Trout anglers from all over the world float flies in the eddies and pools of the Batten Kill, trying to land its elusive brook and brown trout.
SUNDERLAND, Vt. -- Trout anglers from all over the world float flies in the eddies and pools of the Batten Kill, trying to land its elusive brook and brown trout.
These days, it's harder than ever: A magnet for fly-fishing purists, the river has seen its fish populations decline. Still, when the state Department of Fish and Wildlife suggested stocking the Vermont section of the 30-mile river with 1,000 sterile rainbow trout, some saw it as sacrilege.
Now, the Batten Kill is engaged in a struggle for its soul. While hardcore fly fishermen are happy to release what they catch, casual anglers want more fish in the river _ and the right to keep their catch.
"It's unlike any other river in Vermont," said Eric Rickstad, president of the local chapter of Trout Unlimited. "It's deep. It looks slow, but it's pretty powerful, actually. And it's been known for great fishing, difficult fishing, even when the populations were way up."
It's not the same Batten Kill it once was.
Birdie Wyman of Arlington has lived her whole life along the river but gave up fishing in part because there were too many other people using it.
"You never see a kid with a can of worms fishing anymore," Wyman said. "My grandchildren have no concept of how much fun it used to be to fish that river."
Last month, The Orvis Co., a Manchester-based fly fishing outfitter, threatened to withdraw a $100,000 grant to help restore the river if the state follows through with the proposal.
Orvis CEO Leigh "Perk" Perkins equates fishing the Batten Kill to skiing an expert ski trail. Going for stocked fish, he says, is like skiing a beginner trail.
Vermont Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Wayne LaRoche is expected to decide sometime early next year whether to proceed with the stocking plan, which is part of a broader plan to restore habitat on the river.
The goal of the stocking is to put some fish in the river that people can catch while the wild and native populations rebound on their own. State officials know that no matter what they decide, people will be upset.
"We're trying to look at multiple value systems," said state fisheries director Eric Palmer. "We don't tend to take a side of only wild fish or only stocked fish. What can we do to meet the needs of multiple groups?"
Opponents of stocking say that even though the 10-12 inch rainbows would be sterile ones _ rendered so by changing the water temperature they're raised in _ and couldn't reproduce, they would compete with the wild trout and eventually push them out.
The water that eventually drains into the Batten Kill gets its start high in the Green Mountains, trickling south through and into New York, where it empties into the Hudson River.
The area first started attracting down-country anglers in the first half of the 19th century, when tourists from New York or Philadelphia traveled to Manchester. Over the generations, the fish remained and the mystique gradually grew.
Local inns cater to fly fishermen who are drawn to the Batten Kill.
"One of the reasons we came up here and bought the inn here was because it was on the Batten Kill," said Alan Edmunds, who owns the Batten Kill Bed and Breakfast in Sunderland.
"There are a lot of easier trout streams to fish, and there are a lot of places you can go to catch stocked trout," said Edmunds. "In this stream, if you catch fish out of there, it's kind of a gold medal."
Over the years, sections of the river have been straightened, trees cut from its sides and farm fields laid up to its banks.
The loss of trees was key. In addition to keeping the river shaded and its waters cool, trees provided refuge for intermediate-sized trout once they fell into the river.
In 2000, the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife imposed a catch and release requirement on the most heavily fished stretch of the Batten Kill. The lack of fishing pressure means there are more big fish in the river, but the numbers haven't increased, said Ken Cox, a biologist with the department.
Source: Associated Press