A River Close to Home
One afternoon, I stepped into an ale-dark current thick with leaves. A steady drizzle had turned into a fine sleet, icing clusters of bittersweet berries and the oval scarlet leaves of burning bush along the banks. In my hip-boots I stood beneath massive sycamores and maples, rhythmically casting a streamer toward undercut banks and half-submerged timber. Somewhere in the loss of time that ensues from this Zen-like activity, I was transported back a thousand or more years, reminded that the course of this riverbed still follows to some degree that of a more ancient Pomperaug.
Like many streams throughout New England, the Pomperaug is a beleaguered river. Dammed for mills during early Colonial times, its aquifer tapped for water, and its waters silted by effluents, the river flows approximately 14 miles in a southwesterly course before emptying into Lake Zoar, a 975-acre lake formed by the hydroelectric Stevenson Dam. Prior to 1919, from this confluence point, it flowed the entire 26-mile length of the Housatonic River into Long Island Sound. Still, meandering through the southwest hills of Connecticut, it is trout country as boreal and wild as any of the more fabled streams of the Northeast.
Working a tangle of roots, my five-weight rod jolts in my hands, and I play a scrappy 15-inch brown trout. It is sleek and sinewy in my net and hands—a cold microcosm of the river itself. I release it into the current where it hovers over the variegated bottom. The Pomperaug, regrettably, is a kind of elegy to other once-native species as well, including anadromous populations of shad, blueback herring, and alewives. These migrations up the Housatonic and up that river’s tributaries—the Still River, Naugatuck, Shepaug, and Pomperaug—ended with the construction of the Derby Dam in 1870, and the more formidable Stevenson Dam.
Evidence of another species that used to inhabit the Pomperaug came to my attention a few years ago, when I began encountering a strange-looking rake at local yard sales and in the musty corners of antiques stores, one akin to Poseidon’s trident, only smaller. These were probably the implement of choice for the harvesting of American eels, until their disappearance with the Stevenson Dam. For the original peoples of this inland region, the migratory runs of fish were essential. One can imagine the traces of smoked freshwater eel wafting over the fields and woods. Alas, the epoch when the Pomperaug teemed with fins is long gone, and the stone weirs of Indians found a few miles north on the Nonnewaug, are a remnant of this vanished prehistory.
The river seems at times like a secluded patch of wildness, but this is misleading, since at times you are confronted with massive contemporary homes that appear through the woods like suburban monoliths. A stretch of the riverbed in Southbury is ornamented with thermoplastic stones, indications of the golf course through which it passes.
Being on the river in late fall has its benefits, not the least of which is the absence of fishermen. Add to that those coveted moments that are ineffably primordial: a 16-inch brown trout engulfs your streamer, and you are engaged in a piscatorial struggle that snaps you out of this world and places you squarely in the presence of fishermen a hundred or even 2,000 years ago.
The Pomperaug may not be the mightier Housatonic a few miles to the west, or the legendary Farmington, but when I’m standing in it, names disappear and the small river is just as significant and wild as any. There is the earthy waft of decaying leaves, the cidery smoke of the air, and rising mineral vapors. I like the idea that the water pushing against me will make its way, slowly, into Long Island Sound, 40 miles to the south, and that maybe, with the possible installation of fish passages at the Stevenson Dam, the primitive shapes of eels and herring will once again be seen.