Fish are jumping in Vermont rivers Trout: There's more than fall foliage to attract visitors. Trout are deepening their colors as spawning season begins, and the ever-changing waters create a challenge for anglers.

September 29, 1996|By M.R. Montgomery | M.R. Montgomery,BOSTON GLOBE

Two kinds of things become intensely colorful in central Vermont at the end of September -- tree leaves and trout.

If fall foliage season is a time of apparent dying, with just the hope of renewal in spring, it is the season of new life in the brooks and rivers that come down from the Green Mountains. Fall marks the beginning of spawning behavior for native brook trout and the feral brown trout of the Ottauquechee and White River drainages and the west-flowing rivers that run to Lake Champlain.

The trout are always colorful, both the purple-spotted brown trout and the red-spotted brook trout. They become almost incandescent as they approach the act of procreation. The more intense colors make them more attractive to each other on the spawning grounds and more beautiful to catch-and-release anglers who can hold one for a moment and admire it. The trout still have funny faces, but they are gorgeous in fall.

Vermont's trout fishing, on the right day and in the right place, can equal most places in North America that I have fished. The difference between Vermont's angling and what you will find in the West is pretty simple: It's more consistent out West, particularly in the slow spring creeks and the rivers below the big dams where water temperature and flow are constant.

Here in Vermont, the old philosopher Heraclitus is right: "You could not step twice into the same rivers." Flows change with every local summer thunderstorm or drenching fall rain. Days of heat or cold move fish into the spring-fed sections, where the water temperature is more desirable. In fall, most aquatic insects stop hatching, defeating the unprepared artificial-fly angler. The grasshoppers sit tight, the flying ants aren't airborne. But something is always all right, somewhere. What you need is local knowledge and real-time information. This makes it more of a challenge, and more fun, more quirkily exciting than going to a Montana spring creek where the fish are all big and the same fly species hatch day after day.

Frankly, I dismissed Vermont from my angler's calendar years ago, when I typed for the sports department of a newspaper and wrote about such things for a living. I was running with the crowd, so to speak, and the crowd was always better at talking about trout than showing me one. In the last few years, I've started fishing with Jack Sapia, who runs a couple of tackle shops and a guide service, Woodstock Outfitters, and that has made all the difference in my attitude.

From now until mid-October -- even to the very end of the Vermont trout season on the last Sunday in October if the weather is decent -- two very interesting things start to happen for the angler, one on the big rivers like the White, another on the branches and small creeks. I knew nothing of this, until Sapia taught me. And this is a particularly good fall to explore Vermont's rivers. A wet, cool summer has kept even the smallest streams running cold, and the big rivers that usually get too warm are in excellent shape.

On the bigger water, the Ottauquechee and the White near Woodstock, a consistent daily hatch of aquatic insects begins later this month, a gentlemanly hatch from around 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. The only problem is that the hatching mayfly is the very small Little Blue-winged Olive, not much bigger than this capital "O," and the imitation has to be equally tiny.

In the smaller headwaters, things get completely out of hand. Creeks that hold mostly 6- to 10-inch resident brook trout are suddenly hosts to 16- to 24-inch brown trout looking for a place to set up light housekeeping in early November. After an hour of angling for small fry, it takes nerves of graphite fiber not to strike too fast and too hard when a big trout rises. And while hatches of flies are slowing and frosts have stilled most of the grasshoppers and crickets (which can be imitated with large flies, easily visible to the fish and the angler), both brook and brown trout get aggressive and territorial and will hit large streamer flies fished deep near the spawning beds. You simply cannot tell what is going to happen next, and that is the fun of it.

Suspicious fish

Vermont does have a reputation for having lots of uncatchable fish, largely due to the popularity of the Battenkill River near Manchester. The Battenkill fish, living near the Orvis Factory Store, have seen more pairs of waders in their lives than any trout east of, say, Nelson Spring Creek by Livingston, Mont., and they are warier than nature intended them to be.

There is considerable fishing pressure on the White and the 'Quechee, but never the amount that the Battenkill fish endure. And the small-stream brook trout of central Vermont have a remarkable character that endears them to anglers -- they have no memory and, like a domestic duck, wake up to a brand-new world every morning and fearlessly take the same artificial fly that they took the day before.

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