SWANTON — Last weekend, Middlebury Mountaineer fly fishing guides Jesse Haller and Wesley Butler headed up to Lake Champlain’s Missisquoi Bay to compete in one of the state’s largest fly fishing tournaments for bass: the third annual Ditch Pickle Classic.
At stake were fishing rods, gear and pride, as they were competing against more than 50 of the finest fly fishermen and -women in the state during this two-person team event.
The two seasoned river anglers didn’t have much experience fly fishing on northern Lake Champlain, and they had never fished in Missisquoi Bay. But by shooting up a nearby tributary and sticking to the Otter Creek fishing game they know and love, the Addison County duo nabbed fourth place in unfamiliar waters.
At 5 a.m. on Saturday, July 14, the local duo — calling themselves Bass to Mouth — cruised up to the competition area in Swanton. Rather than heading for the vast waters of the lake, they sped up to the Missisquoi River’s Swanton Dam to scout out the area from their oar-powered drift boat.
“We didn’t have a power boat like many of the other competitors, so we decided to stick with what we knew and did some river fishing,” said Haller, who is also the president of the New Haven River Anglers Association. “We had no specific plans. We didn’t know the area at all. We knew out on the lake we’d be dealing with wind. And with no trolling motor, we figured it might be tough.”
They quickly picked up two fish and figured the Missisquoi River stretch by the Swanton Dam was as good a place to fish as any.
They headed to the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge to check in with the competition organizers from Green Mountain Troutfitters fly shop in Jeffersonville and catch up with old friends, like Addison County fishing guide Brian Cadoret, whose team placed eighth out of 26 last weekend.
The rules were simple: The anglers had to use fly rods, fly lines and flies — including streamers, which imitate small fish, and poppers that mimic any number of different surface prey — and they could only fish on Lake Champlain and adjoining tributaries. To document catches, the anglers were required to take a picture of the fish laid out across a ruler and a shot of the angler holding the fish, known throughout the fishing world as the “grip ’n grin.”
As for points, 12-13-inch fish were one point, 14-15 inch were two points, 16-17 were worth three, 18-19 were four and 20-plus were worth five points. Anglers could also win special categories for catching exotic fish, smallest bass and the coveted big pickle, or the award for the biggest bass.
At noon, the fishing began.
Haller and Butler hightailed it back to Swanton Dam and got in the water.
“It was very hot,” said Haller. “The sun was beating down at 95 degrees and we took a water temp that came out at 80.”
The two Addison County anglers quickly realized that small one-to-two-inch streamers were working the best, imitating small fish.
“We were getting takes on the slowest deepest retrieves,” said Butler. “You would just wait and let it sink. We were getting snags more than getting fish.”
They then began switching things up. One would fish the top waters with a fly pattern called a popper, which is known for triggering bass’ senses with its popping vibrations in the water, and the other angler continued to fish the bottom waters with a streamer.
“It was a great team effort,” said Haller. “As soon as we figured out what was going on, we were bringing in fish every 10 minutes, but there was a size class so weren't keeping all of them.”
In that first day, the duo caught more than 50 fish, from large- and smallmouth bass to rock bass to perch to pumpkinseed.
“And Wesley wrestled in a snapping turtle,” said Haller, who added that the judges wouldn’t count it for the exotic species category. That award went to Kevin Favreau, who caught a 30-inch bowfin.
Later in the day, Haller switched things up once again and began wading out by the falls and fishing nymphs, or underwater flies that look like immature insects. The area was ripe for smallmouth bass, with big boulders scattered across the river.
As the sun began to dip, Haller caught his biggest pickle of the day — a 17-inch-plus small mouth bass. Within seconds of dropping a popper by the water’s edge, the big bass struck his fly with lightning force. He brought it in and gripped the fourth largest bass of the tournament. North Ferrisburgh’s Tim Davis reeled in the big pickle: a 20-inch largemouth bass.
The fishing stopped for the day at 9 p.m. and picked up at dawn the next morning. Haller and Butler went back to the Swanton Dam stretch and continued river fishing. At noon, when the tournament ended, the Addison County duo had 22 points.
But that wasn’t enough to keep up with “Big Rol” Roland Tremble, owner of Tie By Night Fly Shop in South Hero. He and his teammate Steve Dobrin — calling themselves the Old Grey Buggers — won the competition with 30 points. Tremble brought in 21 just by himself.
Haller landed a spot as the number four individual angler in the competition with 14 points, and Butler had eight points, tying three others for ninth place.
Although they didn’t win, the Bass to Mouth team had a great time and pledge to go back next year. Fishing in new waters, the local guides were glad to have had years of fishing trout in Otter Creek under their belts.
“We were trout fishing for bass,” said Haller. “We stuck with what we knew. We employed Otter Creek tactics.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]