Fly Fishing Batten Kill Browns and Brookies

by TOM ROSENBAUER

Thirty-five years ago, before I fished the Batten Kill for the first time, I asked a friend his impressions of the river. “It runs cold all summer,” he said, “and fish sip little stuff all day long. Lots of brook trout and small browns.” A few years later I moved to southern Vermont, and in some seasons spent five or six nights a week (and sometimes all day) on the river. I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years.

The Batten Kill was one of the last sizable Eastern rivers outside of Maine to hold healthy populations of wild brook trout. That hasn’t changed much over 30 years. What has declined is the brown trout population, which runs contrary to what you might expect, as brown trout are normally more tolerant of increased water temperatures, moderate pollution, and angling pressure.

In the early 1970s, you could count on catching 15 or 20 wild trout during a good Hendrickson hatch. Most of them would be 8- to 11-inch brown trout, with a few brookies mixed in. If you were lucky, you might tie into a 15-inch monster brown. The river was under Vermont general regulations–12 fish of any size–and was heavily fished. But despite heavy harvesting, the trout population seemed to hold up just fine.

Early Inklings of a Problem
The river was full of trout of all sizes when I started fishing it, and continued to fish well until the early 1990s. By 1995, small brown trout had vanished, and as a result most people caught fewer fish. At first I thought it was just me–you go out on the river a few times and you don’t see or hook any fish, you just shrug your shoulders. Brown trout are moody and sometimes they just don’t feed.

One bright day in May, with perfect water levels, 55-degree F. water, and a heavy Hendrickson hatch, I learned something was seriously wrong. For two hours I stared holes in the water without seeing a single rise. This was on the “lower river,” downstream of where it meets the town of Arlington, makes a right-hand turn to the west, and changes from a slow, deep, brushy stream to a more open, riffle-and-pool river.

So I decided to try the upstream areas, long the home of large brown trout suckered from their deep holes by night crawlers in the middle of the night. The water here is slow and deep and the banks are tangled, so it doesn’t get much fly-fishing pressure.

What I found there was both exciting and dreadful. I had to spend hours looking for a rising fish, but when I found one, it was very large for this river. Over the next few years, I took several brown trout over 20 inches, and one amazing fish of about 23 inches. But I never saw a brown trout less than 15 inches long. I think those big fish were always present, but when you step into a pool of a dozen rising fish you get careless, and I suspect that the bigger trout were slinking into cover while we caught the smaller fish that weren’t as spooky.

It wasn’t just my imagination or lack of fishing skills. By 1994, through careful and deliberate study of electroshocking data, Ken Cox, Vermont district biologist in charge of the Batten Kill, had determined that the number of brown trout greater than 6 inches long had declined 64 percent since 1988. This was doubly unfortunate because for five years the state had enacted slot-limit regulations on a 2-mile stretch of river. The slot-limit area showed a 45-percent decline in total trout abundance that was not statistically different from the areas of river left under general regulations.

What happened to the brown trout? Have they come back? Is it still worth fishing?

Current Issues
Although not as rich in tradition as Catskills and Pennsylvania rivers, the Batten Kill is an important part of our angling legacy. It’s where Charles Orvis developed his famous wooden rods and ventilated fly reel. The river inspired his daughter, Mary Orvis Marbury, to compile the first standardized recipes of fly patterns in the United States in 1892.

Lee Wulff, John Atherton, and Hoagy Carmichael all lived on the river during the 20th century. Ernie Schwiebert, Vince Marinaro, Nick Lyons, Al Caucci, and Bob Nastasi all fished the Batten Kill. When Wulff and Atherton moved to the Batten Kill area in the late 1940s, the river had a reputation for large brown trout. It was heavily stocked, and the river had been lightly fished for five years while most young men were away at war and gas was rationed. And the river was enriched with domestic sewage.

It’s scientifically proven that nutrient-rich sewage improves trout-stream productivity as long as water temperatures stay below 70 degrees, and the river’s dissolved oxygen supply doesn’t get depleted. In 1979, the old primary sewage treatment plant on the upper Batten Kill was replaced with a state-of-the-art tertiary plant, which deprived the river of nutrients that had been a staple for 100 years. The blanket caddis hatches declined (most caddis species are filter feeders and thrive in water with a high nutrient content) but the number of mayflies seemed to increase. Brown trout numbers waned.

It’s nearly impossible to point to a single smoking gun in any ecosystem, and a lot of other things were changing in the watershed. A number of June hurricanes hit southern Vermont in the 1970s, and after the worst one, Agnes, a flurry of channelization hit most of the tributaries.

One of the most destructive floods was on the lower reaches of Roaring Branch, the Batten Kill’s largest tributary. A campground owner bulldozed Roaring Branch for a quarter mile upstream of its confluence with the Batten Kill. Besides the gravel and silt that were sent downstream in the load of debris, the new channel, with its increased velocity, slammed into an unstable gravel deposit on the Batten Kill’s far bank.

Data from the USGS gauging station at the Route 313 bridge in Arlington (about a mile downstream of the mouth of Roaring Branch) shows that from 1928 to 1970 the riverbed rose just 6 inches. After Roaring Branch was dredged, the river rose another 6 inches, and then rose 6 inches again after the flood of 1973 and 6 inches after the flood of 1976. Today, almost 30 years later, tons of gravel still flood the lower river from that same raw scar.

This, and other unstable streambanks and areas of streambed throughout the system, filled in most of the deeper pools and runs on the lower river. And the construction of a limited-access highway, Vermont Route 7, on the eastern slope of the Batten Kill valley in the 1980s disrupted many important tributaries and caused a lot of sedimentation. Old-timers will tell you there doesn’t seem to be the same amount of water in the river, especially in the summer.

Other issues may be depriving the Batten Kill of its water. The town of Manchester, in the middle of the Batten Kill headwaters, has grown by leaps and bounds since the 1970s. New homes and outlet stores swelled the town’s population, and the water supply for Manchester comes from the same groundwater that feeds the Batten Kill. When you replace trees with lawns and asphalt, rainwater runs off quickly–often superheated by hot summer streets–and does not get a chance to trickle slowly into the river, cooled by subsurface ground temperatures.

Nearby Bromley Mountain is at the headwaters of another Batten Kill tributary, Bromley Brook, and the ski area withdraws water for making snow during the winter, some of which may be lost to evaporation.

The Flotillas
Thirty years ago, you might see one or two canoes a season on the Batten Kill. In the 1980s, a couple of commercial canoe liveries began summer operations, and soon people started floating down the river on inner tubes. Both are the scapegoats anglers love to hate because they compete with “our” space on the river.

I’m convinced that the flotillas have changed the feeding behavior of the trout, as you seldom see the pods of fish surface feeding in the middle of the day that were so common decades ago. There have also been numerous reports of floaters cutting branches that obstruct the flow of the river, contributing to a loss of overhead cover.

Mergansers, large fish-eating waterfowl that swim extremely well and often hunt in flocks, were virtually absent on the Batten Kill until about 15 years ago. I suspect that mergansers like this river because its smooth, shallow flows make herding and hunting their prey easier, and fish-eating bird populations all over have rebounded after the national ban on DDT.

A study of both merganser and large brown trout stomach contents on the Batten Kill in summer 2003 showed 2-inch-long trout in only 2 of the 39 brown trout sampled, but of 26 merganser stomachs sampled, 4 had fish in them and all were yearling trout. Mergansers seem to select the same size range that is missing in the Batten Kill brown trout population–fish from 6 to 10 inches long.

Fishing pressure does not seem to have been a factor in the decline of the river’s brown trout. During the great fishing of the 1970s, the river was under general Vermont trout regulations of 12 fish of any size per day.

Fishing intensity before the 1990s was not as heavy as on popular rivers like the Beaverkill, Penn’s Creek, or the Bighorn, but during the Hendrickson hatch you had to get there early to get a good pool, and sometimes had to share a pool with other anglers. But from 1988 to 1992, fishing traffic decreased by 37 percent and the trout catch rate decreased by 55 percent. In 1988 it took the average angler an hour and 45 minutes to catch one trout; by 1992 you needed to spend more than two hours. The word soon got around, and in a few years the river was almost empty on weekdays, with light pressure on weekends.

The severe June floods of the 1970s did not immediately affect the trout population. However, in 1992, 1996, and 1998, Vermont experienced damaging March floods–early snowmelt combined with rain and large ice floes washing downstream. The devastation was particularly severe in the Green River after the 1992 flood, and when I fished this river the next spring I saw many places where the river had jumped its banks, and some channels had moved 100 feet or more.

The Green River is one of the most important spawning tributaries of the Batten Kill. These March floods are particularly significant because brown trout swim-up fry emerge from the gravel in March. At this stage, the tiny fish are nearly helpless in even a moderate current, and if the timing of a severe flood coincides with their emergence, it is possible to lose nearly an entire year class of trout.

My theory is that these recurring March floods depressed the density of young brown trout and thus the recruitment of new fish into the population. This set off a downward spiral that was compounded by a wider and shallower river channel (exposing those smaller trout that did survive to increased predation by mergansers and harassment by river floaters). A severe drought in 1995, plus an overall decrease in overhead cover and current obstructions in general on the lower river, exposed them even more.

The numbers help confirm this theory. From 1999 to 2001, Vermont did not have any severe March floods, and the young-of-the-year trout numbers in the lower river increased by 800 percent. These numbers are still below the population density of small fish we saw in the 1970s, but it is a positive sign.

The Plan
Responding to the drastic decline in brown trout, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department (VFWD) closed the entire main stem Batten Kill to harvest starting in the 2000 fishing season. No gear regulations were put in place, and anglers could still use bait. Because most bait fishermen want to keep their catch, the entire river became no-kill as bait anglers moved to the Batten Kill’s tributaries and its headwaters, which remained under general regulations.

In 2000, the VFWD helped establish the interagency Batten Kill Study Team represented by individuals from the VFWD, USDA Forest Service, Green Mountain National Forest, and Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. Volunteer help also came from Trout Unlimited, local anglers, high-school biology classes, and the Batten Kill Watershed Alliance.

From 2000 to 2006 the Batten Kill Study Team mapped trout spawning redds and investigated tributaries and possible barriers to spawning fish. It surveyed habitat and monitored water temperatures, quantified overhead cover, and studied the effects of sediment load on spawning gravel. It also compared trout populations on the Batten Kill to four other Vermont wild brown trout streams, and examined the stomach contents of mergansers. The river’s main stem and its tributaries were tested for disease-causing organisms. Some large trout were radio-tagged to determine their seasonal movements.

In 2006 the Batten Kill Study Team came up with the following conclusions regarding the decline of the Batten Kill’s brown trout:

Brown trout recruitment appears to be bottlenecked at the 6- to 10-inch class. After the first few years, young-of-the-year populations increased exponentially, and the catch-and-release regulations allowed some of the adults to progress through the midsize bottleneck. As a result, it’s now more common to catch a 20-inch brown trout than a 12-inch one.

Overhead cover in the main stem Batten Kill is significantly less than adequate. Studies show that between 15 and 35 percent of the wetted streambed should have some sort of overhead cover, whether it is deep water, logjams, large rocks, or bank cover. The estimated available cover from the Batten Kill habitat survey was 7.2 percent. This shows in the population dynamics, as young-of-the-year trout live in the shallows with little cover and the large fish use deep pools.

The Batten Kill has numerous deep pools and lots of shallow areas; what’s lacking is the cover needed by trout that are larger but still feeding primarily on invertebrate drift rather than sculpins or crayfish at night. Some of the overhead cover has been removed by boaters trying to make the river safer and easier to float. Other riparian areas have been damaged by landowners wanting a parklike riverbank instead of the more natural, brushy banks.

Mergansers appear to prefer trout over other fishes in the Batten Kill. They are not the cause of the decline but are taking advantage of the habitat deficiency.

There is evidence of extensive habitat degradation as a result of past channelization and riverbank berming activity. Water quality and temperatures, fish health, and spawning success do not appear to be linked to the brown trout decline.

VFWD then came up with the Batten Kill Trout Management Plan–adopted January 2007–with the overall goal to: “Sustain wild brook and brown trout population abundance and fish size-class structure in the Batten Kill and its tributaries to support quality fishing within the ecological carrying capacity of the system.”

The plan specifies five actions:
1) Develop a partnership among federal and state agencies, private landowners, and private conservation organizations to protect, restore, or enhance in-stream trout cover and protect or reestablish forested riparian buffers.
2) Develop an outreach program to provide local towns and landowners with best management practices for the stream and riparian habitat.
3) Continue to manage wild brown and brook trout populations on the Batten Kill with the current no-harvest regulations until at least 2012.
4) Manage the Batten Kill main stem as a wild trout fishery without stocking.
5) Continue to monitor the trout populations by electrofishing and creel surveys.

The second and fifth items would have been done anyway on this watershed. Some anglers oppose keeping the no-kill regulations, but most realize that something has to be done to maintain the trout population until it can recover, and all anglers are delighted by the large trout they are catching.

I often fish the Batten Kill early in the morning and see bait fishermen who target these big browns (and carefully release them, or as carefully as you can with a fish caught on bait). It’s not the best situation, but no one can claim it’s the elitist fly fishermen who are trying to keep the river for themselves.

The first item on the list is the most exciting and has the potential to bring the river back to the old days. It’s also the least controversial. With the cooperation of William Lesko and other private landowners, nearly half a mile of river is now being restored to a more natural habitat by adding large root wads and rocks.

Phase 1 of the Twin Rivers Project was completed in September 2006 and is estimated to have changed the in-stream cover in one long pool from 1.5 percent of the total wetted area to 22.8 percent. It is a major project, requiring support and cooperation from the landowners, the Batten Kill Watershed Alliance, Bennington County Conservation District, USDA Forest Service’s Green Mountain National Forest, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, River Network, Trout Unlimited, The Trout and Salmon Foundation, VFWD, and Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s River Management Program.

Vermont’s outgoing independent Senator James Jeffords appropriated $200,000 in federal funds for the work, and the Orvis Company is running a fund-raising effort with a matching program, with a target of raising $90,000.

This small area required countless hours of paid and volunteer help and $90,000, but if successful, it will serve as a springboard for getting more landowners and more organizations involved in similar projects. It will require years of patience and hard work to make a difference throughout the river. There are no shortcuts to repairing the widespread, creeping habitat damage that took at least 30 years to come to a head.

When the plan was originally disseminated as a proposal, the fourth action item actually recommended stocking 1,000 triploid rainbow trout in the Batten Kill to improve interim angling quality while the habitat restoration was ongoing. This proposal was a lightning rod that attracted widespread opposition.

More than 50 people attended a meeting to discuss the proposal and while 28 spoke on the subject, only 5 were in favor of stocking the river.

Orvis president Perk Perkins threatened to withdraw funding from the Batten Kill restoration project, stating: “If we stocked the river, my business would probably do better, but that’s not what this is about. I’m very worried that if we stock the trout, it will be a slippery slope. I’m afraid the decision on whether to remove the trout [in the future] will be political, not scientific.”

Not only did it seem wrong to stock genetically modified trout into a historic wild-trout stream, there are practical arguments against it. Studies show that hatchery trout compete aggressively with wild trout for habitat. Because the stocking was planned for an area close to the habitat restoration area, it would be impossible to evaluate the success of the restoration. And because the Batten Kill is open to bait fishing, what would have happened to the wild trout when crowds descended on the river in an attempt to catch those hatchery trout?

A few local fishermen portrayed the stocking issue as being a class struggle, and some argued that stocked rainbows would provide angling opportunities for children. I’m not sure what kind of values they teach their kids, but I don’t want my kids to expect a government handout when they go fishing. Are we going to tether tame whitetails to trees for those kids during deer season as well?

Luckily the proposal to stock rainbows in the Batten Kill was not adopted into the final management plan, which in its final form pledges to manage the Batten Kill as a wild trout fishery and designates two critical spawning tributaries as no-harvest during October.

If, after digesting all this, you’re reluctant to fish the Batten Kill, don’t be. At almost any time of year, the possibility of catching a wild brook trout in a medium-sized river still exists. The big browns are still there, and there were reports of more small browns in 2006.

The river is still great, and I am convinced that the Batten Kill is on its way to recovery. A plan is already in place to remove a shallow impoundment on the East Branch, which will improve summer water temperatures and open up some magnificent spawning gravel to fish from the lower river.

In the past five years Trout Unlimited and the Batten Kill Watershed Alliance have planted thousands of trees and bushes in the riparian zone. Hopefully, the Twin Rivers Project will be successful and open up possibilities for woody debris improvement on many more river miles. With strong community support from such groups as Southwestern Vermont Trout Unlimited (tuswv.org), the Batten Kill Watershed Alliance, and local river users–plus good science and clean water–the river can mend itself, but it will take time and patience. For more information on the state’s Batten Kill Trout Management Plan, go to vtfishandwildlife.com and under “Fisheries Programs,” click on “Batten Kill Management Plan.”

If you’re interested in helping, donations to the Batten Kill Watershed Alliance can be sent to the following address:
BKWA Wild Trout
Department FFM
P.O. Box 798
Manchester, VT 05254

Every dollar contributed will be matched by Orvis and the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation. For more information on the Batten Kill Watershed Alliance, visit the organization’s web site at BattenKillAlliance.org.

Fishing the Batten Kill
In the past, during Hendrickson or Sulphur time, you’d get to the river early, stake out a good pool, and then wait for the fish to rise. You’d always have some action, and if you chose properly, you might have 20 fish within casting distance.

Today, tactics are different. For instance, during the Hendricksons (May 1 to about May 20), get on the river no later than 2:30 P.M. and look for risers. If you begin to see lots of duns on the water but no rises, it’s time to hoof it. You might have to hike a half mile or more before seeing a rising fish, but in the early season when the current is swift, the smaller fish have trouble surface feeding and there aren’t many of them. So, when you find a fish feeding on the surface, chances are it will be a good one. During evening Hendrickson spinner falls, look for big browns in the tails of pools with deep water and good cover.

The same holds true for the river’s other productive hatches, which include Paraleps in mid-May, Sulphurs in early June, and caddis most evenings from late May through mid-June. As long as the water isn’t high, you’re bound to see some kind of surface activity just before dark from late May through June. Don’t expect catching the fish to be easy and you won’t be disappointed. Even in its heyday, when trout rose all over the river, the fish were tough because the Batten Kill’s swift but smooth currents make for spooky fish and tricky drag.

Another way of fooling the river’s big browns is to fish nymphs in the morning–at the crack of dawn, not after breakfast. On warm spring mornings when the lilacs are in bloom, the trout are on the prowl for March Brown and caddis nymphs. The fishing can be good (at least by Batten Kill standards, which these days means a fish or two) at the heads of the faster riffles between Arlington and the New York State border. Try #10-12 Hare’s-ear Nymphs or your favorite #12-16 beadhead caddis (#12-16).

Although the Batten Kill has good water temperatures through the summer, the fishing can be spotty. You’ll see some trout rising to tiny caddis and spinners in the evening, but you have to really work to find fish.

In August, once the Tricos begin, fishing can be very good. On most days the spinner fall does not get heavy until about 9 A.M. The river’s big browns don’t feed on Tricos, but you will find pods of rising brook trout, with a few small brown trout mixed in. The best water for Trico fishing is in the slower, deeper stretches between Arlington and Manchester. The lower river below Arlington has some Trico spinner falls, but it’s not as concentrated and the fish don’t seem to get on them as well.

If you like streamers, the Batten Kill in the spring is one of the best places in the Northeast to catch a brown trout over 20 inches long. Fish from dawn until the sun hits the water, and then again from 6 P.M. until dark. Cover a lot of river, paying special attention to places with deep water and heavy cover. A sinking-tip line helps, and the best patterns include #4-8 Moto’s Minnows, Beadhead Lite Brite Zonkers, and Pearl Zonkers. It really doesn’t matter where you fish, from the town of Manchester–where the East and West Branches join–to the New York State line and below. While the Vermont Battenkill contains all wild trout, the state of New York stocks some catchable brown trout in the lower, more marginal water below Shushan.