Trip Report by Bill Holleran
I just returned from another great trip to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I took Friday off work and headed up to meet some friends for some camping and some fly fishing. There were only four of us going on this trip and we all had different schedules, so we were all arriving at different times. Reminds me of the movie Swingers, where they all take separate cars. I headed up early Friday morning to meet my friend Frank in Lincoln, NH. The plan was to head straight to a favorite spot where a hiking trail meets a tributary to the Pemigewasset River and use the tenkara gear. Craig was heading up earlier to the North Conway area to try his luck on the Saco River. Jeff was working in the morning and planning on meeting us for dinner.
Frank and I met at the Visitors Center in North Woodstock, put our gear in one car and drove north on Route 3 to a small trailhead. Gearing up we knew it was going to be a hot day as the temperature was already in the low 90s. We hit the hiking trail around 9:30am and made our way to the brook. This was Frank’s first time using tenkara gear and his first-time fishing for brook trout, so we were excited to say the least.
After setting up and going over some of the basics of tenkara, we hit the stream and started climbing across some rocks and boulders to get to a good spot. The sun was extremely hot and the glare off the rocks and water was blinding. Polarized glasses were a must. The water was crystal clear and still cold. It made the day more enjoyable. I love wet wading on a hot day.
At our first stop I dead drifted an orange attractor fly between two rocks and saw a flash as the fly made its way along a fast seam. The brook trout had come out of hiding and crushed my fly with lightning speed. I set the hook and landed him quickly. I was surprised at the size of this fish because the water level was low, and these fish are natives that don’t often grow more than 6-8” in length. We took a quick picture and released him carefully back to the water.
Happy with my catch, I collapsed my tenkara rod and went over to help Frank with his technique. He was picking up the tenkara method quickly. Frank has been bass fishing his whole life but was new to fly fishing. As we made our way downstream, he had several strikes by some small but fast brook trout. If you blinked, you missed them. In a short time, Frank got his first brook trout.
It was a small, beautifully colored fish. These brook trout truly amaze me. They are by far the prettiest fish I have ever seen, and they survive in some of the harshest conditions. Fishing these small mountain streams where the fish can be on the small size reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite authors, John Gierach, “Maybe your stature as a fly fisherman isn’t determined by how big a trout you can catch, but by how small a trout you can catch without being disappointed.”
We had hiked quite a way downstream before we realized we had better head back to the car so we could try and meet Craig for lunch. The heat was getting to us as well and we decided to make our way to the road and avoid climbing over rocks and boulders to get back to the lot. At the lot we met a guy from the Great Lakes region and shared some fishing stories with him. I think he was wishing he had his fishing gear when we showed him some pictures from our morning. In the car we started driving south, watching for cell service to kick in so we could call Craig.
We couldn’t get a hold of Craig, so we just pulled into a local sub shop on our way to the campground in Campton, NH. After lunch we checked in at the campground which is located right on the Pemigiwasset River. Thankfully our sites were located between several trees that provided a lot of shade because this was going to be a record-breaking heat wave. We set up our tents and Craig joined us soon after. Craig got set up and we finally cracked a cold beer. Nothing better after fishing all morning in 90+ degrees.
We made our way down to the Pemi River on foot to scout it for fishing later. To our surprise the water level near the campground was low and was filled with kayakers and tubers. So, we decided to go to a different location before dinner. We headed back to the camp site to have another beer and look at our maps. After a little rest, we decided to try the Swift River along the Kancamangus highway.
The Swift parking lot was very full, but most people were hiking and or looking for waterfalls. We only saw a couple other anglers. We walked a little way down the trail and decided to climb down to the river. The climb down was steep and we had to hold on to trees and each other to get down safely. Another scenario where I was happy to be using a collapsible tenkara rod.
On the river we spread out and gave each other some room. It didn’t take very long to get into some nice brook trout. Even on a hot day like this the brookies were aggressively chasing flies. After several fish it started to get dark, so we decided to call it a day and go to dinner. I had made tentative plans to check out my old friend Rich’s restaurant, but it was on the other side of the Kancamangus highway in North Woodstock, so we needed to hurry.
I had found, through the magic of Facebook that a high school friend that I hadn’t seen in a long time had opened a restaurant called the Rustic River Kitchen. So, we hopped in the car and made our way to North Woodstock. When we arrived at RR it was slammed with customers. I saw my friend Rich behind the bar, and he yelled to me that he’d be right over. Even though the place was busy, Rich and his team did a great job moving people in and out. We got a seat in no time. We ordered some drinks and finally got a call from Jeff who was driving up from the south shore of Massachusetts. He had finally made it through Boston traffic and was on his way to the restaurant. Jeff arrived and we ordered our food. The chicken, broccoli, and ziti were excellent.
The restaurant finally slowed down and Rich came over to say hello. Talking to Rich was just like old times. It didn’t feel like that much time had passed. Rich brought us out on the restaurant deck to show us the river right below us. He told us stories of how the previous owner had a house in this location and used to catch trout and clean them with river water right where we were standing. If you’re headed to the White Mountains region, stop by Rustic River and let Rich and his team take good care of you.
It was getting late, so we thanked Rich and headed back to camp. We got a little fire going, had some beers and talked about where to fish on Saturday. After much discussion we decided to try a spot that Craig had found on the Pemigiwasset river. He found a nice hidden place where we could park and get easy access.
We were looking for some distance in our casts at this location, so I brought along my Orvis Recon 10-foot 3-weight fly rod. Walking to the river we spotted some animal tracks in the sand. Most of the tracks looked to be deer but then we spotted some good size bear tracks. We joked that if we caught any fish, we’d be handing them over to our furry friends.
On the river we all spread out and Craig took Frank with him to help him with his fly casting and show him some things to look for on the river. The spot we were in was slow moving except for one section that had a nice flow with riffles and some good size rocks. After fishing a deep slow section and getting no takes I decided to head up stream. Along the way I stopped and talked to Craig and Frank who had just missed landing a good size rainbow. Frank was excited and really enjoying fly fishing.
I made my way past them so I could fish some of the faster water too. I was drifting and stripping a streamer, varying speeds trying to mimic baitfish. Craig started to make his way over to me and while talking to him I felt a strike. I set the hook and decided to strip the line in because I had a lot of line out at my feet. I brought the fish upstream, keeping pressure on. When I brought it close, Craig assisted with the net. It was a decent size rainbow trout.
After several more fish we decided to go find Jeff who was downstream using his spinning gear. Frank stayed behind because he had to go home for a family event in a few hours. Craig and I met up with Jeff who hadn’t had much luck, probably due to all the kayakers that were entering the water. He made the best of it and went for a swim.
Jeff, Craig, and I decided to head across the Kancamangus Highway again and find some brook trout streams that were ideal for the tenkara method. We stopped in North Conway to see Steve at North Country Angler. Steve has been very supportive of Red Brook Tenkara and has our gear in his shop. We talked to Steve for a while and he gave us some good suggestions for flies and locations on an unbelievably hot day.
So, we took Steve’s advice and headed north to higher elevations hoping to find cooler waters. After a short drive we found the spot and parked the car. Another short hike through the woods and we were on the water again. The river was nice and cool and some of the pools were deep. I gave Jeff one of our demo rods and showed him how to use it. It didn’t take him long to feel comfortable with it, so I left him to head further downstream.
I made my way around a couple bends and found some fast-moving water entering a deep pool. Climbing across some rocks, I got to the other side of the river to get better access. I cast a small bead head upstream and let it drift into the pool area. I saw a couple flashes but missed the strikes. It looked like some small brookies were chasing my fly. One more cast and I anticipated the strike and set the hook. It was a pretty small brook trout and I had him in the net very quickly.
I like to use the net to protect the fish most of the time. This time it wasn’t the best decision. The little brookie slipped through the net and was now back in the water near my feet. Looking down I realized he had somehow hooked the fly to the back of my water sandal. So now I had a fish on the line that ran through my net and was connected to my sandal. You couldn’t make this stuff up!
I quickly shed some gear and was able to unhook my sandal and then get the fly out of the brookie’s mouth. Amazingly, the trout was fine and went back to the pool. I took a photo because I figured no one would believe this story.
I spent a little more time in this spot and decided the heat was too much, so I headed back up to meet Craig and Jeff. When I came around one of the bends, I saw a guy jumping off the rocks into a big pool. It was like something out of a Mountain Dew commercial. I caught up to Jeff and Craig and we all decided to call it a day. It was way too hot, and we were tired. Walking out of the forest towards the car felt like we were entering a sauna. We drove back to camp and started to prepare dinner, the usual camp food of burgers, hot dogs, corn on the cob, and potato salad.
Later that night we got the fire going and the beer and stories were flowing good. It’s the part of the trip that really makes it worthwhile. Obviously, a day of fishing in the White Mountains is the greatest escape but hanging with your buddies around a campfire, drinking good beer, and making fun of each other is a close second. Can’t wait for the next trip.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019-2020 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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