Fly Fishing for Vermont Mountain Trout on the White River
I’ve fished the White River quite a bit over the years, paying particular attention to the headwaters up in the Patterson Brook area in the town of Granville. But in the summer months I like to spend time just downstream from where the White tumbles down that steep mountainside up in the northern part of Granville and fish it to the south, near Lower Granville and Hancock.
(Click here to see maps of the West or East branches of the river.)
I buy my winter wood in the spring or summer, depending on how early I get ambitious in any given year. These trips to and from my home and the big wood pile I buy from bring me past the Granville Bowl Mill, an interesting place where they make and sell wholesale wooden bowls. The White River runs past here, right downstream from where the Clark and Patterson brooks merge with the headwaters to this classic trout stream.
The mile or so just downstream from the Granville Bowl Mill is particularly good fishing for small brook trout and rainbows, and the water for the next two miles after that point is equally productive. This is very different water from the White River many of us know. In Bethel the White is a wide, deep, and fast-flowing torrent. But up in Granville it’s a fairly small, clear-running stream which features some of the prettiest runs and riffles I’ve seen anywhere in the state of Vermont.
I like to wade in to the south of the bowl mill and often find some big surprises in this small piece of water. For openers, the water temperature is a chilly 55 degrees, making the fish very active, even during the relative heat of the 75- to 80-degree days I choose to go fishing in July and early August. I usually can catch and release six rainbows or brookies using number-12 Yellow Humpies and number-14 Grasshoppers in a little over an hour, and I’ll sometimes lose up to another dozen fish as well. All these trout strike hard and fight bravely, making for a very enjoyable break from my wood hauling.
This piece of the White River is a fly-angler’s delight. It features one small, 4- to 6-foot deep run after another, each one appearing almost more gorgeous than the one before. I have found that I will be standing on one small run, casting blissfully at the rising trout and promising that this would be the very last one I would venture upstream for, only to see the next run up ahead looking even more beautiful and fertile than the one I was enjoying. Just when I think I have had enough, a new stretch of water beckons. I cannot resist, and I don’t think many other anglers would be able to leave the stream at all under these circumstances.
This is how the White begins. The main stem runs a length of fifty-seven miles from Granville to its mouth at the Connecticut River in the town of White River Junction. For quite a long way over its upper reaches, through Granville, Hancock, and Rochester, the river is narrow as it winds through farm fields, woods, and along VT 100. It widens out somewhat as it passes through the southern part of Rochester and moves through Stockbridge, which is where the upper White River ends and the middle river picks up. The middle runs through the central portions of Stockbridge along VT 107, through a corner of Bethel and into Royalton where it runs into VT 14. The lower river continues out of Royalton, through Sharon, Hartford, and out into the Connecticut River.
The state Fish and Wildlife Department has performed some creel surveys to determine how anglers are doing when they fish the river and have discovered some interesting things about the White River’s fish and those of us who pursue them. Studies were made in 1965, 1971, and 1986. In 1965 and 1986, surveyors worked the 32.7-mile length of the river from Rochester to Hartford. In 1971, though, they concentrated only on the segment between Stockbridge and Bethel.
What they discovered was that 71 percent of all of the fish reported to have been caught were rainbow trout. Brown trout made up 20 percent of the survey, while brook trout figured in for only 5 percent. Four percent of the fish creeled were smallmouth bass. Interestingly enough, 53 percent of the rainbows were stocked fish, as were 58 percent of the brown trout. This is significant, as it shows that the White River holds a good-sized wild trout population.
Another interesting set of figures showed that anglers fishing the Stockbridge-to-Bethel section of the river caught and released 168 juvenile Atlantic salmon in 1986. Fish and Wildlife stocked 125,000 salmon parr in the middle part of the river in 1985, so this is not a terribly surprising development.
Trout stocked in the White River during the survey years were as follows: 8,000 rainbows and 7,000 browns were stocked in 1965; 4,000 rainbows and 6,400 browns in 1971; and 7,200 rainbows and 8,000 browns in 1986.
The information that the creel survey gathered about the kinds of people who fish on the White River was at least as interesting as what was learned about the trout. Twenty-seven percent of all the anglers who frequented the river between 1965 and 1986 used fly gear. They tended, like most of the bait- and lure-anglers, to fish in the middle portion of the river, although they were also well represented in the upper river. Most of the fly-anglers—60 percent of this group, in fact—came from outside Vermont to fish. According to the conclusions of the study, which was submitted in 1987, the White River remains a high-priority fishery for the state Fish and Wildlife Department. Plans were made in 1987 to stock 10,000 trout per year in the main stem of the river during the months of May and June. The need for these trout is vital, notwithstanding the fact that roughly half of all the trout reported to have been caught in 1986 were wild.
The upper White River is my favorite stretch. It is the best for anglers who prefer to fly-fish and do not mind working in close proximity to overhanging trees and tree-root-bordered shorelines. It is also the most beautiful, as it flows through the least populated townships of its run. During the early spring, this is the best part of the river, as it runs clearer than the portions downstream from Rochester. When the snowmelt leaves the lower two-thirds of the White River high and silty, I can usually find some good trout in Granville and Hancock.
The river is crossed by VT 100 at six points between Granville and Rochester. All these locations are logical places to begin a search for productive trout water. However, you should not limit your wanderings to the bridge crossings. VT 100 follows the river closely, and there are plenty of other good places to pull over and wade in.
This whole stretch of the river through these three little towns is great water to work either from the shore or by wading. The depths do vary, especially at the river’s many turns, but for the most part, the stream is knee deep, allowing you excellent access whether you prefer to wear hip or chest waders. This section is especially exciting during the spring and fall spawning seasons. I take a lot of my clients to this part of the White River during the months of May and September. In the spring the rainbows tear up through the upper river to nest and lay eggs. It is a beautiful sight to watch these fish pair off and move along the rapids together. Fishing for them can be a little tough, though, as they are usually much more interested in finding mates than in feeding.
However, the fall run is quite a different story. Brookies and brown trout always appear to be much more aggressive than rainbows are during their respective spawning runs. I find that I am always able to locate active brook trout in Granville by wading in from one of the places where VT 100 crosses and heading slowly upstream. The trick is to take a little more time than normal when casting to each of the small pools here. The trout are engaged in their nesting ritual and will not spook very easily, and for the same reason, they may tend to ignore your fly or lure for quite a while.
I took two clients from western Massachusetts fishing the entire run from just south of Rochester village all the way north into Granville one September day. We found lots of active browns and even a few rainbows throughout Rochester and into Hancock. These fish were very aggressive and hit our lines almost the instant we began to retrieve. In the fall streamers like the Black and Gray Ghost seem to work the best, although you can also do very well with Montana nymphs. You do not have to fish all that deep through Rochester and into the southern half of the Hancock stretch, maybe only six inches to a foot below the surface. However, as the three of us moved up into the northern half of the river in Hancock, conditions slowly began to change. The river got a little narrower and shallower, forcing us to pick our way through patches of shin-deep water to get to the deeper pools holding fish.
We also found that we had to switch from our streamers and nymphs to deeper-swimming flies like weighted Woolly Buggers. My clients switched over to ultralight spinning gear and fluorescent painted Panther Martins. I argued that the brightly colored spinners were far more appropriate to smallmouth or pike fishing but was pleasantly surprised to find that both these gentlemen caught very nice sized trout on them nonetheless. The brook trout were found in large concentrations at the mouths of the many small brooks and springs which feed the river when it is at this small stage.
During the late spring and early summer months, I like to head farther downstream and fish the middle part of the White. As the West Branch enters the White at the intersection of VT 73 and VT 100, the river begins to widen, and the whole complexion of the stream changes. It twists and turns through a small section of Pittsfield and on into Stockbridge, where the Tweed River (also noted for its trout fishing) enters, before heading sharply to the east near the intersection of VT 100 and VT 107. It was in this area, right near Cobb Bridge, that a returning Atlantic salmon was spotted in 1986. The sighting was very significant, as this fish was the first returning salmon found this far up the White River since George Washington was president.
There are not a lot of good places to pull your car off the road in this area, but if you are willing to do a little walking along the highways and in the river itself, you will find what you need. This is a very productive stretch for rainbow trout, and you will find them spread out all along the rapids and faster-moving runs which mark this piece of the stream.
As the river flows into the village of Gaysville, you see the White River Valley Camping Area. This area is heavily fished, and you will have to look hard for places to call your own during the height of the summer season. Still, the river does occasionally bend a little way away from VT 107, offering you opportunities to get some breathing space. A bridge that crosses the river at Gaysville is where most anglers start their forays. You may prefer to pull over a half-mile either up or downstream from this point instead.
The one good thing about the bridge near the campground is that it gives you access to a small road which runs parallel to VT 107, on the opposite side of the river. This is the Back Road to Gaysville, it is not all that well traveled, and it offers you some good places to get out and fish. The Back Road extends all the way up to VT 12, where you will want to turn south toward Bethel. VT 12 meets VT 107 shortly thereafter and continues to run along the northern shoreline of the White River.
Between Gaysville and Bethel are three special regulation zones. There is an artificial lures and flies-only stretch from the mouth of Lillieville Brook extending 3.3 miles downstream to a point 220 feet below the confluence of Cleveland Brook in Bethel. Lillieville Brook itself, from its mouth upstream to the bridge at Lillieville Brook Road, is open for fishing only from May 15 through the last Sunday in October. The same restriction applies to Locust Creek in Bethel from its mouth upstream to the second bridge on VT 12.
The short section of the White River which runs alongside VT 107 from Bethel to North Royalton is noteworthy as it bridges two major tributaries. The Third Branch enters just south of Bethel and is one of the most exciting pieces of trout water I know. It flows from East Granville, through Braintree, and on into Randolph before heading to Bethel. The fishing for big brown trout is excellent from the mouth of the Third Branch all the way upstream, past Bethel village. The tributary is very wide and deep, so anglers will want to take care when they wade it.
The Second Branch runs along VT 14 from southern Williamstown, through Brookfield, Randolph, and a small corner of Bethel before meeting the main stem in Royalton. This branch runs through a lightly populated area for quite some time as you work it from the mouth upstream, offering you some great rainbow and brown trout fishing. There are two beautiful covered bridges which cross the river in South and East Randolph too. VT 14 also heads south from VT 107, following the main stem of the White River to its next major tributary.
The First Branch of the White River enters the main stem in Royalton too, right where VT 110 meets VT 14. This tributary runs from the southern edge of Washington into Chelsea, Tunbridge, and back into Royalton. There are six covered bridges along its route, and each of them provides great access to this stream. Dozens of small brooks feed the First Branch throughout its run, providing fabulous brook trout fishing. There are lots of deep holes in this stream that hold browns and rainbows. However, summer water temperatures on the first branch can be murderously high, making fishing awfully tough.
As the main stem of the river flows from Royalton into Sharon, it slows down somewhat, offering canoeists some fine opportunities. Perhaps one of the most pleasant runs to canoe starts in Sharon where Fay Brook Road crosses the river and meets Howe Hill Road, just to the west of Sharon village and Exit 2 on I-89. The river is slow, as I mentioned, but it is also very deep, and the fishing for big browns and rainbows is excellent. You will pass the White River Wildlife Management Area on the southern shore, right where the river bends sharply southward. There is an island in the middle of the river here, and the fishing along its edge and just downstream can be very good. The canoe run will continue for about four miles to the picnic area right on the Sharon/Pomfret town line.
The best flies to use here are big weighted stonefly nymphs. You will also want to bring along a second fly rod set up with sink-tip line. I would advise you use the larger of your fly rods, say a 7- or 8-weight rig with a good, long leader with no less that a 4X tippet. Since streamers and muddlers work well in this area too, you will want an extra long rod to give those big, heavy flies a little extra push when you cast them.
The access from VT 14 in this stretch varies somewhat. There are lots of rock ledges which prevent easy access, but these ledges are also accompanied by deep holes which hold some of the biggest trout in the whole river. There are big caddis hatches here during the spring, and the long, slow-moving glides are perfect for floating mayflies during June and July. While the stoneflies will work way down deep almost all season long, you can use smaller emerging stonefly imitations during July and early August. You will see some of the best stonefly hatches at dusk during the late summer.
The water from West Hartford along the seven miles to the bridge in Hartford village is quite flat. Once you get into Hartford village, though, you will find more and more shallow water in between all those nice holes where the big trout lie hiding. You will also find smallmouth bass mixed in the pools and riffles. The best fast water will run along the rock ledges. While the river here could be fished by canoe, it is tough to do so in the middle of the summer. The river dries up considerably then.
From the village the river has an almost uniform bottom and is not all that deep. There are some big trout as you head into White River Junction, but they are not plentiful. The river is very wide now, and your best bet is the fishing for smallmouth, which can be extremely good through White River Junction and into the Connecticut River. There are some large rainbows to be caught right at the mouth, too, as well as some huge smallmouth bass.
White River Map – East
White River Map – West