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  • Writer's pictureDavid A. Van Wie

Big Water on the Battenkill

After launching the Storied Water tour at Walden Pond, where Thoreau "lived deliberately" in 1845, I moved on to Manchester, Vermont where Charles F. Orvis founded the Orvis Company in 1856.

It is funny to think of the two men as contemporaries. Thoreau never made it to Vermont to get casting lessons on the Battenkill. (He made it as far west as Mt. Greylock near Williamstown.) But Henry's ghost came along with me get some pointers from Pete Kutzer, the star of many Orvis casting videos, who took me out onto the river today.

There is a great story about Orvis in Forbes this week. Always a great source of information and inspiration about fly-fishing, the iconic catalog retailer has been resurgent in recent years. I am especially impressed with their "50/50 by 2020" initiative to get more women involved in fly fishing, run by Pete's wife, Jackie Kutzer.

Bill McLaughlin on the upper Battenkill

I rolled into town on Saturday afternoon (with HDT riding shotgun) just in time to get out on the upper Battenkill with Bill McLaughlin, President of Orvis, for an hour before dinner. Bill and his wife Martha are my gracious hosts for the weekend. There was rain in the forecast, but it held off until after dark.

We fished an area called the Pig Farm less than a mile from Bill's house in Manchester. No fish cooperated with our earnest efforts to connect on a more personal level, but we enjoyed some lovely water with a cheerful seranade by a variety of warblers working the river banks.

Yours truly on the upper 'Kill.

Back at Bill's house, we were joined by Pete and Jackie Kutzer. Pete entertained us before dinner by tying several flies we would use on Sunday morning, a weighted woven sculpin pattern, and a rabbit-fur "zonker" called the Battenkill Bastard. Pete tantalized us with tales of the big browns he caught last week, all in the 20 to 24 inch range.

Pete Kutzer works the bank.

It rained steadily overnight, but the rain stopped by 10 am on Sunday when Pete arrived ready to collect Bill and me for our outing. Our first stop was on a stretch of water near the Arlington Recreation area, just below the confluence of the Battenkill and Roaring Brook. The water was fairly high and a little milky from the rain overnight, but there was enough visibility for the big browns we were stalking to see our fly from 10 feet away.

Pete set me up with a sweet Orvis Helios2 7-weight rod rigged with a sinking tip line and the weighted sculpin fly that he tied the night before. My challenge was to roll cast that bad boy out into the current to swing the streamer back to the near bank. Pete then set Bill up downstream a ways before coming back up to check on my awkward casting.

While Pete was teaching me a Circle T roll cast, a variant of the single-hand snake roll cast, I managed to hook a big brown which I promptly lost. Yes, probably the fish of my life, lost while trying to reel in the slack to put the fish on the reel. Rookie mistake with a brown, I now know.

So, we continued to flog that pool to within an inch of its life, but no more strikes. Next, we headed to a pool known locally as Hazardous Waste Pool for reasons I won't share. Here again, the water was high and the wading was exhilarating (less so for the 6'6" Pete). Pete had a few taps on his streamer, but no solid takes.

Keenan House pool, Arlington

Finally, we ended the morning at the Keenan House pool in Arlington off Route 313 where the river turns right to head west into New York. In the photo above you can see - er, you can't see - Thoreau's ghost casting into the deep pool at the river's bend.

This stretch is as picturesque as a Norman Rockwell painting. No coincidence, of course, because Norman Rockwell lived nearby and painted in the area from 1939 to 1953, while casting flies himself on the Battenkill in his free hours.

Picturesque Arlington landscape.

At that same time, Lee Wulff lived downriver a ways in Shushan, NY. Wulff fished the 'Kill, while becoming the most famous fly fisherman in America, producing movies and TV shows from Alaska to Newfoundland. John Merwin, the late editor of Fly Fisherman, and founding publisher of Fly Rod & Reel magazine provides interesting details about Wulff and Rockwell in his informative and insightful book, The Battenkill.

Pete, Bill and I proved that the Battenkill is a tough river to fish, but that one strike by a huge brown trout was enough to catch my fancy. I hope to be back another time to try again.

After our fishing excursion, Bill, Martha and I headed up the trails onto Mt. Equinox to hunt for morel mushrooms. Their lab, Bema, had fun roaming the woods while we searched the bases of ash trees along the many trails. We managed to find a few of the delicious polypores, which Martha cooked to perfection for dinner.

Morel on Mt. Equinox

Henry's ghost wasn't so good at fly casting, but he did enjoy our walk in the woods: "Talk of mysteries! — Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!"

Bill & Martha's wild bounty

What a fun side adventure! What a day!

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