“Leadeth Me Beside Still Waters”

There is a powerfully hypnotic allure to the rise of a trout in water that is not moving. I hold a fully animated vision of one, in my mind’s eye. This fluid mandala of a pulsing rise in dark water, so full of promise and mystery, is the central metaphor for my love of stillwater trout fishing.

The rise of a trout in still water is entirely different from a rise in a brook or a stream. Sure, a pond trout can explode on a surface fly in a flashy take. Occasionally, they will even jump entirely free of their watery home, to nail some airborne tidbit that has caught their dining fancy. Hell, sometimes you will see one jump and know that it’s the sheer exuberance of being alive and swimming in the company of sister trout. However, the stillwater rise that is both more characteristic and more captivating is a slow, deliberate take, just at the surface.

Peter Shea "In the Company of Trout"

Buy In the Company of Trout (eBook) in the MidCurrent store.

Compared to the urgent rises of trout in moving water, stillwater trout produce a more languorous and sensuous disturbance. In a stream, if the water is moving fast enough, the telltale ripple of a trout’s meal will dissipate so quickly that you can begin to doubt that you even saw the rise in the first place. In a river, even the largest rise will immediately start to migrate downstream, dissolving quickly in the semi-chaos of the flow. Slam bam, thank you ma’m. On a lake or a pond, however, especially in the dark glassy water of an evening’s slick, the rise of a trout lingers in the plane of the water’s surface, pumping out perfectly concentric ripples. The length of the event seems interminable. Under the right conditions, you can watch a big trout take a fly under—a hundred feet away—and track its radiating waves until they lap against your canoe like a friendly cat.

In these conditions, even a small trout can produce a rise that will set the heart racing. Fueled by the imagination, that rise becomes a slow motion tease—a taunting fingerprint of some multi-pound lunker. Oh boy, I love this kind of fishing. It was not always so.

There was a time when I could not even conceive of fishing for trout in a lake or a pond. Sure, these were great places to swim and, if they had a real beach, to meet girls. Or, if you absolutely had to, these were places to fish for bass, perch, pike, and whatever else. They were not, however, the proper places to catch trout. Accepting my father’s prejudice on the matter, lakes and ponds were the places that the people-who-liked-to-fish-with-a-forked-stick went. I was taught that this was no way to fish. Any real trouter worth their weight in twist-ons fished for trout in a proper stream. Coming from a guy who went to work in a tee-shirt all his life, it was a pretty aristocratic attitude.

It’s still a common point of view. Especially common, I think, to those who prefer to use a fly. Like most prejudices, you really end up depriving yourself of rich company.

A few years ago, a non-fishing friend asked me to take him and his brother fishing. His brother still lived in their native California. He had just recently taken his fly-fishing-only vows. He was a convert on the heels of the Hollywood movie, A River Runs Through It, and he was eager for some action while visiting the Green Mountain State. The rivers were running hot and low, but I knew of a spring-fed pond that had been very kind to me on the previous night. Since I had returned all the trout unharmed, and since conditions had been stable for the last eighteen hours, I thought that a return visit might be our best chance of getting some fish. When I suggested it, I might as well have farted in the middle of a submarine sermon. He curled his nose and demanded clear moving water. That evening we put in four hard hours on the Huntington River with only a little stinker or two to show for it. I know that we would have had some fun, if my first suggestion was accepted. Clear moving water is great, but it has its limitations.

Since that episode I’ve given in to being somewhat of a trout pond missionary, preaching the benefits of fishing for “land-bound trout.” My seduction to what some stream purists see as being coarser sport, was not immediate. Over a period of years, however, I’ve moved from critic and skeptic to true believer. And, it’s not just the hypnotic power of their stillwater rise that has sold me on pond fishing. There are practical reasons for this love affair, as well.

Reason one: The month of April and sometimes some of May.

In Vermont, early season conditions on moving water can be tough on fly fishing. While spring rivers can run high and cold, and have that look of diner coffee with 2% milk, lakes and ponds can offer hot fishing for those who can fish for brookies with midges, blue-wing olives, or a Mickey Finn. Early in the season, on some of the larger and deeper of Vermont lakes, trolling or casting in streamers will give a fly fisher a chance to take lakers and salmon, up top, on relatively small flies. More than one opening-day skunking has been salvaged by a “sidetrip” to some pond that was showing a little open water.

Although lakes and ponds offer refuge to the fly fisher predominantly in the early season, they also afford a welcome alternative to stream or river fishing, anytime that the rivers go up. Given a ground saturation that is already high, a series of thunderstorms can put our larger rivers out of commission for a week or more. Although less common in July, August, or September, high muddy waters can visit throughout the summer. In fact, it seems to me that we lose a couple weeks or more of river fishing every summer due to these freshets. Jumping on the lakes and ponds is a way to keep on fishing.

And, oh yes—blackflies. Just as the trout fishing really starts to roll—in late May or early June in the northeast part of the state, earlier as you move south—blackflies make their appearance. Some historians have noted that the native Abenaki population would set up seasonal encampments on the shores of our lakes to take advantage of the breezes from the open water. They were definitely onto something good. Especially if you can get out on the water, you can escape their most bloodthirsty rampages, by thinning out their numbers. If they water is big enough and you can move your craft fast enough you can outrun them, then anchor down somewhere else. Far enough off shore and you’re home free. Or, you can fish closer to shore, having bought a little time before they find you again. June is the best of all seasons and fishing some open water can give you a break from its “dark side.”

Besides adding about six or seven weeks to the fly-fishing season, and affording a seasonal respite from the scourge of blackflies, lakes and ponds also give the fly fisher a chance to take some bigger fish. This is especially true if you like to take your fish on dries. There is no question that the rivers produce whopping size quarry but most of the time it is bait or hardware that will win the day with these fish. Large river fish must maintain a finely tuned calculus, one that weighs the nourishment gained from a meal, against the effort expended in getting it. In most cases, flies just don’t satisfy the formula. In still water, however, large trout can cruise ruthlessly, nearly effortlessly, taking stuff off the top, at their whim. The largest river fish may become exclusive meat eaters, but in a lake or pond, even the biggest trout will cruise the surface from time to time, reaping the bounty of some tasty insect fall. In these circumstances, those that love the dry fly, move to equal footing with the metal and meat folk. That same parity is harder to find in a river.

How about vista? The open sky views that attend a visit to a lake or pond are another attraction. In no way would I disparage the beauty of rivers and streams, with their pools and falls, cutting through the cool green forest. There are spectacularly scenic river valleys, edged by mountain skylines that would not take second place in any contest of scenery. But there is something special about the open sky vistas provided by a lake or pond. They produce in me a wonderful sense of expanse, very similar to that achieved on the top of a mountain. Whether I’m emerging from the woods, to the edge of a ten-acre backwoods pond, or, taking in a near-360-degree view of a mountain-dominated horizon from the shore of a Lake Champlain island, there is an exhilaration to the scene that is not there for me in the bend of the river, nor under the shady canopy of a winding stream, nor in claustrophobic rush of water through a gorge. Lakes and ponds give you a seat, right on Nature’s 50-yard line.

Wildlife—especially larger birds and raptors, are more evident around these water bodies. There are also improved chances at seeing some of our larger mammals, like moose or deer. Then there is wilderness. Like the idea of getting a few miles away from civilization to fish for trout? Well, if that appeals, it is only our small backwoods ponds that will offer anything like a wilderness experience. Moreover, we only have about a score of these to count and about half as many to boast about. In Vermont, the roads follow our rivers and streams, and after nearly two and a half centuries of development, it is only the smallest of our brooks that run through unbroken forest. So, if you really want to “get back there” and catch some decent sized trout, you’ll have to find yourself a trout pond.

In the end, I think that the real reasons for my love affair with this kind of fishing are emotional. Some of the allure is the mystery. Still waters are more inscrutable. They can’t be read as easily as the currents and eddies of a river or a brook. The distribution of the fish seems entirely more random. In fact, there is rhyme and reason as to where fish may lie and feed but it is a lot harder to dope out in these habitats than in moving water. Looking at its surface, a lake or pond will usually present the angler with “a faceless plane,” that may be hundreds of acres in extent and essentially uniform in appearance. Without a knowledge of the subsurface, one anonymous unidentifiable patch of water looks just like the next. It presents an immediate challenge, a puzzle to be solved . . . a mystery.

Lakes and ponds are also wildly capricious. Surely the god of stillwater trout is first cousin to Janus, the two-faced god that ruled gateways and doors during the heyday of the Roman empire. When at war, his temple doors were left open; when at peace, they were closed. Just succumb to a little over-confidence in your ability to wage war on your favorite stillwater fishing hole and the governing demigod will turn its back on you, slam the doors shut, and show you its poker face that resides on the back of its smile.

In whatever lake or pond you’re fishing there seems to be an ever-present, and in the end unpredictable, “on/off switch.” This “switch” seems to hold sway over these water bodies. Although I have an ultimate faith that this on/off feature is strictly governed by physical realities—like the sudden availability of a food source, or the migrations of a feeding pod of trout—when that switch is thrown, one way or the other, it seems more to do with magic than with science. Hours of stripping wet flies without success and, all of a sudden, you start to take one fish after another. One minute the trout are hitting at every cast, minutes later you can’t buy a hit. Or you’ve been trolling hitless for the better part of a day and, all of a sudden, you find yourself in the middle of surface feeding frenzy with trout jumping everywhere. It can be crazy.

In fishing a hospitable stream or a river, it is only on the rare occasion that an experienced fly fisher can’t pound up at least a couple small trout for a day’s efforts. A lake or pond will offer no such quarter. Under the poorest circumstances, you can go for days without taking a single fish. It can be daunting fishing.

It can also be trout bedlam, with a multitude of fish breaking the surface and taking everything you throw at them. A healthy lake can explode with quantities of large feeding trout. Find yourself fishing in the right place at the right time, and you can be onto what is, for my money, the most exciting trout fishing that there is. My idea of heaven is fishing an eternal evening slick, the dark surface of its water erupting, here and there, from the attentions of very large brook trout. They make huge, slow motion suck-holes in its placid surface—each rise looks like some unseen hand has pulled the plug out of the bottom of the pond and threatens to drain it.

To be sure, heaven does happen in this world from time to time, but it is fleeting. When it does happen I’m reduced to the state of an excited young man, fumbling with my flies, and blissfully in the throes of what any psychologists would agree to be a “peak experience.”