“I loved coming here for 33 years,” says Marty Banak, founder and former owner and operator of Wilderness Trails and the Vermont Fly Fishing School at the Quechee Inn at Marshland Farms. “This was my spot.”
Wilderness Trails was an all-season outdoor hub that rented outdoor equipment such as canoes, kayaks, and bikes, gave cross-country skiing lessons, and housed the Vermont Fly Fishing School where Banak taught fly-fishing to eager fishermen and women, young and old, visiting or staying year-round in Vermont.
Banak first started the Wilderness Trails business in 1981 at 28 years old alongside his childhood friend Larry Boymer. The business began with cross-country skiing. Boymer’s wife was working at the Quechee Inn at Marshland Farm, and the then-owners, Michael and Barbara Yaroschuk, loved the idea. They gave them the little red building out back, a woodstove, and a snowmobile and a 33-year-long legacy began.
It was the second summer that Banak stayed in Vermont and incorporated summer activities into Wilderness Trails such as biking, canoing, and, of course, fly-fishing. Larry Boymer had left the budding business after his family began to grow, though Banak and he remain very good friends. Banak recalls that his venture into guided fishing began by accident. He would take the Inn’s canoe out on Dewey Pond to catch bass. The pond, according to Banak, used to be the best bass lake around (before the milfoil weed invaded) with people coming to fish from 50 miles away. He recalls coming back into the Inn with his catch and guests would say: ‘That’s cool! Can I go?’ and Banak said, Yeah I’ll show you! Come on!’ “And I started just showing people where to catch fish.”
Banak fell in love with fishing at an early age. “I have always loved fishing since I was a little boy,” he said. He attributes this love to the ‘fishing gene’ as no one else in his family fished.
As interest in fly-fishing increased, the Vermont Fly Fishing School was born. Banak purchased sets of waders, enough Old Town canoes to become an Old Town dealer, and started tying flies at the Inn. That was a selling point, according to Banak, “They’d see you up there and wanna do it.” He remembers teaching students to cast against the red barn at the Inn, and utilizing a little textbook to help students pick up the fundamentals. He remembers sending out young kids with an interest in fishing with a pole over to the landing at Dewey Pond. “I’d spread coffee grounds from the inn – worms love coffee grounds – so we’d dig back there and teach the kids. I’d give them a little bucket and they’d fill it with little fish.”
Banak recalls the ones who would be bitten by the bug: “When you taught fly fishing, you’d know pretty quick the ones that reminded you of you, the ones that loved it. Those are the ones who would come back.” He recalls one of his students fell so much in love with the sport, he became a guide in Montana, making a career out of fly-fishing for years. “He went out west just to fly-fish,” Banak says.
Most of Banak’s guiding was on stream. He recalls taking now-dear friends and Quechee residents, the Sallahs, out on fishing trips. With Bruce Sallah and his three boys, Banak fondly remembers emptying out many-a-tipped-over canoe. Banak still fishes with Sallah when he visits the area.
Another fellow that Banak guided over many years loved fishing for more than just the sport. Dr. Dan Mintz, Banak said, “would come and say ‘Take me fly-fishing.’ But through those years when we’d fish, he would say, ‘Just let me sit on a rock, just listen to the sound of the water, and look at the color of the stones through the ripple water.’ He didn’t care if he caught a fish or not. He was the most delightful person to fish with because of his appreciation of that. He would just love that.”
Part of fly-fishing is knowing the fish. Banak talked about getting close to the fish, getting quiet, and knowing what the fish is looking for. “You catch the most fish close,” he said, “You learn the fish and understand how he’s thinking and the food he wants and how it moves in the water.” Banak discussed the difference between mayflies and caddisflies, and how knowing they move differently in the water affects how a fisherman should use the bait. “Behavior is critical. The behavior is what convinces the fish it’s food.” Banak gets into the fish’s mind, “What has he been seeing lately by this time of year? What’s been active and how does it move? How do I make that little shape and size and make it behave right?”
Banak says fish are found “where food and safety meet” and compares the fish to little kids: “They’re a little like kids at the ice cream stand,” recalling fishing on the Ottauquechee behind the White Cottage. “When the food comes in, the fish will be like, ‘Me first! Me first!”
Knowing the fish inside and out also helps Banak know the best spots in Quechee for fly-fishing. Understanding the habits of fish, such as trout seeking out cool spots in the river in warm weather, a process called ‘thermal refuge,’ helped Banak know where to bring guests. In the summer, due to this thermal refuge, Banak says, “The Ottaquechee, basically from about the Lincoln Covered Bridge down, is the best.”
“The Ottaquechee was my favorite river, Banak says. He says that, in his opinion, faster flowing waters, the smaller width of the river, and the better insect life create an ideal place for fishing – and catching bigger fish – than, say, the White or Connecticut rivers. “The Ottaquechee is so little that they’ll stay in one little pool and get all caught,” Banak says.
When Banak mentions catching fish, he’s quick to point out that his style of fishing is catch-and-release. “We were almost always catch and release,” especially when it came to endangered native fish populations such as the Brook Trout – or Brookies – who have to compete against the hatchery-released Rainbow Trout. “If someone would catch a Brook Trout, I’d say, ‘Please let’s not hurt that, that’s a survivor. His genes are so valuable, let’s be real careful and let him go. That’s the genes you want to stay. You don’t want to take that.”
While the river is a central feature for fishing in Quechee, Lake Pinneo, according to local fisherman and QLLA resident, Michael Sowa (whose father Paul was a good friend of Banak’s for years and helped him work on his trail) is also a great spot for beginners. Echoing Banak’s mantra of catch-and-release, he says Pinneo – in a spot away from the swimmers and golfers – is “great for getting a feel for casting and catching a fish – you can catch on every cast and it’s more fun to learn while catching!” Pinneo has a healthy population of bluegills, sunnies, and perch that make for fun targets for beginning fly-fisherman. Sowa recalls a story of catching a sunnie that was immediately eaten by a perch while still on his line, only to then be chased by the well-known largemouth bass that hangs around the Pinneo dock. Sowa also points out spots on the Ottauquechee near the Taftsville bridge and in the Gorge to be good for fly fishing. “Fish are beautiful creatures and trout are so smart! It would be nice to see more folks fly-fishing in Quechee again.”
Of his time running Wilderness Trails and the Vermont Fly Fishing School Banak says, “I learned a lot here, had a lot of fun, made a lot of friends, and some are still friends. The fun of it is that you meet people and you end up now fishing with their grandchildren.” Banak mentions taking an old customer, Frank Tomasulo, fly-fishing this past year again at the request of his children, who said Tomasulo fondly remembered – and often talked about – fly-fishing with Banak. He has plans to fish again soon as well with another old customer: “He still likes coming to Quechee and gets a room at the Inn here, and off we go just like we used to 20 years ago.” He muses on what fishing means to him now, “We don’t care so much anymore. As a young person, you want to catch it real bad and then you kind of grow out of that to where it’s just the enjoyment, the understanding, and the trying to pass it onto others that’s more important.”
Banak retired and sold Wilderness Trails several years ago to a fellow named Pete Meijer who kept the place running a few more years until the pandemic made it too difficult to sustain. Now, Banak says, the Woodstock Inn has their own fly-fishing school. Banak also used to serve the Woodstock Inn through Wilderness Trails, bringing bike groups and fishing groups from the Inn, sometimes taking a bike tour all the way to Wilderness Trails and back with a stop for lemonade and cookies.
Shay Berry, fly-fishing guide at the Woodstock Inn, pays homage to Banak. “Marty Banak set the standard for guiding on the Ottauquechee and White Rivers,” Berry says, “He continues to lead efforts to keep the waters and banks clean through his work with our local chapter of Trout Unlimited. He is a fly-fishing treasure in our area!” Berry echoes Banak’s sentiments of fly-fishing as more than a sport: “It’s about the experience. We all want to catch fish, but once you get knee deep in the water, you become connected with nature and find yourself a million miles away from the clutter of our daily lives.”
As Berry notes, Banak is an active member of the Trout Unlimited chapter that is dedicated to cleaning up our rivers: “I still feel I have to pay back the river. All these rivers helped me make a living, and I have to pay that back,” Banak says.
Nowadays Banak is still as busy as ever, running a small farm with his wife, Carol Stedman, on Quechee-Hartland Road. “Now it’s not Wilderness Trails any more, it’s Clay Hill Corners,” Banak says. Banak is content with this next venture in his life: “I had a wonderful life and I still do, and you can quote me on that!”