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'Quite A Thrill': Talking Fish On The Line With Anglers In The NEK

A man in waders holds up a silvery fish on his line in the middle of the Clyde River in April, with little to no foliage on the trees.
Erica Heilman
/
VPR
Guy Grenier shows off a fish he caught on the Clyde River.

Fishing season opened in April in Vermont, and independent producer Erica Heilman went for a drive around the Northeast Kingdom with retired fish biologist Len Gerardi to check out the fishing and talk with some anglers.

Erica: Len Gerardi worked as a fish biologist for Vermont Fish and Wildlife for over 35 years in the Northeast Kingdom, which is plenty of time to get on the bad side of diehard anglers, then get back on the good side, then the bad side again, which pretty much goes with the job.

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But 35 years is also a long time to know people who share your same passion about fish, and there are some passionate anglers to know in the Kingdom, some of whom have been fishing here since the 1950s.

We stopped at Willoughby Falls, which is kind of like the Marty Stouffer’s Wild America. Below the falls is a famous stretch of river for fishing, and we ran into Bryant Fleming and Mike Royer there, two local anglers who have been fishing this river for decades.

Three men lean against a pickup truck on a sunny day in April, two of them with fishing gear. They look to be chatting and are all wearing blue jeans, with one on the far right wearing a Patagonia hoodie.
Erica Heilman
Left to right, anglers Mike Royer and Bryant Fleming chat with former Vermont Fish and Wildlife biologist Len Gerardi by Willoughby Falls. Mike and Bryant have fished the river for decades.

Len: Is that Mr. Fleming? How you doing Bryant?

Bryant: Fit as a fiddle and waiting to be played.

Len: What a strange season, huh?

Bryant: Well every year seems to go that way.

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Len: How’s your season going?

Bryant: Well, I landed one this morning and lost one upriver. And I got a nice male with probably between 22- and 23 inches – it wasn’t spawned out, just as nice and fat as could be.

Len: So was it early?

Bryant: Well I had guys here two days before the season. A good buddy of mine, he weren’t lying to me, he was sitting on that granite box for less than an hour and saw 25 or 30 go up. And he said two of them were in the 7-8-pound range. He said they jumped and they went. And he said the others were pretty nice fish.

"I fished with his father, I fished with his mother and I fished with his uncles and brothers … "
Bryant Fleming

Len: And that’s Mike Royer!

Bryant: Oh don’t get him started …

Len: How you doing there Mike?

Mike: What are you up to? The fish are all gone before the fishing season even started.

Len: Mike here is just a pup. He’s second generation of doing this stuff, right Mike?

Mike: Long time. Long time.

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Bryant: I fished with his father, I fished with his mother and I fished with his uncles and brothers …

You gotta hear this: [Was] fishing just above the riprap one morning and the water was cloudy perfect. Skinny was on that side and I was on this side and all of a sudden Skinny says, “Oh man! I’ve got the fish! Wow I got the biggest fish I ever seen in here.”

And he’s hollering “Anybody got a net?! We’re going to need a net!”

A kid says, “Yeah I got a net up in the car,” and away he ran. He ran all the way up here, ran all the way back down, and Skinny was almost in the riprap.

“Get out in the water,” he says, “I’ll try to bring him up! When you see him, net it.”

So the kid got right out in the water: “You see it?”

“Yep!”

He had a veterinary glove full of water and he pulled it up here.

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Mike: You know who that kid was?

Bryant: Who?

Mike: Me!

There was laughter.

Bryant: You?

Mike: I ran all the way up there to get the friggin’ net. I get back down here and he pulls it up and it’s … thing they … breed cows with?

You know those rubber … you know, they put [it] on their arm so they can go clean the crap out? That’s what he had.

Bryant: He says, “I was never so embarrassed in my life,” he said afterwards …

"Once you get it in your blood, it’s a passionate thing."
Gary Ward

Erica: What’s the rush? What’s the feeling of getting the big one?

Bryant: Oh jeez. If you’d been with me this morning, I would’ve passed you the pole and you’d have been hooked. When that fish comes out of the water and hits the water again and might shoot upstream 40- or 50 feet, and then you get him stopped and, like that, he’ll shoot downstream and now he’s below you and now you probably not gonna land him.

So if you can land one, that is quite a thrill.

Erica: After Willoughby Falls, Len drove me to the Clyde River, which runs from Island Pond to Lake Memphremagog. It’s famous for its landlocked Atlantic salmon.

We ran into Gary Ward, who lobbied for years with other local residents to have a dam removed upriver. In 1994, Newport 11, as it was called, was decommissioned and taken out. And 27 years later, here he was on the Clyde, fishing.

Len: Oh my god. That isn’t who I think it is?

Gary: Jeez, you’re luck out today, didn’t it?

Len: I guess it did.

Gary: You were having a lucky day until you walked out here. Here let me shake your hand.

Len: Gary, like the Clyde River Hydro, has a very checkered history from his formative years when he was crawling around here, down here in the bushes with probably some kind of grapple, trying to snag walleye out of the river, he tells me to help feed his family …

Gary: I have said this publicly. This hand alone has caught more fish than most people – this hand. No fly rod; no line – just the hand.

I grew up on the river as a boy, but I am probably the most fish friendly advocate you’d ever run into.

Len: Oh my god stridently so. It’s frightening actually.

"... it’s the way I was raised I guess. My father was a hunter and a fisherman, so he taught me and I got the bug. It don’t take long to get the bug. This place is special."
Guy Grenier

Gary: It’s obnoxious for some. The commissioner knows my name – he knows my first name and he’s probably heard enough from me already. So that’s how that works. Once you get it in your blood, it’s a passionate thing.

Erica: Just then, Gary’s fishing buddy Guy Grenier walked downstream toward us, another famous angler in the Kingdom.

Erica: Did you have any luck today?

Guy: Yes I did – I got one.

Erica: Can I see it?

Guy: Yeah.

Erica: Jeezum that’s a beautiful fish. You couldn’t live without this?

Guy: I couldn’t. I mean, I fish a hundred days a year. I don’t have to catch fish to enjoy it.

I can think of many days I’ve come up here and on the way home, on the interstate, just thinking about what a great day I had and I never even had a bite.

So I don’t know – it’s the way I was raised I guess. My father was a hunter and a fisherman, so he taught me and I got the bug. It don’t take long to get the bug. This place is special.

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