Eastern Fly Fishing

Collegiate Wilderness Brook Trout in the Diamond River System
By Matthew Reilly

At a quarter after dawn, I muscled my head from the chilled earth of a North Woods summer and hopped on four wheels. After a cheap diner breakfast in the weathered, road-salted town of Errol, I drove north. North along the fabled Magalloway River—home of big brook trout and lore—to the Maine state line, then west along a barely marked gravel road to a locked gate that prevented forward progress.
   I parked my car on the road’s shoulder, which was matted with strips of softwood bark and gravel, and got out to more closely inspect a metal sign farther up the road, guarded by the steel gate: “SECOND COLLEGE GRANT. FOOT TRAVELERS ARE WELCOME. VEHICLE ENTRY BY PERMIT ONLY.” These words, I knew from my pre-boots-on-the-ground research, were a declaration of privilege. “YOUR COOPERATION IS APPRECIATED. DARTMOUTH COLLEGE.” These words explained why.
   Vehicular navigation of the road that stretches beyond is reserved for those associated with Dartmouth College and those workers of the land beyond. In a sense, I stood at the edge of a semiprivate sporting club property, one that exists to benefit those with a connection to the northernmost Ivy League school, but that allows somewhat more limited utilization by others. Being a firm believer in the American public’s collective ownership of natural resources, I typically begrudge such arrangements. However, this particular one I believe in.
   What lies beyond that gate is an invaluable expanse of relative wilderness, a legacy of synergistic land management—and more than 40 miles of pristine streams. At the heart of it all is perhaps the state of New Hampshire’s last handle on a wild population of truly large native brook trout. And the gate, at least partially, impedes their erosion, while preserving access
for everyone.


Rivers and Roads
The two main flowages within the Second College Grant, the Swift Diamond and Dead Diamond Rivers, begin outside its boundaries, but their bodies are located largely within. 
   The Swift Diamond, the smaller of the two,begins as the outlet of Diamond Pond in Coleman State Park and flows 18 miles to its confluence with the Dead. Swift Diamond Road, which branches east from Dead Diamond Road within the property at the confluence, follows the river. 
   The Dead Diamond begins to the north near the town of Pittsburg, where the East, Middle, and West Branches converge. Though not officially within the Second College Grant, the Middle and East Branches of the Dead Diamond can be accessed from Magalloway Road in Pittsburg and offer great angling to those looking for smaller water. The Dead Diamond enters the Second College Grant at Hell Gate and then flows south through the length of the Grant (as it’s known locally) to its confluence with the Magalloway near Errol. Dead Diamond Road parallels the river along its course through the Grant. The gates that restrict vehicular traffic are located just a quarter mile from the road’s intersection with State Route 16, and at Hell Gate on the northern edge of the property.
   The right to vehicular navigation of these roads is reserved for the Dartmouth-associated, who can secure and pick up gate keys from the college’s Outdoor Programs Office in Hanover. Overnight camping and campfires are prohibited, but the general public is invited to access the property on foot, or on mountain bike, which is my preferred method of travel, as it allows the angler to cover road more quickly.
   A handful of major tributary streams and ponds also fall within the Grant. A foot trail branches west from Dead Diamond Road and parallels Loomis Valley Brook, but the others can only be reached by bushwhacking. Those wishing to access these more remote spots (and, really, anyone venturing into the Grant) should be properly equipped with a map and compass or a GPS with extra batteries. It’s easy to become turned around.


The Grant
Dartmouth’s Second College Grant is a township encompassing 27,000 acres of northern forest in northern New Hampshire along the Maine border. Despite its name, it was actually the fourth parcel of land granted to the college. In 1770, the state of New Hampshire offered Eleazar Wheelock (the founder of Dartmouth College) the township of Landaff, but the offer was turned down in favor of land in Hanover, where the school was eventually established. In 1785, Vermont granted the college the township of Wheelock, and in 1789, New Hampshire granted it the township of Clarksville. Both of these grants, hospitable and accessible to settlers, were sold off quickly in small parcels to support the financial appetite of the growing institution. In 1807, the state of New Hampshire answered a petition from the college with the Second College Grant, a landscape too rugged and remote to appeal to settlers, yet rich in softwood timber.
   For decades, the timber present on the Grant provided the college with a meager but regular source of funds. Then, in 1888, logging within the Grant entered its heyday, as George Van Dyke, the great North Woods logger, signed a contract to cut 3 million board feet of softwood annually for 20 years. The rivers within the Grant, draining southeast into the big water of the Magalloway and Androscoggin Rivers, allowed for timber to be river-driven downstream to the historic timber town of Berlin, making harvest convenient. 
   As the nation’s industrial focus aligned with wartime manufacturing during World War II, the Grant’s vast yellow birch resource gained attention from aircraft manufacturers, and harvest of the hardwood timber began. However, since hardwood doesn’t float, it couldn’t be transported to market via the rivers as the softwood product was. So, primitive logging roads paralleling the Swift Diamond and Dead Diamond Rivers were built to allow trucks to retrieve and deliver the timber.
   In 1947, Robert Monahan was hired as the college forester to oversee operations on the Grant, where he quickly recognized a valuable opportunity. With the addition of navigable roads to the property, access for sportsmen was indirectly improved. In 1948, he wrote, “The college has available an asset never visualized when the Grant was established: a substantial area of North Country wilderness where undergraduates and alumni can live in, and learn to love, the outdoors.” Thus, the Grant’s multiple-use philosophy began to grow.
   Still, industry robs the property of a total wilderness aesthetic; the ongoing logging operation, long married to the culture of the North Woods, has taken its ecological toll. As Edward Hoagland documented in his 1985 essay “Walking the Dead Diamond River,” deer are now more plentiful than they were before, due to the availability of young hardwood sprouts the logging subsidizes, making calculated deer harvest essential to avoiding mass die-offs after a heavy blanket of snow falls in the winter. And historic log drives have restricted the regular catching of 4-pound-and-better brook trout to the recollections of aging natives.
   Still, the setting behind the gates of the Grant is, in ways, more virgin than anywhere else, due to its semiprivate nature and the devoted management efforts aimed at reversing the effects of the early, environmentally irresponsible logging. A walk through these woods is like a step back in time, and remains a rich experience.


Wild Brook Trout Refuge
Though regular run-ins with truly large brook trout are a thing of the past within the Grant, as they are in most other places in the United States, the fishery is thriving, despite ever-present challenges in the form of growing angler pressure and climate change. Scientific studies conducted within the Grant have also identified its waters as what might be New Hampshire’s last remaining refuge for large wild brook trout, though these monstrous specimens are hardly ever seen or caught.
   The waters within the Second College Grant have not been stocked in decades. “The main stem of the Dead Diamond has never been stocked within the [Grant] boundaries,” says New Hampshire Fish and Game Department (NHFGD) coldwater fisheries biologist Dianne Timmins. “The Swift Diamond was stocked in the headwaters for some time, but that was terminated, and the last stocking occurred in 2006. The population is self-sustaining, and genetics has confirmed individual populations exist in the main stem and some of the tributaries.”
   Unfortunately, most anywhere there is a healthy and growing trout population, there are anglers who are attracted to its bounty. The Grant’s fisheries are no different. “As the word got out about the fabulous fishery that exists here, angling effort skyrocketed,” says Timmins. Harvest of brook trout increased as well. However, most of the increase occurred in the lower river below the Grant boundary, as, according to Timmins, the gates of the property served as a buffer for angling pressure and fish harvest. In response to this change in pressure, regulations on the lower stretch of the river within the Grant were changed to catch-and-release for trout, while a five-fish limit remains in place in the interior.  
   The challenge of a warming environment doesn’t have such a simple fix. “We have less winter and erratic weather patterns—thaws in January and February, and then deep snow later. Runoff isn’t tempered like it used to be,” says Timmins. “This erratic weather leads to unstable flow events, which increases instability in stream banks and exacerbates erosion.” But increased stream bank erosion is just one of several potential threats to wild brook trout in a
warming environment.
   Timmins and the NHFGD are currently exploring what specific impacts rising air temperatures will have on groundwater inputs to the rivers and the character of the forest within the Grant so they can more effectively and proactively manage the working forest. “As the environment changes, these forested areas with healthy groundwater inputs and shaded habitats are going to be critical for the survival of brook trout. Right now the Grant has all of that going for it,” says Timmins. Currently, a healthy number of larger trees are falling into the rivers and providing excellent cover for brook trout. However, should a rising average air temperature affect the amount of shade and woody debris the forest can provide to the rivers within the Grant, the brook trout will be at risk.
   The current health of the fisheries within the Grant can be largely tied to quality, connected habitat. A recent study by the NHFGD revealed the presence of large, wild fish within the system. Tagging these fish showed that, during periods of low, warm water in the Dead Diamond, these fish often move into connected habitat within the same watershed seeking thermal refuge, and sometimes they don’t return until the spawn the following year. “This behavior speaks to the importance of habitat connectivity and demonstrates the use of the habitat within the entire broad-scale watershed both in Maine and New Hampshire,” says Timmins, who led the project. Further research is being conducted, mapping the seasonal movements of these fish, in an effort to better understand the nature of the species in a relatively connected and healthy watershed.


Fishing the Grant
The waters within the Grant are as diverse as they are rich.
   The Dead Diamond River has some excellent rapids that run through the gorge sections of the river, where brook trout lie in wait in the pockets and seams created by boulders and sweepers. However, much of the river is tamer in nature, meandering through the grassy bottomlands of the Grant in deep, dark pools. The Swift Diamond contains a bounty of classic pocket water, which, along with its smaller size, can make finding and catching brook trout a bit easier. Countless small tributaries of these rivers, including Loomis Valley Brook and Lamb Valley Brook, also contain brook trout.
   Stillwater fishing exists in the remote Lamb Valley Pond, in Hell Gate Pond, and in most any beaver pond or backwater found within close proximity of the aforementioned waters.
   To protect the wild brook trout populations within this watershed, the waters are all managed under special regulations and open to fishing from January 1 through Labor Day. All fish must be released, with the exception of fish caught in the Dead Diamond River from the headwaters to its confluence with the Swift Diamond.
   The bottom line is that the Grant offers endless opportunities for exploratory angling in a wilderness setting. And, with the restriction of vehicular travel and overnight camping, exploring all of it becomes nearly impossible. Thankfully, the fishing is great everywhere. At least that’s been the experience of David Van Wie, a Dartmouth graduate and coauthor of a book titled The Confluence: Fly-Fishing & Friendship in the Dartmouth College Grant.
   “My first trip to the Grant was senior year, cross-country skiing into one of the cabins with gear on a sled,” he says. “Ten years later, my buddy Phil got a fly rod and asked if I wanted to go again. Now a whole group of us goes up every June and proceeds to try to solve the wild brook trout fishery there.”
   He adds, “For a long time, we thought the gorge was a barrier,” speaking of a very high-gradient stretch of river just upstream of Dead Diamond Road’s first river crossing.
   However, Dianne Timmins’ fish tagging study revealed that this was not the case. Her findings suggested that brook trout begin to migrate back into the Dead Diamond and Swift Diamond Rivers around Memorial Day, when water temperatures reach 53 F. There they remain until rising summer water temperatures and low flows drive them out. They return to spawn in late September and early October, but by then the fishing season is closed to take pressure off the reproducing fish.
   Thus, Van Wie has had great success in the early part of June, when he typically makes the trip to the Grant, but the fishing can be great throughout the season. “I’ve had fabulous days in July and August,” he says. “But I wouldn’t recommend fishing in August, because of the water temperature.”
   Strong hatches are the exception rather than the rule on the Dead Diamond and Swift Diamond, so anglers shouldn’t put too much stress on matching hatches. Classic dry flies, like the Elk Hair Caddis, Adams, gnats, or any small dry suggestive of the many no-see-ums and mosquitoes that buzz around in the summer, will take fish. General hair and attractor nymphs and streamers, like the Hornberg, will too.
   If you can find brook trout, which isn’t usually a struggle in the Grant, you can usually get them to cooperate. However, it should be noted that, though large fish do exist within this watershed, fish over 18 inches are very seldom caught. “Set your thrill-o-meter at 8 inches,” says Van Wie. And I’ve found truth in that.


Down in the Gorge
With a mountain bike I borrowed in Vermont earlier in the summer, and with fewer miles under my belt, I walked around the gate closing off the lower entrance road to the Second College Grant and tackled the road ahead on two wheels.
   It was an easy pedal, with a smooth road and not much of a grade. My eyes wandered through the screen of trees. The Dead Diamond River meandered lazily through prime moose habitat, with not an excited patch on its glassy surface. Being a native of Appalachia—Shenandoah, specifically, where the rivers are steep and the water points to where the brook trout lie—I pedaled on until the road turned steep.
   When it did, I dismounted and stashed my bike in the roadside bushes, figuring the road’s grade mirrored the river’s and I would find more moving water below. As I did, a black bear exploded from nearby cover and made a beeline for the ridgetop, and a white-tailed deer bounded deeper into the forest, waving its white flag.
   I descended a steep gorge with my fly rod in hand, arriving at a large boulder with a grassy edge, where I unhooked my small streamer and began swinging it in the current. In no time, a spritely brook trout grabbed my fly as it swung through a likely-looking seam. And, despite the road to my back and the relatively short distance between me and Errol, my need for a classic, romantic, wilderness experience was fulfilled.


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