Vermont's Fabled Snow Trout

Vermont's Fabled Snow Trout

Pursuing one of the world's most elusive game fish

  • By: David Cleveland
"I never would have believed it!" my friend Jay Baldwin said, staring at the frayed end of his sash-cord tippet. Dr. Baldwin, a Florida marine biologist, has battled bonefish, snook, tarpon and barracuda, but he had never seen anything shear off tippet strong enough to hold up a window. Was it a shard of ice…or was it a SNOW TROUT? We had been fishing the frozen foam line around the edge of a manure pile in a field above my house in Vermont-manure attracts turkeys, which attract the trout.Suddenly, I saw Jay rear back and try to set the hook, but in an instant he was broken off, and there was no sign of the fish. That's what happens when you try to outfox these huge, mysterious fish that have achieved an almost mythical status among the secretive anglers who pursue them. Not to be confused with the more well known Memphremagog furred trout, the north country's snow trout remain largely unknown outside of a small circle of men and women who pursue them with Ahab-like fanaticism. They guard their secrets like Druids. A Fateful Encounter I had been trying for years to catch a snow trout in the lakes and streams near my home without success. Even getting information about them was like pulling teeth. Mention snow trout around old-time Vermonters and they will often just smile at you cryptically. One summer I ran across a crusty old fisherman named "Cookie" on the Battenkill, and when I subtly worked snow trout into the conversation he became very quiet, held up a hand with only three fingers on it, and gave me a knowing look. It's also virtually impossible to find any written information on the subject. Hewitt and LaBranche don't mention snow trout, Brooks and Schweibert are notoriously closed-lipped on the subject, and I was only able to find one brief reference in Amundsen's journals. Then, almost a decade ago, while eavesdropping on two old timers in a local diner, I overheard one of them say, "There's snow trout on the McAllister place." That's when it hit me like a lightning bolt. There's no water on the McAllister place! I had been fishing all this time in the wrong places. Snow trout aren't water fish-they're snow fish! The place to find them was in the deep snow in woods and fields! That realization opened up a whole new sporting world for me, which I am willing to share with you in order to win new converts to the pursuit of Salmo Popsiclus. It can be hard, it can be cold, and it can be frustrating, but believe me, once you're up here in February during the snow flea hatch, you'll be spoiled for other types of fishing forever. Where and How to Find Snow Trout The same sound principle that applies to regular trout applies to snow trout as well: Find the food sources and you'll find the trout. What do snow trout eat? Judging from what you find on the snow, and on the ground in the spring after the snow melts, they eat just about everything. Birds, squirrels and rodents seem to top the list, but I've also found evidence, discarded in odd, out-of-the-way places, which suggests that over the centuries they may have developed a liking for human cast-offs, including sandwiches and even an occasional Bud Lite. That may explain the often vicious strikes I've had on a beef-jerky streamer of my own devising. (See other suggested flies on page 51.) Good places to find fish are along weed and brush edges, by deer trails and the aforementioned manure piles. Spillage from bird feeders attracts mice and voles, particularly in low light, so backyards with feeding stations are a good bet. (Be sure to ask the owner's permission first.) One collection of three feeders in the Bridgewater, Vermont, area is so productive that Tom Rosenbauer is reputed to have said it was "the best snow-trout birdfeeder spot I've ever worked, and that includes in Argentina and New Zealand!" Although most often associated with bass angling, structure fishing is also important to snow trout fishing. Never pass up the snow piles that come off the roofs of a promising barn or outbuilding. Where snow comes off the confluence of two roofs can be especially productive. Even small structures can attract these voracious fish. Veteran snow trout angler Terry Boone told me he's had his best strikes around an isolated two-holer outside of Norwich, Vermont (though he's sworn me to secrecy about the location). Don't pass up those mid-field rocks, either. The snow current slows down around them, so the areas in front and behind them can hold good fish. Learn to Spot Trout Snow trout are practically invisible to the untrained eye. But once I became attuned to them, I was able to see signs of them almost everywhere. Learning the different rise forms can help. Flocks of blue jays or chickadees diving over the snow are a dead giveaway, but often the signs are a lot more subtle. Look for "nervous" snow that quivers or moves in odd ways. Up here, the natives sometimes call that "Jello snow." (A word to the wise from veteran snow trout guide, John Marshall, however: Don't eat "Jello snow.") Keep honing your spotting skills. The more time you spend doing it, the better you'll get. I believe it may have been Lou Tabory who said, "Time on the tundra is the best teacher." Equipment People who only fish occasionally for snow trout can get by with a good stout 8- or 9- weight rod. Sinking-tip or full-sinking lines will help you get down deep fast. But those of us who fish many days a winter have made some equipment modifications you may find helpful. I've replaced my fly line with "Wunda-drya" plastic-coated clothes line, with four to five feet of cotton sash-cord for a tippet. The slick plastic coating on the line really helps it shoot through the guides, while the sash cord give you terrific strength while maintaining suppleness even in cold conditions. Its white color becomes practically invisible in the snow, and it takes knots well. Old-time die-hards, however, swear by their traditional line: good ole chartreuse "weed whacker" line. When you're into the really big ones, a bungee-cord shock tippet with a "By Jimmini Twist" is also useful. Tips and techniques To cover a lot of acres, I suggest one of two techniques. Purists like the "ski troll" method, which is particularly good for covering slopes and rolling terrain. It has the added benefit of letting you use two poles at once. The more high-tech alternative is the Snowmobile Cast 'n Blast. Snow trout fishermen have actually fished the entire "center island" section of Interstate 89 using this rapid-moving technique, and it is the method many professional snow trout guides use. Snowmobiles can carry one fisherman or two, and can accommodate the use of downriggers to get your fly down to where the big ones lurk. Of course, if you use this technique, please observer proper etiquette and never cut between a snow-wader and the area he is trying to fish. Here's another great tip from the old timers. Carry a tin of Grade A amber maple syrup with you. A dab behind each ear will help mask your scent, while a liberal application on your fly can draw trout from as far away as 50 feet! Some people have asked me if there is a best phase of the moon during which to fish. I say that's a lot of hooey! Honestly now, who would believe such a blend of old folk tale and malarkey? If You Go The best time to go is in January and February, though if we have a late March blizzard the fishing can be fantastic. (Remember, the regular trout season is closed in the winter in Vermont.) Don't wait too late, though, because as the snow recedes the fish will begin to withdraw up through Canada to the permafrost. Dress in layers-about 60 of them, but don't neglect the all-important access flaps. Most important of all, don't get discouraged. It can take thousands of casts to get the fish of a lifetime. Some of the most skilled, experienced snow trout anglers in the world-even the renowned James Otranto-have gone fishless for seasons. I myself have yet to actually land a fish, though the hookups alone are more than worth it. A friend of mine from Wisconsin thinks I'm crazy, "wasting my time." He says a good snow muskie eats snow trout for breakfast, and tends to grow larger. But I remain loyal, dedicated and hopeful. One last pointer: Once in a while you may hook a so-called "trash fish" while angling for snow trout. Don't be snobbish. Some people dismiss them, calling them "paulies," but the locals know that with a little tartar sauce they can be great eating. Good luck! Dave Cleveland lives in central Vermont, from where he offers his profound apologies to fellow fly-fishers everywhere.