May 02, 2023
By Chris Dolnack
The West Branch of the Farmington River has its source in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, an area better known for the Norman Rockwell Museum and the Boston Pops Symphony at Tanglewood. Colebrook Reservoir and West Branch Reservoir combine their outflows to create New England’s finest tailwater fishery, with 15 miles that have been designated part of the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System, with abundant wildlife including otters, beavers, deer, black bears, bobcats, and an established nesting bald eagle population.
Bottom-released water from the reservoirs remains cold all year, making for consistent flows and water temperatures in the 50s down to New Hartford, even in the heat of summer. The result is a river that produces dry-fly hatches 12 months a year, and a trout density unrivaled in New England. And what’s more, for traveling fly fishers, the Farmington River is just 30-35 minutes from Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, serving Springfield, Massachusetts and Hartford, Connecticut. It’s easy to get there.
Public Access Galore
With over 30 miles of trout water that includes two specially regulated trout management areas (TMAs), the Farmington has a wide variety of water including deep, flat pools, riffles, and runs. The river is heavily stocked with trout averaging 12 to 14 inches. Stable flows support an excellent population of holdover browns and rainbows as well as stream-born wild browns. Anglers willing to put the time in are often rewarded with fish over 20 inches.
There is ample access along the upper portion of the river via East River and West River roads, which follow along the West Branch from the Route 318 bridge in Pleasant Valley, home of the legendary Church Pool, to the village of Riverton, location of the Hitchcock Pool. There are a number of pull-offs as well as parking areas and picnic areas in Peoples State Forest and American Legion State Forest. From Riverton you will find access near the spillway by continuing along East River Road and then bearing left on Hogsback Road, which runs along the river.
South from Pleasant Valley there is access along both sides of the river, on foot along a rails-to-trails walkway and from River Road and then Route 44 toward the town of Avon. The terrain in the upper sections is relatively easy. The lower sections downstream from New Hartford/Collinsville can be steep and have some large boulders to navigate.
The Farmington has invasive didymo (Didymosphenia geminata) algae throughout its flow. This so-called “rock snot” makes wading slippery. Boots with felt soles and studs are a wise choice when there is no snow or ice on the ground. Since I fish a lot, and frequently in other states, I have separate sets of waders and boots I wear only on the Farmington for convenience and peace of mind. I’ve learned firsthand that repeated treatments of bleach solution are unkind to the adhesion of felt soles. Carrying and using a wading staff is also advisable.
Trout Management Areas
There are five sections of the West Branch and main stem of the Farmington River that fall under special regulations, and the specific rules are subject to change from year to year, so be sure to check the guide that comes with your fishing license and trout stamp, as well as the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) website. For the most part on the Upper TMA sections, hooks must be barbless, and it is catch-and-release only from September 1 until the opening day of Connecticut trout season in early April.
The upper portion of the West Branch upstream from the Route 219 bridge in New Hartford is where the highest trout density is and with it, the highest angling pressure. The colder water temperatures make for active trout in all but the hottest summers.
Classic pools abound in the upper TMA with long deep sections and large trout. Brown trout larger than 20 inches are not uncommon in this reach, and several fish over 30 inches have been landed by local guides Zach St. Amand and Derrick Kirkpatrick. The lower portions down through Tariffville Gorge shouldn’t be overlooked, especially if you’re looking for a little elbow room. Explore this section from late fall to late spring, after which the water temperatures will warm up beyond what most of us would consider to be acceptable for stressing trout in midsummer. I’ve had some great days fishing the lower sections and rarely see more than one or two other fly fishers.
Like most tailwater fisheries, the Farmington tests your skills beyond typical indicator nymphing or dry-fly presentations, particularly in the upper TMAs on the West Branch, where these trout have been cast over and caught many times. In winter and early spring, both indicator nymphing and traditional tightlining with 5X tippet produce fish.
However, when the water levels are lower and angling pressure increases in late spring and summer into late fall, think 6X-7X tippet and precise contact nymphing presentations. Thinner tippet gets your nymphs down into the strike zone quicker and allows you to stay in contact with your flies. Many of the local guides and avid fly fishers plying the waters of the Farmington River favor 1- to 3-weight Euro-nymphing rods 10 or 11 feet long, with long 6X monofilament tippets.
As on most tailwater fisheries, the subsurface bugs in the Farmington River tend to be in the #16-#22 size range. That’s where having a 2X or 3X pair of CLIC magnifiers comes in handy for me, making it possible to thread a 6X or 7X tippet through the eye of a #20 Zebra Midge. Both local fly shops, UpCountry Sportfishing in New Hartford and Orvis in Avon have a thorough selection of locally tied and tested flies.
Adapting to this type of technical fishing has made me a better angler. Over the years as I’ve dialed down my fly sizes and learned more techniques from local guides, my catch rates elsewhere have increased as well. While fishing delayed harvest or fly-fishing-only freestone streams in Northcentral Pennsylvania near our family camp, I’ve had fellow anglers walk by to ask what patterns we were throwing. Given that #8-#12 Hares-ears, Pheasant Tails, Copper Johns, Princes, and patterns of that type are traditional flies for that area, they were shocked to see how small the nymphs in our fly boxes were.
In order to achieve a drag-free presentation, the most successful dry-fly anglers opt for a 3- to 5-weight rod in the 9-foot range and present their flies at the end of a 12- to 22-foot leader sporting 6X-8X tippet. An increasing number of anglers are casting dry flies with their mono-rigged nymphing rods with good success when a hatch pops up.
Recent on-the-water seminars by French world champion Yannick Rivière and local guide Antoine Bissieux, aka “The French Fly Fisherman,” have introduced local anglers to short-distance dry-fly presentations with 3- to 4-weight floating lines and hand-tied 22-foot leaders where the fly lands first and begins to drift downstream while the rest of the tippet and leader follow behind. This technique is especially effective when casting to a fish lying on the far side of varying currents.
Year-round dry-fly hatches include Blue-winged Olives (#14-#28), midges (#24-#28), and summer and winter caddis (#14-#18). April and early May see a prolific Hendrickson hatch (#12-#16), followed by March Browns (#12-#14). From May into early July, Sulphurs (#14-#18) and Isonychias (#12-#14) take center stage, followed by Tricos (#24-#28) in mid-July into August.
Weighted nymphs such as Pheasant Tails (#14-#18), Copper Johns (#14-18), caddis pupae and larvae (#14-#16), DK’s Winter Warrior (#16-#20), Frenchies (#14-#18), Perdigons (#18-#22), and Zebra Midges (#18-#22) are staples on the Farmington River.
For bigger morsels, try a Golden Stone called DK’s Stoner or a white jig/streamer called the Dirty Little Stripper. Both are tied by local guide Derrick Kirkpatrick and are available locally.
During the fall spawn and throughout the winter into early spring—and also when the river has been recently stocked with hatchery trout—egg patterns and other “junk” flies such as Squirmy Wormies are very effective. Gold, black, and brown stoneflies and bead or tungsten-head Woolly Buggers are good producers as well.
In addition to the thriving wild brown trout population, the “Survivor Strain” program run by the Connecticut DEEP adds another twist to this complex and resilient fishery. Each September DEEP’s Inland Fisheries Division electro surveys stretches of the TMAs and captures 80 to 120 high-quality browns that are bred at the Burlington State Fish Hatchery to produce DEEP’s survivor strain offspring.
Immediately following that spawning, the broodstock are released back into the TMA. To identify survivor strain offspring from other trout in the Farmington, biologists initially implanted elastomer tags, or colored identification marks just above the eye with a specific color identifying the year that the fish were stocked. Today, survivor strain fish can be identified by their clipped adipose fins.
Survivor strain trout are stocked annually in the TMA in the spring, some as adult fish up to two years old and 18 to 20 inches in length, along with many more yearlings. Subsequent surveys have shown that the survivor strain browns that are stocked as yearlings have a more advanced growth rate than the two-year-old fish.
Protecting the Resource
Founded in 1977, the nonprofit Farmington River Anglers Association (FRAA) and its 300 members were instrumental in establishing a three-mile trout management area in 1988 and the inclusion of the river in the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System in 1994. The FRAA was also instrumental in the expansion of the West Branch TMA in the mid-90s, and works actively with the DEEP to further expand the TMA and enhance the fishery. Members regularly participate in river cleanups, trout hatchery improvements, school classroom activities, and habitat improvement. If you are visiting the river, pick up a copy of the FRAA’s 66-page A Guide to the Farmington River, which divides the river into different sections from Hartland to its confluence with the Connecticut River in Windsor, and includes detailed maps identifying pools and runs.
Established in 1953, the Farmington River Watershed Association (FRWA) advocates for water quality, water allocation, habitat restoration, recreation, open space, and wetland and floodplain protection. The nonprofit FRWA sponsors an annual River Steward program, training and deploying interested and qualified college students each summer to improve and safeguard the river.
New England’s second largest Trout Unlimited chapter, the Farmington Valley Trout Unlimited (FVTU) chapter is dedicated “To preserve, protect, and restore cold water fisheries in Connecticut and the Farmington Valley region,” and regularly works with FRAA, FRWA, and DEEP to maintain and improve the Farmington River as a recreational resource and a blue-ribbon wild trout fishery.
There are two excellent fly shops along the Farmington River staffed by avid fly anglers who fish the river regularly. Both are located on Route 44, offer weekly river reports on their websites and Facebook pages, and offer guide services. Fishing licenses can be purchased at either shop or through the Connecticut DEEP website: portal.ct.gov/DEEP/Fishing/.
380 W Main Street
Avon, CT 06001
352 Main Street
New Hartford, CT 06057
Located on the banks on the Farmington River in New Hartford, Legends is a beautiful lodge located 100 feet from the Farmington River’s renowned Greenwoods Pool. You can book a room or book the entire lodge to use the kitchen.
UpCountry Sportfishing offers a 900-square-foot, fully furnished apartment above the fly shop with a separate outside entrance. The apartment has a large bedroom with two beds and an extra bed, with a cot available for the living room. The kitchen has pots, pans, and utensils. Linens for bed and bath are provided.
Legends on the Farmington River
20 River Road
Barkhamsted, CT 06063
The Austin Hawes Campground in American Legion State Forest, located midway between Pleasant Valley and Riverton off West River Road, is open from late April through mid-October. With 30 campsites and rustic cabins, there are bathrooms and showers, although access to them may be limited early in the season. For reservations call the campground office (860) 379-0922 or book online at portal.ct.gov/DEEP/State-Parks/.
Basic food items and sandwiches are available minutes away from the campground at Pleasant Valley General Store and Riverton General Store, both located on West River Road.
Chris Dolnack grew up fly fishing in Pennsylvania and has fished throughout North America. He is a writer and licensed fly-fishing guide who lives in the Litchfield Hills of northwest Connecticut. His previous work has been in Outdoor Life and Sports Afield.