Trout Fishing in the Battenkill River
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.