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.

Battenkill Brown Trout
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.

Memorial Day on the ‘Hooch

During a visit with the in-laws in ATL, I decided to build upon my budding fly fishing skills and do a guided drift down the Chattahoochee River. The “Hooch” runs 430 miles from Lake Lanier (famous for its inland Striper fishery) down to the Gulf.

The Buford dam shoots out 58-degree water at the base of Lanier making year-round trout waters. I met up with Gordon of “River Through Atlanta” guides and drifted for about 6 hours, making a couple runs back and forth. Gordon was game to help me improve my cast, mending, enforce better hooksetting, reading water. A key lesson was “foam is home”, where debris and leaves drift, in that line you’ll find the trout. Gordon also provided some serious local color–ahem–for example commenting on the tube floating college kids, “here comes the Bikini hatch!”

Right from the start we were catching. I christened the new rod with a little 6″ brown near where we put in and then as we drifted down, proceeded to hook up with quite a few rainbows between 8 and 12″, nymphing with a double rig (beadhead pheasant tail on top, the Hooch-special “blue assassin” nymph on the bottom).

My guide educated me how many of the ‘bows were “wild” (we could tell by the white lines on the fins–these are absent in stockies or wear down in stock tanks). The bows were everywhere (there’s about 5000 fish per square mile), and you know I love it when ‘bows jump!

As we drifted by a bridge, I noticed a white pearl gun in the water and we had to go back and retrieve that one. Gordon being a shooting instructor pointed out it was a 25 caliber “Saturday Night Special.” Apparently lots of people throw guns from bridges down South, but this was a first for both of us. As fun as it was to pull out the gun, I was eager to get back to fishing. Later, I realized I should have been a bit more patient. People don’t throw guns off bridges for the hell of it. We turned it in to the park ranger after the drift.

By mid-day the nymph fishing had slowed down and Gordon suggest I learn how to do streamer fishing on a sinktip line. It was cast “strip, strip, strip!” and WHAM watching a trout rise up, flash and slam the fly. Incredibly cool. I missed soooo many fish though because I could not set the hook properly, but finally it all came together. I cast to one lay down and worked it methodically, with the streamer. Off the center of the log, caught a ‘bow, then at the bottom of the laydown 5 min. later, a little brown, then at the top of the laydown, another ‘bow.

Given it was Memorial Weekend, I had to give a little prayer on the water for the fallen and our veterans. My father is a vet, Gordon was a marine, and now his daughter is one. During the day, we talked about a great many things, conservation, the state of the job market–but it was clear Gordon cared greatly for his home waters, and his family. Fishing can be a solitary sport for sure, but its also a brotherhood, and a path to meeting new people and experiencing our fellow man.

The next day I went out, bought some waders to stow in Atlanta for future trips, and then waded the Upper Hooch for a few hours in the early morning in the Settlers Bridge area. The Hooch was covered in mist and we sort of woke up together, the fish, birds, the river. I didn’t have much luck–I just didn’t have the right pattern, but I observed a lot, much more due to Gordon’s lessons. As I settled in to not catching, and enjoying a state of “patience”, I was able to focus on my casting instead, and I could literally see and feel the improvement. Fishing is a system, like learning a new language or how to play an instrument. There are great opportunities for self-improvement through focused meditation.

The Hooch is a great river–one minute its like you’re a million miles away from civilization, its zen and calm, the next its splashy and noisy with college kids drinking beer and floating right by you. I caught three fish right on one side of the bank while kids were belly-flopping into the river on the other! Its full of life and energy. I came away with a new lesson about patience and letting go to enjoy what life gives you. If you’re in Atlanta, you should give Gordon Walker a call to fish the Chattahoochee. I’m certain I’ll be fishing with him again soon.

Connecticut Slam

I had the pleasure of visiting nearby NE Connecticut (Stafford Springs) for a long weekend. My wife and her friends were hitting estate sales before the spring Brimfield show and so I had the perfect excuse to sneak away for days of fishing. We stayed at Angelina’s Innkeepers Inn in Stafford Springs. Our second visit with her–was delightful. Angelina makes a mean “hooligan’s pancake” (a Finnish pancake called “pannukakku”) and her stories are endless. She’s a treasure trove of info on antiquing and “picking” the area. Sadly, she sold the place and we’ll miss her hospitality next fall when we come up for the next Brimfield.

In my exploration of the area, and from tips from CT Fish Talk forums, I decided upon the nearby Nipmuck State Forest area and two lakes: Bigelow Hollow and Mashapaug. Both are called ponds, but at a combined 60+acres I’d say they qualify as lakes. Both are stocked with trout (Rainbow, Brown) and Mashapaug holds Walleye.

Since I was shore fishing, I targeted trout and bass. My goal was a brown trout especially. A slam (rainbow, brown, and bass)…a grand slam (add Walleye) was out of reach as these are found deep and targeted at night. Armed with some intel from JT’s Fly Shop in Union, I hit both lakes over three days. The results were excellent, with a nice variety of fish each day (rainbow, brown, LM, perch, pumpkinseed, crappie).

I actually caught and released about twenty ‘bows over the course of the weekend in vary lengths. I found them taking powerbait, and worms in deep coves and on flats too. There is no minimum size for trout in CT and a limit of 5 per day. So when I finally got into the bigger ones–13″ or more, I kept a limit. We grilled them up for dinner!

The next day at Mashapaug, I hiked several coves until settling on fishing a point on Rock Island with a 30′ flat running into a drop off. My guess was the trout were in the deeper part off the cove and that they may occasionally forage the flat–they did not disappoint me! I watched two browns swim in and just as I was casting out got a backlash! I pulled my secondary rod with a superworm on it but a couple of nibbles and the trout spit it. I retied and cast a texas-rigged crawler and BAM the trout nailed it, put up a good fight, tail-walked a bit and I got it in. My first brown trout! It came in at about 20″, my guess, 4-5 lbs. I was catch-and-release that day so he got to go back in the drink–maybe he’ll become a trophy brown some day.

I ended the trip on the third day with more rainbows, perch and a 10″ largemouth bass. I can’t wait to go back in the fall and fish for the browns again though.