(c) Jack Ballard
The “Small, Narrow Fishing Place”
It is a controversial institution, embroiled in broad debates of economic philosophy, criticized in popular press as an irresponsible grantor of loans to foreign countries while the United States economy flounders in debt and occasionally castigated as an imperialist thug forcing quasi-capitalistic economic structures on nations too weak to thwart its demands. Created during World War II for the purpose of stabilizing exchange rates between nations, a move intended to counter protectionist currency practices which all but killed world trade during the Great Depression, the structure for the International Monetary Fund and its sister organization, the World Bank, was conceived by members of 45 cooperating nations. Since that time, the Fund’s role has expanded to the granting of loans to developing countries, devising the sometimes draconian conditions attached to those loans and providing guidance to nations transitioning from centrally manipulated to market-based economies, a task that brought the fund both praise and criticism for its roles in modernizing the financial institutions and systems of countries in the former Soviet Union. World Bank loans sometimes fund infrastructure and economic development projects with dubious environmental outcomes. Nonetheless, with a current membership of 187 nations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank are among the most powerful and controversial public institutions in the world.
Lumped together, the IMF and World Bank are sometimes known as the Bretton Woods Institutions. How, in the world, is such a colloquial sounding name associated with these monster international institutions?
Arriving for a weekend sojourn of fishing on the Ammonoosuc River in New Hampshire, I pad through the expansive lobby of the Omni Mt. Washington Resort, a grand, historic establishment with a welcoming, unpretentious elegance. At the front desk, a smiling clerk politely ignores my sweat-plastered hair and generally wild-eyed countenance, the product of too much driving on scenic but stressful New England roads where the concept of a uniform speed limit is as foreign as a mile of pavement with less than six hairpin curves.
“You’ll be on the second floor, Mr. Ballard,” announces the clerk as she offer me a key. Attempting to locate an appropriate tip for the bellhop, trying to keep tabs on a wheeled duffle-bag, a bin brimming with fishing gear, a suitcase stuffed with normal clothes and a hanging suit my sweetheart insisted as appropriate attire for evenings in the hotel’s formal dining room, my scattered senses momentarily focus upon a small, slightly tarnished plate on the wooden door. Stamped into the brass is not only the room number, but an individual’s name and a country.
“What’s that?” I query the patient purveyor of luggage.
“Oh,” he replies. “That’s the name and country of the delegate who used this room during the founding of the International Monetary Fund.”
“When was that?”
I have three days in the area, devoted to fishing and a rambling hike along the Presidential Range, dominated by the summit of Mount Washington which thrusts 6,288 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. The delegates who, by committee and congress, created the International Monetary Fund 65 summers prior to my stay, housed themselves in this hotel for three weeks. Opening the curtains, daylight floods into the airy room. Outside, the valley into which the Ammonoosuc River tumbles displays a green drapery of fine maples, birches and dark evergreens. Were I a masterful money-guy of the 1940s, sequestered here to chart the world’s financial future, I’d certainly need some time to clear my brain of the details. A bamboo rod, a Royal Coachman and an evening ramble on the winsome stream babbling just outside the hotel would certainly enhance my insight.
The next morning, my fishing date and I have every intention of making a good morning on the river. James, the outdoor activities director for the hotel, has graciously offered to drive us on a quick orientation tour of the river. An eight o’clock rendezvous in the lobby promises a reasonable start on the day. However, we hadn’t counted on breakfast.
If, by some unknown inheritance or the authorship of a best-selling book, I one day gain a measure of financial security, a portion of it will be devoted to eating out for breakfast. Dining in the morning, to the suggestive scent of freshly brewed coffee, dripped from grounds that minutes before were beans, nibbling on a well-stuffed omelet with crinkles of crisp cheese clinging to the edges and slathering real butter and smooth, burgundy preserves of blueberries on nutty toast is one of life’s most blessed experiences.
Down in the dining room, the hostess seats us at a table near a towering bank of windows with a view of the mountains. A waiter fills our cups with dark, mild coffee. We chat happily about nothing, savoring our brew and the view of the awakening world on the opposite side of the panes. Then it’s time for a made-to-order omelet and a sampling of the fresh pastries mounded on a round table. By the time I fork the last crumbs from my plate, I realize we’ve tarried far too long over the morning repast. Hopefully the fish (and James) won’t mind our hour delay making it to the river.
The portions of the Ammonoosuc River near the hotel separate themselves into two distinct sections, or so I conclude as James shows us around. Up above the manicured grounds of the Mt. Washington, the river quickly takes on the character of a roiling mountain river, plunging over waterfalls, frothing within miniature canyons and swirling through deep, clear pools. Below the hotel, the gradient abates and the valley broadens, giving the river the character of a classic New England trout stream with laughing riffles, earnest runs and sweeping bends. At regular intervals, the streambed is pocked with stones that range from gravel to boulders large enough to accommodate a picnic lunch and seating for two.
The hotel area marks a transition zone for the Ammonoosuc’s fish as well as its geography. Few brook trout persist below, preferring the colder water and wilder headwaters above. Rainbow trout dominate the area around the hotel and below, James explains, but they’re also present in some of the short canyon segments above. Orientation finished, it’s time to go fishing.
We access the water at a popular pull-out on Highway 302 where a bridge crosses the river. As I rig my rod and don waders, a predictable pattern emerges. A car zips into the pull-out. Someone, usually a female passenger, hops out to compose a few hasty photos of the postcard-perfect view of Mt. Washington and the river. Then the automobile roars away, or in the case of an ancient, ailing VW van, hiccups up the road with a recalcitrant backfire.
As I prepare to tie a fly on the tippet, it occurs to me with all the time I’ve spent admiring the river and its surroundings, I haven’t acquired a single snippet of information about what to use or how to fish it. In such situations, humans generally revert to prior experience, whether relevant or not. A warm day in late August? At home in Montana? On a mountain stream? My first rig of choice would be a foam-bodied grasshopper with a small beadhead pheasant tail for a dropper. Why not here?
Wandering up the Ammonoosuc, I loop my flies toward all the places I’d expect to raise a Montana trout to a hopper: current seams, undercut banks, sunken boulders and a very fishy-looking spot where a lively riffle drops into a plunging pool. Evidently New England trout aren’t so keen on my idea of a midday meal. What my photographer and fishing companion is quite keen to accomplish is an expansion of my geographical knowledge of the region.
“See that ravine up on the Presidentials?” she asks, gesturing toward the imposing phalanx of peaks she earlier identified as the Presidential Range.
I nod, seeing not one ravine, but several.
“That’s the gap between Mt. Washington and Mt. Monroe. This river starts up there at a couple of pretty little ponds called the Lakes of the Clouds. We’ll be there in a few days when we make the hike across the mountains.”
At the moment, my being is more strongly motivated by food than hiking or fishing. We wade back down the river to the car, then drive a short distance downstream to another access point below Zealand Road. After an impromptu picnic, we again venture into the river. Spotting a long, deep run littered with an intimidating array of boulders ranging in size from a coffee can to an espresso cart, it immediately comes to mind that the cool waters in its depths are an ideal holding place for trout on this warm day. Sidling into position where the current is buffered by a boulder, I cast my hopper/dropper combination up and slightly across the current. When a perfect drift yields nothing, I sidle to a rocky ledge, find a seat and prepare to switch flies.
Every fly angler has his or her stable of pets, a few patterns that seem to produce on any occasion. Or at least that’s what we think. Lisa’s is a black Woolly Bugger. I tend toward a Muddler Minnow or a black, beadhead Hare’s Ear nymph. Thinking a sizeable dry fly still might tempt a rainbow from the bowels of the Ammonoosuc, I decide to suspend the Hare’s Ear with a Foam Cricket, the likes of which has fooled trout on lakes and stream alike. Gauging the depth of the run, my fingers strip around 30 inches of 5x tippet from the spool to tether the nymph to the dry, then it’s back into the river to make another cast.
My first attempt drops into the targeted zone, the leggy cricket bobbing on the current like a miniscule whitewater raft with several oars poking from its sides. Ten feet into the drift, its course is upset by a trout who misses the fly and an angler who is too slow on the hookset. Un-poked, I’m nearly positive a similar drift might again raise the rainbow. Sure enough, at almost exactly the same place a spotted trout mouths the fly impaling the hook in its upper jaw. In the classic form of its kind, the fish spurts up river in a series of wild leaps, then turns to streak downstream. Pressuring it into an eddy, my finger reach to cradle my first New England trout. The Ammonoosuc River, I conclude, has yielded a beauty. Heavily speckled, with a broad streak on its side colored in a reddish-orange hue rather than the more pinkish stroke that commonly arrays a rainbow, this isn’t a large trout, but it certainly is a beauty. Twisting the hook from its mouth, I point its blunt, olive nose upstream and it shoots away toward the neighborhood boulders.
“Nice job,” offers a voice behind me. Lisa is smiling. “Think you can get another one for the camera?”
In the next hour, my new rig yields not one, but several more trout for her Nikon. Their preference for the cricket or the nymph is unpredictable, with a nearly equal number of rainbows rising for the dry fly as gobbling the nymph which bobs near the bottom. Similar in size, they all range around thirteen inches, save for one weightier specimen who bullies its way into an underwater crevasse before the pressure of my rod can turn it. The tippet frays before I can dislodge it, leaving nothing but speculation regarding its size.
Our plan is to swap camera and fly rod, giving Lisa the opportunity to capture her own trout on something besides film. But an afternoon shower chases us from the river. When we awaken the next morning, a sullen sky and cold, dismal drizzle keeps us confined to the hotel.
The following day marks our departure for the three-day hike across the Presidential Range. It’s a beautiful day for hiking, equally so for fishing. With minimal pleading, I convince Lisa we should hit the river for just an hour or so before we lace on our hiking boots. This time we head upstream, aiming for a picturesque segment of the narrow canyon below a plunging cascade known as Middle Falls. Searching for brook trout, we fail to find any of the natives purported to fin this portion of the river. But as the hour wears on, in a deep, yawning hole where the current come fuming from its confines in a narrow seam of rock, we can clearly see the forms of a dozen rainbows resting near the bottom.
The temptation to re-rig Lisa’s rod with enough weight to submerge a Hare’s Ear under a strike indicator to the depth of these lazy rainbows is nearly overwhelming. Gritting my teeth and remembering the length of our hike, I suggest we leave these fish for another day.
Back home, desiring to learn a bit more about the Ammonoosuc, I gain the ear of Dianne Timmins, a Coldwater Fisheries Biologist with the New Hampshire Fish and Game. The “Ammo,” as it’s fondly dubbed by locals, is actually a three-species trout stream. As I suspected, brook trout are confined to the upper, more mountainous portion of the stream. Rainbows are found in the upper river ranging down to the area around Littleton, roughly halfway between the stream’s origin in the Presidential Range and its confluence with the Connecticut River at Woodsville. Below Littleton, Timmins informs me, the habitat changes below a dam which supplies water for the municipality of Littleton. “The river turns into a trickle over a lot of rock ledges and pools in midsummer. It’s a more open field environment with residential and urban zones as well with less water and shade than the upper river.” Inhospitable to cold-loving brookies and rainbows, the more heat-tolerant brown trout fin the lower river.
In the tongue of the native Abnaki, Ammonoosuc means “small, narrow fishing place.” A modest stream by length and volume, small and narrow in places as the natives described it, the Ammonoosuc remains large in my consciousness as an angler. I remember those rainbows in the deep pool of the upper Ammonoosuc. I’m also curious about the brown trout and character of the lower river. Many streams in our nation I have fished but once. While each excursion has its own set of fond memories, the eddies of life and time will prevent another visit to most of them. But I am sure that one day I will return to the Ammonoosuc. I hope the rainbows in the canyon pool are waiting.