It is tempting to wax eloquent about various vernal harbingers: the budding willows along a river's shoreline, the distant drumming of a ruffed grouse, a mayfly hatch—that sort of thing. But the waters on the first day of trout season sing a different tune if you're in them. They're cold, for one thing. April's icy runoff is less a bubbling song of spring than a requiem to winter: a torrent that chills fishermen to the marrow despite waders, long Johns and parkas. And the trout streams are crowded. This is no time to try to sneak off to a favorite pool and patiently work its edges, thinking Thoreauvian thoughts. Not with just about every hard-core fisherman in the state on the water. Nope. Opening day, in fishing as in baseball, is more a ritual of respect than a quality sporting experience. River, we have missed you. Trout, we are back. And, inevitably, at some point we think back on whoever it was who instilled in us this fine freshwater passion. We are, all of us, kids again.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in Riverton, a picturesque New England village (pop. 400) in western Connecticut that for the past 35 years or so has played host on opening day to a fishing derby that transforms the west branch of the Farmington River into piscatorial bedlam. The Riverton Fishing Derby was started by the Hitchcock Chair Company, which stocked lunker browns and rainbows in the pool below its showroom. Last year a group of local merchants took over sponsorship, but Hitchcock still donates a chair as the prize for catching the largest trout in the four hours after opening day officially begins at 6 a.m. on the third Saturday in April. The traffic starts building Friday afternoon, and by one o'clock Saturday morning a few hearty souls have already waded into the river to stake out their places. By the time the firehouse whistle blows to open the trout season, fishermen will be lined up elbow-to-elbow on the river. "It's almost like they're throwing lines at each other," says Hans Andersen, 46, a New Hartford, Conn. resident who won the 1985 contest with a seven-pound 9½-ounce rainbow. "You're always getting tangled up with the guy across the way, so it's not what you'd call a fun spot to fish. I'll be back this year, though. My wife wants another chair."
Most of the anglers use spinning rods and bait: worms, nightcrawlers, shiners, salmon eggs, even marshmallows. When one fellow showed up with a fly rod last year, he was nearly razzed off the river. "Here comes Izaak Walton!" someone shouted.
"I don't know for the life of me how they ever land a fish," says Jim Stadler, who runs Trip's, a sporting-goods store in nearby Torrington. "There's anything but cooperation out there. You may have a big one on, but that doesn't mean somebody else isn't trying to snag it on its way past."
Kids reborn. Laughing at one another's misfortunes—a worm intertwined with a shiner, a rat's nest of monofilament, spinners and hooks. Loosen up, purists. It's opening day. Hey, we've got all summer in which to fish in peace.
Lines, tangled and otherwise, command attention from everyone.