Growing up as a New Englander, “heading north” always translated to getting away for some downtime in the deep woods with my dad.
As my son and I drove north, my mind wandered to when I was once that excited boy, watching the mountains getting taller and steeper from the passenger seat. I clearly remember the late afternoon light catching the tops of the evergreens, as my dad sped toward the Adirondacks. He’d tell stories about the bears we’d hear hooting behind the lean-to at night — and the stringers of trout we’d catch. We'd race to catch the last float plane flight of the day with Helms Aero Service. The pontoons landing on the pond at evening glass off, the quiet set up of camp before dark, and the smell of the first fire... solitude settled in quickly up there.
I miss those days and that beautiful place. For over 30 years, we made that annual pilgrimage in search of wild brookies and the haunting late-night calls of loons and coyotes. I plan on bringing my son there one day, too, but until then — Gus and I have our own little tradition forming as well.
For the second year in a row, we’re headed to the northern regions of New Hampshire to fly fish with our good friend and guide, Dominic Lentini.
He runs his own guiding service, Fly Fish NH, offering float trips on both the Connecticut and Androscoggin Rivers. Wise beyond his years in river knowledge and fly-fishing experience, he has a kindness that really shines when it comes to helping a young fisherman. I saw that magic last year on the Connecticut River with Dom when he had Gus not only nymphing like a pro, but also sight-casting dry flies from the drift boat. He landed some beautiful rainbows and browns by the end of that day.
This year we decided to book our day for early June on the Androscoggin River. There would be a higher volume of water flow with hungry fish, and we’d be targeting pockets of swift water behind big boulders with nymphs that Dom tied over the winter.
As we passed through Grafton Notch, a significant mountain pass for the Northeast, we lost cell service. Here, the White Mountains transition into Maine, marking the end of the Mahoosac Range — known as one of the hardest sections of the Appalachian Trail.
Besides being an accomplished young fisherman, Gus has started taking lessons and is making great progress on the drum kit. I’ve always tried to introduce him to different music on our adventure drives, but since he started drumming there is greater emphasis on drummer introductions. Shortly before hitting the notch, we started discussing the genius of Mitch Mitchell and the rhythms he carved out for Jimi Hendrix to play over. Gus had listened to Hendrix before, but this time it was with more intention.
I put on Machine Gun and he was moved by the distinctly different sections — the sharp, rapid beats echoed by the guitar that mimicked gunfire.
He said he liked the idea behind the song, that an instrument could create such a statement with purpose and protest. Luckily, the whole song had downloaded before we lost our connection. The last breakdown in the song cracked through the windy open windows as we passed the steep notch walls. The south side was in shadow, while the north wall glowed in the afternoon sun. I could see he was moved. He asked to hear it again. Perfect — we wouldn’t have another song until we were back in service anyway.
Shortly before dinner, we arrived at the Mollidgewock State Park and set up camp at our cozy site along the river. We built a small fire and enjoyed dinner while the moon started to rise, and fireflies floated around us. The mosquitos arrived shortly after dark, so we retreated to the Victory™ Screenhouse for a quick card game of War before bed.
Sunrise came quickly and we had a good amount of food to prepare before we met Dominic at the boat launch a couple hundred yards from our site. I must say, it felt pretty luxurious to wake up to a boat stocked with fly rods waiting for us. The weather was perfect.
After hugs and a brief catch up on life, we got on board and within minutes on the river we quickly got into fish. Gus started landing rainbow trout after rainbow trout. I was catching them too, but after passing through just a few bends in the river he had already taken a commanding lead.
As we floated through some of the more remote and beautiful sections of the river, my mind quieted and tuned in to the beauty of it all.
From my seat in the back of the boat, the rhythm of bobbing over the rapids lulled me and I could take in all that unfolded before me. From the pungent greens of the fresh spring leaves that had recently popped to the reflecting blues of the sky that mixed with the amber tones of the tannin-rich water, it was all gorgeous and vibrant.
Beyond this natural serenity was the beautiful mentorship that picked right up from last year between Dom and Gus. Watching someone as passionate and knowledgeable as Dominic sharing his skills, and seeing Gus learn so quickly and joyfully, is one of life's great gifts.
It is important to pass the wilderness knowledge and love for the outdoors that I got from my father down to my own children. We can only hope the next generation will fall in love with this special place and guard it. Watching Gus learn to revere these special fish and handle them with care is a beautiful thing to witness — as was seeing him get a little competitive, catching fish after fish from the front of the raft.
As we floated through a less featured section of the river, Dom explained we could hold for a minute and then drop the nymphs at the end of the section where the water started to show a textured riffle again.
“So, what have you been up to since last year, Gus?” Dom asked.
“I started playing the drums,” Gus replied sheepishly, but with a bit of confidence too. “I got a kit for Christmas and have been taking lessons. My teacher’s name is Mike. I really like it.”
“Oh! Nice, Gus!” Dom replied. “Ok, we’re coming to that section — I want you both to cast on either side, riggggghhht… now.”
Within seconds, Gus yelled, “Got one on!”— his fly rod was doubled over from the fight of a decent rainbow.
“Take your time buddy!” I said with calmness.
Gus swiftly got it to the boat, and Dom netted it and released his fish back to the fresh water. Gus looked over at me and said with a sly grin, “I think that’s 15, Dada. How many do you have so far?”
“Ohhhhh... not quite as many as you, bud!” I replied.
Dom and I both laughed as we witnessed what must be written into the DNA of every fisherman, over generations and generations of time spent on the river — the drive to catch more fish than your buddy. Clearly, it’s a signature trait ... and it starts young.
As we continued to drift the river, Gus went back to the drum conversation. “My dad has been playing a bunch of songs for me, introducing me to a lot of different drummers and styles.”
“Oh, cool,” Dom responded. “Any of them sticking with you?”
Gus quickly replied, “Machine Gun. Have you heard of that Jimi Hendrix song? Mitch Mitchell is the drummer on that. We listened to it on the way up and it’s been in my head since.”
I could tell Dom was listening intently, but we had also entered some rapids and his attention had shifted quickly to the art of navigating his clients with precision through the swift water. Things are fluid on the river, and we were all okay with that.
“Okay, guys,” Dom said with a subtle seriousness, “Get ready to drop those nymphs in the water again. We’re coming up on one of my favorite boulders. Gus — you’re up front so I want you to drop it right behind that big rock as we pass it, and quickly throw a mend so you can present that fly naturally. Randy, you’ll do the same right after Gus’ line passes through.”
Seconds after I cast, I heard Gus make a sound I hadn’t heard him make before. He had another one on and this time it was a big one.
”Yesssss, Gus!” Dom said with a calm stoke. “That’s a good one. Those wild rainbows love those spots. They’re the only ones that can handle that level of current.”
“And, hence, the fight,” he said, looking at me but silently pointing toward the young lad at the front of the boat who was currently struggling with a fish most anglers only dream of landing — including myself.
“I’m trying to let him run! The line kinda burned my finger,” Gus said, leaning so far back he might have fallen backward out of the boat if the fish got off. I could see flashes of silver dashing below the surface of the water. It was fast and sporadic, heading toward the boat only to dart away deep into the darker water, pulling any line back out that Gus had reclaimed. His fly rod was completely bent over, but he did a good job keeping the rod tip up, maintaining enough tension to keep the barbless hook from slipping out and losing this beauty of a fish. (Removing the barb makes it easier to release the fish quickly to minimize stress to the fish and also much harder to land the fish as they can easily shake the smooth hook out of their mouth).
After a few more minutes of tug of war, Gus managed to do something I’ve yet to do in 30 years of fly fishing — land a 17-inch wild rainbow on a fly in New England waters. I couldn’t have been happier.
Dom handed me the net so I could keep the fish in the water as he rowed us to shore for some photos of the release. We jumped out of the boat, and the water felt cold and refreshing on our legs and feet. I handed Dom my camera and he took some photos as Gus released the fish back into the wild. It was a moment I won’t soon forget.
There was pure joy in the air as we all digested the bookmark experience that had just transpired. After a lifetime on the water, that is the only way I could describe it. We climbed back into the boat, grinning in silence.
“You’re a machine, Gus!” Dom said with a wide smile.
“Machine Gun Gus!” I added, and we all laughed.
Gus continued to live up to his newly given stream handle. He not only outnumbered my catch, but also landed the only wild brown trout of the day — and added another lunker rainbow, this time a 16-incher, to his tally.
When we returned to camp, Gus was beyond tired — a happy boy with trout visions to last a lifetime. We could both still feel the swirly rhythm of the boat on the water … a 9-hour float on the river would do that to anyone. After dinner and a little time spent making s’mores around the last campfire of our trip, we retreated from the mosquitoes for one last game of War. Machine Gun Gus may have taken me on the river but was no match after I had accumulated the rest of the Aces.
Meet Our Guide
What a day — and it wasn't only about fishing. For lunch, Dom took us to a sweet little cove where we could sit on a sandy beach and enjoy the sandwiches we made earlier that morning.
After, Dom explained more on the ecology of the stream to us. We turned over rocks and looked for stone fly nymphs and other nutritious bug larvae that trout love to eat.
Dom has lived on a river his entire life and fished for as long as he can remember. Now, as a fishing guide, he’s constantly reminded of the ways in which our environment is changing.
“Each year is getting warmer. It rains less. Our fisheries are struggling. The list goes on and on. I wanted to play a part in combating these changes and better understanding the natural world I care for so deeply.”
A few years ago, Dom began volunteering for a nonprofit called Science on the Fly. They're an organization that is looking to better understand how watersheds are changing as the climate changes, and volunteers like Dom play an important part in that.
“Every month I visit two of my local rivers and take a water sample, which I send back to them for processing. They test for a number of key water quality parameters and will track that data moving forward. With over 300 sampling sites around the world, this will allow them to better understand how climate is affecting our water.”
Science on the Fly is an organization that "seeks to further our understanding of changing watersheds around the world through long term, world-class river science. With a growing list of partners and supporters, they aim to bridge the gap between science and public policy, and to activate and inspire a broad community of river stewards to take ownership of that process."
Dom sees great value in organizations like this and he volunteers countless hours of his time. He also sees the importance of passing traditions and knowledge through mentorship.
“I grew up fishing with my dad and brother, just as my dad had done with his. We explored all over northern New Hampshire and Maine, which began my relationship with the rivers I now know so intimately. We camped in all sorts of cool places, saw lots of moose, and even caught some fish too. Thanks to him, these are places that I'll love and appreciate forever.”
“Recently, while back fishing one of these same rivers, I had an opportunity to repay all the time and patience he had for my brother and I. He was on the bank, tangled, just like 7 year-old me. So, I walked over and fixed his setup for him, just as he had done for me so many times. He smiled, we laughed, and he went back to catching fish.”
“As I've gotten older, I increasingly realize the power of mentorship, information, and skills sharing in sports like these. It's worth its weight in gold, which is why I strive to share it with others so they can enjoy and protect the same special places that I do.”
“I love to watch this same connection between Gus and Randy. Gus is the best, and I'll tell you why. When I'm out fishing, I often give people tips and advice for how to improve their fishing. Cast into that slightly different water type, hold your tip higher, slow your drift, etc. Sometimes, people take that advice and run with it. Most often, though, they don't. Gus just absorbs everything like a sponge. He listens, he acts, and he learns. Not only that, but he does it with a smile and kindness. Gus is the best fishing buddy anyone could ask for! Oh, and he catches big fish. That's rad too.”
To learn more about Fly Fish NH, Dominic Lentini, or to book a guided fly fishing adventure please visit www.flyfishnh.com.
As NEMO’s Creative Content Director, Randy Gaetano is a passionate outdoorsman and advocate for conservation. He can usually be found either sitting quietly in a treestand — waiting for a deer … or sitting quietly on a longboard — waiting for a wave.