The Clyde River in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont is listed as one of Trout Unlimited’s “Top 100 Trout Streams in America” but it wasn’t shining on my recent visit to the area of Spectacle Pond. The river’s headwater region looked too sluggish, boggy and warm for trout. The Clyde’s major tributary, the Pherrins River, reputed to be excellent for brook trout, looked tired in this hot, dry weather, and difficult to access. The North Branch of the Nulhegan, however, was a different story.
I found access at the mile-long Nulhegan River Trail off Route 105 near the Visitors Center of the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge. Here was that trout stream I’d been dreaming of, one of three upper branches that had excellent water quality and, in cooler months of the year, good fishing for wild brook trout. The upper Nulhegan drains about 150,000 acres of boreal forest and is also home to creatures such as moose, snowshoe hare, lynx, and spruce grouse.
On my first investigation of the North Branch, the river looked like a smaller version of the West Branch Ausable River in the Adirondacks. The guided trail along the river was informative and enjoyable, and I knew I’d be coming back later in the day equipped for fly-fishing. Eventually I would also hike a portion of the upstream, four-mile loop known as the North Branch Trail, another fine place to view the sub-boreal ecosystem.
Here the Nulhegan had a heavy flow of 65-degree, tannic water averaging 30 to 60 feet in width. Its bed of glacial rock and boulder was a wading nightmare, but its pocket water was a restless beauty that pushed hard for the distant Connecticut River, even in the sultry days of late August. I could’ve used a wading staff here, but being minimally equipped, I found that careful rock-hopping with studded shoes, and shorts, worked best for me.
The fishing wasn’t much to write home about (although I hope its report passes for acceptable blog news!). I had a good time despite some difficult conditions. I made use of nymphs and streamers but didn’t get a hook-up till I fished an Olive Caddis dry fly. The caddis pattern saved my work-out, connecting with two nice brook trout as dark as a fir and about as eager to be photographed. Each of the fish jumped freely into the drink before the camera got unzipped.
Early the next morning I returned and fished for two more hours with about the same amount of action. If I get another opportunity, I’d like to try the river again, perhaps in a year or two, en route from a trip to Maine in early summer or in fall.
Homeward bound, I stopped in that trendy and historic tourist town, Manchester, on the Battenkill. After visiting the Orvis headquarters and the lovely American Fly-Fishing Museum, I settled into another night of camping, this time near Arlington, Vermont, on the banks of the river once described as the location of “America’s fly-fishing soul.”
The Battenkill had just received an overnight flushing of rain that raised it to twice its usual summer volume. I was ready for yet another skunking on what the writer John Atherton called (in The Fly and the Fish, 1951) “the most difficult of rivers and yet the most rewarding in the things which count the most.” A lot of skilled fly anglers have lived on or near this Green Mountains river because of the Orvis Company and the stream’s long-standing reputation, and these catch-and-release anglers have shown the wild trout nearly every artificial in the book.
The Battenkill is also a challenge by virtue of its physical character. The stream has a low gradient with long, slow pools interspersed with shallow riffles. The trout tend to hang along the banks where their food and shelter are secured. They can hold there with ease and carefully inspect each offering that the smooth conflicting currents bring their way.
As the angling writer, John Merwin, has said, “The Battenkill is among the most– if not the most– technically difficult fly-fishing streams in America.” He rates it tougher to fish successfully than the Henry’s Fork, the Firehole, the Letort (yes!), and Silver Creek, and he speaks from many years of wide fly-fishing experience. Yup, I was humbled before I even stepped into these rain-swollen waters.
I had once fished the New York side of the Battenkill, but this was my first entry into the higher Vermont stretches. The only other angler I met there was a Catskill rivers fishing guide of 30-years’ experience who offered free advice on where and what to fish with. He told me that my nymphing rig might be okay if I knew how to work it correctly in the deep waters near the bank but, as for him, a devoted dry fly veteran, he was sticking to the surface.
It felt good to out-fish him through our evening on the river, as he spoke to me about catching 25-inch brown trout in this pool during the springtime hatches. I wasn’t about to photograph my little 10-inch browns while in his sphere of influence, but still, I could feel the tugs of satisfaction as the trout bit on my Prince nymph and ignored his Battenkill dries.
That night I slept with the sound of the river washing through my dreams, and the next morning, hell– I went out to the misty waters, tempted again.
The Battenkill tougher than the Henry’s Fork? Does that mean that I’d get skunked squared?
No, Les, that means I would have been skunked squared had I not had some luck on my side. I thought you mastered the Fork! And I was the guy who wore the b/w stripes on Henry’s. But in any case, I think it comes down to what we know about a river and how comfortable we are in fishing it. The more the merrier!
Green Mountain State indeed! So what, broadly, makes the Battenkill such a difficult water to fish? I know the Letort is tough because of the crowds, but does the structure of this less crowded stream prove the biggest challenge?
Brent, a number of factors make it challenging: the structure, slow, with conflicting surface currents; well-nourished trout that can take their time in looking over a slowly drifted artificial; plus the fact that lots of catch-and-release guys are always working it over and “educating” the fish, hitting the river hard because of its fly-fishing history and the presence of the beautiful Green Mountains, too. Thanks!
Wonderful report, Walt! Through your words and pictures, it is easy to see why these Northeast rivers are so haunting – it’s looks a lovely corner of the world, and full of the ghosts that share (shared?) your outdoor passions. Funny how we (and the fish) can get camera shy when there’s company, but I had a smile when reading about your relative success there!
That Trump tree, though, yikes…
PC, glad you picked up on that “haunting” element throughout. I didn’t intend it that way initially, just looking at “haunt” as a place to do some fishing, but then the misty environment started working on me along with the “haunting” by all those legendary fly-flingers who came before me there… So yeah, a haunting place, after all, with a Trump tree, also, casting a melancholy, or simply mad, sense about it all.
Being a bit of a history buff, I really appreciate the pictures from the American Fly Fishing Museum. I didn’t know the Babe fly fished. That Green Mountain country is beautiful.
Thank you, Howard. I didn’t know that Babe Ruth fly-fished, either, or John Q. Adams, or a host of other less-presidential guys, for that matter, but I guess there’s always more to learn and to appreciate in this game!
The Trump tree – too funny! I’m glad that the fish didn’t tell you “you’re fired!”
Trout and trees are known to have a symbiotic relationship, of course, but I’m glad there’s little evidence of conspiracy involved, at this point. Thanks Bob.
You should write a book on what you do or the places that good for fishing, and everything else in between. You’re very knowledgeable. You don’t just do, but you actually observe and examine. Plus, you write well to be an author.
Thanks for that, Rommel, and actually I’m in the process of creating another book on the subject because I enjoy the work. For anyone interested and not yet aware of my productions, please check some of the titles I’ve produced and listed in the blog’s sidebar. Just click on a title under “Books” and take a look. And thanks again!
I see now. It made so much sense. 🙂