The Millers River, MA: A Working New England Fishery
By Reid Bryant
My mother-in-law, who has several centuries of New England blood in her veins, leans heavily on the targeted use of Yankee idiom. Among her favorites is the pointed ‘you made your bed, now lie in it’, a statement which is further infuriating because it is so crisply embodies what I love most about New Englanders: they make mistakes, accept them without admitting fault, and doggedly make amends. New Englanders don’t give up easily, and they don’t let others clean up their messes; they assume that the simplest way around a challenge is right straight through it. So begins the story of the Millers River, in central Massachusetts.
The Millers River claims its headwaters in the oak forests of Ashburnham and Winchendon, rising from a borderland that straddles the New Hampshire line. They say that when sentinel elms and chestnuts studded the ridge tops of the region, a farm boy could see the bobbing masts in Boston Harbor from the highest branches. Another piece of Yankee idiom no doubt, but in the realities of modern day, the Millers River rises just an hour’s drive west of the city, and cleaves a path through the forgotten-most corners of Massachusetts. Moreover, it traverses a course of history that depicts a fertile landscape that grew rich with industry, and in doing so laid waste to a watershed. What remains is a vestige of our, of my, New England: a river much bruised and battered, finding grace in middle-age through the attention of some long-suffering Yankee pragmatists.
This contradiction of urbanization, industry, and wilderness, is emblematic of the Millers. From its headwaters, the river gains strength and increases in gradient for several miles, tumbling through some of the Bay State’s most remote country. Boulder-strewn stretches through the towns of Winchendon and Royalston are rarely frequented or fished, though rumors of mighty brown trout still tempt the adventurous, or perhaps the pure of heart. Through the several-miles stretch From Royalston to Athol (a stretch known colloquially as the Bearsden) fisher, bobcat, and indeed black bear are prominent residents. Silences resound, and the longstanding walls of long-forgotten homesteads are tokens of a land lost in time. But like all of the best places, the forest opens up upon a portrait of post-industrial America, and the struggles of a community, and indeed of a landscape.
This was, of course, not always the case. The Millers was once a free-flowing waterway that supported millennia of indigenous Nipmuk families. Before expansionism and industry descended over Massachusetts with a heavy hand, native brook trout were thick in the upper reaches, and Salmo salar made an annual upstream pilgrimage by way of the Connecticut River. American shad and lamprey made that natal voyage as well, to rub shoulders with resident coldwater fishes when the season for spawning loomed near. By all accounts, the watershed was a veritable bouillabaisse: colonists, journeying west from Boston, Worcester, and Springfield describe a native people whose summer harvest revolved wholly around the Millers, or Baquag (clear waters), as it was then called. The Nipmuk descended from the ridge top hunting grounds of winter to fish and farm the abundant floodplain, growing corn, beans, and squash throughout the valley east of the Connecticut River. Here they saw a watershed we can only imagine now, and a clear-running freestoner teeming with life. This abundance was not lost on westward-moving settlers, and as the generations passed, rumors of the regional fishery grew. The watershed bloomed from an incidental larder for homestead farmers into something much more complex: affluent sportsmen of the expanding country sought out the clean air and clean water of central Massachusetts as a respite from the bustle of Boston, and the Millers River became a sporting destination. Summer homes and fishing camps were built within easy reach of the river-bottom rail line. The reputation of the river was well earned; sepia-tinted photographs tacked up on old-timers’ walls bear witness to stringers of trout, a festival of riches. Rumor has it that famed Red Sox slugger Ted Williams referred to the Millers as “the finest trout stream in Massachusetts”.
The contemporary portrait of the river is somewhat different. Beginning in the town of Athol, the Millers flows over, around, and through brick factories, a series of mill dams, and towns left reeling from the departure of domestic manufacturing. Waters that once powered the tool-making mecca of North America now seep silently by, dark with oak and hemlock tannins. Leading up to the industrial revolution, Millers River anglers bore witness to an escalation in wealth and population, as companies such as L.S. Starrett (tool) Company, United Twist Drill, and Erving Paper built and recorded a burgeoning America. A workforce of Irish, French, and Lithuanian labor flocked to the region, and sought a hardscrabble livelihood. Emboldened by both an old-world foraging ethic, and a system of government that allocated fish and game to the common wealth, the laborers made maximum use of the fishery. Witness to all of these changes, the Millers crept by, slowing and darkening as dams were built, and the passage of water was retarded for industrial power. Sewage, manufacturing runoff, over-warming, and generalized degradation laid waste to the river by the middle 1900’s, and anglers took a front-row seat. By the 1960’s, fishing the Millers was as much an exercise in futility as it was a gesture of poor hygiene; due to industrial PCB contamination, the Millers had been generally poisoned, and consumption of the residual game fish posed a health hazard. The Massachusetts Dept. of Fish & Game ceased annual stocking of the river in 1965 due to contamination. Like the workforce of central Massachusetts, the brethren of Millers River anglers shrugged their collective shoulders as yet another source of life-blood was snatched away from them by the indiscriminate hand of ‘progress’. It would be another twenty years before a glimmer of renewed hope greeted fly-fishers of the Millers River watershed.
Industry turned its back on the Millers watershed through the 70’s and 80’s, and converted to cheaper foreign labor, in turn wiping its hands of the mess. As acceptance of the Millers’ degradation became unavoidable, and no responsible body took ownership, grassroots organizations came to the aid of the foundering watershed. Anglers, sportsmen, farmers and conservationists dirtied their hands in the formulation of The Millers River Watershed Council, Millers River TU, and The Millers River Fisherman’s Association. Industrial polluters were leaned on, legislation was passed, and detritus was literally hand-picked from the riverbed by the ton. As water quality rebounded, state and private stocking programs were reinstated. By the late 1990’s the Millers, though still a far cry from its former glory, had returned to a state of grace. It is currently once again considered one of the state’s top trout streams, and it affords widespread opportunities for warm-water species as well. It sustains a year-round fishery, and a wild population of brown and brook trout. Moreover, it is once again a point of pride for these central Massachusetts towns that have been largely overlooked in the demise of stateside manufacturing.
The main stem of the Millers flows roughly east-to-west, and covers nearly 50 linear miles before its confluence with the Connecticut River. It is divided nominally into two sections, with the division falling at the L.S. Starrett Company dam in Athol. The upper section is largely wooded, with a steeper gradient and more natural structure than what lies below. The lower section flows through Athol, Orange, and Erving, and boasts substantially more still-water sections withheld behind a series of power dams. Below the dam in downtown Orange, the river gets ‘troutier’ with several noteworthy rock gardens, constrictions, and trestle pools. Both upper and lower sections boast a lengthy catch-and-release, artificial flies and lures only stretch. The upper of these C&R’s falls almost entirely within the remote Bearsden, and access is limited. The lower C&R section has multiple access points through Wendell Depot and below. Farley Flats, downstream of the town of Erving, is a glorious gentle rapid that begins with a deep trestle pool, and follows MA Rt. 2 for a mile or more. The Millers meets the Connecticut River in a deep-water stretch just downstream of the town of Millers Falls, within sight of the French King Bridge.
As mentioned, the upper section is significantly more remote than the lower, and access is limited. From Royalston, the river winds down into the heavily-wooded Bearsden section, where the upper C&R begins. Access off of Gulf Rd. takes the angler over a series of dirt roads to a small pull-off, with a sign indicating the fishing regs. The primary pool here is known locally as ‘Rezendez Pool’ for the noted author and naturalist who makes his home nearby. From this pool down, access is spotty, and the wading is difficult; Millers River anglers should beware that a combination of tannin-stained water, silt, and fluctuating flows make wading a distinct challenge, particularly in spring. This section can, however, be floated via raft or inflatable pontoon, which afford access to the wildest stretches of water. Put-in is best at the bridge in Royalston, and take-outs are intermittent, and un-established. Egress is limited up to the Starrett dam, and high water can make this section challenging to navigate. Logjams and strainers can be present.
This upper section fishes well through fall and spring, with decent fishing at high water through the summer. Primary hatches up high include Hendricksons, Sulphurs, PMD’s, BWO’s, and numerous Caddis. Hexagenias have been seen, though without regularity. Early season dark stoneflies are a plausible option, but adult stones are an infrequent sight. Stonefly nymphs in brown and black, sizes 8-12, often turn the trick, particularly when crept through the shallow edges. Mayfly hatches and spinner falls are best fished just at dusk, though this requires some dedication, and familiarity with the area for safe nighttime navigation.
The lower river presents far more access to both wade fishermen and drifters. From the Starrett dam to the dam in downtown Orange, the river is wide, slow, and deep. The representative warm-water species abound here, and are minimally fished. Pickerel, largemouths, and panfish are pleasant targets for a lazy summer float. Truly impressive pike have been caught.
The lower section from Orange to Millers Falls is among the most ‘trouty’ looking pieces of water in Massachusetts. Though the remains of industry are a heavy and frequent presence, the river bends into enough woodland to retain an authentic feel. The river here loosely parallels a freight rail line, and access from the rail bed, though sometimes steep, makes up and downstream navigation fairly easy. Wading is consistently tricky, nonetheless. The best wading opportunities are at the Orcutt Brook bridge, at the upstream end of the C&R in Wendell Depot, and downstream of Erving Ctr. There is some wading/shore fishing available at the Orange Water Treatment access. Except in dramatically low-water conditions, the Millers cannot be forded on foot through most of this water. Wade access from either side is facilitated by the multiple rail trestles that traverse the river.
Despite the many small dams on the lower river, float fishing is an ideal way to cover the varied water. The best seasons on the Millers are the ‘shoulder seasons’ of spring and fall, which not-surprisingly coincide with increasing water levels and the bulk of the stockings. For this reason, an increasing number of anglers have begun floating the river, primarily in rafts or inflatable pontoons. Brothers Tom and Dan Harrison of Harrison Anglers (www.harrisonanglers.com) pioneered western style float trips on the Millers, and day-long or half day floats are possible. Do-it-yourself float fishers should beware, however, of several obstacles, namely the Erving Dam (navigable at high water) and a series of rapids downstream of Erving, beginning at Farley Flats. A large rapid known as the Funnel occurs below Erving at an abrupt constriction, but little fishing is done in these lower reaches, as access (egress) is so challenging. At low flows (under 500 cfs) much of the water is bony, and a full sized raft can stick a bit.
Though some lovely dry fly opportunities exist through the summer (particularly at dusk), the lower Millers is, at heart, a streamer stream. Black, olive, and brown marabou streamers, swung or fished down and across, are the best bet. The Millers hosts an impressive population of both crawfish and leeches, so preferred streamer patterns can be dressed accordingly. Large brown trout, approaching twenty inches, are taken through this section from the deeper slots on well-placed streamers. A sink-tip is necessary only at high flows.
The lower Millers offers some outside-the-box options as well. During low-water years and high temperature summers, the Millers can get fairly warm, and the trout take refuge in spring holes and aerated inflows. During these times, anglers can target a thriving population of smallmouth bass. Though big boys are a rare sight, 1 and 2- pound fish are not uncommon, and they keep the Millers on the radar through the height of summer. Like most river smallies, the Millers River fish are trim and aggressive, preferring streamer/crawfish patterns stripped through deeper slots. In winter, trout congregate in the deeper pools, and in the absence of shelf ice, a steady winter fishery exists. Throughout the warmer months, the trestle pools can produce under a full moon, and mousing, or fishing large bushy dries, can tease some truly impressive trout.
Wonderfully, there remains in the Millers River watershed a dedicated corps of anglers who have been witness to the renaissance of this river. Many of these folks still fish the river, and have played a role in its recovery. Innovative fly tiers Rodney Flagg and the late Bob Rouleau each have fly shops in Orange, though Flagg’s is a more consistent storefront. Flies are the primary retail offering. Concord Outfitters in West Concord is a 45 minute drive east, but directly off MA Rt. 2, so it presents an easy stop for Boston anglers headed west. Studded soles and a wading staff are recommended, as are chest waders for the deeper troughs. Poison ivy is thick throughout the region, while deer ticks and northern water snakes, though not overtly dangerous, can make for an uncomfortable encounter.
The tenacity of rivers is a remarkable thing. The tenacity of anglers is similarly special, though rarely as evident. The Millers River, which was pronounced dead a quarter century ago, has returned in great form, due in large part to the hard work of a dedicated few. The river now glints between wooded banks, and pulses through a landscape and a community that had been all but abandoned. What we see, in this shallow valley within spitting distance of Boston, is an artery of iconic, hardscrabble, industrial Massachusetts. The Millers, and her people, persevere. It’s a working river, as steadfast as the brick factories that line the banks, and as indomitable as the region itself. And once more, a generation of New England fly fishers has a home river to be proud of.
The Millers River, MA
When: Year-round. Shelf ice can be an issue some winters, peak summer heat can stress trout populations. May/June, Late September/October are prime.
Where: Central MA, from Winchendon to Millers Falls. Lower river follows MA Rt. 2 west to the Connecticut River.
Access: Floatable by small raft or pontoon, but primarily a wade fishery. Catch & Release special regulation sections at the Bearsden and Wendell Depot.
Headquarters: Little to none. Flaggs Fly and Tackle in Orange, MA (978) 544-0034. Concord Outfitters in W. Concord, MA (978) 318-0330
Appropriate gear: 4- and 5-wt. rods, floating and sink-tip lines.
Useful fly patterns: LaFontaine Caddis Pupae, small Stimulators, bead-head Pheasant Tail Nymphs, Double Bead Stonefly Nymphs in black and brown, Brown/Olive/Black Zonkers and Bunny Leeches.
Necessary accessories: Polarized sunglasses, studded wading boots, wading staff, chest waders, 3x-6x tippet.
Nonresident license: $23.50/3 days, $37.50/annual.
Northfield, MA Harrison Anglers, 413-222-6207, www.harrisonanglers.com
Concord, MA Concord Outfitters, (978) 544-0034 www.concordoutfitters.com
SW Vermont Kim Bryant, (802) 579-4799
Millers River Fisherman’s Association www.millersriverfa.org
Millers River TU www.millersriver-tu.org
Millers River Watershed Council www.millerswatershed.org
Flies: Courtesy of Brian Price, Vermont Fly Guys
BP’s Millers Stonefly
Hook: #6-8 Curved Nymph hook
Tail: Rootbeer/Brown Sililegs
Abdomen: Medium UTC Vinyl Rib over Flashabou or Strands of Krystal Flash
Thorax: Estaz to match pattern
Wingcase: Hareline Dyed Pearl Diamond Braid over Swiss Straw
Legs: Sili Legs
Head: Nymph Head Tungsten bead
BP’s Millers Mudbug
Hook: Mustad C52S #2/#4
Antennae/legs: Sili Legs and 2 strands Rootbeer Krystal Flash
Mandible: topside of buck tail.
Fish Skull Articulated Shank 20mm-35mm with dumbbell.
Shellback: Custom VFG Jurassic Foam.