American Fly Fishing

A River’s Second Lease on Life
By Christophe Perez

Millers River MA, Fall Colors

October is prime time on the Millers River and the vibrant colors of the New England foliage make those days even more memorable. ALL PHOTOS BY CHRISTOPHE PEREZ

The history of the Millers River is a cautionary tale. Like the stories of many rivers exploited for industrial ends, it taught us that progress isn’t necessarily progress if it comes at the expense of natural resources. Thankfully, the Millers is also a comeback story. This 52-mile-long tributary of the Connecticut River was once known as Massachusetts’s finest trout stream—until its fortune waned in the mid-1960s.

After surveys revealed alarmingly high levels of industrial pollution, PCBs in particular, in 1964, the state no longer regarded the Millers River as a viable trout stream, and trout stocking ceased. Anglers turned to other rivers. In the mid-1980s, the Millers was afforded a second lease on life after clean-water safeguards and restoration efforts helped significantly reduce the concentration of PCBs in the river and in fish tissue. The state started reintroducing trout in 1984, and since 1989 more than 8 miles of the river’s trout habitat have been regulated as catch-and-release and artificials-only, which put the Millers back on the map for fly anglers.

Today, more than three decades after the Millers River was rediscovered, some of its trout stretches are well known, but others, more remote, are still terra incognita to many anglers. Fly-fishing guide Ken Elmer spent countless hours in the 1980s and ’90s scouting the river’s trouty runs and pools. He became a Millers River expert, a conservationist with the local Trout Unlimited chapter (over which he presided from 2003 to 2006), and a singular voice chronicling the ups and downs of several Massachusetts trout streams on his popular blog and forum, millersriverflyfishingforum.blogspot.com. Elmer describes the Millers as “a mystery giving up its secrets grudgingly. It will baffle you at times and at other times reward you beyond what one deserves. It can be gentle, almost pastoral in some places, and in others tough and brooding.”