By Tim Rowland
An angler’s greatest asset is patience, or so we have been told. But this is a lie. Show me a patient fisherman and I will show you a fisherman who by definition isn’t catching any fish.
If bass fishermen were patient, why would they need to strap hundreds of horsepower to a slim slab of fiberglass and go rocketing off to a different part of the lake after just two unsuccessful casts?
And in the Adirondacks, no one is more antsy than an angler in that ghastly dead time of the year when the calendar says it’s spring but it’s really not, and the streams are running too high from snowmelt and the mountain’s legendary trout ponds and lakes remain entombed in ice.
Pike season is over, the state has shooed the shanty-dwellers off the lakes and the ice has taken on the deathly gray cast of an aging smoker. That ice, which was once so good to the fishing community, is now the enemy, as it stands in the way of one of the most time-honored Adirondack traditions: spring trout fishing.
In terms of spring, what “Play ball!” is to the rest of the nation, “Ice out!” is to the Adirondacks.
Yet in 2018—as Adirondack Explorer colleague Mike Lynch and I were (yes, impatiently) waiting to write a piece on what makes spring trout season so special—the ice was stubbornly hanging on like a Mötley Crüe groupie. As the weeks of April rolled by, we drummed our fingers and chewed our pencils and wondered why a little climate change couldn’t help us out.
The ice didn’t go out on most ponds until after the first of May (about two weeks later than normal), but Mother Nature must have felt guilty about her unaccommodating behavior, because when we finally shoved off in Mike’s canoe on Little Clear Pond in the St. Regis Canoe Area, the day could not have been more scintillating. It was as if some celestial waiter had approached our boat to ask how many puffy white clouds messieurs desired to complement the cobalt skies, formal dark evergreens and contrasting lime green of youthful leaves.
It took a bit of a slap to remind myself that I was here to, ahem, work, and not just sit in the bow and sightsee as Mike guided us across the lake. The first leg of our trip was closed to fishing due to its use as a state hatchery. Our target of St. Regis Pond to the north would require a modest paddle and then what Mike described as a modest portage. It seemed like an easy portage to me, but then it was Mike who was carrying the boat.
We reached the carry at 10 a.m., and were greeted by four disheveled men with two boats who were dragging themselves and a ton of gear from the wilderness after, by the looks of it, having had quite a time. They sported multi-day growths, and were splattered with black mud, grease stains and fish guts, and were unspeakably picturesque. Mike asked one of the men how the fishing was, and he cut his eyes over to the rest of the gang before formulating a response. After taking a long pull on a warm Bud Light he acknowledged that they had caught “a few fish,” which is the standard answer of one who does not want to give away any secrets, yet does not want to admit to being a failure, either.
Encouraged by this report, we pressed on. It was hard work carrying the paddles to St. Regis Pond, but I persisted, and soon we were rewarded with a perfect sheet of blue as Mike rigged up the homegrown bait known as the Lake Clear Wabbler, which is essentially a spinner with an offset worm trailing behind. Mike paddled on as I got ready to troll. After a long, impatient wait, we were finally ready to cast a line.
Bob Visicaro is a seasoned fisherman, a graduating senior at Paul Smith’s College and sales associate at Blue Line Sports in Saranac Lake. He says anglers start pacing the floors in anticipation of trout season as soon as the ice is no longer safe. When the ice begins to dissolve, “everyone starts getting excited,” he said.
Early in the season—before the state has started its annual stocking program—fishing is considered to be preferable because the “holdovers” from past years are bigger and more sporting. By contrast, stocked fish straight from the hatchery are easier to catch, Visicaro said, because “they’re the dumbest,” after a life of, essentially, eating breakfast in bed every day of their young lives.
Those fish that have survived in the wild rise closer to the surface in the spring where the water has more oxygen and is warming. Since the flies haven’t started to hatch, the fish are used to a diet of minnows, so that’s what anglers try to replicate early on with a collection of silver and copper spoons and spinners. Although there may be a buzz about a hot new bait with each coming season, the tried and true lures used by our fathers and grandfathers remain most popular.
With the fish closer to the surface and not in their summertime haunts, Visicaro said the trick is to know where there’s structure, or some sort of break in the uniformity at the bottom where fish tend to congregate.
For people who are just getting started in the sport, or are new to the area, bait shops are an essential stop for ideas about where to fish and what to use. Visicaro said he sends anglers to a variety of ponds, rivers and streams, depending on what they want to catch and the type of fishing they enjoy.
More clues can be found on the state Department of Conservation website, which provides stocking schedules and lists productive streams and ponds. The saying, and it’s probably true, is that the harder a body of water is to get to, the better the fishing. So the fish in a pond that’s two miles back in the bush, as opposed to being right along the road, is more likely to have fish that aren’t as streetwise to a lure darting through the water.
Mike and I had scarcely gotten our paddles wet again when I felt a somewhat apathetic tug on the line. The tug grew stronger and then changed direction, which assured me it wasn’t a snag. As I reeled it in, Mike went hunting around the bottom of the boat for the net. That the net wasn’t immediately at the ready exposed, I thought, a whiff of doubt concerning my chances of success—which was probably justified, sad to say. When the scenery is fine and the air is fresh and clean I have this tendency to, how do you say, get lost in the moment and lose focus on the job at hand.
Fortunately the fish was firmly hooked, and it was indeed among the fish we had come calling for, a beautifully speckled lake trout.
Lake trout are not known as fighters, and landing one is somewhat akin to rousting a teenager from the couch, a feat that requires more determination than skill. After admiring the befinned jewel, we threw him back to live to be pulled from the couch another day.
Mike kept paddling and I kept fishing, and as we rounded a piney point about 40 feet from shore, I got another hit. This one was a decent-sized splake, which is a hybrid between a speckled brook and a lake trout.
Telling the difference between a brookie, splake and lake trout can be confusing, and I can offer little to clear up the confusion. There are nuances, such as the shape of the tail, that allow experts such as Mike to tell the difference, but to the untrained eye they are all lovely but nearly indistinguishable fish.
There was something about this particular fish that caught our attention beyond its pedigree. As Mike netted it, he immediately noticed that it had been hooked not in the mouth but in the tail. I’ve hooked fish by the gills before, but it was difficult to see how hooking a fish through the tail would even be possible. We kept this one on the theory that by removing him from the gene pool we were doing our part to validate Darwin.
As it turned out, I would have to rest my case on these two catches, since that was it for the day. It scarcely mattered in these waters, since canoeing St. Regis is rewarding enough in its own right. Motors are not permitted on these lakes, and the silence, discreetly accented by birds, frogs and water dripping from the canoe paddle, is a serenity that contrasts strongly and pleasingly with an increasingly angry world.
The shorelines are unspoiled and campers and other paddlers occasionally, but not often, come within hailing distance. We hopped the portage to Green Pond hoping for a strike from a brookie, but it was not to be. What we discovered instead was a platoon of loons, which to our surprise had a bit of an attitude. Normally shy, retreating types, these birds were more aggressive. They had us surrounded and one in particular was intent on approaching our boat, which made no sense until we remembered that we had attached our splake to a stringer and cast it over the side. Loons are not small birds, and while this one never came close enough to knock us off kilter, it was apparent that one good flap in the wrong spot might have been problematic.
The mellow paddle back to the launch was relaxing after the hard work of fishing. We meandered through islands and along shorelines and above us the fire tower on St. Regis mountain appeared, disappeared and reappeared depending on our turn on the lakes. Reluctant for the afternoon to end, Mike and I chatted a bit back in the parking lot before going our separate ways. As we talked, a battered old Ford Escape came storming into the lot. The driver hastily fumbled with the straps that held his canoe to the roof, then stashed his gear into his boat and, without looking back or forth, hustled it into the water.
Just another patient fisherman.