August 25, 2022
By Christopher Jackson
EDITOR’S NOTE: In the time since this article appeared in the August-September 2022 issue of Fly Fisherman, the 401 Water Quality and Settlement agreement has been recommended for approval by the judge handling the administrative appeal. It now it goes before a commissioner for final approval. The future looks promising for the Deerfield.
The Deerfield River begins its 73-mile journey toward the Connecticut River in the Green Mountain National Forest in Southern Vermont. Clean and pure headwater streams fill Somerset and Harriman reservoirs, adding much-needed nutrients to the waters of the Deerfield. Below these impoundments are a chain of smaller impoundments, diversions, and a huge, 600-megawatt pump storage facility—all producing hydropower for the New England power grid. While the fishing is decent on the Vermont side of the border, the most consistent year-round fishing lies below the Fife Brook dam in Florida, Massachusetts.
Wild brown trout that can reach the two-foot mark are the big attraction on the Deerfield. However, rainbow trout are more common, as the state stocks several thousand 15- to 17-inch rainbows in both the spring and fall. There are some wild ’bows on the Deerfield, but they are mostly a mystery—when you hook one you’ll think you’ve hooked a small steelhead.
The future of these wild browns and rainbows—and for river ecology in general—is looking brighter, thanks to the efforts of Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, USGS, and the Deerfield River Watershed Chapter of Trout Unlimited in the recent FERC relicensing of the Fife Brook/Bear Swamp facility. Their fight for increased winter minimum flows to protect wild trout spawning areas resulted in an agreement with Brookfield Energy that is now subject to the approval of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). If this agreement is approved, Fife Brook Dam will release a minimum winter flow of 225 cubic feet per second (cfs)—protecting wild trout spawning areas and adding year-round aquatic habitat. The Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game has intimated that this new minimum winter flow could be a game changer for wild trout. With these new flows, the Fife Brook section will perhaps one day be completely wild, and managed as a Wild Trout Management Area.
The river below Fife Brook is a classic tailwater with daily hydropeaking events. Minimum flow for the river below Fife Brook Dam has historically been 125 cfs with an average dam release of 900 cfs during power generation and recreational release days. It is a tale of two rivers. At high water, the Deerfield is fast and burly, with rapids and pocketwater, long runs strewn with boulders, and deep pools that invoke the imagination.
During minimum flows, it becomes a technical fishery with spooky trout that feed selectively when the sun is high. Though it becomes more technical at low flows, it also becomes more accessible to wading fishermen—the rapids become small pocketwater, the runs become concentrated, and the deep pools are available to prospecting for shore-bound anglers. In terms of access, the Deerfield is almost completely public, with pull-over spots to park along its entire length along RT 2 and River Road. Every good-looking hole on the river holds trout, making it easy to find your own spot to fish.
Fishing during peak flows is more difficult for those on foot, as you may have to hike farther to locate pockets and seams that can be targeted from the bank. Trout can really stack up in that sort of water, so a good hike pays dividends for mobile anglers. Fishing from a drift boat or raft is the most productive way to tackle the river at peak flows, and it’s a stunning float through some of the most beautiful country in New England.
Big water draws out the big browns, and throwing streamers like Rich Strolis’s Headbanger Sculpin and Galloup’s Barely Legal can elicit powerful strikes. Both patterns imitate the two most important food sources for big browns in the Deerfield—sculpins and small wild rainbows.
In the summer, the ubiquitous hopper/dropper or dry/dropper technique reigns supreme—from boats or on foot during dam releases. Big stoneflies and grasshoppers wind up in the water during the summer, and the trout take notice. To imitate these foods, I throw Chubby Chernobyls in stonefly and hopper colors and sizes 8 and 10, with a #16 nymph dropper like a Higas SOS, or Pheasant Tail hanging 18 inches below. Bugmeisters, Amy’s Ants, and foam hoppers like Craven’s Dropper Hopper also make for good indicator flies, although more often than not it’s the big dry that’s the main attraction. They make for some absolutely violent surface takes.
The Deerfield is primarily a nymphing river, and indicator fishing is one of the easiest pathways to success. My preferred indicator setup is a 10-foot, 4-weight nymphing stick with a 12-foot, hand-constructed leader that tapers quickly to 4X fluorocarbon. I add tippet with a triple surgeon’s knot, leaving a 4-inch tag for the dropper fly, and 24 inches to a heavy anchor fly.
Fighting for Wild Trout
The Deerfield River has a reputation as one of the premier trout rivers in New England, but the quality fishing relies heavily on stocking from the State of Massachusetts. There just aren’t enough wild fish. I always felt the river could be better, particularly after watching trout, year after year, spawning in areas that were later dewatered when the dam was operated at minimum flows. It looked like we were losing a significant number of our wild trout from hydropeaking.
In 2011, the defunct Deerfield River Watershed Chapter of Trout Unlimited was resurrected by local trout anglers who understood that our river and its tributaries needed advocacy—particularly with the Fife Brook Dam/Bear Swamp complex owned by Brookfield Energy coming up for federal relicensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). I volunteered for the board of directors, and joined the FERC negotiating team with attorney Kevin Parsons, and attorney Christopher Myhrum, who would later take the lead in mediation for Trout Unlimited.
Like many other large rivers, the Deerfield has other user groups. On the Deerfield there are three whitewater rafting companies and associated recreational whitewater interests like Friends for the Liberation of Water (FLOW), American Whitewater, and the Appalachian Mountain Club. In the early FERC meetings it became clear that user groups had different visions for the future of the Deerfield. TU, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife wanted increased minimum flows for trout and overall river ecology. The whitewater interests wanted increased flows during summer dam releases to make the river more “exciting.” They were essentially advocating for a whitewater theme park.
These differences created two camps on the recreational side—one wanted increased minimum flows, the other wanted more dramatic peaking flows. These two visions would be in conflict for the remainder of the process.
The Fife Brook/Bear Swamp facility is owned by Brookfield Energy, one of the largest energy companies in the world. It was clear early on that they would relentlessly pursue their primary goal in the process, which was to oppose any changes to the current license terms. Early in the process, we had no scientific evidence to refute Brookfield’s position that their operations did nothing to negatively impact the trout or the river ecology. We needed science, but the state and federal agencies didn’t have the budgets to allocate for a study. The Deerfield Watershed TU chapter voted to allocate funds, apply for an Embrace a Stream grant, and create fundraisers to cover the costs. Biologists from the Division of Fisheries & Wildlife would design the study, and the work would be supervised by state and federal scientists. The work would be done by a volunteer force comprised of TU members from the local chapter and other volunteers. The completed study found that around 40 percent of brown trout eggs were lost annually from dewatering. This proved to be a significant finding that compelled FERC to order more studies from Brookfield. Ultimately the additional studies were moot, as FERC decided to approve Brookfield’s license application, notwithstanding the new information regarding the trout spawning.
A Year of Mediation
Luckily that decision by FERC was not the end of the story. In order to receive the license, Brookfield Energy required a 401 Water Certification from Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which would weigh on whether or not the discharge of any facility violates the terms of the Clean Water Act. DEP found that Brookfield’s operations did just that, by negatively impacting trout spawning and endangered dragonfly emergence.
With two pathways before them—litigation or mediation—Brookfield chose the latter. The mediation lasted more than a year and included representatives of Trout Unlimited, the Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, lawyers from DEP, and representatives and counsel for Brookfield. The negotiation was grueling but eventually a tentative agreement was reached to increase winter minimum flows to 225 cfs. That’s enough water to protect spawning trout and provide more water for insect populations.
It seemed as though a victory was in hand until the whitewater groups FLOW and American Whitewater appealed the agreement, citing a 2019 Trump administration FERC decision (Hoopa Valley Tribe v. FERC) that set aside an agreement because it went beyond the statutory one-year mark allotted for mediation.
At the time of this writing no decision has been made by administrative review or by FERC in response to this appeal, so it seems the terms of the mediation will prevail. DEP has filed a response supporting the mediation process, as has Brookfield Energy. This appears to be good news on its face, but it’s never wise to assume any outcome in a legal proceeding. It is my hope that this appeal is denied, and we have a new beginning for the Deerfield River by the time this article is published.
Winter Browns on the Deerfield
The Deerfield fishes well year-round, with some of the best browns coming in the dead of winter. Stoneflies like Pat’s Rubber Legs tied with heavy tungsten beads, jig streamers, and San Juan Worms can get you connected to the big ones. Focus on slow-moving seams and pockets adjacent to fast water. Big browns conserve their energy for easy feeding in the winter. That’s why a big stone or jig is so compelling—it’s a pepperoni pizza going by the couch. That’s not to say they won’t eat popcorn (midges), it just has to be right in front of them. A bigger target is a much easier approach in the higher flows of the winter.
Spring brings some of the best fishing of the year, with practically every technique working. The thousands of stocked rainbows the state provides are like golden retrievers—throw it out there, and they’ll chase it down and bring it back to you. Olive Krystal Buggers, Sparkle Minnows, and Slumpbusters can rack up huge numbers of stockies in the spring. Nymphing with Mop Flies, Flashback Pheasant-tails, Prince Nymphs, and Squirmy Wormies under an indicator can produce good numbers when bugs aren’t showing.
Dry-fly fishing can begin as early as mid-April some years, but the most reliable action comes May through the end of June. Hendricksons, Blue-winged Olives, Sulphurs, March Browns, and Isonychias are the most common mayfly hatches. I fish Compara-duns and Usuals for mayflies, changing the dubbing color and hook size to match whatever species I see—those two universal patterns rarely fail me.
The Deerfield is a caddis-heavy river, and prudent anglers have a variety of sizes and colors to match both the pupae and adults. I also take a simple approach to the caddis riddle and carry green Strolis’s Classified Caddis Pupa in #14-16 and in tan #16-20. The green covers Brachycentrus and Rhyacophila, and the tan covers the Hydropsyche caddis that seem to be buzzing around practically every evening from late May through October. Mathews’s X-Caddis in a variety of colors (#14-20) covers most of the adults, as does a classic Elk-hair Caddis.
Stoneflies are common table fare for Deerfield trout. Even in high water, trout will move for a Bugmeister, Parachute Madam X, or a Chubby Chernobyl. If you like to torment your soul with fine tippets and small drys, there are always midge-sipping trout in the catch-and-release area below Fife Brook Dam. A size 24 Parachute Adams always seems to get a nod for me, but experiment if you want consistent success.
Summer Evenings on the Deerfield
Summer is the busiest time of the year on the D, and as on many other trout rivers across the country, tubers can be an issue on the weekends. I still catch fish amid the tube traffic during the day; you just have to accept you won’t be alone on the river and just try to enjoy the beautiful weather that a New England summer provides.
The evenings can see a mix of sporadic insect activity with multiple species at play: caddis; midges; and Cahill, Sulphur, and Isonychia spinners. These punctuated hatches bring the fish up during the last hour of light and into the darkness. If you have two rods, rig one with a mayfly spinner and one with a caddis or midge, depending on what you’re seeing. Sometimes they devour caddis, then suddenly switch to some unidentified insect. Often this is a mayfly spinner that you can just barely see in the low light. Having the extra setup can eliminate the frustration of trying to tie something on with a headlamp—all the while shaking from the buzzing of insects and the sounds of rising trout.
Fall in the northern Berkshires is truly magical. The countryside comes ablaze with colors that only nature can provide, and the magic extends to the fishing, too. Hatches become more compelling, with some of the spring insects making a second appearance. Be prepared for a variety of caddis, Isonychias, Cahills, and Blue-winged Olives using Compara-duns, X-Caddis, and PMXs with orange bodies to imitate October Caddis.
Prudent anglers should also have a selection of flying ant patterns in both black and cinnamon, as swarming ant migrations are common in the fall. The cinnamon ones tend to be larger, and if you hit it right (typically a warm afternoon preceded by a couple of cool days) you may see practically every trout in the river feeding on top. Black flying ants can create more technical fishing, as they range from size 18 down to 22, looking like specks of black pepper seasoning the surface film. Foam flying ants or CDC flying ants in black and cinnamon both do a fine job.
Fall Foliage on the Deerfield
The dry-fly action reaches a crescendo in early October with Blue-winged Olives coming off reliably every afternoon, making for some of the best dry-fly action of the year, with spectacular foliage as a bonus backdrop. Overcast and rainy days are best for targeting browns with streamers, their appetites intensifying as they approach the spawn, which begins in late October and peaks in November.
The spawning season brings some of the best indicator fishing of the year, with rainbows gorging themselves on eggs that drift downriver from spawning browns. Egg patterns can rack up impressive numbers, but can also damage fish. The rainbows absolutely inhale well-tied eggs. I started tying all my egg patterns on short, wide-gap barbless jig hooks like the Dohiku Claw. It always finds a good purchase and comes out easily without damaging mouths. A fish that doesn’t have a damaged mouth is more likely to survive and get right back to feeding—something all fly fishers should contemplate.
Try to avoid wading through trout redds, which are oblong 2- to 4-foot areas of clean gravel. The eggs in gravel can be crushed or displaced by wading. If you see fish actively spawning, resist the temptation to fish for them. Every successful spawning attempt translates into more wild fish, and many people have worked for years to improve the spawning success of wild trout in this river.
The Deerfield is a river that all Northeast fly fishers should have on their bucket lists. It is a gorgeous river that feels like something from out West, yet is less than two hours from Boston and Connecticut, and a four-hour drive from New York City. It’s a productive river that has a chance to improve and become a wild fishery, a result that would be welcome in this age of climate change.
Should you decide to make it a multi-day trip or have your spouse accompany you, there are excellent restaurants in nearby Shelburne Falls, which is a Norman Rockwell-esque town sprinkled with small shops and art studios. Another attraction a short drive away is the Thomas & Thomas factory in Bernardston, Massachusetts. T&T has been revitalized under the ownership of Neville Orsmond and is back to making some of the finest graphite and bamboo rods in the world. At the time of this writing there are no longer factory tours available to the public due to Covid, but perhaps that will change as the pandemic winds down. The Deerfield River has certainly been a proving ground for this iconic brand, and this historic factory is a vital part of the fly-fishing culture in this part of the world.
Christopher Jackson was a board member of the Deerfield River Watershed Chapter of Trout Unlimited, and still is a part of the FERC negotiating team. He’s been a guide for 16 years and lives in Charlemont, Massachusetts. Find him on Instagram at @jacksonchrisd.