By George Jacobi
We cut our teeth, as they say, fly fishing the Batten Kill in the Seventies, when it was redundantly called the “Battenkill River”. The ‘kill wound through southern Vermont with a covered bridge, native brook trout, and legendary selective browns. It was as pretty as the ubiquitous postcards of it. Almost any other place would have been easier, but if you wanted an ideal New England stream to learn fly fishing on, this was it. Although long past the river’s historically great period, it was still a pretty good place to fish.
Sweet and clear, the Battenkill swept around corners with disguised power and depth. Long pools reflected the brilliant blue Vermont sky. It was organically rich for a freestone waterway, with moderate but consistent hatches and while not stocked, there were small Brook Trout everywhere. Larger Browns hid in log jams and undercut banks. That Batten Kill of ours is gone now, along with the earlier one of Atherton and Wulff.
Four of us would camp on the river in early June, reserving the streamside site a year ahead and bringing case after case of beer. We tied flies on the picnic table. We melted Genesee Cream Ale bottles in the fire. They referred to us at Camping on the Battenkill as “The Ones in #8”. Maybe it was the “Welcome Race Fans” banner hanging over the site, maybe it was the noise from our occasional chain saw use. Sometimes John and I stood under the dining canopy, along with Uncle Dale or Just Talkin’ Teddy, watching it rain and drinking for whole long weekends. It was always fun, but in retrospect we could have managed with less rain. And less beer.
Ted got his nickname there on the Batten Kill, a river he introduced us to. A born salesman, he just could not shut up. One time at Campsite #8, he was going on and on, making less and less sense. Someone eventually asked, “Teddy, what are you talking about?”
“I don’t know,” replied Ted, “I’m just talkin’.”
Teddy was driving the four of us home one June evening after darkness put an end to the dry fly fishing. On the way back to Camping on the Battenkill, he said every once in a while it seemed like we had a cop behind us. And then not. What the hell? When I looked around myself, all I saw was black.
As if he knew what he was doing, Ted turned right onto a one lane dirt road. We bounced along while all the beer bottles that littered the floor front and back rattled and clinked. In the back, John Palmquist and I had to wriggle our feet down between bottles to reach the floor. No shortage of amber glassware, is what I mean.
We came to an abrupt stop as the road dead-ended in a cornfield, and sure enough, a Vermont police cruiser was right behind us. Teddy rolled the window down as the officer walked up to the car.
“Hey, son,” the cop says, “Your trunk is open.”
The police flashlight shone around the interior of the car. Ted babbled on as he went to close the trunk. The thousand dollars or more of Orvis bamboo rods, Hardy reels, and other fly tackle was all still there. Ted climbed back into the driver’s seat. And the cop said, “Be careful on the way home, boys,” and went on his way.
Most evenings we would park at a spot in Sunderland, walk down the railroad tracks and across the Batten Kill, hang a right and find ourselves in a tranquil stretch of river along the back of another cornfield. We never saw another person there. The grassy bank was perfect for kibitzing and catching the last of the setting sun. After fishing the evening rise, we would retire to the local watering hole. Tanqueray and tonics made us feel sophisticated, though they were a painful contrast to our appearance. Soon the bartender knew us and told us fish stories, like the one about the 11 lb. Brown Trout hanging over the bar. We would go back to Campsite #8 and cook steaks in the pitch dark, then eat them off paper plates. I remember finishing dinner and finding only half a paper plate left. Yum.
The bar was gloomy and deserted in midweek, a loser joint in the north country. One evening, the OTHER customer, an old and ragged local guy, came over and introduced himself as Milt. He explained vaguely that he knew how to catch those BIG Batten Kill trout, and if we came around the next night, he’d show us young punks, by golly. Well, our Batten Kill experience till then involved a lot of six to nine inch brookies and a few browns up to a foot or so. Some of you might know what I’m talking about. In fact, I recall getting out of the truck and looking down into a wide empty pool, then slamming the door. Trout bolted for cover in every direction from where they had been in plain sight. Those trout were damn spooky, as well as invisible.
Fishing the Genesee Pool, as we called it, during what probably was an evening Isonychia hatch, we got more takers on a low backcast that slapped the water than on a direct presentation. I wish I was kidding. It’s a good thing there were no video cameras then. We thought the mayflies were late Hendricksons anyway, and would confidently explain that to the Orvis staff. Dan Reed was kind enough to just smile and say “Good fishing, boys.”
Down past Arlington, on the famous Gunsmith Pool, I’d work up the far bank, fishing to small trout rising below overhanging bushes. At each careful cast with a 12 foot 6X leader, the particular fish would go down. In a few minutes, he’d begin rising again about three feet upstream. Then we would both do it again. You can cover a lot of water that way. You can drink a lot of beer that way.
When we got frustrated at the Batten Kill’s relentlessly fussy trout, we would head up through the town of Rupert to a huge conservation woodland, the Merck Forest. A mile or so up the trail was an old farm pond of about a half-acre or so that was stocked. Easy pickings. We liked to eat trout too, not just get refused and insulted by them.
Palmquist had a graphite fly reel back then that he was growing more and more impatient with. The drag was so ineffective that it would backlash on a cast. Terrible piece of equipment. The well-known manufacturer will remain nameless. Now when young, Quist was a guy who was not averse to making a dramatic statement. Once he had a party and shot his TV. Having determined that everything on it was crap, he got an extension cord and put the TV on the deck railing. The Carol Burnett Show was on at the time. The old Remington 20 gauge – the second one went through the bottom of the TV, as it was then airborne. So long, Carol. Good party.
Anyway, I watched with curiosity as he reeled in and took off his fly, his leader, and the line, despite a pod of Brown Trout feeding right in front of him. Then he reared back and threw that fly reel as high as he could. It came down in the middle of the pond, spooked the trout, and sank out of sight. I’m sure it’s there still, functioning as an artificial reef, and will be until it becomes a small circle of gray sand. Sunshine and a beer or two carried Quisto through the rest of the afternoon. Next stop, Orvis.
So we showed up at the tavern, and sure enough our local hero was there. He had the secret weapon, he explained, and it had nothing to do with fly-fishing. After we fortified ourselves for the adventure, we followed his pickup through the dark, across a bridge and past the Hill Farm Inn, where Ernie Schweibert used to stay in the glory days. Then down a dirt road to the far back of the farm. This was a stretch of the river we never fished.
For one thing, the river itself was three feet off the overhanging bank, 4 or 5 feet deep, and was full of weed beds. Pasture went right up to the stream. Basically it was a giant spring creek, a chalk stream. There was no way to wade whatsoever.
For another thing, it was private property. Ignoring that, we followed our guide under a barbed wire fence one at a time, slipped through some trees and into the pasture.
“Whoa, boss…Ho there bossy”, intoned Milt as he threaded his way between the cows that were still out close to midnight. Smelly area – and dangerous to walk. Coming to the edge of the absolutely silent Batten Kill, at what forever would become known as Milt’s Hole, we sipped our Genny Cream Ales and watched. Cows mooed. Bats swooped. Milt had a light spinning rod to which was attached a large treble-hooked lure. A quick cast across the inky pool, and he began his retrieve.
“Blub blub blub blub blub blub blub blub blub…”
“It’s a bass plug”, he clarified unnecessarily, “Heddon Crazy Crawler”.
The sophisticated fly fishing lads raised our eyebrows at each other in the black
stillness while the next cast shot out.
“Blub blub blub blub – KaWham!” As big a crash as any striper ever made on a
helpless bunker, that’s how it lives on in my memory. You expected that, right? Otherwise, why would I be telling this story? Well, we didn’t expect it, and I for one almost fell into the storied Batten Kill.
“Sonofabitch, missed him”, said Milt, and we all went home. True story. Ask John.