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Brown Destinations Trout

Exploring Vermont’s White River

by Brad yoder   |  October 15th, 2015 1

The White’s small tributaries offer the adventure of exploration and the possibility of 30-fish days. Expect small trout on the tributaries. Photo: Tamara Hutzler

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.

The First Branch of the White near Tunbridge has pocketwater fishing for brookies, rainbows, and browns. The Second Branch (above) meanders through a valley and has large browns that hold under bankside cover. Former Fly Fisherman Associate Editor Craig Woods holds a wild rainbow taken from the main stem near Bethel. Photo Tamara Hutzler

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.

The White River’s main stem and three branches and their tributaries offer some of Vermont’s best freestone fly fishing to rainbows, browns, and brook trout. The main stem above Gaysville has superb pocketwater stretches, and long glides (above) where clear water makes fishing a challenge. Small tributaries hold wild native brookies. Photo: Hanson Carroll

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.


The Mainstem
(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.

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