November 29, 2014

Places I’ve Played: A Garden Hackle Hike

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Hackle hikers (from left) Dad, brother Bob and the author. (Observer courtesy photo)

Hackle hikers (from left) Dad, brother Bob and the author. (Observer courtesy photo)

By Bill Skiff

My dad taught me how to trout fish. He was not a fly fisherman. In fact, the only thing he knew about fly fishing was that a Garden Hackle was the best fly.

Every Lamoille County kid knew that a Garden Hackle was a fancy term for a worm. They were easily found and dirt cheap. They came in various sizes and lengths. Dad’s favorites came from under a few rotten boards by the manure sink.

When we first started fishing, I would carry the worms in an old tomato soup can with some dirt and grass on top. I left the top on so the Hackles wouldn’t fly out. Later on, Dad bought me a container with a belt holder so I could carry them on the front of my belt, making them ready for easy access.

Dad and I loved the small brooks that wound their way down the Vermont mountains. It was exciting to come upon a series of clear pools formed by water falling over the rocks and ridges. We had a gentleman’s agreement as to how to fish those pools. When we arrived at a series of pools, Dad let me fish the first one. He would then start at the pool above. When I finished at my pool, I would move to the one above Dad. This way each of us had the opportunity to be the first one at a new pool. I did notice that Dad seemed to always arrange it so I came to the best pools first.

I enjoyed Dad’s fishing technique. There was no playing with the trout or gracefully bringing them in to lift them out with your finger hooked through their gills. Dad taught the “hook ‘em, throw them out on the bank and jump on them.” It worked great. Many times, as I was throwing a trout up onto the bank, it would come unhooked and fall to the ground. That’s when the “jump on them “part was real useful. It prevented them from falling back into the brook.

Our favorite brook was up in Pleasant Valley. We drove along Upper Pleasant Valley Road until we saw a cow path. We then walked our way up the path until we reached the bottom of Mount Mansfield. After walking in the woods for a distance, a brook would appear. There was no better sight than to see that brook in the early morning sunshine with the diamonds of light falling over its crystal clear water.

They say you can never go home, but last week I wondered if you can go to your brook. I wanted my grandson to experience the joy I felt so many years ago. I decided to see if he and I could find that brook again. After a few false starts on Upper Pleasant Valley Road, I spotted what I felt was the right turn toward the mountain. Instead of a cow path, we found a dirt road with houses on both sides. Then the trail became a sugar road with plastic pipes running alongside. Finally, we walked into the woods and shortly we arrived at that wonderful old brook. It seemed smaller than I remember, but just as beautiful and pure.

After explaining Dad’s gentleman’s agreement for fishing mountain pools, off we went. The fish were as small as I remembered them and the experience was just as rewarding. After frying our catch and adding some pancakes and fried potatoes, we completed our Hackle Hike.

Now another Vermont boy knows where there is a mountain brook where he can find peace, solitude and some small brookies when he needs them.

Bill Skiff grew up on a farm between Cambridge and Jeffersonville. After a career in education, he now lives in Williston, where he is a justice of the peace and Fourth of July frog-jumping official. In “Places I’ve Played,” he shares his experiences of growing up in Vermont. Comments are welcome at [email protected].

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