Trout Fishing in the Battenkill River
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.