Photo Essay: One Year After Irene, How Did Trout Survive the Ravages of Nature. . .and of Man?


Written by: Phil Monahan


For a dozen years, the author enjoyed solitude and great fishing for wild, native brook trout on a local mountain stream until the onslaught of Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011.

photo by Zach Matthews

One of my favorite brook-trout streams runs right through the middle of Bennington, Vermont. Until now, I’ve never spoken publicly about the Roaring Branch of the Walloomsac because it was my personal playground. From 1998 to 2011, I fished this mountain stream regularly from April through September, and I ran into other anglers on the water (aside from those I’d invited with me) exactly zero times.

Sure, I knew a few other people—mostly my friends—fished it, but there were enough miles of river that we never met on the water.


The author on the Roaring Branch of the Walloomsac in August 2007.

photo by Zach Matthews

The Roaring Branch tumbles out of the Green Mountain National Park at a very steep grade until it makes a sharp left turn in Woodford and becomes a classic freestone stream, with lots of pocket water and a few big pools. And the fishing was great: a big brookie would run 10 inches, but there were thousands of smaller fish eager to jump on a dry fly on a warm summer evening. In each little pocket, side channel, or slow pool, you could find wild, gorgeous brookies and an occasional brown that had migrated up from the main stem below. Where the stream left the roadside, you could experience wonderful solitude just minutes from downtown.

Then came Tropical Storm Irene on August 28, 2011. At my house, on high ground a few towns north of Bennington, the storm didn’t seem that bad at all. We had worried about the wind taking down some trees, but our fears had been unwarranted. The whole thing seemed anti-climactic until I logged onto to Facebook and saw this video:

Not only does this footage show my favorite brookie stream swollen to monumental proportions, but it shows the destruction of my favorite stretch of the river, one that I’d fished that June with my friends Casey and Alec. Here’s what it had looked like then:

Alec Fly Casting in the Battenkill 3

Casey Peltier fishes the now-lost stretch of the stream in June 2011.

photo by Phil Monahan

A week after the storm, I made it down to Bennington and took this photo, looking upstream from the same bridge shown in the video:

Rivers 2011 001

Looking upstream at the devastation caused by the flash flooding.

photo by Phil Monahan

It was a heartbreaking scene, but the stream still looked something like a naturally-occurring waterway, even with all that rock and debris it had moved.

The Hand of Man Intervenes
But then, something terrible happened: Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin suspended pretty much all the regulations dealing with stream alteration—including those intended to protect fish habitat—so that people and towns could deal with extensive property damage without enduring the tine-consuming permitting process. The Vermont Natural Resources Council saw this as a disaster in the making:

In the days after Irene struck Vermont, the state responded to the emergency by allowing contractors with excavators into rivers in order to conduct critical repairs to roads other infrastructure. Now, four weeks after Irene, many municipalities have taken advantage of the situation, and excavators remain in many of our rivers, chewing away at river banks and river bottoms in a misguided effort to clean out the rivers.

And so, all across the state, excavators and earth movers rolled into streams without any oversight. At one point, I drove over the bridge above and saw three excavators in the streambed. (Drew Price posted about the problems that resulted from the relaxed regulations in East Middlebury just two weeks after the storm.) And when they were done pushing rocks around in Bennington, here’s what was left:

Roaring Branch

The destruction of a wild fishery in the wake of Irene was a man-made event.

photo by Phil Monahan

A treasured wild-trout stream had been channelized, flattened out, and stripped of all vegetation. It looked like the Los Angeles River, a trickle flowing through an unnatural wasteland. When you think about all the things a trout needs to survive—insect life, pools to hide from predators, vegetation to shade the water, etc—you can see that all that was gone.

Assessing the Results
Until yesterday, I had not returned to the Roaring Branch with a fly rod. I guess I was afraid of what I would find. But with the anniversary of Irene on Tuesday, I decided that it was time to check things out. My plan was to test my assumptions: 1. that, in those places that had been destroyed by the storm but left relatively untouched by man, the fish would have returned; and 2. that the excavated streambed would be barren. So my friend, Josh, and I drove south on Route 7 yesterday afternoon in search of brookies. The photos and captions below detail our findings.

One Year After Irene

We started in a stretch that looked as if the only only excavation involved the creation of a berm
between the stream and the road. The streambed itself did not seem substantially altered.

photo by Phil Monahan

One Year After Irene

Astonishingly, my third cast produced this gorgeous wild brook trout, clearly a survivor. This is a
downright trophy for this stream, which is usually full of 3- to 6-inchers.

photo by Josh Samuelson

One Year After Irene

Josh worked the pool above. Note the huge piece of metal debris, but also that there is
shade, a deep pocket, and plenty of cover for the trout.

photo by Phil Monahan

One Year After Irene

My next fish, caught just a couple minutes after the first, was this sweet wild brown trout. So far, the fishing was as good as it had been before the storm, which blew me away.

photo by Phil Monahan

One Year After Irene

From a deep, long pool, this big brookie rose in about four feet of water to slam Josh’s PMX.

photo by Phil Monahan

One Year After Irene

If you compare this to the Zach Matthews photo above (taken on roughly the same stretch) ,
you’ll note that the actual stream looks pretty much the same as it had before Irene,
although the banks still show the destructive effects of the flood.

photo by Phil Monahan

One Year After Irene

After I caught this healthy-looking brook trout from a shaded eddy, we figured that our first
assumption had been proven true: the fish had returned to the places where the
streambed had not been heavily excavated.

photo by Josh Samuelson

One Year After Irene

Now it was time to explore the stretch above the bridge, where excavators had destroyed anything natural. Subsequent storms had altered the streambed a bit, perhaps the first steps to reclaimation, and the locals had built a couple swimming holes

photo by Phil Monahan

One Year After Irene

Josh and I fished hard for about an hour and caught no fish, as I had expected.

photo by Phil Monahan

One Year After Irene

The stretch below the bridge proved to be just as barren. Before the storm, you could not see that bridge downstream from this vantage point.

photo by Phil Monahan

All in all, it was a bittersweet experience, returning to a beloved stream that had endured such a cataclysmic event. It was heartening to see that there were fish living in the stretches when nature had been allowed to run its course, but it was interesting that we caught only what would be considered large fish in this stream. Where are the 3- to 6-inchers that used to be the majority? Based on such a small sampling, I’m not ready to completely write them off. I’ll have to fish more of the river to see if these smaller fish have come back or if they took the brunt of the raging water.

But to have all my worst fears about the excavated stretches confirmed was a serious bummer, and it fuels my outrage that people were allowed to destroy a natural wonder without oversight and without consequences. As I said at the beginning, I have told almost no one about my “secret” stream, and I’m a little wary about doing so now. But I think it’s important to shine a light on what is left there. The Roaring Branch should serve as a depressing example of what happens when people who “know better” try to “fix” nature or bend her to their will.

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