Sports Column: Five years in Vermont and still energizing; Haller is a fishing power
When the fifth annual Otter Creek Classic fly-fishing tournament kicks off this Saturday, preceded on Friday evening by the third consecutive sold-out showing of the Fly Fishing Film Tour at the Town Hall Theater, participants of both events will have Ripton resident Jesse Haller to thank.
Haller — who is the lead fly fishing guide and shop manager in charge of fly-fishing merchandise at the Middlebury Mountaineer, the current president of the New Haven River Anglers Association, and a newly minted “Professional Guide Ambassador” for Simms fishing products — moved to the area five years ago.
Despite his impressive fishing résumé, however, it wasn’t fishing that brought him to Vermont: He came in pursuit of Kate Recupero, the love of his life, and now his wife and the mother of his three-year daughter, Peyton.
Indeed, Jesse would certainly not have been lured here for the fishing alone. Before his move to Ripton, he had been a professional guide in Colorado, working (and fishing) around Durango and Breckenridge in some of the country’s most incredible trout water. There really weren’t many places in the world he could have gone and found better wild trout fisheries than already available just outside his door. But he had met Kate, a native of Ferrisburgh, when both were in school together in Durango. And when she returned to Vermont, he followed her.
Although the trout fishing in Addison County is a step down from what he was used to, Jesse was nonetheless ready for the move after working as many as 28 days a month guiding.
“I was actually ready to take a step back from guiding so much,” he admitted.
While he loved the professional level of detailed knowledge he had of the rivers he worked, Jesse was afraid of getting burned out from guiding too much. He didn’t want to end up hating fishing. On a scouting trip to Vermont, he contacted Steve Atocha of the Middlebury Mountaineer, and received an invitation to come and work in the shop and take over the guiding and fly-fishing section.
“That opportunity was very attractive to me,” Jesse explained. “I could still do some guiding, but could combine that with working in a shop. I could enjoy the passion of fishing through both aspects without getting burned out on either.”
He now spends about 50 days a year personally guiding, while also managing a crew of other guides. And he gets to spend lots of time in the shop. And Jesse’s relationship with the Middlebury Mountaineer and with Steve has been good for both.
“Steve was involved with fishing, interested in fishing, supportive of fishing. But also had a passion for kayaking and for kayak instruction (especially of youth) and didn’t have as much time to devote to building up fishing and guiding,” Jesse said.
Jesse, with his focus on fly-fishing — and after spending his first year doing lots of exploring and getting to know the local rivers, and their ecology and insects and characters — was able to do a great deal. He provided an improved online fishing report through the shop, and over the years has also helped to dramatically increase its inventory of fly-fishing gear: more rods, more reels, more apparel. And quite a selection of flies.
“I’ve brought in some western infusion of flies, including some brighter colors, along with maintaining some of the sort of eastern Catskill classics,” Jesse explained.
He is proud that the store now says “fly shop” on the outside, and is also quick to give credit: “Steve has been monumentally supportive and has fostered the growth.”
Jesse’s passion for fishing goes well beyond his work in the shop and guiding, however. Jesse wants to get people excited about fishing, rivers and ecology. And that has been a benefit for Addison County. Since arriving in December of 2008, he has injected considerable energy into the local fishing scene — and made quite a few good angling friends in the process. He quickly got involved in with the New Haven River Anglers’ Association (NHRAA), and after serving as treasurer became president.
“The club has an amazing tradition, level of support, and infrastructure,” he said, boasting of past and current visionary leadership of folks like Pete Diminico and current NHRAA conservation chairman Stever Bartlett. He is excited that the group has spent close to $10,000 recently on conservation projects including tree planting, as well as education like the Women in Waders program.
“There is an amazing young membership, too,” he added. “They like to have fun. To fish. It’s a group of people who really love what they do.”
It is one of the reasons he founded the Otter Creek Classic (OCC) and a year later enhanced the weekend by bringing the Fly Fishing Film Tour (FFFT) to Middlebury. As a guide, he had competed in tournaments out west, and enjoyed them and the way they brought folks together in a competitive, but also friendly, environment.
But there was another benefit, too; all the proceeds go to the NHRAA and help support its conservation efforts. Thanks to the success of the event, the weekend brings in about $3,500 to the club. Within two years, the OCC had grown from 15 to 40 competitors, while sponsorship has also increased. In the third year Jesse divided into two categories, pro and amateur, to keep the competition fair and fun.
“Plus,” he added, “though there are prizes based on fish caught, most of the stuff goes in raffle so everybody has a chance.”
This year he is expecting 70 entries, including some from Quebec, New Hampshire, and New York in the professional guide category. Similarly, the FFFT sold 225 seats a month in advance this year, making it one of the largest showings east of the Mississippi, larger even than some metropolitan areas.
As for leaving the blue-ribbon waters of Colorado and coming east to a land without any famous trout streams, Jesse has been more than pleasantly surprised. He is actually “astounded” by quality of fishing. He appreciates the fact that most of the local waters, perhaps precisely because they are not well-known, don’t experience the overcrowding of the western rivers.
He has also come to appreciate — and to advocate for — the great fishing we have for warm-water species: pike in Otter Creek, bass in Lake Champlain, and either or both in lots of other lakes and ponds throughout the area. He wants to open awareness to these other opportunities.
More than anything, though, it has been the community of anglers and their passion for the sport and friendliness toward each other that has left Jesse most impressed about the area —and (aside from Kate) given him the best reason to be happy he moved here.