Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday Angler Interview: Jesse Haller

Jesse with a nice winter brownie!
For the second installment of  the Friday Angler Interview I hit up my buddy Jesse Haller. Jesse is a relative newcomer to the Vermont fly fishing scene but he has a great background with the long rod and guiding. I met him several years ago when I was giving a talk about warm water fishing in Vermont for the New Haven River Anglers Association. His enthusiasm and passion for the sport was obvious and I liked him immediately! Since then he has really done a lot of great things to put the Middlebury Mountaineer on the map as a great fly shop and guide service. He has also been a key figure in putting together the Otter Creek Classic tourney together and to bring the Fly Fishing Film Festival to Vermont this year- both of which benefit the NHRAA.
How did you get your start with fly fishing?

I've been fishing since I was able to hold my 3ft Snoopy rod. Mostly in part to my father, Rick's, love of trout fishing. I think I was around 9 or 10 when my dad took me out one evening with a fly rod, down to Black Earth Creek during some sort of hatch. I don't remember what was coming off, but I remember we were using parachute ants and they were working. I continued learning over the years, definitely trial and error period of my angling career. I still threw conventional tackle sometimes, especially when we were focusing on warm water species. We often vacationed to Northern Wisconsin, to the Chippewa Flowage area to fish for the big toothy fish. This area now seems to be getting quite a bit of attention from fly anglers for its muskie fishing. Things got much more serious for me when I moved to CO. It didn't take long for me to shift into “trout bum” mode, skipping class, and trimming hair from my dog, Eowyn, to tie caddis.

I have heard you say that you got your start guiding in Colorado. Where did you guide and what were you catching?

I'm hoping Jesse was just excited and not getting goosed!
I started in Durango. I was working at a restaurant in the evenings and it freed my summer days to go out and explore. The Animas river was never more then a 5 minute walk away from any of the places I lived. When I finally scored a guiding job, I was low man on the totem pole. I was forced to spend my first season waiting for the summer business or getting an occasional trip that was handed down through the other guides. I was lucky enough to have some great guides take me under their wing, and the first year taught me quite a bit about the “art of guiding”. We spent most of our time guiding the Animas and the San Juan after Browns and Bows, occasionally heading over to the Rio Grande or the Doloras or heading higher in elevation for cutty's. It was also the first time, on my own, I started fishing more aggressively for warm water species. The last summer I was in Durango I had worked myself into some seniority and was busy guiding. That was also the summer, a mentor, taught me how to row, and it quickly became one of my favor ways to guide and personally fish. When I moved to Summit county, it was like a shot of adrenaline. In every direction there was a high quality water system. The Colorado, Arkansas, and South Platte were the rivers I spent most of my time guiding. The Blue River, which was a technical tailwater fishery, was just down the road. A handful more rivers were within a short drive. With Breckenridge's accessibility from the I-70 corridor, I was busy guiding, sometimes not even getting a day off to fish by myself in a week. Repetition on the river and behind the oars gave me a better ability to notice more subtle changes in fish and insect behavior from day to day and how to guide a vast array of different clients. 
What made you pull up roots and head to Vermont?

It was combination of things. My girlfriend, Kate, who I met while going to college in Durango, is from Ferrisburgh, VT. During a extended vacation here in the fall of 2007, I started helping out at the Middlebury Mountaineer. I spent much of my free time out fishing around Addison County and was very surprised by the options an angler had and even more surprised by the lack of fishing pressure. After returning to CO at the beginning of the winter I guided another season in Summit County, and was ready for a change. I had had some dialog with Steve, the owner of Middlebury Mountaineer and Green Mountain Adventures, throughout that year and I decided to come to Vermont. Vermont reminds me quite a bit of Wisconsin and even of Colorado sometimes. I'm lucky enough to have a place up in the Green Mountains, on one of the branches of the Middlebury. 
I can imagine there are some significant differences in fishing Colorado and Vermont. What would you say they are?

There are a few differences, the biggest difference is water. The west has so much cold water. The water levels in the west are primarily based on snow pack. All that cold, clean, and highly oxygenated water makes for the best trout habitat. With all that water, it means big river systems. Trout per mile ratios and fish size were commonly high. Vermont's summer water levels are based quite a bit on rain so if it's a dry year, like last year, some of the watersheds will have highly stressed fish. The tailwater fisheries of Colorado offer fantastic winter fishing with healthy populations diptera and in some, mysis shrimp. Extensive use of the river systems in the west, commercially and privately, and implications of water rights, the managing agencies invest into conserving and improving the watersheds and in some cases, teamed with special interest groups, are very interested in doing so. There is a strong fly fishing culture of younger anglers as well. Most guides I worked with were in their twenties.

Vermont has many great fishing opportunities to offer as well. The biggest thing that stood out to me was lack of fly fishing pressure. There are sections of local rivers I can walk and only see my own foot prints. These are good stretches of water and people either haven't found them or don't want to put the time in to get there. There are big fish all over the place in Vermont, you just need to put in a little work and you can have a shot at them. Another huge bonus is access. Rivers all over the west are being privatized. Unlike Vermont, the riverbed in Colorado is susceptible private property laws, so that can limit your options pretty quick. This was avoided in some ways by drifting through these sections on a boat, but now their are some court cases trying to take that right away too. Getting your boat stuck on a rock or anchoring in the middle of the river surrounded by private property, is technically trespasing. Water rights are a huge issue in the west. It's not just Colorado's water, but it's Utah's or Arizona's, so anybody downstream has a say on what to do with the water. In Vermont I can just find a public access point and walk up or down the river where I need to go. I've been chased off of private water in the west by guys with shotguns and a dog or two. 
Jesse has been working on pike fly fishing quite a bit!
I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of the extent of warm water species fishing you can do here. For what Vermont may lack in trout fishing(which isn't much), it makes up for in warm water species. Bass, Pike, Carp and several other species have healthy populations in Vermont. The last few summers have been very exciting to try and take advantage of these resources. Lake Champlain has so many choices its hard to know where and on what, species to start. Warm water species are of growing interest in fly fishing and it won't be long until that catches on here. If you look solely at the extent of the Bass Master tournaments in the area, it clearly indicates the quality of the resource.

What about differences in guiding?

It took me awhile to adjust to fish population. I have found that in some situations, that just because it looks good doesn't mean its holding a fish. I have to strategize a bit better, and know that every fish counts, its not like days I've guided on the Arkansas River, where you lose a fish and then you cast into the next seam a foot over and hook up again. I spend much more time scouting then I did before, looking for fish and trying to keep a close eye on hatches when applicable. The bugs and the baitfish are very similar, just the arrival schedule of said insects vary a bit. But other then that, its the same. You need to put you time in on the water, the vise, and love what you do. I've been lucky, I have had some of the best clients any guide could have. No real horror stories, just a few deeply imbedded hooks.

Since you got to the Middlebury Mountaineer it seems like there has been a greater emphasis on fly fishing. Do you have any big changes to tell us about for this year?

Wild fish for Jesse
We have lots going on in the shop this year. Besides just a bigger selection , we are starting to offer the warm water fly angler many more options. From Rods, to lines, to tackle. We are proud to be able to offer our customers some custom flies tied by local warm water guide and Master Class Angler..Uh.?....what's his name?... I can't remember? Sage, Fisknat, Cliff Outdoors, and Umpqua are all new to us this year, on top of an already fantastic group of dealers. But what I'm most excited about is the addition of Float Trips this season. I recently purchases a 13ft raft with fishing frame for guiding with. This is the same rig I guided out of for years in Colorado. I spent the last two seasons dragging my 2 person cataraft, with the help of fellow guides, in and out of some rivers trying to find places to float. Scouting for put-ins and take out's was a big challenge. Sometimes we found great water, other times we found ourselves in a sea of neddles. Drift fishing has always been one on my favorite ways to experience a river. With the ability to stand and fish from the boat, it puts almost every riffle, seam, and cut bank within casting distance. I'm really excited to get back behind the oars to guide again. Besides trout we have some great bass water to float.

What separates your guide service from some of the others in the area? 

Jesse is gonna get you suckas!
I don't know if it separates us from anybody else but we have a few characteristics we are proud of and we think that we do them well. Experience, Professionalism, and loving what we do. This will be my 7th season as a full-time guide and 10th year in the industry. In that time, I worked for some good shops and I've work for some not-so-good shops. I've seen what works and what doesn't. I've used those experiences to help shape something that not only benefits our clients but hopefully the sport in general. We have a great staff, the owner, Steve Atocha has been very supportive of pushing this movement forward and allowing me to take the reigns. I'm really excited to have guide, Wesley Butler on board this year. He personifies what passion in guiding is all about. He is a talented angler, teacher, and oarsmen. He has that X factor, that you can't quite put you finger on but it sets him aside from others. He works hard to not only offer his clients the best information and opportunities, but to improve himself as an angler and tyer every chance he gets.

I first met you at a meeting of the New Haven River Anglers Association. You are now heavily involved in the organization of the NHRAA and have set up a couple of great events to help raise funds.  Tell me about the idea for the Otter Creek Classic, how it works, and where people can join in the fun.

The idea spawned from some of the guide tournaments I fished in while in Colorado. Getting the opportunity to fish against some of the best guide's in the west was a great challenge and it pushed me to become a better angler. It was never really about competing but more about getting people together for a good cause, socializing with other guides and anglers from all over, and challenging myself. When I arrived in Vermont I really wanted to continue competing, but on closer examination the opportunity wasn't available. So I created the Otter Creek Classic Opening Day Fly Fishing Tournament. Its a catch and release tournament, so anglers need to have a digital camera or cell phone camera to document their catch. Entry is $25. You are allowed to fish from sunrise on opening day, April 9th, 2011, until you return your scorecard to the Middlebury Mountaineer around 3:00pm. I tried to keep it simple as far as judging, the event is scored in total inches of trout caught. There are stipulations on minimum trout size. All fish must be netted, measured, photographed and safely released to score the points from that fish. The boundaries of the event are the entire Middlebury and New Haven River systems and a large section of Otter Creek. A more in depth list of rules is available on the Middlebury Mountaineer website ( The event is sponsored by almost all of our Fly Fishing product dealers, but we get a large amount of help from Patagonia. For the first time in the event's 3 year history, guides and industry professionals are separated from amateurs creating two brackets, each having a chance to have their name engraved on the OCC champion plaque. We offer prizes for competitors who place, the biggest overall fish and a raffle for everybody who competes. Last year we had almost $2000 in prizes. Most importantly all profits from both the OCC3 and FFFT are donated to the NHRAA for conservation use.

Has the OCC been very successful in the past?  Do you have any future plans to expand or change the event at all?

The first year it was a pretty small event, we had around 15 competitors. Last year was almost 40. We were able to give several hundred dollars to the NHRAA, so I think any time you can assist with a group like the NHRAA, its a success. I believe many competitors would agree that the events have been a success in the past as well and that's important, because if nobody participated then the event wouldn't exist. Each year we have had a great group of anglers come out, I see a lot of commrodary in the group too, its an excellent when anglers come together and get enjoy the sport as a group. 
Every winter leading up to the event I get more and more ideas for the OCC. This year was the addition of the Fly Fishing Film Tour. The whole event is really a celebration of another opening day, finally getting to start working on all the things you were thinking of doing all winter long. In the short term, I'd like to include a team event too. Where 2 anglers fish as a team. I always enjoyed team competition. Looking down the road I would like to host a series of events over the course of the season. Perhaps a warm water species event and a cumulative final points event. 
You have been instrumental in bringing the Fly Fishing Film Festival to Middlebury as part of the Otter Creek Classic. How did that all come about?

The FFFT is a great event, I used to go see the movie when I lived in Colorado. I wanted to expand the OCC event a bit, but I wanted to have something that anybody could participate in, not just a fly angler. People who are just fans of fishing or the outdoors will enjoy the movie. With all of the profits going to the NHRAA, conservation has never been so easy. Patagonia and our sales rep Peter Whitney were pivotal in bringing the event to Middlebury. Patagonia is a strong supporter of both events and watershed conservation in general.

When will the FFFT be hitting town and where can people get tickets?

Middlebury Mountaineer and Patagonia will be hosting the FFFT at the Marquis Theater, on Main St, in downtown Middlebury on April 8th, 2011 at 7:30pm. Competitors of the OCC are having a pre-event meeting that night at 6:30pm at Middlebury Mountaineer and will be headed over to watch after the meeting. Tickets for the FFFT are $10. You can buy tickets in advance at the Middlebury Mountaineer, (802)388-7245, we will also have a will call for people traveling to the event. A few tickets may still available on

Let’s get back to some fishing… What do you personally want to catch that you haven’t caught yet?

Well the list is long but high on that list would be a ocean run salmonid, either steel or salmon and a gar. There are several fish I have caught, but not in this region, that I would like to get to the net. Muskie and Carp are big on that list. 
Is there some fishing you really want to dial in better this year?

I really just want to keep growing as an angler. I still can walk away from an productive day on the water and feel like I could have done some things better. There are a few VT water systems I would really like to understand better.

Anything else that comes to mind?

Jesse working a seam for trout this winter while fishing with me
I am optimistic for the future of fly fishing, but we must continue to work hard to maintain our fisheries. Fly fishing historically has set a lot of boundaries. I felt for awhile that fly fishing was a very privileged sport. A certain amount of “snobbery” exists. As the sport progresses, its refreshing to see affordable equipment, anglers of all tactics sharing water, and a younger crowd starting to show more interests. The stereotypical vision of a old man standing in the river, with hip waders on, casting only dry flies to rising trout is starting to fade. The new wave of anglers are scouting for carp or bass, or learning to throw Skagit style spey rods. Its that next generation that is really important. If we can't spark interest in fishing in age of smart phones, all the work and tradition will be slowly lost. The “A River Runs Through It” generation is coming to an end, so whats next? Climate change is warming our water and native stocks of fish are being wiped out, replaced with put and take fisheries. Every angler who loves their sport needs to do what they can so we can not only maintain what we have accomplished but make it better for everybody yet to come.

Thanks for having me Drew

Jesse- the pleasure is all mine!  If you are in the Middlebury, VT area and are looking for a trout guide or some fly fishing gear the Middlebury Mountaintaineer should be the place to stop! I am definitely looking forward to spending some more time on the water with Jesse this year myself.

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