If it’s anything like last year, the coming Independence Day weekend won’t be a good time to fish the Battenkill River.
Last year, like most Independence Days, the river was full of people doing everything but fishing. Most of them were bobbing along in inner tubes — more than 2,000, by one estimate.
Well, what the heck, it’s a holiday weekend, and you can’t blame people for wanting to enjoy what’s widely regarded as one of the prettiest rivers in the state on the biggest holiday of the summer.
But unlike years past, the “rubber hatch” on the Battenkill is no longer just a Fourth of July phenomenon. Or even just a weekend phenomenon. Just ask Mike Valla of Ballston Spa, author of “The Founding Flies” and “Tying Catskill-Style Dry Flies.”
Valla was casting to a rising trout in Shushan on June 16 — a Monday morning — when he was swamped by a mob of tubers, some of whom had coolers of beer, a few of whom stopped to urinate on the bank, and none of whom seemed concerned about the fact that they’d ruined his day on the river.
“I don’t mind a canoeist,” Valla said. “They seem to have the sense to go behind you or drift past. There’s sort of an ethic there. None of us are really opposed to multiple use. But when it impacts the experience I’m trying to have, it’s out of control, with that drunken flotilla.”
It’s a phenomenon that’s happening across the country: more people are taking to trout streams with watercraft. Again, you can’t blame them, and anglers have always understood we don’t own the river.
But there’s an inherent unfairness. The presence of anglers doesn’t spoil the tuber’s experience, but the presence of tubers spoils the angler’s experience. What’s more, anglers have to buy licenses to fish; tubers pay nothing to the state to float. And as Valla pointed out, many thousands of public dollars and thousands more hours of volunteer effort have been put into the restoration of the trout habit on the Battenkill.
“Look at all the money they’ve stuck into habitat improvement — and for what, if it’s going to become a theme park?” he said.
Josh Enzensperger, manager of Battenkill Riversports, the outfitter that apparently rented the tubes to the group that nearly plowed Valla over, said the vast majority of tubers are nice people who aren’t out to spoil anyone else’s fun.
The outfitter keeps a list of people who have been known to behave badly on the river, and won’t rent tubes to them again, he said.
But Enzensperger — who grew up on the river and fly-fishes himself, sometimes wading, sometimes from a canoe — noted that his company and another outfitter on the river only rent about 200 tubes a day between them. The rest of the tubers bring their own.
And while he said he doesn’t believe tubers are any less respectful of anglers than canoeists or kayakers, he acknowledged that they don’t have much control over where they float.
“They don’t have good vessel control, and sometimes they’re going backwards for minutes at a time,” Enzensperger said. “They can be chatting with someone and not realize there’s an angler behind them.”
That seems like a pretty big difference between tubes and boats. Can you really claim to be sharing the river if you’re just as likely to bump into a wading angler as you are to go around him?
And while the people who rent from Battenkill Riversports may be well behaved, a great many tubers are not. The tubing scene engenders “illegal motor vehicle use on state land, fighting, garbage, underage drinking,” a forest ranger told the Post-Star last summer. The same ranger counted more than 300 cars parked on local roads, many of them illegally.
Similar scenes have played out in recent years on the Blackfoot River in Montana, the Gunpowder in Maryland, the Muskegon in Michigan and probably many more.
If this keeps up, daytime fly-fishing during the summer months could become a thing of the past, on the Battenkill or anywhere else.
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