Considering the Source: Fishing the Upper Connecticut
August 27, 2018
World-class fly fishing for salmon and trout awaits the angler on a trip to New Hampshire’s North Woods and the town of Pittsburg. By Steve Wyman
I grew up fishing the New England surf with my dad, a member of the old-school beach buggy crowd, and have lived the salty life since the day I donned my first pair of hip waders. Yet even with 50-plus years of salt flowing through my veins, I recently found myself drawn back to the sweetwater destinations I fished as a college student in New Hampshire—more specifically the town of Pittsburg in the northernmost part of the state.
Once known as the “Indian Stream Territory,” Pittsburg comprises a vast swath of forest, lakes, streams and rivers. In 2002, the state set aside 25,000 acres between Clarksville and Pittsburg as conservation land, in part to protect the system of lakes that forms the headwaters of the Connecticut River, which flows for 410 miles to Long Island Sound.
Source of Power
Beginning as a trickle some 300 yards below the Canadian border, the river initially flows into Fourth Connecticut Lake—really just a spring-fed bog—before continuing south into Third, Second and First Connecticut Lakes. At 2,800 acres, First Connecticut is New Hampshire’s fifth largest lake, and is home to several cold-water game species, including lake trout and northern pike.
To catch lakers, which can weigh up to 30 pounds, you normally need to think deep, the exception being the period just after ice-out. In early May, these fish often hold within ten feet of the surface—but not for long. As the water quickly warms, the lakers transition to the 35- to 45-foot depth zone. In summer, the trout move deeper still, seeking water in and around the magical 53-degree mark.
Traditional lake trout techniques involve trolling flashy spoons on downriggers or leadcore line, although some anglers also score by deep-jigging. Lakers tend to congregate at the same depth and in the same areas, so when you catch one, drop a waypoint so you can return to the spot.
Of course, most visiting sportsmen—particularly fly fishermen—are drawn to the river and its robust population of trout and landlocked salmon. Each section of river between the lakes is unique, and offers a multitude of opportunities for catching brook trout, landlocked salmon, rainbows and trophy browns. The 2 ½ miles from First Connecticut Lake to manmade Lake Francis is known as the “Trophy Stretch,” for obvious reasons. The tailwater dam at the base of First Connecticut delivers cold water from the bottom of the lake, supporting phenomenal fishing all season. The spring and fall can be especially productive times to fish the Trophy Stretch, highlighted by runs of big salmon and behemoth browns that push upriver from Lake Francis.
For dry fly enthusiasts, summer is a great time to fish the Upper Connecticut, as this time of year sees a lot of insect activity. Bill Bernhardt, head guide at Pittsburg-based Lopstick Outfitters, says the most important thing to remember when searching for fish with dry fly patterns is a slow drift. If your fly is drifting slowly, the fish should at least rise to check it out. If this continues to happen without the fish eating, it’s time to change flies. “Be ready to change your fly on the fly,” says Bernhardt. “The fish will tell you what to do; you just have to pay attention.” Some go-to dry fly patterns for the Upper Connecticut include the Elk Hair Caddis, Pale Morning Dun, Olive Soft Hackle and Sulphur Comparadun.
QUICK TIP: Turn over river rocks to get a sense of what type and size of nymphs the fish are feeding on.
While nothing beats the thrill of seeing a trout or salmon take a dry fly, it’s important to remember that two-thirds of the fish’s food is consumed below the surface. Hence, the effectiveness of nymphing.
Nymph flies imitate the immature stages of insects that eventually make their way to the surface. To learn what the fish are eating, simply look at the underside of a river rock. This will provide clues as to what color and size nymph fly to tie on. Popular patterns for the upper river include the Flash-Bang, Hairs Ear, Beadhead Pheasant Tail, Hatching Pupae Olive, Gummy Worm, Elk Hair Caddis and CDC Emerger Slate Olive. At certain times, large stonefly patterns such as the Golden Stone will also take fish.
The trick, of course, is getting your imitation down to the level of the feeding fish—normally a few inches above the river bottom. This can be accomplished by means of a heavily weighted stonefly pattern or a small split-shot or two pinched onto the leader about 15 inches above the nymph fly. A drag-free drift is often critical to getting a fish to eat, something that high-sticking or mending of the line can accomplish. Your fly should never float faster or slower than the current. Strike indicators can help keep the line from snagging bottom, and a light tippet is often necessary to induce a strike. Many guides recommend a 4X or 5X tippet.
Big trout and salmon do not get that way by relying on a restrictive diet of mayflies and nymphs, which is why streamer flies can be so effective on larger fish. These flies also allow you to cover a lot of water in a short amount of time. Often, a big fish will attack a streamer just to chase it out of its territory and thereby reveal its presence. Some local favorites include the Grey Ghost, Grey Soft-Hackle Streamer and Royal Coachman. Cast the streamer across current and slightly downcurrent, and work it back with short strips.
Spey casting streamers can be very effective on the upper river, where the densely wooded banks limit one’s backcasts. Greg Inglis, another Lopstick Outfitters guide, employs this technique just below the dam at Fourth Connecticut Lake using a 10-foot Orvis Spey rod. The long rod allows him to make two-handed roll casts to drop his fly on seams and pocket water from spots where backcasts are all but impossible.
No matter how, where or when you choose to fish the Upper Connecticut river, be prepared to try a host of different techniques depending on the conditions. And also be prepared to fall in love with the Pittsburg area, as I did some 30 years ago!
Where to Stay
The Cabins at Lopstick make an ideal home base for any trip to the Pittsburg area. An Orvis-endorsed outfitter employing some the best fishing and hunting guides in the region, The Cabins at Lopstick comprise a network of owned and managed housekeeping units scattered throughout the area.
Each cabin, some pet-friendly, has a fully equipped kitchen, private bedrooms, satellite television, outdoor grills and a private porch with spectacular views of the lakes. Fishing tackle, flies and apparel are sold at the main office, but the coffee and friendly advice are free!
For more information, visit lopstick.com.
or call (603) 538-6659.
Watch the Pittsburg episode of New England Fishing TV.