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  • Writer's pictureStephen Birchard

A Rite of Passage

Updated: Aug 28, 2021

I take each step slowly, deliberately, then stop and listen. Cedar waxwings are chirping. A light breeze stirs bushes on the bank. There is a rhythm to the sounds, especially the sound of water rushing through my legs. I carefully take another step. The sun has not yet peaked above the horizon. It is a good time to be on the river.

Several yards upstream, beyond a gentle bend, there is a strange cloud hovering over the water. The cloud is undulating up and down, quickly. As I get closer, I realize it is a cloud of tricos; tiny, winged insects with long tails that have just hatched from the depths of the water. They are enjoying their newfound freedom of flight, even for just a few hours of their short lifespan. Several birds are darting back and forth in the cloud, having breakfast.

I take more steps, now toward the cloud. I am bending down and staying in the shadows. Each step must be quieter than the last; even the slightest splash is to be avoided. Below the cloud of tricos there should be trout, but they are easily spooked. To them I look like a giant unknown predator. If they see me, they will move to a safer place. When stalking trout, you play the game by their rules.

I am merely a visitor to this place. I have no seniority, rank, or privilege. To be accepted one must be invisible. Observe, listen, make no sounds, move slowly, blend in. Show respect. Eventually, they might ignore you.

Now I listen more carefully. I stare at the clear, cold water. A thin line of frothy bubbles runs along the river bend, a few feet from the bank. I focus on this area, expectantly. Several minutes pass. Finally, I hear a faint little pop, and see a tiny splash in the line of bubbles, then another, and another. The tiny splash leaves a slowly expanding circle on the surface that gently moves downstream. They are eating the tricos before they can take flight. This is the holy grail of fly fishing; I have found rising fish.

I’m trembling slightly, heart racing. (Calm down. Breathe deep; feel the warmth of the sun on the back of your neck.) I take a dry fly only slightly larger than a mosquito from my box and clumsily tie it onto leader that is only slightly thicker than a human hair. Once secured, the fly is dropped, and the rod readied for the cast. Putting the fly over the hungry fish will be difficult. I’m in a narrow hallway bordered by trees and bushes. Not enough room for a back cast: roll cast is my only option.

The fly and line must fall gently on the water. Even a minimal disturbance on the surface will scare the trout and put them down. Aim for the line of bubbles, upstream, then let the fly float over the feeding fish. Maybe they will think it’s real.

The first cast fails. The fly doesn’t go far enough, lands too close to me, well away from the line of bubbles. The fly is so small I can barely see it. Try again, same result. Roll cast not working. I slowly move to a spot where I can make a back cast. The line goes back but does not go forward. The fly is stuck in the leaves of a tree. Damn.

I don’t belong here. After all, this is a river with history, where fishermen of much greater knowledge and skill have cast their flies. It is the jewel of New England. Books have been written about this place; a company named Orvis was born here. I’m not yet worthy of catching trout in these sacred waters.

I clumsily retrieve my fly from the tree, but in the process manage to disturb the sensitive fish. They are no longer rising. They are thinking; “You’ll have to do a lot better than that.” I take a few steps downstream and wait. The fish in this river are smart.

After a few minutes, they start to rise again. Pop, splash, circle, and repeat. I move back into position. Try a cast, still not far enough. Another cast, this one is in the line of bubbles, but it doesn’t float naturally. The water near me is flowing faster than the line of bubbles and the fly line abruptly drags the fly across the river. It is the right fly, but a poor presentation. The fish ignored it; they recognize an imposter. Cast again; fish are rising everywhere except on my fly. Cast again, mend the line, one finally takes it.

I pull the rod up and set the hook, the fly line tightens, and the fight is on. He darts this way and that. He jumps out of the water, then splashes back in. It’s a small fish; soon I coax him near me and in my net. It is a beautiful brook trout, pale green body, orange belly, tiny red spots. I quickly remove the tiny hook, hold my prize briefly in my hand, then release him back to his domain. He swims away quickly, in a straight line away from me.

My heart is pounding. I look around and savor the moment. It is exhilarating. I feel like I have been given a gift. I caught a fish in the famous Battenkill River.

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