This is a true story. It’s a tale of unusually large brown trout, sewage, weird mayflies, floods and droughts. If you choose to doubt any part of my tale, question the size of the trout because that part comes from the lips of a lifelong fly fisher. But the other stuff comes from careful observation and scientific literature. I could footnote this if you wish but I am afraid I would lose most of my readers, including my editor, and thus the check would not come and I would be forced to buy cheaper cigars.
A population crash of the Battenkill’s brown had brought mixed blessings. In the years 1993 to 1997, trout from 10 to 14 inches long had gone from a density of 200 per mile to less than 50. Even worse, smaller fish had gone from 1400 per mile to less than 100 per mile. Fishing pressure declined over 80 percent. Although the future looked grim, this left me, with the Battenkill in my back yard, with only large, older fish and little competition from other fishermen.
I have a spot on the upper river that belongs only to some local bait fishermen and me. In 23 years I have never actually seen them, only the mushy glow of their Coleman lanterns on foggy April nights as I drive by the river. One of them might be the guy who delivers my wood in the summer, another might be the father of one of the girls on my daughter’s soccer team that I see every Saturday in October. Perhaps I’ve stood in line at the IGA behind the ringleader. But all I see is the morning-after evidence, fire rings, forked sticks marking their territory, and the odd empty can of Red Man, probably dropped in the dark in the excitement of a rod tip quivering at the edge of the lantern’s glow. Those markers are important to me because I know where not to fish, where the old browns have been taken home to feed the family. I fish around them, in the spots where there is no easy place to sit on the bank, where brush covers both sides of the river and I can slip into place with my waders.
There have never been many small trout in this piece of river because there is no riffle habitat, just dark, forbidding, snaggy water. It’s tough to wade unless you know exactly where to enter the river and how to tiptoe along the sandbars. I have never seen another fisherman here during daylight hours except for the time I saw Jim poaching my water. Jim, Matt, and I work together, and both of them live on the river, Jim upstream and Matt downstream. Long ago we set up boundaries on our “beats” (even though this is private but unposted land) and Jim seldom wanders below the Dead Elm, while Matt never enters the Bull Field. Over the years, hundreds of hours sitting on the bank watching, the three of us know exactly where the bigger fish will feed in our particular stretches, and anyone stumbling into this water with a fly rod would likely leave the place cursing the lack of fish and the water that had seeped over the top of their waders.
I am not a particularly talented fly fisherman, only one who has obsessed over this silly distraction for over 30 years. When I am on the road I flit from one spot to the other, hardly studying the water, too intent on seeing what’s around the bend. A friend who tried to keep up with me on the upper Colorado called me “The James Brown of Fly Fishing”, which confused me until he translated it as “The Hardest Working Man in Fly Fishing”. Around a campfire on the South Fork of the Snake in Idaho I overheard a couple of guides describing someone as “fishy”, a high compliment that I’m sure I did not earn on that trip. But I’m fishy at home.
I feel guilty living on a trout stream, being able to check for hatches before I brush my teeth in the morning, sneaking away at noon for a stolen hour, stopping to look for rises between work and dinner. I don’t rub it in, though. A charter boat captain friend of mine delights in getting a big striper on the reel and calling magazine editors toiling in New York on August days so sultry you can’t see the tops of buildings. Three miles out in Nantucket Sound, he holds the squealing reel up to his cell phone and hangs up. They know who it is without caller ID.
It is this proximity that makes me fishy, gives me the patience to stalk old brown trout. Last spring I sat on the bank in one little slot in the brush that I usually passed on my way to several plots upstream. For the past three years, I had seen nothing but kamikaze brook trout here, but the far bank is lined with cobbles and mink hustle along the edge like dark brown Slinkies. I had hit one with a car the week before on the road opposite the river, and because I had enjoyed their company on many fishless nights, and because the mink in my headlights painfully reminded me of my pet ferret I had come to pay respects. Fully expecting not to see any trout feeding, I lit a big Macanudo and leaned back, mindful of the large patch of nettles I had grabbed in the dark one night.
I read somewhere that our peripheral vision is more likely to catch movement. What is it about a trout rising that lets us pick out one spot amongst many swirls and bubbles, drawing our eyes to the spot, quickening the pulse? Some atavistic response tells us there is a movement that’s out of place, that doesn’t quite match the pattern of currents. Something along the far bank winked at me. I could not articulate what I saw, never can in times like this. But I have learned to trust that vague feeling that a trout rose.
Predicting hatches on the Battenkill is a lot like pushing the buttons on a vending machine while blindfolded. You never know what you get, and it’s almost guaranteed you will be underwhelmed. This night, there were a few Hendrickson and Paralep spinners, the odd caddis, and midges the fish invariably ignore on this river. I watched a Hendrickson spinner backlit against the fading light, twirling out in the main current until it was plucked into a side eddy and pushed up against a tangle of alders. It was taken not in a rise, but it was funneled into a beak that extended from the alders. Protected by the alders, the fish never made a swirl or a ring. It was betrayed by a solitary bubble so large it could have been made by one of those little plastic rings used by children. Had I been walking the bank or wading upstream or doing anything except spacing out puffing on a cigar, I would have missed that fish.
I don’t buy most of the platitudes whined by fly-fishing experts; one I do accept is that your first cast is your most important. The water in this run was still too deep for me to wade below the fish and the only way I could get to him was to wade down from above on a sandbar I hoped was still there from last season. But one tactic I never use on the Battenkill, at least for big trout, is the downstream approach. These old browns will slink back into muskrat holes the minute they notice anything that resembles the approach of a predator, and tactics that work on the civilized fish of the Bighorn don’t cut it here. Rather than letting him know I was after him tonight, I decided to watch, get his number, and wait for another night. I never got my waders wet that evening.
Fishing for large brown trout is a solitary pursuit. I will drive up and down the river prior to fishing, and if I see a car parked within a half-mile of a pool I will go elsewhere. Even a careful wader will put a brown trout off the feed for a whole evening just by his presence. I do like to “go fishing” with other people when it’s just a casual day of fishing, with no preconceived plan, but I always laugh to myself about a non-fly-fisher’s conception of going fishing with someone else. They have this vision, when I say I’m going fishing with Jim, that we will be side-by-side in the river, doing male-bonding stuff and talking about our feelings. The reality is that on the drive to the river we talk about fishing, once we get to the river we get out of sight of each other as quickly as possible, and meet after dark to talk about fishing on the ride home. Let them think we are bonding—anything to get out of the house on a soft May evening when the spinners are dancing above the gleam of the untouched lawnmower.
On my second sighting I started well below his spot and caught a couple of small brook trout, got out of the water when I got about 80 feet from his position, and got back into the river well above him. The spinner fall was pretty sparse that evening and I didn’t want to even look at him until he was feeding steadily. After the sun crawled below the alders I sat on the bank across from him and lit a cigar. He rose once or twice in the hour it took me to smoke it, with no steady rhythm. I don’t know what they do underwater when they feed like this. They often slow down in their feeding pace after your first cast, I imagine because they have been alerted to your presence, but I am sure that fish could not have seen me on the far bank. When the fish get into a steady, regular rise pattern they get preoccupied and easier to fool; when they are unsteady they are nearly impossible to fool. I finished my cigar and left him alone once again.
Cigar night number three was so windy my smoke only lasted a half-hour, the wind stealing half of the Connecticut Shade wrapper by itself. And I never saw a fish rise, not my friend nor any other. On nights when the fish are feeding everything is right with the world and I never worry about the state of the river. On nights I don’t see anything panic sets in and I worry about everything. And with this old population and little sign of any small browns for future years I had plenty to agonize over.
There is no doubt the Battenkill has not been the same since the town fathers in Manchester decided to heed the Clean Water Act and replace the old primary sewage treatment plant, which did little more than strain out the big pieces, with a state-of-the-art tertiary plant that also removes most of the nitrates and phosphates from the effluent. I now have no problem with my daughter swimming in the river but the bug life is a fraction of what it used to be. Although the lack of sewage fertilization in the river cut down the overall density of fish in the river, it was not responsible for the lack of small fish. Something else was to blame. So I worried about the three golf courses on the upper river and what pesticides and herbicides they might be using. I worried about the study that showed Chernobyl’s effect on fish populations in northern Europe and wondered if it might have gotten this far. Development in Machester has lowered the water table in the valley. The resurgence of beavers in New England has blocked many small tributaries that are the primary spawning streams. Acid rain. The world is full of environmental nightmares when the fish don’t rise.
I wasn’t about to let this nagging issue drop. I was lucky enough to study fisheries under Neil Ringler, one of the top experts in trout population dynamics in the country. He’s also a sicko fly fisherman and would understand. When I described the situation to him through E-mail, he sent me a copy of a study he had done recently on a small stream in the Syracuse, New York area. He studied the density of slimy sculpins, longnose dace, brown trout, blacknose dace, white suckers, and creek chubs in relation to discharge conditions in the stream. What they found was an increasing pattern of drought in summer (particularly in 1991 and 1992) and floods in late spring (especially 1993 and 1994). The study concluded that young-of-the-year brown trout are particularly susceptible to drought because they are riffle-dwellers, and the first part of a stream that goes dry in drought is the riffle area. This reduces the habitat available to young trout and pushes them into pools, where they are eaten by larger fish of all species. And March and April floods happen when delicate brown trout fry are emerging from the gravel. So two dry summers followed by two nasty spring floods gave the brown trout in the northeastern states a double whammy.
I prefer this explanation as it gives me hope that the Battenkill will arise from the ashes.
Cigar night number four looked good. The water had dropped enough to let me wade the bar below the fish, the wind had dropped, the bugs were steady. My friend was feeding like a metronome. I waited to finish the cigar, but realized my mistake ten minutes later as I heard the soft thump of plastic paddles against aluminum. I hate canoes on moving water. A couple with a dense downstate accent, he apparently a seasoned outdoorsman, informed me with a weighty tone that “they were jumping upstream”. “Thanks.” Asshole.
I finished the cigar without seeing another rise. Four cigars, four nights, and I hadn’t even gotten into the water near this fish.
The fifth cigar night started on an equally optimistic note. There was a Baetisca spinner fall. You have probably never seen this mayfly; I never have anywhere besides a five-mile stretch of the Battenkill. It is one of the strangest mayflies you’ll ever see, one of those species whose dun stage is mysterious, like the Gray Quill. In fact I don’t know anyone who has ever seen the duns. The spinner has a tubby size 18 body matched with size 12 wings, and looks more like a giant Trico than anything else. Despite its grotesque physique, trout love them, especially big trout, and when these spinners are on the river every, I repeat every trout comes to the surface. Even those normally caught only under the Coleman lanterns. My friend was eating but first I had to deal with the hot sour breath on my neck.
Did I tell you about the bull?
The unappealing (to a fly fisherman) character of this stretch of river is not the only thing that keeps it mine alone. The field bordering the river feeds a small herd of cattle. Keeping the cows happy is one of the largest bulls I have ever seen, a handsome fellow with a mean visage but an apparently gentle and curious nature. At least to me, as when I come down to the river he ambles over and sniffs me. I always stay close enough to the river for a quick slide into the water, and even though I’ll go over the top of my waders a quick bath is preferable to playing matador with a 2-weight fly rod. If he’s in a bad mood he will sometimes smash the alder bush next to me, I suppose to let me know who’s boss, but he has never made a threatening move towards me. He’s more of a backcast obstacle that a threat to life and limb and sometimes I have to turn around and growl at him to get him out of the way.
I once sent a friend from New Jersey to this stretch of river, figuring since he was from out-of-town and didn’t get up here very often he was not a threat to my solitude. I warned him about the bull but said he seemed to be harmless. The next day, safely back in Short Hills, he called me and I think he was still breathless from running and an adrenaline high. I never knew bulls could recognize individual humans.
I took my time finishing the cigar, as there was still plenty of light and bugs and I knew he was not going to stop feeding. Way downstream I saw a rise that I recognized. Mr.Big. You see, the trout I was stalking was not the biggest one in the alley and I knew it. Last year, on a night when no other trout were feeding, I saw a huge rise right out in the middle of the river, a distinctive sideways rise that gave me the shivers. After nine fly changes I finally hooked this fish, and instead of diving for the shoreline tangles the trout ran straight down river and back up to me where I conveniently landed him. I must have been living right that night as this fish was the largest brown trout I have ever taken on a dry, inches bigger than anything I have taken in Montana or Wyoming or Idaho. I won’t even tell you what he taped at because you’d call me a liar. Earlier this year I had seen his distinctive rise again, but every time I made a cast near him he would move upstream or sideways, not spooking right away but telling me he was there but was not going to put up with the foolishness of last year. It was like my fly was positively charged and he was the negative end and I finally gave up on him. Once was enough for both of us.
I had planned this approach for hours, so I knew just where to get into the river, how my first cast would land, and what fly I would switch to if he refused my spinner. Still, it took me 15 minutes to get into position, as I knew I could not afford to send even the smallest wave upstream. I gauged my distance by false casting off to the side and fired my first cast so that it would land just upstream of the alder tangle. I missed by about two inches. The tippet caught a tiny branch, spun around and tied what looked like a Bimini twist around the alder. I pulled straight back to snap off the fly, the alder bent towards me and then shot back like a bowstring. The trout never rose again that night.
The night of the sixth cigar just smelled right. Some nights when the air is heavy with moisture there is a point in the evening, just after the sun leaves the water, when everything stops moving. The wind drops, the wood thrushes and veeries shut up, and even the traffic on distant roads pauses as though the whole world is waiting to see a rise. This night, probably because the spinner fall was thick, my fish had moved out from his alder cave, drawn closer to the main current by an unusually generous evening.
I knew I’d hook him. I could tell by his confident rises. I knew he’d take my Baetisca spinner. I knew how to approach him without spooking him. I didn’t even finish my cigar, but kept it screwed into my teeth as I waded into place, and lengthened my tippet to five feet of 6X to make sure that drag would not tip him off. The first cast was short, the second was perfect and he sucked my fly down just as he had the last natural, turned towards the alder tangle on the shore and wrapped me around an underwater branch. I could still feel some pressure that seemed to pulse, but as I waded over to the tangle I could see my tippet just under the surface, wound around a branch that was vibrating in the current.
The seventh cigar was lonely. No fish rose anywhere near the alder tangle and I had missed my window of opportunity as the Baetisca hatch had faded, and with it the likelihood of taking any large browns, especially one that had been pricked.
Next spring I’ll use 5X.