Maine Sportsman VT Column, July 2022
“Fun on the Connecticut River”
My buddy Conrad is an adventurous soul. He bought a McKenzie-style drift boat and decided he wanted to figure out some float trips on the Connecticut River where we could catch some fish. To learn, we hooked up with a local guide who operates a drift boat on the northern reaches of the river and spent a day with him. Ken has about 40 years of experience drifting the CT and was willing to teach us. I suspect he knew we wouldn’t master either the fishing or the floating, plus he is about to retire, so sharing his knowledge with us wasn’t a threat. We had a great day on the river and caught brookies, rainbows and browns while dead drifting small wet flies. I swear Ken knew some of those fish by name by the way he set us up ahead of a run or pool. Needless to say, we got some of the basics down and thought we had it figured out.
Drifting down parts of the CT river feels almost western. The portions I have floated are tucked down between the roads that parallel this historic travel way on the NH and VT sides; routes 3 and 102 up north, 5 and 10 south of there, and finally adding a big chunk of 12 on the NH side as the river approaches MA. The river variously winds through woods and farm fields, broken up by the long reservoirs created by dams. It is a boon to sporting types through all four states that the mainstem travels through.
The Connecticut River is a chameleon. Its appearance changes many times as it travels from the tip of NH to the Atlantic. Dammed and altered along the more than 400 miles that it courses, there is an unescapable history of use since the last glacier covering our region retreated. Agriculture, hunting, and fishing first attracted people some 10,000 years ago, and the use of this fertile valley and river system has only expanded since that time. Its role as a corridor for commerce grew tremendously as immigrants settled through the 1800’s, with boat trade up and down the river connecting to the Atlantic. Once the railroads came to prominence, logging and river drives were the main use. Dams, industry, and waste disposal degraded the woods and waters until the 1960’s, when protections began to help clean up the watershed, improving habitat along much of its length.
The river is a landlocked salmon and trout fishery in its northernmost reaches, transitions to stocked trout as it enters VT and then slowly becomes populated with warm water species as it meanders south. Downstream of the dam in Holyoke, MA, the river hosts a number of anadromous and catadromous fish species such as eel, shad, and stripers. Native Atlantic Salmon disappeared from the river in the mid-1800’s related to the progressive loss of spawning grounds due to the thousands of dams upstream throughout the 11,000 square mile watershed. The first main stem dam was completed in 1798. Now there are 16 dams spanning the main river, 12 of which are hydropower projects. Attempts were made to restore the Atlantic Salmon starting in the late 1960’s without much success and the effort stopped in 2012. Still, there are fish to be caught. The river has many options for anglers. It is wadable in sections, floatable in others, and provides a lake-like experience from shore near the reservoirs.
There are several ways to experience the water of the CT River. Canoes and kayaks are most popular, with some folks starting to use stand up paddleboards in quiet sections. There are quiet paddles on the many reservoirs, as well as motor boating options at some locations like Moore Reservoir, with a boat launch and picnic area located at the end of Old County Rd in Waterford, VT. These places are great for day trips. Just be aware that water levels can fluctuate significantly.
For more adventurous self-propelled folks, the river is home to a part of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, connecting VT’s Nulhegan River with NH’s Ammonoosuc River. Additionally, the CT River Paddler’s Trail extends from the source of the river at Fourth Connecticut Lake in NH at 2,670 feet all the way down to sea level in Long Island Sound, where the last 60 or so miles are tidal. There are about 50 campsites along the trail, hosted by generous private land owners. With 150 access points, finding your way onto the river shouldn’t be too challenging. With that many put in and take out options, getting out for an overnight trip or a long weekend is well within your grasp.
Fast forward a year from our guided float. My uncle joined us in Conrad’s boat for several hours of fishing. After a solid launch, we were drifting along, tossing flies and feeling good for about 15 minutes. Right until we were all looking elsewhere and ran the drift boat aground onto a submerged boulder. After a deft maneuver, the boat swung around and Conrad heaved us off. We floated the rest of the day without incident…and without fish. We knew they were there; we just didn’t know them by name. If you’re looking for any kind of watery adventure, check out the Connecticut River. You won’t regret it.
A great place for a shore lunch
Reprinted with permission, The Maine Sportsman