like Ben Furimsky's BDE green (#18) and most #18-20 Sulphur/PMD patterns [Also see "Secret Weapon Dun" on page 63. The Editor.]
Fluctuating water levels play a large role in insect life and habitat. Almost every night the Deerfield runs at 125 cfs and then spikes at 800 to 1,000 cfs by midafternoon. This washing-machine cycle flushes algae and other nutrients downstream and promotes midge life. Midge patterns make for consistent fishing all summer and into October using Furimsky's BDE black (#20). Drop down to #24-28 imitations when fishing low water in late October and November. Zebra midges and Trina's Bubbleback Emergers (#18-22) are good all-season nymphs.
Although wading is difficult at high water, the trout are less selective and dry-fly fishing can be outstanding. I use two #6 rubber-leg Stimulators tied bend-to-bend with 4X tippet and spaced 3 to 4 feet apart [See "Tandem Connections" on page 38. The Editor.]—dead-drifted tight to the bank. Fat Alberts, large Elk-hair Caddis, PMXs, and hopper and beetle combinations also work well.
Streamers such as Zoo Cougars, Zonkers, and large Woolly Buggers are productive during high water. Fish Bunny Leeches and Zoo Cougars on tandem rigs with downstream presentations and fast strips to move the larger browns.
You can become entranced throwing large drys and streamers during high water, as if you've suddenly been transported to the streams of the West. But when the streamer fishing turns off and drys don't deliver, nymph-and-indicator fishing can continue the bite. San Juan Worms, small Woolly Buggers, Pheasant Tails, Prince Nymphs, Hare's Ears, caddis larvae, and stoneflies are all good high-water patterns.
A productive rig includes one or two BB split-shot (depending on flows and water depth), and a medium to large (1-inch-diameter) indicator. Cast upstream and let the indicator float downstream of your flies through the riffles. Watch for subtle takes.
The Deerfield has no bad season. Starting in April, use sinking-tip lines for streamers, and indicator systems for delivering nymphs deep. Getting bigger flies down and in front of the trout is effective in the early season. Whether it is a hungry wild, holdover, or recently stocked rainbow, the trout are not selective at this time of year.
Streamers also work well in April and May. In recently stocked pools, Woolly Buggers on sinking tips can result in double-digit days.
During May and June, the trout move out of deeper pools to the banks and into the riffles, and the river begins its best fishing. Streamers work best in May and June, and July and August are prime months to fish big drys during high-water releases. The streamer fishing and nymphing are enjoyable as long as the fish are not keying on surface food.
Big drys and streamers, low water temperatures, and active fish make July and August the two best months to drift the Deerfield, and night fishing—especially under a full moon—is a special trip. Fish streamers (Double Bunnies and large sculpin imitations) for 20-inch (and bigger) browns. You should never float at night without a partner and thorough knowledge of the river.
During low water, midge fishing is good, and dry-fly fishing climaxes near Bardwell's Ferry Bridge, with consistent Blue-winged Olive and spring Sulphur hatches. With the exception of ant hatches—which create exceptional fall fishing—high-water dry-fly fishing ends in September and October. Streamers and nymphs fish well through the early fall on both the lower and upper Deerfield.
Wild browns begin their prespawn activity in October and November, and Glo-Bug fishing is effective on both the lower and upper Deerfield before the fish get onto their redds. If you can withstand cold weather, the midge and egg fishing on the Deerfield can continue into December.
Use 9-foot rods for wading and floating because long casts and mends are often necessary. Carry 3- to 6-weights, depending on whether you throw sinking lines and streamers, or floating lines and small drys. Low water on the upper river makes for great fishing with bamboo or even fiberglass rods with light tippets and soft presentations.
During high water, use 1X to 3X tippets for streamers and 4X to 5X for drys. Streamer Express lines from Scientific Anglers are ideal for high-water streamer fishing. Low water requires 5X in the riffles, and 6X or 7X increases hookups on fussy fish in the slicks.
The Deerfield River offers some of the East's best fly fishing for both wild and stocked trout. The river's dams create summer flows in the 50- to 60-degree range when most New England stream temperatures are climbing into the high 70s. Steep hillsides in a wild setting create an enchanting experience for fly fishers. It's difficult to believe this is western Massachusetts.
Dan Harrison and his brother Tom own and operate Harrison Anglers (harrisonan glers.com) and have been floating the Deerfield River—between trips to Montana and Chile—for the past five years.