A Brush with Greatness: Ernie on the Battenkill

Written by: Doug Lyons

June 1980 marked my third year fishing the Battenkill and also the third year of my fledgling fly-fishing career.  The previous fall, I had acquired my first bamboo rod after having spent the summer cutting lawns and saving up to earn the asking price for the rod, $175.  It was a 7½ foot 5-weight Orvis Midge characterized by a rich brown coloring brought out by the hand flaming process that the company used at the time the rod had been built, in the 1960s.   

With my new rod in hand, I asked my dad if he was up for another trip to Vermont, to which he enthusiastically said, “Yes.”  Later in life, I learned that his enthusiasm was fueled as much by the opportunity to get away from the chaos that comes along with four young children as it was due to his generous nature.  Permission granted, I sought a suitable weekend while my dad found lodging—which turned out to be at the recently refurbished Arlington Inn, a classic lodging site for travelers dating back to the 1800s. 

As luck would have it, the Battenkill flows under the Rte 313 Bridge, locally and more properly known as the Water Street Bridge, a mere 200 yards from the Inn.  This made for an easy point of entry for me and allowed my dad to enjoy a comfortable chair on the Inn’s impressive porch and dig into one of the many books he had brought along.

 

Ernie Schwiebert 1

The great Ernest Schwiebert, in his trademark Tyrol hat, was often seen on the Battenkill.

 

And so there I found myself one bright June afternoon, working the water above the bridge, casting with no real purpose and only a little skill.  It was a beautiful day, though, and the evening before I had spied a large brown trout slowly cruising through the depths of the pool.  It seemed as logical a place as anywhere to fish, so I planted myself there and enthusiastically set about to catch the big one.  After an hour, I would have been happy with a trout of any size, and after an hour more I would have settled for a dace.

About that time, my dad came by to check on me and let me know he was heading off to Manchester, a rundown resort village back then.  A few minutes later, I had just about worn out most of my surprising patience and decided to take a seat on the bank.  I had not been sitting more than five minutes when along the narrow path came another angler—the first I had seen all day. (Even then, a crowd on the Battenkill meant sharing a pool with one other angler.)  As I stood up to get out of the way, I took a quick look at the guy and realized right away that I was in the presence of a genuine fishing celebrity.  In his hand he carried a bamboo rod that I was certain he didn’t purchase by cutting lawns.  On his head was a quickly identifiable hat of the Tyrolean variety.  His vest bulged with boxes, and his landing net was of the first order.  No patches on this fellow’s waders. 

At this point if you spent any time at all fly fishing before  A River Runs Through It was released, you do not need to be told that the angler in question was none other than Ernest Shwiebert, whose prose was as difficult for me to understand as Battenkill trout were to catch. 

Well, I was little more than a star-struck angler at a loss for words—something rare indeed, as my friends certainly know.  As Ernie kept moving upstream, he had little to say, though he did pause for a moment, have a look at me, and then said—and I remember this as if it was yesterday— “The Battenkill, it is the epitome of a trout stream.” And with that, he moved on up river and out of sight, not to be seen by me again.  When I saw my dad later on, I asked him what the word epitome meant. 

Shortly after Ernie walked on upstream, I managed to catch not one, but two trout, one right after the other.  The first was a small brookie that took my beetle as it dangled in my wake while I considered a fly change.  The second was a genuine Battenkill brown trout—all 7 inches of him.  I think I actually made a cast to this particular fish!  And with that I was hooked on the Battenkill, in love with bamboo, and thankful that Ernie had cast his spell over the river. . .or at least those two little trout.

 

Doug Lyons

Doug Lyons has become one of the fiercest defenders of the Battenkill
and its population of wild brown trout.

photo by Tom Rosenbauer

 

Later that evening, as I was getting ready for bed, my dad mentioned some guy that was talking about me.  I was fearful that it was the man who had asked me for directions to Manchester whom I had  erroneously sent over the border into New York.  That fellow later came back, assuming me to be a local, said that my joke was not appreciated.  To my relief, it was not this disgruntled traveler at all but rather, as my dad described him, a well dressed gentleman who mentioned a young angler he had seen down by the river earlier in the day.  Although I pressed my dad for details, all I got out of him was that the gentleman had said there was a young angler who had all the right gear but just needed time on the water.

“Dad,” I exclaimed, “that was Ernie Schwiebert!”  Without missing a beat, my dad replied, “Ernie who?”  as he rolled over and went to sleep.     

Doug Lyons lives in Massachusetts but frequently makes the 3+-hour drive to fish his beloved Battenkill, as he has for more than 30 years.

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