On Vermont’s Ravaged White River, a Fisherman Looks for Home

Over a span of two days in 2011, Vermont’s White River was transformed by Hurricane Irene.

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J.W. Sotak

The White River is a heart. Fed by three major headwater arteries, it winds its way through the lazy hills of Central Vermont, feeding a lush valley that stretches nearly 60 miles from its source at Skylight Pond to where it joins the Connecticut River on the border of Vermont and New Hampshire. I grew up on this river. Along the miles of twisting, tumbling water, I cut my teeth, refining my cast, perfecting my display.

Over the years, specific stretches of the river became quiet angling companions to which I returned season after season. The pool below the old dam ringed with swirling eddies taught me how to coax fat brown trout from the depths. The white-haired riffle where the river jackknifed showed me how to tempt rainbows with streamers and nymphs. In the afternoons, I shaded myself beneath a stand of silver birches that leaned out over the green water.

But Mother Nature had big plans for the White. By the time Hurricane Irene reached Vermont in August of 2011, it had been downgraded to a tropical storm. The high winds that had accompanied it when it made initial landfall had dissipated, but it brought rain, and lots of it. According to information from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, Irene dropped three to five inches of rain in roughly 24 hours. Some areas reported rainfall up to seven inches.

The result for the White was disastrous.

In studied streams and river sections, scientists reported native trout populations were reduced to 33 to 58 percent of pre-flood levels.

In less than a day, the river became an unstoppable leviathan. It ripped apart its banks, stripping them of vegetation. It expanded into flats and farmland, scooping up homes and vehicles as it went. It destroyed countless roads and bridges, leaving communities stranded and cut off. A flood gauge marked water levels at 10.4 feet above the flood stage, the second highest on record.

In the weeks following the flood, the state of Vermont assessed that the flood had damaged 500 miles of state roads and compromised 200 bridges. Over 2,000 segments of municipal roads were destroyed. Hazardous waste spills reported to the state increased by a factor of 14. 17 wastewater treatment facilities reported compromised operations.

The damage ran deeper than infrastructure. In studied streams and river sections, scientists reported native trout populations were reduced to 33 to 58 percent of pre-flood levels, citing increased water turbidity and pollution levels. Extreme scour from powerful floodwaters reduced total fish and macro-invertebrate numbers and increased silt deposits, negatively altering the habitat of several species. Elevated nutrients deposited by standing floodwaters led to the increased growth of algae and Japanese knotweed (a non-native, invasive species).

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Gradually, the waters ebbed. Roads and bridges were repaired and rebuilt. Communities hardest hit by the deluge began to heal. Farmers replanted; ball fields were restored. Months melted into years. But though things appeared normal around the White, scars remained.

Two full years after the flood, I happened upon an experienced angler friend of mine during a trip home. I hailed him as he slid out of his Jeep, still dressed in his spring fishing gear. “How was the catch?”

“A 16-inch Brown,” he said. Then, quickly, before I could ask: “Threw him back — not so sure he’d be okay to eat.”

* * *

When I finally returned to the White earlier this year I was optimistic. The fishing reports were tepid, but there was a fresh hatch, and with the water temperature still in the 50s, I figured I could sniff out some hungry fish.

I started my day on the main branch, a stretch of swift water that twists along Vermont Route 107. As I sped west, I surveyed the river. The banks, which had once been thick with trees, were bare, dry and yellow. Shoots of sumac waved in the dim morning. I pulled off and collected my kit, thumping my way down a worn footpath to a twisted little section of river where I had always been successful. The bank was snarled with trees and brush, the dry bones of a forest that had been swept into piles by the raging floodwaters. I looked for familiar signposts on the bank and in the water and, finding none, tossed a small Woolly Bugger into a choppy section of the river. The sun crept over the mountains, climbing up and over my shoulders. I stripped line. I cast. The river was quiet.

Dejected, I packed up and pointed the truck east toward Third Branch, the first of the three cold waterways that feed the White from the north. I drove up and down the ribbon of water, ducking down dirt roads that snaked into the deciduous forest. The area was so changed that I quickly became turned around. At points, the river was no more than a tea-colored basin, far changed from the chuckling water I had once known. After 30 minutes of driving, I worked back out to the main road and pushed onward.

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Second Branch was even quieter. Despite the looming afternoon doldrums that trout anglers avoid, I kept at it, throwing an Adams and an Elk Hair Caddis. I ranged thin, cold rapids. I probed green pools. The river I had known so well had disappeared. Every bend looked marred. The banks of my memory were deformed and alien. A favorite stony riffle was covered in fine silt; the deep eddy-ringed pool seemed fat and lazy. In an act of desperation, I tied on a big Stimulator, awkward and ambiguous and, hopefully, appealing to finicky fish. Still nothing.

The sun crept over the mountains, climbing up and over my shoulders. I stripped line. I cast. The river was quiet.

The sun started to slip toward the mountains. Weary, I decided to pack it in. I followed the long arcs of the river, its full form sweeping through the lush valley. I cruised past Ainsworth’s farm; his cows lay in patches of black and white. As I drove, I watched the water slip by beside me and silently mourned the memory of the river that I had lost.

Somewhere in the corner of my eye, I saw a series of concentric circles rippling across a glassy elbow in the water. I pulled over and scrutinized the water. There was a second rise, then a third. I jumped from the truck and trotted towards the water, my rod tapping the air in approval.

The Blue Winged Olive touched the water and lingered there for a few seconds. Every shred of my focus was on its slender green body. The Olive disappeared in a watery explosion. The reel sang. I felt the trout cutting back and forth in the dark water. I coaxed the fish closer, caught a glimpse of its speckled side. In a final frenzied spasm, the brown turned and dived, breaking the tippet and disappearing into the inky green.

I smiled as pulled myself out of the water and humped back up the bank, finally feeling at home.

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