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The Best Fishing in Vermont?

Fishing the Willoughby River at the Choiniere-Willoughby Access outside Orleans

Are the good times over?

Spring on the Willoughby River - fishermen at one of Vermont's best fishing spots - the Willoughby River Fishing access

Every second week in April, fishermen throughout New England have flocked to the Choiniere-Willoughby River Access for a fishing experience like no other. The Willoughby flows north from Lake Willoughby to Lake Memphremagog.

In spring, the trout swim up river about 15 miles from Lake Memphremagog to spawn in the rocky shale of the river just below Lake Willoughby.

The river is known for its abundance of steelhead trout. Studies have shown that the steelheads in the Willoughby have five times the natural reproduction rates of trout in almost any other Vermont river. But, for the past several years the fishing hasn't been that good.

Nobody seems to know what the problem is. About 90% of the catches are put back in the river by the fishermen who catch them, so one can hardly blame the situation on over-fishing. Several members of the Orleans Rod and Gun Club lay the blame on the current restocking program. They say the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department is restocking the river in the wrong place. The fishermen want the current program stopped or modified. There's also some cross border fingering. The Vermont fishermen think the Canadians are overfishing Lake Memphremagog. The lake is home to the trout.

The Willougbhy River has undergone a number of restocking programs in the last 14 years and mistakes have been made. One of the early programs resulted in the restocking of fish with genetically defective hearts. The current program seeks to undo the damage by using only the original native fish in the river as breeding stock.

More information about the restocking program can be seen in this interview with state biologist Len Gerardi.

Unlike so many rivers elsewhere, the Willoughby River is still relatively unpolluted. It is rich in oxygen and particularly appealing to the Pacific coast steelheads which were introduced to the river in the early 1900s. This variety seems the most comfortable in the river according to VT Fish biologist Len Gerardi.

The state of Vermont derives general revenue from the collection of licensing fees. Restrictions on the number of fish you can catch are an important part of providing future income for the state while still providing a quality fishing experience through regulation and restocking programs. The apparent decline of fish in the Willoughby river may be a harbinger of things to come. Don't be surprised if tighter restrictions on what you can catch in Vermont lakes and rivers are imposed in future years.

Timothy Palmer-Benson

Annual fees for Vermont fishing licenses 2004:

The Willoughby River flows north into Lake Memphremagog

Map showing the location of the fishing access on the Willoughby river in NE Vermont

Willoughby River rapidsAnyone seen any fish jumping?

One of the aspects of the Willoughby river which used to make it unique was the opportunity every spring to see dozens of trout jumping the rapids just upstream from the fishing access. In the spring of 2004, the fish didn't start jumping until April 29th. It was a day when the temperature hit 80°F. Many people had waited a long time to see the spectacle. See our slide show

The falls is a wonderful spot to visit and remain an attraction throughout the year. You can see a 360˚panorama of the river in the fall here. You will need QuickTime to view it. View a scene from the Black River here.

If you are just fishing in central Vermont, the obvious choice is the Ottaquechee River which runs through Woodstock and Quebec and connects up with the Connecticut River. See our write up on fishing here and visit Marty Banek's Fly Fishing School.

Other rivers and fishing spots in Northeastern Vermont (the Northeast Kingdom)

While the Willoughby River is busy from the second Saturday in April through mid-May, there are lesser known areas such as the Barton and Black rivers where you can find steelheads without being in the midst of a crowd of anglers. The Black River runs through Coventry and also has some falls where you may spot some fish jumping in the spring. The river is said to have at least 20 runs and pools with the best fishing in April, May and into early June.

Did you know that many of the photos seen here on Scenes of Vermont are available for sale and download on