Square Tales Of an Adirondack Spring
Spring arrives in the Adirondacks in a gradual fashion as it staggers and stammers to take control of the land. The seasonal battle for possession usually includes a spell of fair weather that’s promptly replaced by a few short spells of spitting and sputtering snow, rain, mud, rutted roads, frost heaves and a host of similarly seasonal unpleasantries. While April is often the cruelest month, it can also be one of the most beautiful depending on its mood. As it begins to restore green to the landscape, it also washes away the dull monotones of winter.
Spring floods have always been an important component of the region’s increasingly variable weather systems. In recent years, storms have increased in both intensity and frequency as the effects of climate change have become ever more evident.
Historically, the Adirondack region has always experienced extreme weather events which have been intensified by spring rains, deep snowpacks with rapid thaws, and regular spring floods. Before the winter season relents, there’s always at least one serious cold snap that brings temperatures of 20 or 30 degrees below. Adirondackers have learned to deal with such minor discomforts. It’s part of the order of a place where the seasons are still defined by natural cycles rather than by a calendar on the wall.
Winter often seals the lakes and ponds under a thick cover of ice until the middle of May. Mothers’ Day weekend in the middle of May has always been considered a prime time for fishing for “square tails” (brook trout) on the backcountry ponds. However, with each passing year the warm spring weather seems to arrive sooner and lasts longer.
There have actually been many years when the ponds in the upper elevations were iced-in until June. In the course of a fifty plus year angling career, I’d never been in a boat on the lakes or ponds for the April 1 opening day of trout season until the 2014 season. Since that time I’ve had a boat on the ponds for the opening day every year.
Regrettably, the earlier ice out dates have affected the hatch cycle of millions of insects. Black flies are now in the air in April, and I’ve actually had deer flies orbiting my noggin on hot spring days. I expect such disruptions will continue to impact the established insect hatch schedule which is currently in state of flux due to the continuing effects of the warming climate.
Many benchmarks of the trout season have been altered by diminishing water levels and rising water temperatures. This results in a reduction of dissolved oxygen content. Increasingly warmer water temperatures have altered the hatch schedule on many rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds. I’ve made note of the hatch schedule for insects ranging from grasshoppers and lightning bugs to June bugs, dragonflies, damsel flies, as well as mayfly and caddis hatches.
I try to plan my brook trout outings to coincide with the spawning periods of prey species such as smelt, suckers, leeches, salamanders, grass minnows, crayfish, snails, dragonflies and damsel flies. Although most fly fishermen understand how to “match the hatch,” many spin fishermen are oblivious to the process, especially as it relates to the many hatches that regularly occur underwater or at the water’s edge.
There are thousands of insects, larvae, minnows, snails, salamanders, and similar food sources that anglers never see. There are frogs, polliwogs, salamanders and even baby birds that become meals for larger trout. Brook trout, like most fish, are creatures of convenience, and when they are feeding, they’ll hit just about anything in their range. I’ve even found a field mouse in a trout’s belly.
Although many anglers speak secretly in low tones about hatches, the first hatch to occur after the ice goes out is not even a fly. It’s actually smelt, and they will begin running the rivers, brooks, streams, inlets and outlets of most of the large lakes and ponds in the Adirondacks. This season, the first full moon of spring arrives on March 29 to spark the annual smelt run. The mass migration of smelt always attracts a variety of predators sporting fins, furs, feathers, and fishing poles.
In addition to humans, predators regularly include brook trout, lake trout, brown trout, salmon and northern pike just to name a few. There will always be natural indicators to signal the smelt are in. Look for predatory fish hanging around the inlets and outlets of ponds and lakes. You will know it by the assembled community of critters that often include otter, seagulls, mink, raccoons, bald eagles, blue heron, loons, and more.
On the ponds and lakes, the prevailing westerly winds push warm surface waters toward the eastern shores where the dense surface waters will sink to the depths to prompt leeches out from the muddy lake bottom. The ensuing salamander “hatch” always prompts the brookies to feed heavily. It is a brief offering, but it often provides some of the heaviest fish of the year. Timing is everything; you can’t be too early or too late.
Suggested tackle includes a medium action spinning outfit spooled with 6 - 8 lb. monofilament or a 8 foot, 5 weight fly rod with a sink tip line. Tip this with a bead head olive wooly bugger or a black matuka streamer fly. At such times I like to use a small jig dressed with a strip of otter fur that’s about the size of my index finger. Paint a row of bright yellow spots with quality acrylic paint on the fur strip and you’re ready to go.
I usually fish deep, bouncing the jig along the bottom, especially around structure such as downed trees, beaver lodges, and dams. Commercial rubber jigs, Gitzits or Berkley Gulp, Power Bait, or even Gary Yamamoto leech patterns will also work on early season “square tails.” However, nothing works like the real thing. Leeches can be found in most Adirondack waters, and there are a variety of sources for live leeches available online.
The second major hatch of the new season occurs on the smaller sheltered ponds directly after the first warm rains. This always prompts spotted salamanders to migrate to the small ponds and breed. This provides a love fest for salamanders and a can’t miss opportunity for anglers seeking truly huge brookies.
Several years ago my fishing partner landed a huge male brookie with a belly like a bass. Before we could weigh it, the fish belched up over a dozen 4 to 8 inch salamanders, which accounted for about three pounds of weight. I’ve also uncovered smaller brookies that had gorged on salamanders to such an extent that they appeared to be speckled footballs. We caught several big males that actually measured larger around the girth than in length.
It is one “hatch” that you do not want to miss! I will also add an important word of caution. Do not attempt to use live salamanders as bait. For their protection, spotted salamanders ooze a slimy white substance out of every pore in their system. The white gook is extremely slippery, smells foul, and obviously tastes terrible too. My dog picked one up in his mouth, and was instantly tossing his cookies. The dog ended up lapping water like his tail was on fire.
Pay attention to nature’s cycles, make the effort to get to your favorite trout ponds, and be flexible in your choice of lures or bait. Hopefully this spring you will catch many “square tails” to add to your own collection of tales.
Joe Hackett is a licensed guide and owner/operator of Tahawus Ltd, a year-round Adirondack guide service. He regularly writes columns in several Adirondack newspapers and freelances for many outdoor publications.
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