Battenkill or Bust
I had to cut my vacation short to attend a client meeting in Manchester, Vermont. Since it was home of the famed Battenkill, I booked a guide, Ray Berumen, for a wet wading trip the day after the meeting. I really had just about 3 hours total to fish before I had to drive an hour to Albany for the plane home. Fortunately my guide was very flexible, even did some scouting. Turns out there was a early afternoon hatch of Cahills bringing fish up for some good dry fly action and so that would be our game.
Well my morning meeting went long and so I had to book it down to the river. On the way, I spotted a bear (or hell of a shaggy fat black goat) up in the foothills of the mountains and considered it a good omen. Upon arriving, I stripped out of my monkey suit and got to know Ray a bit. He’s a school teacher and guide, and used to work for Orvis just up the road. We donned our waders and made our way through some corn fields to get to a quiet stretch of the river on the NY side of the river near Eagleville. The sun was high but there were a few clouds and the shade was along the river left bank for the most part. Oh, and the trout were rising. I took two small wild browns on a cahill but it got progressively harder as the hatch slowed down. I was using the guide’s 10′ 5wt Helios which was a dream to cast and now makes me want a longer rod (I usually use a 9′ 5wt hydros). We found a few good pools, one with no less than five trout rising, but I knew from their splashy rises they were small – more of the typical 6-10″ browns found on the Battenkill. No matter, I was going to enjoy this time and avoid the pressure of finding big fish by settling in.
Anyway, we were creeping down the river and the guide pointed to a big tree overhanging a nice hole and half-heartedly said that he pulled a 20-incher out that same spot a week ago. I was ready to dismiss that as just encouraging guide talk. The Battenkill is a very challenging river and though it has a few big fish, they don’t come out in the middle of the day, and you have to put your time in. Most anglers are skunked their first time. Well, not but a minute later at the same spot he pointed too there was a big splash. like the sound of a frigging toilet flushing. It was like someone threw a big round stone in the river. I froze. Ray froze. And next thing I knew we were slowly backing out looking for a better angle. The guide whispered, “dude, that’s a big fish, that’s him.” I said, “yeah, I know.” And it was on…
We got into position and tried the Cahill in vain for about twenty minutes. I was using the reach cast that the guide had tutored me in about an hour before. The fly was swinging over three micro currents and it took quite a while to get great drag free drifts, but when I did, the trout wouldn’t rise. But then came the toilet flush again as he snapped something off the surface. We pulled the line in and retied – working our way through a light Hendrickson and BWO. We fended off the “raft hatch” of canoers and kayakers warning them to go by behind us. I suggested we go with a smaller leader – we were on 5x and so we went down to 6x. Then the guide suggested, “maybe we put on a hopper, he wants meat, protein.”
Yet, we couldn’t see hoppers on the surface. Then the lightbulb went off – and he tied on a black ant. If we couldn’t see what the trout was taking, it probably was a terrestrial in the film, an ant. On the first cast the fish rose and snapped something off the surface, but I could see I was just a foot to the left from his snout. I let the ant drift by. Ray said, “You have to set the hook when he rises.” I said, “I know, but he didn’t rise to the ant. I was short.” He suggested I take one step forward. I took one step forward forcing myself to slow down.
“OK, deep breath, lets try again.” I cast using the reach mend, I could see the line snake turning the cast into more of a slack cast, but no matter, it would do the job. The ant was barely visible but right on the seam, it would drift right over the trout’s head. Once again, the trout rose…
…and snatched the ant off the surface in a VICIOUS strike displacing water left and right. I set the hook, lifting the Helios up with a light but firm flick. And then the real battle began.
The headshakes were phenomenal. River brown trout this size in skinny water have a great deal of stored energy and he was going to use it. Remember, I was on 6x, so I had to play him carefully. When he ran, I gave him line, when he came at me, I pulled line in. I kept telling myself to remember to keep a tight line, no slack, but to play gently. Looking up stream I could see kayakers heading straight for us. The guide starting moving them to the right behind us, but they seemed oblivious and drifted right through the battle.
I was yelling, “what are you looking at, don’t stop paddling, keep moving, keep moving!” A bit rude, but I was not going to lose this precious brown. Finally, after about ten minutes we maneuvered the trout a bit downstream and I could feel him tiring, but he tried to shoot back to his hole at least twice more. Each time I told myself keep the rod tip high, turn his head, keep him on his toes. My arm ached and I could feel the pressure of the current on the fly line. Thinking of the 6x tippet, I kept thinking, don’t break, don’t break. And then it was over, Ray settled in downstream and netted him.
I hollared and hugged Ray. Ray noted that this was not the 20-incher he’d caught before, this was a new fish, bigger! This gorgeous 22″ brown was perhaps my second or third largest on a dry. What a true challenge – unsurpassed sport, and what a joy to be guided by someone who never backed down, kept working, kept narrowing the possibilities until we had an answer. Hell – I’d given Ray a tough job – to put me on the fish with just a few hours to spare – and he had delivered. Of course this doesn’t happen everyday, but the Battenkill really lived up to its reputation. I felt we had approached this trip with surgical precision and great patience and ingenuity – and it had paid off. I simply can’t wait to go back to the Battenkill again to pursue its legendary browns with Ray once more.