From Yankee Magazine May 1996
Commonly they did not think that they were lucky, or well paid for their time, unless they got a long string of fish, though they had the opportunity of seeing the pond all the while. They might go there a thousand times before the sediment of fishing would sink to the bottom and leave their purpose pure; but no doubt such a clarifying process would be going on all the while.
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
I had fished the Battenkill just once before. I caught nothing and had felt unlucky and poorly paid for my time.
I returned 20 years later, determined, this time, to catch a worthy trout on a dry fly and thus make my peace with this fabled Vermont river — an undertaking, I realized, that others considered the work of a lifetime. I had no illusions. Everyone knows the Battenkill is one of the world’s most challenging trout streams.
I talked to the clerks at Orvis in Manchester, and the proprietor of the little fly shop over the New York border, and the other anglers I encountered along the river, and even the groundskeeper at the inn in Arlington where I stayed. They talked mostly about insects. The Hendricksons had come and gone. A few blue-winged olives were hatching — not enough to interest the trout. Whatever significant mayfly would come next in the annual sequence had not yet appeared. Small tan-colored caddis flies were emerging toward dark, and small trout were chasing them. There were midges. Small fish might eat them, but worthy Battenkill trout ignore midges.
One hesitates to ask another fisherman to divulge the location of a hot spot. Such knowledge is, and should be, earned. Along the Battenkill, I learned, a hot spot is defined as a place where a single large trout was once spotted. If he was caught, it was most likely on a night crawler, and he was killed and taken home by the person who caught him, and that trout no longer lived in the river.
So I scouted for places where I, if I were a worthy trout, might choose to live, pieces of river that offered sanctuary from predators, protection from heavy currents, and a ready food source. I found dark runs against undercut banks. I found pools where the river widened below a chute of quick water. I found long flats separated by riffly runs.
I discovered that the Battenkill has very little water that doesn’t look as if it would harbor worthy trout.
I also discovered that very few worthy trout live there.
On the first day I explored a section of the river that a young clerk at Orvis called “the Jungle.” I quickly saw why. The river’s banks grow thick and tangly and impenetrable to a man wearing a vest festooned with dangling gadgets and carrying a nine-foot fly rod. Trees arch over the water, leaving it in permanent shadow. The only way to navigate is to wade the riverbed itself, where the Battenkill tumbles over slick, softball-sized rocks that look bronze through the faintly tea-stained water. The river runs north to south here over a sequence of long shallow stairs — riffle, run, pool, flat, riffle.
The sun dappled it here and there as I edged upstream. Warblers flittered in the May foliage, which glowed in vibrant young shades of pale green and yellow. Pink and crimson and white wildflowers sprouted along the riverbank.
I’ve fished many of America’s most beautiful trout rivers — Nelson’s and Armstrong’s spring creeks in Montana’s Paradise Valley, the South Fork of the Snake and the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho, and the limestone creeks of Pennsylvania, not to mention the dozens of little streams that flow through the creases of Vermont’s Green Mountains. None is more beautiful than the Battenkill. I’m certain that you don’t need to be a fisherman to recognize this beauty. But an angler searching for trout sees and appreciates it differently. We engage rivers more intensely and study them more critically. Many of them hold spooky, selective trout. Catching these fish demands knowledge and finesse, patience and luck. I have caught worthy trout from beautiful rivers, and it seems to make them even more beautiful.
I worked my slow way upstream without even stringing up my rod. I could have fished the water blindly — there were plenty of likely looking places. I could have dredged the bottom of some of those holes and runs with weighted nymphs or caddis pupa imitations. That was the Orvis clerk’s recommendation. But I had come to the Battenkill to cast dry flies to rising trout. So I paused at the bottom of each long flat and squinted at the water’s surface, searching for the dimple of a feeding trout. Then I edged along the bank, careful (but not always careful enough) to avoid sending ripples across the water. And I paused again at the head of each pool to stare at the choppy run that fed it.
A mile and several hours after I had entered the river, I rounded a bend. A long stretch of flat water curved upstream into the jungle. And there against the left bank I saw the widening rings that I had been looking for. I stood motionless, and a minute or two later the rings appeared again. From where I stood, I couldn’t estimate the size of the fish that made those rings. Large trout tend to feed delicately, barely pricking the river’s surface with their noses to sip insects. Small trout sometimes don’t look much different.
I noticed a few caddis flies fluttering above the river; I snatched one and held it in my hand. Tan wings and olive body, about size 16. I found a match in my fly box and knotted it to my tippet. Then I moved into position, a cautious stalk that ended with my kneeling painfully on the cobbled river bottom in calf-deep water 30 feet downstream and to the side of my target trout. I waited that way until he rose again, and when he did, I waited some more, merging my rhythm with his, until I felt he was prepared to rise again.
My cast was true. My fly settled softly on the water four feet upstream of him and drifted down, and then it disappeared into the pockmark of his rise.
I tightened on him to set the hook. And then I laughed aloud. With the lift of my nine-foot rod, the fish came skittering across the surface of the water toward me. I stripped him in and held him in my hand. With his tail against the base of my thumb, his nose barely extended beyond my fingertips. A six-incher, by the fisherman’s generous estimate. An altogether tiny trout.
But I had the good sense to admire him. He glittered in my hand like a gold nugget, perfectly camouflaged for the river bottom where he lived. His red spots glowed like droplets of fresh blood. He was a perfect miniature of the worthy brown trout I sought. He had been born in this river, the descendant of the European browns that were brought to America in the 19th century and first introduced into the Battenkill in the 1930s.
This little trout had started as one of a million fertilized eggs on the gravelly stream bottom. He had hatched. His parents did not eat him, nor did other cannibalistic trout or herons or kingfishers or ospreys. He had escaped disease and winterkill. For two years he had managed to swallow insects and avoid swallowing a worm with a hook in it, and against all the odds he had survived.
Nowadays a wild New England trout, however tiny, is always a miracle. Only a lout would fail to pause to admire one of them before slipping him gently back into the river.
I explored the loop of river between the first two bridges on Route 313 in Arlington on the second day. The sun glittered in a high sky and a sharp breeze blew the insects off the water. I saw no rising trout. I spent most of the day sitting on streamside boulders, watching sunlight ricochet off the riffles. After a few pleasant hours of idle watching and daydreaming, I succumbed to a pragmatic impulse and tied on a pair of weighted nymphs — a pheasant tail, which imitates many immature mayfly species, and a tan caddis pupa. I drifted them along a current seam that reminded me of places where I had caught large trout from Montana’s Bighorn and Alberta’s Bow Rivers.
For all I could tell, not a trout lived in this Battenkill pool.
Toward dusk I made my way back to the bridge where I’d left my car. An elderly man was parked beside me. He was shucking off his waders. I asked after his luck first, so he was forced to admit he’d been skunked before I did. He seemed cheerful about it. No bugs, no trout, he shrugged. A simple equation. He lived nearby, fished for a few hours just about every day, got skunked regularly.
It happens less regularly to me because I generally don’t fish in rivers as idiosyncratic as the Battenkill. I don’t like to spend ten hours on a stream without so much as a single strike. It makes me believe that there’s something wrong — either with the river or with me. I prefer to blame myself. I don’t want things to be wrong with rivers.
I was reluctant to leave. My friend told me that he’d once taken a 16-inch brown trout from the Battenkill. That was his biggest. It had happened four years earlier. I confessed that I’d caught a six-incher the previous day. He smiled. He said he’d had plenty of days when he hadn’t done that well.
I removed my waders, took down my rod, and went up to the bridge for a final look at the river. Swallows had begun to swoop close to the water, and few caddis flies swarmed in the air. Then I saw the rise of a trout, and as I watched, I saw two more. One of them appeared to be heftier than my six-incher.
I returned to the car. “There’s a few rising below the bridge,” I told my friend.
He smiled. “Go catch one,” he said.
“I guess I will.” I restrung my rod and stuck a box of caddis fly imitations into my shirt pocket. I didn’t bother climbing back into my waders.
I stood on the river’s edge below the bridge, and now there were half a dozen fish feeding steadily, splashing at the insects that fluttered over the water. My fly was invisible on the dark water. I cast upstream of a feeding trout, and if he rose when my fly was on the water, I lifted my rod. A couple of times I guessed the fish had splashed at my fly, but I didn’t hook him.
As the dusk gathered, the fish began to feed more hungrily. Now I had at least a dozen actively rising fish in front of me. I cast frantically, amateurishly, first to this one and then, when another rose nearby, I’d interrupt the drift of my fly, lift my line, and cast to him. Perhaps some of these were worthy trout, although I couldn’t judge.
Then I caught one. He did not come skittering in over the surface, but neither did he slog heavily at the end of my line. I landed him easily and measured him against the markings on my rod. His nose failed by an inch to reach the one-foot mark. He was a brook trout, a species native to the Battenkill. Perhaps this one was a descendant of those that settled here after the glaciers retreated. More likely his ancestors were hatchery trout that were heavily stocked a century ago.
Either way, I knew he was another wild trout, a survivor born in the river. It’s been many years since hatchery-raised trout have been dumped into the Battenkill. I revived him carefully and slipped him back into the river.
I turned. My friend had been watching from the bridge.
“About 11 inches,” I said.
“Three-year-old fish,” he said. “Brook trout don’t live much longer here. That’s a trophy brookie for the Battenkill. About as big as they get.”
On most of the western rivers I fish, an 11-inch trout would be an embarrassment. I realized I was still taking the measure of the Battenkill.
In Arlington the river takes a right turn and flows east to west into New York, where, for some reason, they call it the Batten Kill. On the third day I prowled this stretch, which for several miles meanders between Route 313 and a dirt road. I drove the dirt road and stopped wherever I found a pulloff. More beautiful trout water, another sparkling May day — high blue sky, pillowy white clouds, that same persistent breeze. Perfect for photography, but not the sort of day that encouraged mayflies to hatch.
I saw more fishermen than I had the previous two days. Most of them carried spinning rods, and I did not try to engage them in conversation. They were probably pleasant people. But spin fishermen do not study insects, and they ignore rising fish. They toss their lures into likely looking currents. When trout are not feeding on insects, a man with a spinning rod will outfish a fly caster. But during an insect hatch, the fly fisherman has the advantage.
I could not learn anything from these fishermen.
In the morning, as I sat on the riverbank watching the water, a hen turkey ambled to the water’s edge across from me. I didn’t move, but she saw me anyway and ran awkwardly into the bushes. Toward dusk a whitetail doe waded into the head of the pool I was fishing.
In between, I caught two miniature brown trout and one finger-size brookie. I guessed that all three, laid head to tail, would barely stretch beyond the length of my 11-inch brookie. I had again avoided being skunked.
But I had not encountered the worthy trout I sought. I knew they lived here. Stories of the Battenkill — both those in literature and those exchanged among fishermen — invariably mention the river’s “lunker browns.” These wily old trout show themselves rarely. Most of them are caught in the early spring by bait fishermen. But now and then a persistent fly fisherman finds one that has slipped from its sanctuary among submerged roots to sip insects. Occasionally one of these big browns will eat the angler’s fly. Usually it breaks the slender tippet. But some are landed. They might weigh five pounds or more. The largest brown trout ever taken from the Battenkill weighed over 12 pounds. But that happened 50 years ago.
Fishing in the first four miles of the river after it enters New York is restricted to flies and artificial lures. Only three trout ten inches or longer may be killed per angler per day. Compared with the regulations on many of Montana’s blue-ribbon trout streams (flies with barbless hooks only, no trout may be killed), New York’s rules are primitive. But compared with Vermont, where all methods are legal and anglers may kill 12 trout per day, New York is perfectly enlightened in its management of this section of the river.
After three days on the river, I had seen enough to understand that the Battenkill has the potential to match some of the most productive trout waters I have fished. Its pure water — a mix from the springs that rise in the Taconics to the west and warmer surface runoff from the Green Mountains to the east — rarely exceeds 70 degrees, which is ideal for brown trout and tolerable for brookies. The alkaline riverbed encourages weed and insect growth. Trout reproduce abundantly here. But they are overfished and overharvested and undermanaged.
Words such as technical and challenging are often applied to the Battenkill. Such descriptors are misleading. They imply that a sufficiently skilled angler can succeed here. I have talked with enough excellent fly fishermen who know the Battenkill to understand that this gorgeous, trouty river simply does not offer even the superior angler a fair challenge. Its fish are scarcer and smaller and more skittish than the quality of this river promises.
For a trout fisherman, at least, it’s a tragic waste. Lee Wulff, perhaps history’s most famous fly fisherman, lived in Shushan, New York, on the banks of the Battenkill for 20 years. When he moved, he blamed the deterioration of the fishing.
My best chance to encounter my worthy brown trout, I decided, lay in that four-mile stretch over the New York border. A waitress told me that “lots of big trout” were taken there, although on the Battenkill’s scale, I had no idea what a “big trout” might be.
I parked by the covered bridge at the very end of the restricted four miles. No other cars were there, which promised the solitude I sought, but which I nevertheless interpreted as an ominous sign. How good could the fishing be if none of the wise locals came here?
Rain clouds obscured the mountains, and mist hung over the river. The air was still and heavy and damp. A good day for insects. A good day for a worthy brown trout to come out to eat them. A good day for a fly fisherman.
I waded across the river above the covered bridge and picked my way upstream, moving slowly, watching the water. It was, I quickly learned, an excellent day for insects. Mosquitoes clouded around my head. But there were caddis flies, too, and a few assorted mayflies — large dun-colored ones with smoky wings that might have been leftover Hendricksons, smaller brownish ones with mottled wings that I guessed were March browns, and tiny blue-winged olives. Drifting on the water, too, were some mayfly spinners, spent and dying after their reproductive exertions.
There were enough insects, I guessed, to interest a worthy trout. But I crept upstream a mile or more without seeing a single ring on the water. The mist became a steady soft rain.
I rounded a bend and paused at the tail of a flat that extended so far upstream that the mist blurred its head. The left bank, I saw, was the deep one. Some dead timber had collected there, and a big oak grew at an angle over the water. Its branches swooped so low that they nearly ticked its surface.
I sat on a rock. Here, I decided, I would take my stand. In four days I had not seen a more likely lair for a worthy trout. I would sit here all day, if necessary, to wait for him to show himself.
A ring appeared near the tailout, not 30 feet from me. I could cast to him without moving. I waited, and when the trout rose again, I knew he was a small one, another six-incher. I ignored him.
Gradually more rings began to show on the glass-smooth surface of the long pool. I sat quietly in the misty rain and watched them. Small trout, all of them, but even so, they fed cautiously. A minute or more separated each quick foray to the surface. On this absolutely flat water, fooling even one of these six-inchers would take precision and luck.
An hour passed before I saw the unmistakable black nose. On the Henry’s Fork and the Bighorn I learned to measure a surface-feeding trout by the size of his nose. We call the big ones “toads” because that’s what their noses look like against the water.
Here on the Battenkill I had found a toad. I didn’t move for ten minutes, the interval it took him to come to the surface three times. He rose in precisely the same place, about two feet directly upstream from the outermost sweeping branch of the arching oak tree. The only way I could float a fly over him was from the side and upstream.
His delicate rise form suggested he had selected spinners to eat. They drifted inert on the water’s surface membrane, easy pickin’s for an energy-conscious trout. I saw two kinds of spinners on the water — large rust-colored ones and smaller olives. Knowing the perversity of large trout, I guessed this one had selected the olives. I found a good match in my fly box and tied it to my wispy tippet. My hands, I noticed, trembled just a little. After three days, the Battenkill had showed me a worthy trout. Now it was up to me. The odds, I knew, were slim. Even if I hooked this fish, he would bolt to what I assumed was his lair under the tangled timber against the bank. My tippet was too slender. It would snap if I tried to hold him back. Otherwise he would wrap me and surely break me off.
Perhaps not. When they’re hooked, large trout sometimes shoot directly upstream, or try to slog it out in midriver, or exhaust themselves by jumping repeatedly. I might get lucky.
I focused on the first challenge, which was to wade into position to make my cast. A careless step would send telltale ripples across the pool, and the trout would dart back to his hideout for the rest of the day. So I moved downstream and crossed in the quick water of the pool’s tailout. Then I climbed the bank and pushed through the alder tangles to a spot directly across from the fish. I paused there until his nose showed again. Then I slipped down the bank and into the water.
The river spread 100 feet wide here, and my trout lay about ten feet from the far bank. To place an accurate cast over him, I’d need to wade to midstream. There was virtually no discernible current. I began to edge forward, shuffling my feet slowly, wary of making waves. He rose again. I was closer, now, and I saw the size of his nose more clearly and mentally compared it with those I had judged on other rivers. A 16-incher, at least. Maybe 18. Not a Battenkill five-pounder. But a most worthy trout.
I had to resist the impulse to cast. I was still too far from him. One careless presentation would spook him. So I waded forward cautiously. He showed his nose again. He had established a rhythm now, and I had learned it.
A hollow thunk echoed from somewhere upstream, but it barely registered. I was focused on my trout. I was almost there.
Then the man in the canoe materialized out of the mist. He paddled placidly down the middle of my pool, directly over the place where my trout had been rising.
“Any luck?” he asked cheerfully.
I shook my head. “Nope.”
“Say,” he said. “You got the time?”
I glanced at my watch. “Three-fifteen.”
“Thanks.” He waved. “Well, good luck, then.”
I watched the canoe’s bow waves roll toward the banks. The canoe became a shadow before the mist enveloped it. I waded to shore.
Three-fifteen. I had parked at the covered bridge at nine. In effect, I had been stalking that toad for over six hours.
I waded carelessly back to the car. There was no need to worry about my waves spooking fish. Every worthy trout in the river had been sent scurrying by that one man in his canoe.
I stopped at the diner on the state line for coffee. The guy behind the counter said, “Been fishin’, huh?”
“Do any good?”
I smiled and shook my head.
“Listen,” he said. “Out behind the field here they were jumpin’ all over the place last night. Nice ones, too. Eight, ten inches, some of ’em. You oughta try it there.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I appreciate it.”
He gave me a free refill, and when I stood to go, he said, “Just take that dirt road there and you can park beside the field.”
I did. The river ran dark and deep along a granite ledge overhung by hemlocks. It was beautiful and peaceful in the mist, and I spotted the rings of a few rising trout and caught two of them. They weren’t the “nice” ones the guy at the diner had seen, but they were five or six inches long, beautiful miniature Battenkill brown trout.
I fished until dark, casting rhythmically, no longer in search of a worthy trout, and finally the sediment of fishing sank to the bottom and my purpose became pure.
And so I made my peace with the Battenkill.