Monday, October 20, 2014

The Battenkill

Nathalia and I decided to head up to Vermont over the weekend. The plan was to head to either Woodstock or Manchester. Both are towns that we've been to before, both have their own sort of charm. We were about a week late on the peak foliage, which lead us to head to Manchester this time, thinking that the more southern Route 2 drive west would afford us better scenery and leaves that maybe hadn't yet dropped compared to their northern counterparts. The drive west was scenic, although not quite perfect from the foliage perspective. We were a little late, after all. There was some brown mixed in....

Knowing that we would be staying in Manchester and in close proximity to the historic Battenkill river, I brought my 4-weight. Of course, this wasn't a fishing trip. But I figured I could sneak out for a couple hours Sunday morning early and be back to the hotel in time for breakfast. This is the life of the betrothed angler. Squeezing in a few hours with the rod here and there. Not optimal, but enough to scratch the itch. Nata and I went out to a nice dinner in town Saturday night followed by several Irish coffees and live music at the Equinox hotel. Random anecdote, the Equinox is one of the few hotels that offers falconry lessons for their patrons. It's a pretty classy establishment to say the least. We were staying at a less classy establishment down the street from there...

Before bed, I sought the advice of the mighty internet, hoping to gain a little insight on the Battenkill. Google gave me plenty of material, possibly the best read was an article published in Yankee Magazine some time ago. http://www.yankeemagazine.com/article/10things-interact-2/battenkill
It's worth a read. I suggest you all try it. Without going into an unnecessarily lengthy description of the results of my internet research, I will succinctly say the following: the Battenkill is an extremely difficult river to fish for a variety of reasons. The trout that inhabit it are wild and few and far between, with no stocking in Vermont since 1975. The fish that are around tend to be small and exceedingly difficult to fool based on the high water clarity, slow growth rates, and substantial fishing pressure. And, presumably due to the challenging nature and historical relevance of this river, angler's are obsessed with it.

Charles F Orvis lived on and fished the Battenkill in the mid 1800s, around the time when he first opened up a tackle shop that would later become the Orvis fly rod company. To this day the company is located in Manchester VT. Lee and Joan Wulff lived on and fished the Battenkill in the Mid 1970s. The couple established the Wulff School of Fly Fishing shortly thereafter on the Beaverkill River in NY. According to the Yankee Magazine article above, Lee stated that he had to move to the Beaverkill for his fly fishing school because his native Battenkill would be too difficult to fish for fly fishing school patrons. (No doubt Lee did damage on this river though, because that is what Lee does...) Other fly fishing legends such as John Atherton and Ted Williams also spent time on the Battenkill, adding to the historic mystique of the river.

Unfortunately, my prospects looked a bit bleak. The wise old internet informed me that the majority of fish in the Battenkill's Manchester area would be brookies, with most of the browns inhabiting the bigger sections of river down in Arlington Vermont and closer to the NY boarder. The river up in Manchester was small, and so were the average fish, with anything over 12 inches considered a respectable trout for the upper sections of the river. Late October was also about the worst time of year to fish the Battenkill, with May-July and September being the best months. By late October many of the trout would be headed up tributaries looking to spawn and not focused on eating. Plus the last of the trico hatches ended in early October, so it had become a wet fly game. One guide's website recommended a sculpin pattern. Ah the mighty sculpin. The name alone sounds a bit foul. I didn't have any sculpin flies. But I did have a couple weighted buggers. I'd try those in the morning... I figured even if I didn't get a bite it would be nice to walk the river for a couple hours on late fall day.

Daylight arrived with scattered rain showers. I woke up around 6 and made my way to the river by 630. I found a little area to park off of a bridge that crossed the Battenkill at Union Street in Manchester, just a few minutes drive from our hotel. there were a series of runs and pools just downstream from the bridge.


I approached the first pool and tied on my olive cone head bugger. I added a soft hackle dopper 14 inches down from the larger fly. The soft hackle always seemed to produce for me on the Swift where the trout are quite discriminating so I figured why not give it a shot on the old Battenkill... I took a few casts into the slower water pool at the base of the run and stripped my bugger in slowly. "Make it look like a sculpin" I said to myself, all the while not 100% sure what a sculpin actually looks like... "They're on sculpins. Big browns want meat."

Working my way up toward the top of the run, I cast my flies into the fast water and let them swing along the steelheady seems between the fast water in the center of the run and the slower currents along its edges. In short time I felt a bump, but this turned out to be my bugger colliding with a rock as it tumbled down steam. At least I was getting deep enough. A few more casts with nothing. The run and pool were nothing short of spectacular looking though. There had to be a trout in this run somewhere.... I began to get that feeling of indecision that every fly fisherman has whenever they fish unproductively at one time or another. Should I change up the flies or let it ride? As I sent my presentation back out for another swing I figured I better let it ride. After all, I had nothing better to offer these fish. Nothing else to switch to with any confidence. There were no dries coming off the surface. It was 42 degrees and drizzling. The Battenkill River, beautiful in her autumn attire, looked completely dead. With a smile, I came to terms with my situation. Honestly, I didn't really expect to catch anything. I was on a brutally tough river, during the wrong time of year, with a only couple hours to fish and no sculpin flies. Best to just enjoy the scenery and.. !!!!!! My drift was interrupted by a tug, two head shakes and peeling drag. 

Holy shit! I hooked something... And it didn't feel small... Whatever I had on the end of the line was putting a damn respectable bend in the Sage 4-weight. It had peeled out line almost to the backing and was holding in the back of the pool. "I need to get it out of the main current and into the eddy." I thought to myself. "Let's put a little side pressure on him." He held fast in the current and the dance of angler versus fish began in earnest... A couple feet gained, then a couple feet taken. A quick change in position by the fish met by a quick shift in the angle of the rod. The standoff continued with me wanting to move the fish out of the current and into softer water but fearing the application of too much pressure could pull the hook or snap the tippet. 

To be candid, I can't say that I expected to land this fish. I don't have much experience fighting decent sized trout. Steelhead, yes, but not small water trout. The fish from the Swift usually roll over and play dead as soon as they feel the hook. Its just a routine for them. They get hooked, they get released, they get hooked again a day later. But here on the Battenkill, I wasn't quite sure what this fish was going to do. It seemed like he had a plan, and I didn't. Meanwhile, as I struggled to guide the fish out of the current, I played the old reverse jinx game in the back of my head. "Dude, its probably just a sucker. Relax. It's probably a butthole hooked sucker anyways..." 

Eventually the fish did come back into the eddy out of the man current. I was able to bring him back to me in the soft water, retrieving almost all of my casting line. For a second I thought I would finish the job right there, but before he was close enough for me to see he made another run out into the main current and once he had the current on his back it wasn't but a couple seconds before he was 30 yards downstream again and we were back to square one. Side pressure again, if we can get him back to the eddy again we're good. He's tired now. I would get him this next time around. Unfortunately, the fish knew that game now, and he was desperate in his efforts to reach the far side eddy. If he made it there, I knew it could spell trouble. Well, he made it there, and once he was out of the current on the far side of the run and my fly line got caught in the main current I had little control over his actions. With drag slowly and steadily peeling off my reel, I watched with horror as he made headway towards a fallen tree. Before long I could no longer feel the pulse of a fish, just the steady pressure of a snag. He had me beaten.

"Fuck!" This time my yell was loud. It didn't matter though. No one was within earshot save a few cows that I could hear mooing from time to time in the distance. I was fouled up good. And on top of that I was no longer able to convince myself that I had hooked a sucker. I was fairly certain that only a wily old trout could have pulled that trick off. I wondered what to do about my current predicament... First, I waded downstream for 10 yards into the deep pool to try to change the angle on my snag. No luck. I then tried to cross down in the pool, but it was too dicey. I considered just pulling on the line and snapping off the tangled rig. I went so far as to grab the line in my left hand and point my rod tip at the down tree, but I couldn't do it. After several minutes, I accepted the fact that the likelihood of having a fish on still was now highly improbable. I walked back upstream, loosed my dragged, and crossed 30 yards upriver in a shallow riffle. With care, I walked back down stream on the far bank reeling in slack as i went. I knew this move would force me to wade through the holding water that I had been fishing, effectively ruining the spot, but from what I'd read, the chances of me hooking anything else were pretty slim anyways.  Finally, I approached the down tree limb and lifted it out of the water. My line was wrapped around 4 different branches. How that happened is beyond any explanation I could provide. Rhythmically, I began snapping branches and freeing my line, when only one snag remained, I felt the surge of the trout as he headed back out into the run. My fly line peeled off the reel, sliding against the one remaining branch, but did not break. Unbelievable... 

Through some divine act of good fortune my leader survived this encounter with the tree and I was able to dip my rod tip under the one remaining snag and clear my line. At this point, the fish was tired, he held in the deep water of the pool but he had no surging runs left. Eventually I guided him into soft water revealing my opponent for the first time. He was not a resident brookie or a loathsome sucker, but a handsome male brown. Sculpins be damn, the meat eating brown had taken the size 16 soft hackle dropper on 6x tippet, and God only knows how he stayed attached through it all... 


He was an exceptionally handsome fish. I'd estimate his length to be about 17 inches. Unfortunately he sustained a nick on his shoulder during the battle, probably against some branch of the fallen tree. Not wanting to cause further stress I snapped a couple quick I-phone pictures, unhooked him and sent him on his way. I watched him swim off, sat my ass down on the bank, and took a few minute pause to reflect on the moment. The light rain continued to fall. 

I fished the Battenkill for another couple hours before heading back to the hotel. The river would grant me no additional bites, but I was already quite happy with what she had given. I've noticed that among many of my BFC friends, myself included, we've gotten so damn effective at this hobby we call fishing that days with only one bite are often considered failures. But there are still certain places, certain fish, that leave you requesting nothing more than a single chance. Those places, those fish, are perhaps the most memorable of all. 

I hope all of you get a chance to fish the Battenkill some day. It is truly a beautiful river in a beautiful place. Don't expect to crush em in there, but then again, you never know...

4 comments:

Lucas "Horm" Young said...

Splendid story my friend! It was a classic old man and the sea type deal, wrought uncertainty, a touch of despair, and the sweet taste of victory from having surmounted the odds and prevailing.

Clark Winchell said...

You certainly have a way with words my friend, a story well told!

Halsch said...

Good stuff right there.

Jesse Lance Robbins said...

You sir, are a fine angler. Lee would be proud.