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Trout Fishing in the Battenkill River

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.

Updated Monday, August 13th, 2007

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