Chasing Giants

Every fall, the Stillwater River in Sterling, MA experiences a landlocked salmon run that makes anglers giddy. The fish, ranging anywhere from two to eight pounds, leave Wachusett Reservoir sometime in mid-to-late October to spawn. They are triggered by cooling temperatures and huge rains that raise the water level significantly. Once they are in the river, fly-fishers and spin anglers alike flock to the river in hopes of catching what could quite possibly be their largest fish of the year.

This year, after the large amounts of rain and snow we had in late October, it was obvious the early days of November would be prime time for catching one of these fish. However, due to my insane schedule, made even crazier with Covid, I wasn’t able to get to the river until the seventh.

After arriving at one of the upper access points, I fished my way both up and down the river, looking for any signs of large fish cruising, or redds created by the females. Unfortunately, with the weather being in the high-60’s the past few days, the water had dropped significantly, and the low flows made it difficult to spot where the salmon may be. Discouraged, I decided to check out another spot where I hoped some more fish may be.

The water at the first spot was very bony. Photo credit: David Belson.

As my dad and I walked out, we met man who said he was “fishing with his camera”. He held a lengthy contraption comprised of a GoPro mounted to an old surf rod, which was lashed to a crutch for him to hold. Mounted on the crutch was his phone, which was receiving the video from the GoPro and allowing him to see it real-time. Honestly, it was ingenious. He told us that he hadn’t seen any salmon in this spot all year, which was slightly concerning. He said last year had seen some pretty decent runs, and he had got some good footage of it. You can watch the videos on his YouTube Channel.

The next spot looked slightly more promising than the first, but honestly, it looked more like stocked trout water than salmon habitat. I started by going downstream of the bridge, scanning the river bottom with my polarized sunglasses in hopes of spotting one of the behemoths.

I had worked about a quarter-mile of river when I came upon a fellow fisherman in a long, slow, and featureless stretch of water. I spoke with him about the mediocre success the two of us were having. He suggested I do a little walking to upstream of the bridge, where a large pool was providing a staging area for the salmon. Excitedly, he mentioned the five-pound fish circling his waders as he stood there casting his spinner. Apparently he had many fish follow his lure in, although he was never able to hook up.

With big salmon on my mind, I crossed the road and headed to the pool. As I slipped into the water, I noticed the sharp dropoff just feet away from where I stood. After about fifteen minutes, though, I still hadn’t seen a sign of any fish. They apparently wanted nothing to do with my marabou Gray Ghost.

Confused, I traded my streamer rod out for my nine-foot five-weight, which had a small egg pattern and squirmy-worm tied on. After fishing the pool for a few more minutes, I decided to head upstream. Maybe the guy had been wrong? Was he really seeing salmon, or just seeing things after a long day of grinding-it-out?

As I walked upstream, the river became increasingly shallow. While it looked like the were many perfect runs for native brookies, I couldn’t see any water deep enough to harbor a large salmon. Once in a while, I’d spot a redd without a fish on it, likely evacuated after the river dropped again with the warming temperature.

With my spirits dwindling, I slowly drifted my indicator rig through some of the slightly deeper runs. I was about to head back when I noticed my strike indicator bobbing deeper and deeper under the water’s surface. I quickly set the hook, and out came a small creek chub. I rolled my eyes. Okay, it was definitely time to head back.

On my way back, I decided to switch to the other side of the stream in hopes of noticing something I hadn’t before. As I made it back to the large pool without seeing any salmon, I felt defeated. It was already two o’clock, and much as I wanted to, I couldn’t keep my dad here forever. I dismally chunked my flies into the murky water in a last ditch effort, and started packing up.

Just as I hooked the squirmy worm to my hook keeper, I saw a flash under the water. My eyes shot open. Just below me were four huge salmon, each weighing at least four pounds. I couldn’t believe my luck. I sprinted to the car and quickly switched my Gray Ghost out for a JT Special.

The JT Special was the fly of choice today.

The salmon swam tantalizingly below me. I hauled the streamer out into the slow current, waiting for it to sink before stripping it back. Despite the fact that there were fish all around me, they were incredibly reluctant to bite. Spawning fish are notorious for having a serious case of lockjaw, brought on as their attention shifts primarily from food to reproducing. It makes it tough to catch them, but if you piss them off just enough, they’ll often bite out of aggravation.

Just as quickly as my spirits went up, they began to drop. I couldn’t seem to get a fish to bite to save my life. The signs of the fish were slowly disappearing, and I didn’t know where to cast.

Then, I saw two boils just upstream. After a long roll-cast, my streamer landed dead-center in the middle of the fish. Strip, strip, BAM! My rod nearly went flying out of my hands as the line went taught. I completely freaked out, missed the hook set, and watched as a five-pound plus salmon launched itself out of the water.

I was in disbelief, but my confidence level now skyrocketed. Back to casting it was. I cast upstream, downstream, across the river, and right in front of my feet, but I couldn’t find another bite.

On my final cast, I let my fly sink extra long, and stripped a couple times. I looked behind me, and said, “Alright Dad. It’s probably time to head out.” I started stripping back the line, but something felt different. There was now a weight on the end of my line. I snapped my rod tip up, and immediately felt the head shakes of the big fish.

This fish surprised me, but I was able to get a good hook set on it. Photo credit: David Belson

I carefully played the salmon, careful to give it line when it took off, but also not trying to draw out the fight. Occasionally it would fly out of the water and thrash its head, hoping to shake the hook loose. I continued to play it for a few minutes, eventually transitioning to fighting it on my reel. I would gain a few feet of line, but then the fish would take off on a huge run, screaming drag as it went. Every once in a while I would get it almost close enough to net, but it would then take off on another run, pulling dozens of feet of line from my spool. It was like the Energizer Bunny, never loosing energy throughout the entire fight. You would think five minutes of fighting against a stiff fly rod would tire most fish out, but apparently not this one.

This fight seemed lasted seemingly forever. Photo credit: David Belson.

Eventually, I lost patience and handed the rod off to my dad. I told him to walk as far backward as he could, and I would net the fish. Inch by inch, the salmon drifted closer, until I was finally able to scoop its sliver body into the net.

My mouth dropped. Finally, all the hard work today payed off. I glanced at its gorgeous chrome body, brown face, and black dots. It was a hen, obvious because of the unhooked jaw and silver color. This was my first salmon in two years, and it blew my previous personal best out of the park. I couldn’t believe that this was just an average fish for the area, as it makes most landlocks in Maine look like frye.

After a quick photo session, the fish was back on its way to create the next generation of salmon. In retrospect, I feel a little bad about one of the pictures I took in particular. Many members of the fly-fishing community say that hero shots are bad for the fish, and that we should try to avoid them while taking pictures. I would completely agree because in order to take the picture, you may need to have the fish out of the water for an extended period of time, and many parts of the fish are unsupported. If you don’t know what a hero shot is, it is a picture of a fish in which the angler holds the fish out of the water and towards the camera. When in the water, fish barely feel the affects of gravity because they are in an almost weightless environment. As soon as you remove the fish from the water, it begins to have weight, which can be very damaging to its internal organs. I don’t mind doing this with most fish, like stocked trout or bass. When it comes to native or rare wild fish, however, I think it is irresponsible and should be discouraged. I can’t change what I did now, but in the future, I’m sure I’ll think twice before doing this.

What do you think? Is it wrong to take a picture of a fish out of the water? Photo credit: David Belson.

Sometimes, fishing can be a grind, but it often seems worth it in the long run. This was my first time targeting landlocked salmon in Massachusetts, and I’m sure it won’t be my last. I enjoy sharing my experiences with others, but please don’t exploit this wonderful resource. I’ve heard reports of this once pristine waterway being damaged beyond repair. If you do decide to take the trip out to the Stillwater, take into account that these fish only occur naturally in two places throughout the entire state. Hopefully with more anglers having a catch-and-release mentality, these wonders of nature will be protected for generations to come.

3 thoughts on “Chasing Giants

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