Exploring Vermont's White River
October 15, 2015
The fly just tickled the water's surface when it disappeared into what seemed like a washtub-size boil. Jeff set the hook instinctively and his rod bowed deep to its handle. Then the water parted and a large White River brown trout cartwheeled into the air. When the fish returned to the water, his line went limp. His tippet had a clean cut where the brown's teeth had sliced it. He was not disappointed; perhaps the sight of the fish was enough, and he had already landed and released several nice trout, including a 17-inch rainbow that tore into his backing. The rest of the morning was much the same, with the occasional trout leaping from the choppy currents to intercept his flies.
At lunch, Jeff and I estimated that he had hooked 15 wild rainbows and browns from 10 to 17 inches long. The big brown he lost we guessed at close to 24 inches. Jeff has fished Western waters and was surprised that we had the river to ourselves and that we had rarely changed his #10 Adams Wulff. It was a typical spring/summer day on Vermont's White River—secluded, uncomplicated fly fishing for wild trout in a spectacular setting.
The White is an overlooked destination, always overshadowed by the famous Battenkill near Manchester. But fly fishers who know and fish the river always return because of light fishing pressure and eager wild fish. The river and its branches—and its many tributaries—have some of the best fly fishing for wild trout in central Vermont. Although the hatches are undependable and unpredictable because the river's water level fluctuates, its large wadeable stretches of classic pocketwater, riffles, and runs provide excellent attractor dry-fly fishing for opportunistic trout. Some of the sporadic hatches include Quill Gordons, Blue-winged Olives, Hendricksons, Sulphurs, Light Cahills, and Little Green Stones.
A Diverse River
Located in central Vermont, and spread out through the towns of Granville, Bethel, Tunbridge, and Randolph, the White's headwaters flow eastward off the Green Mountains. The river drains an area of over 700 square miles—Vermont's fourth largest watershed. The White system is fed by four major branches: the Mainstem (out of Granville); the First (out of Tunbridge); the Second (out of East Randolph), and the Third (out of Randolph). It also has dozens of excellent tributaries, most of which hold wild trout.
Running south out of the Granville basin, the river parallels Route 100 through the towns of Rochester and Stockbridge, then turns east through Gaysville and meets the Third Branch at Bethel. It continues eastward and is joined by the Second and First branches on its way to the Connecticut River at White River Junction.
From top to bottom—57 miles—the White River's fishing possibilities are extraordinary. In its tiny headwaters, native brookies maintain healthy populations. In lower elevations, wild brook/brown and brook/brown/rainbow populations thrive. In its valley stretches, wild browns, rainbows, and a few brookies share habitat with large numbers of Atlantic-salmon parr.
Below Bethel, smallmouth bass mix with rainbows and browns, and miles of exceptional wade-fishing lie along Vermont Route 14, which parallels the river to White River Junction. All the fishing is accessible by foot. The grocery list for the larger fish in this portion of the river includes crayfish, dobson fly (hellgrammites) and sculpin.
The White is the Green Mountain State's only major river free of dams, and it is the focus of the federal Atlantic Salmon Restoration Project. Before dams were built on the Connecticut River in the 19th century, Atlantic salmon reached the river, spawning as far upstream as the village of Rochester, some 250 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.
An ongoing federally-funded salmon restoration program on the Connecticut River and its headwaters is fueled by Atlantic-salmon fingerlings produced annually by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's White River National Fish Hatchery, located on the Mainstem between Gaysville and Bethel. Salmon fingerlings produced at the hatchery are released into the White and other Connecticut River tributaries, where they grow to parr and then, in two years, to smolt size. Then they leave the tributaries, swim downriver to the Connecticut River and to the ocean, hopefully to return in two to three years as adult salmon ready to spawn. To date there have been a few adult Atlantic-salmon returns to the river and hope remains for self-sustaining runs of these beautiful fish in their original watershed.
Along with plantings of Atlantic-salmon fry, portions of the White are "lightly" stocked annually in early spring with rainbow, brown, and brook trout. The stockings, in the First and Second branches, are designed for put-and-take fishing, but, as in most New England streams, few of the stockers survive and by midsummer the river contains virtually all wild fish.
The good news is that the White's small tributaries hold thriving self-sustaining populations of wild brookies, browns, and rainbows, and they supply the hardy wild trout that feed the Mainstem. Such Mainstem brook tributaries as Locust Creek, Broad, Hancock, and Lillieville brooks, and the Third Branch's Bethel Gilead Brook, provide healthy young-of-the-year brookies, browns, and rainbows to the river, and they provide excellent fishing on their own.
These small tributaries are ideal for short rods and small attractor drys (#18 Royal Coachmen and Royal Wulffs and #14-#18 black ant and beetle imitations), wets (#14-#16 Coachmen and Mickey Finn), and nymphs (#16-#18 Hare's Ears and Pheasant Tails). Many have lower-elevation mixed populations of wild brookies, browns, and rainbows. The explorations and discoveries on these small streams are half the fun.
A day of exploration includes easy hikes up cold, shaded mountain freestone streams, picking pockets and pools of their brightly-colored, frisky fish that range in size from two to 14 inches, depending on the elevation. The higher you explore in these secluded mountain trout hideaways, the more small native brookies you will find. You'll have the water to yourself: It's a place for learning the basics of fly fishing or refreshing cherished memories in solitude. Stony Brook, Locust Creek, and Broad Brook are good starting points. Because of their small size and water clarity, these streams require stealth and perfect presentations.
(Stockbridge to Gaysville)
The Mainstem's best middle reaches flow south from the village of Stockbridge, where the river is a large, gravel-bottom freestone stream with healthy numbers of wild brown and rainbow trout. Huge boulders hold back the currents and create deep, clear pools with excellent wade-fishing. Route 107 provides access all the way to Bethel. The water is as close to gin-clear as water gets, and as a result, the trout from there down to Bethel can be as finicky as any in the state.
The first few river miles from Stockbridge downstream to Cobb Bridge is best reached by Route 107 rather than by Blackmer Boulevard, which parallels the river on its east side from Stockbridge to Cobb Bridge. A short walk off Route 107, this stretch is worth the hike for the fishing and the solitude. Every year, anglers at the deep Cobb Bridge pool hook some large fish at dusk when the fish come out from under the ledge rock wall to eat caddis. An Elk-hair Caddis fished with a slight twitch works well just before dark.
Superb dry-fly water begins at Cobb Bridge and continues downstream to the river's confluence with Stony Brook. The river swings well away from the road and hugs the base of the mountains, where it receives shade and stays relatively cool even in midsummer. A #12 Bivisible or Royal Coachman, cast to the long glides and gentle riffles, provides the action.
When you fish to skittish rising trout on these quiet waters, dress in muted colors and wade in slow motion. "Fishing far and fine" challenges the veterans here. They fish 12-foot leaders on 3- or 4-weights, making long presentations to "smutting" trout. These stretches provide excellent training grounds for flat-water hatch-matchers. They also provide easier riffle and pocketwater fishing for novices.
For a wonderful day trip, try your luck at the old concrete bridge abutments just above the confluence with Stony Brook. Start in the morning with a #14 Bead-head Caddis Pupa, then work up Stony Brook with a #14 Elk-hair Caddis dry in the afternoon. The trout are opportunistic, but they are sensitive to presentation, so a dragging fly results in refusals and spooked fish. Present your fly upstream whenever possible to get close to the trout in the riffles and pocketwater.
The water from Stony Brook Road downstream to Gaysville has everything—beautiful scenery, productive pocketwater, long riffles, deep pools, and big trout. Drys and nymphs take fish from the pocketwater if you keep your casts short. Productive patterns include the Adams Wulff (#8-#12) and Hare's Ears (#12-#16).
Tricos, one of the few dependable hatches, emerge in August and September, with the best dry-fly fishing occurring between 7:30 A.M. and noon. Clouds of tiny Trico spinners hover over pools, and pods of large fish wait for them to fall. The swimming hole just above Gaysville is particularly productive during this hatch, but be prepared to share the water with swimmers and tubers on warm summer days. Be ready to fish the hatch with 12-foot leaders, 7X tippets, and #22-#24 Trico thorax patterns.
Continued - click on page link below.
(Gaysville to South Royalton)
The White's only special-regulation water (artificials only, one fish over 18 inches bag limit) begins two miles downstream from the Gaysville bridge and stretches from Lillieville Brook downstream 3.3 miles to just below Cleveland Brook.
The special regs were implemented in 1994 to improve the wild-trout populations, especially rainbow trout, and to increase the overall size of trout. Fisheries biologists say it's too early to evaluate the success of the program, but this water is your best bet for a trophy fish on the Mainstem above Bethel. Trout over 16 inches are common, and I have seen several fish in excess of 24 inches during low-water periods.
The best way to reach the special-regs water is to get onto River Road in Gaysville and follow it along the river toward Bethel. My favorite fly for this section is a #14 olive or natural Hare's-ear Nymph, fished upstream, dead-drift, and with an indicator. Stonefly Buggers (#6-#10) and large attractor drys (Irresistibles, #10-#14) worked in the riffles and deeper runs also take fish.
If you are after trophy fish, on midsummer nights and at dawn you should scan the flat-water sections of this area for large cruising browns that move into the riffles to gorge themselves on the river's healthy crayfish and sculpin populations. Tie your best #4 crayfish pattern to a 3X tippet and listen for the sound of a trout working the shallows. Cast two feet ahead of the fish and hang on! Concentrate on the areas just above and below the salmon hatchery.
When you are fishing the Mainstem, be sure to fish barbless flies, particularly when using drys. The special-regs area and above contains as many as 2, 200 Atlantic-salmon parr per mile. These feisty youngsters are particularly vulnerable to small drys. Learn to differentiate them from trout, treat them gently, and release them unharmed. They are the future generation of salmon, ready after two years of life in the river to head to the sea.
The White's Third Branch empties into the Mainstem at Bethel after traveling almost 20 miles from its headwaters. This branch offers everything from beaver-pond brookies in its upper reaches to large browns and rainbows that hide in the undercut banks of the meandering meadow stream. The upper reaches above Randolph are best reached from Route 12A. The water upstream of the bridge in West Braintree has good fishing for aggressive wild trout. I caught my largest wild Vermont brook trout (14 inches) there on a #14 Adams Parachute. The Third Branch has a Trico hatch, but it is difficult to locate, especially in low-water years.
You can reach the lower areas below Randolph easily from the Lower Stock Farm Road, but access to some areas is limited by posted private property. Large (#4-#10) Woolly Buggers and leech patterns cast tight to the undercut banks just might get you the brown of a lifetime.
Below Bethel, the White runs parallel with Interstate 89 and Vermont Route 14 and continues downstream through South Royalton and Sharon. To explore the lower White, follow Vermont Route 14, which runs along the river's north shoreline. The river doubles in size and is much slower and susceptible to fluctuations in water temperature. The trout (brown and rainbow) share water with smallmouth bass that can run up to five pounds.
Some large browns inhabit this stretch of river, particularly in the deep pools. If you want a trophy brown or a large smallmouth bass, this is the place to explore, fishing early morning or late evening with large Dahlberg Divers, Marabou Muddlers, crayfish imitations, or Zoo Cougars. Use 6-weight floating lines or 130- to 200-grain heads swung across tailouts and shallows.
The White's Second Branch enters the Mainstem at the junction of Routes 107 and 14 in North Royalton. Flowing through a heavily farmed valley, it suffers from high water temperatures, serious siltation, and bank erosion. There are several pockets of brook trout in the open meadow reaches above East Randolph, but you must compete with the cows for casting space. These fish see few flies and will take almost anything small you present.
The Second Branch is a focal point of the local Trout Unlimited Chapter and the White River Partnership, a grassroots watchdog group interested in the river's conservation and restoration. The group in 1999 received a $1.5 million U.S. Forest Service grant to promote environmental awareness in the watershed. Streambank and habitat stabilization projects are on the agenda and hopefully will improve the fishing.
The First Branch runs through one of the most picturesque valleys in the state. Several covered bridges cross this 20-mile section, and ledge-rock waterfalls and plunge pools give it a quality all its own. Running south through Tunbridge, the First Branch enters the White at South Royalton. Route 110 provides easy access along the stream's entire length.
Fishing best in the early season, the First Branch suffers in midseason from high water temperatures. But when the water is warm, good fishing continues in the cooler headwaters above Flint Bridge, where you will find brooks, browns, and rainbows. A #6-#10 Kaufmann's Stonefly or a #4-#8 black Woolly Bugger thrown into the turbulent waters of the plunge pools can produce surprising results.
Standard 81/2- to 9-foot, 4- and 5-weight rods are good choices for fishing the White and its branches. Longer rods help remove line from the water while high-sticking and mending. A fast-action rod with reserve power in the butt section will help you throw large flies during runoff periods. On the smaller tribs, I scale down to slower-action rods of 61/2 to 71/2 feet in 0- to 3-weights.
It's a given that when fish are rising and there are naturals covering the water's surface, you must match the hatch. Unfortunately, during the other 95 percent of the time, picking the right fly can drive you to distraction. The White River defies many hatch-matching traditions: fly selection is relatively easy if you know a few facts.
My advice is to leave the hatch charts at home. They will only frustrate you. Most of the insects I find in Vermont rivers are caddis, and they are in the water column in some form all season. So, bead-head Caddis Pupa patterns (#12-#16) and Elk-wing Caddis drys (#10-#18) get the job done.
Nymphs for mayflies are best imitated with natural or olive Hare's-ear and Pheasant-tail Nymphs (#8-#18). Match duns with Hare's-ear Parachutes or olive Compara-duns (#12-#18). The predominant forage is crayfish and sculpin, and most imitations will catch hungry trout.
It's important to play the odds when fishing the White. Find some pocketwater and start with a caddis pupa imitation, fished upstream with a strike indicator. If you like streamers, try a #4 crayfish or wool-head sculpin. Cast down-and-across and retrieve it with short, quick strips. Big attractor drys (Humpy, #8-#12) will produce after the water warms in the spring. Fish them upstream and concentrate on your presentation. Simplify your fly fishing and get back to basics. It's not what fly is tied to the end of your tippet, but how you present it.
If You Go
Most visitors to this region fly into Boston, Hartford, or New York and rent a car and drive to Vermont. Area accommodations include some fine colonial and Victorian inns and bed-and-breakfast restorations that can be seen on the Virtual Flyshop (www.flyshop.com). Click on the Northeast Regional Center, then Flyshops, Guides and Oufitters; then Vermont; then Trout on the Fly. The site also has current river fishing conditions and weather forecasts. Chalet rentals are also available at the Hawk Mountain Resort in Stockbridge, www.hawkresort.com, (800) 685-4295.
Fishing Season. The Vermont fishing season opens the second Saturday of April and closes the last Sunday of October. For current regulations, visit the Vermont Fish and Wildlife web site at: http://www.anr.state.vt.us/fw/fwhome.
You can receive an excellent Green Mountain National Forest map (northern half) by sending $3 (includes postage) to the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Forest Service, 231 North Main Street, Rutland, VT 05701-2417, (802) 747-6700, or to the Middlebury Ranger District, RD 4, Box 1260, Middlebury, VT 05753, (802) 388-4362.
The Vermont Atlas and Gazetteer, provides excellent road, trail, and stream detail. It can be purchased from the DeLorme Mapping Company, P.O. Box 298, Yarmouth, ME 04096, (207) 846-7000, www.delorme.com.
Brad Yoder owns and operates Trout on the Fly, a professional fly-fishing guide service in East Randolph, Vermont. He runs the Mountain Trout Institute, a two-day school on small mountain stream fishing techniques.