“The ’Kill,” Marty Oakland said, “is back.”
Oakland was referring to the Battenkill River, specifically its trout fishing, and he should know. He owns a bed and breakfast called the Quill Gordon on the river in Arlington, Vt., and while he doesn’t look old enough for this to be true, he claims to have been fishing the ’Kill since the early 1940s.
Oakland joined Tom Rosenbauer, the widely read fly-fishing author and marketing director at the Orvis Co., and Rich Norman, another Battenkill veteran who was partner at the Angler’s Nook fly shop on the river, for a panel talk on fishing the ’Kill Monday at the Clearwater Chapter of Trout Unlimited monthly meeting in Albany.
The Battenkill earned its fame in the mid-20th century, but by the 1990s, the fishing had begun to decline. Years of investigation by local, state and federal agencies eventually concluded the problem was a lack of logjams and other in-stream cover where average-size trout can hide from predators.
Even the stream “improvements” built by TU chapters in decades past ended up degrading the habitat, making the river wider and shallower than it should be.
All that has been changing since the Batten Kill Watershed Alliance was formed in 2001.
Made up of property owners concerned about erosion, anglers who missed the great fishing and other river users like rafting companies, the alliance has brought about more than a dozen habitat restoration projects on the Battenkill and its tributaries in New York and Vermont.
One of the projects involved burying root wads and stone structures that not only gave the trout a place to hide but also helped the river deepen its own channel.
“We started out doing a few demo projects, and now we’re doing miles at a time,” said the alliance board chairman, Greg Cuda of Saratoga Springs.
The results have been spectacular. Norman and Oakland told a capacity crowd at the Albany Ramada Plaza the good old days have returned.
“It really is coming back,” Oakland said. “Thanks to the restoration project in front of my house, the fishing is better than it was 40 years ago.”
Research confirms the observations. Vermont wildlife officials say the number of trout near some of the habitat projects has increased by 500 percent in just the past few years. And there were many tales Monday of wild browns more than 20 inches long.
Of course, the Battenkill’s best fish have always been tough to catch. Stealth is mandatory.
“If you think there’s a big fish there, don’t go flailing around in the pool before it starts rising,” Rosenbauer said.
And while access to the river is plentiful and obvious for much of its length, there’s great fishing in its tributaries, and in the upper end of the river itself near Manchester, Vt.
There, the river is smaller and its banks are lined with brush. Access and casting take some doing.
“You’re going to do a little hiking, you’re going to get attacked by mosquitoes, but it’s a good place to be,” Rosenbauer said. “There are places, especially on the East Branch, that don’t see a fly for two or three years at a time. You might want to try to get out of your comfort zone.”
And Oakland had some advice for those whose Battenkill comfort zone involves dry flies or small nymphs. He’ll match the hatch on rising trout, but if they’re not looking up, he’s a fan of those big, hairy, heavy, articulated Kelly Galloup-style streamers, fished on a seven- or eight-weight rod and a 250-grain sinking line.
“Four words to remember,” he said. “Big bait, big fish.”