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Trout Fishing in the Battenkill River

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.

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