Your Brook Trout Heritage

By Richard Preall, Retired NYSDEC Fishery Biologist

Much of my career as a fisheries biologist stationed in the eastern Adirondacks was focused on the perpetuation and restoration of heritage brook trout strains.  Way back in the 1970’s, DEC recognized that native brook trout were imperiled across the state and a management plan was developed for their recovery.  The term “heritage” was adopted to define populations of brook trout which had no known private or public fish stocking history.  By necessity, all those waters were confined to lakes or ponds because brook trout stocked in streams are highly mobile and stocking records for streams are less well known.  The author of the trout plan, Walt Keller, could identify only 11 waters across the state which had heritage strains.   Subsequent genetic studies have confirmed the uniqueness of those strains.

Although 11 strains were identified, DEC restoration work has focused on only three strains: Windfall, Little Tupper and Horn Lake.  Sadly, the other eight waters have or had too few trout to manage and most have been impacted by nonnative species introductions or acid precipitation.  I will not identify those ponds by name to help keep them protected.

In a series of three articles, I will review the status and provide a few fishing insights on the public ponds now managed for these strains.  This article will focus on the Windfall Pond strain.

But first, why bother with heritage strain brook trout?  The answer… they are wild, adapted to the Adirondacks and have true advantages over domestic hatchery trout.  Most domestic brookies live two to three years in ponds; I have seen only a few that reached five years old.  Heritage strain brook trout can survive for up to seven years, thus having the potential to reach trophy size.  Heritage brook trout are smaller and warier than domestic fish for the first two years of life. By age three, heritage fish have caught up in size and they race ahead after that.  When domestic and heritage brook trout are stocked in equal numbers in a pond, the heritage trout will be two to four times more abundant by age three than the domestics.

Now on to the Windfalls. The natal (original) home for the Windfalls is Windfall Pond – a private water in central Franklin County.  The Nature Conservancy has purchased conservation rights to this pond and helps advise the owner on how to preserve its heritage fishery.  The pond is off limits to public fishing and the owner or a caretaker is generally around to keep watch.

Windfall Pond has very darkly stained water and in my opinion that has helped create the most colorful brook trout strain in New York State.  Male Windfalls have brilliant orange flanks in the fall with hues of purple and blue above the lateral line.  Even the best photos I have taken of this fish cannot do justice to the colors you see in person.

DEC now manages 11 waters for the Windfall strain.  The first Windfall eggs and milt came from the native fish in Windfall Pond. But, subsequent DEC egg takes have come from newly established brood stock ponds.  The waters now harboring Windfalls are: Mountain Pond, Palmer Pond, Round Pond/Twin Pond, Ledge Pond, Black Pond, Long Pond, Silver Lake, Balsam Lake, Loomis Pond and Giant Washbowl.  Here is a bit about what I know about each of these waters.

Mountain Pond – This 58-acre pond has easy access.  It is located adjacent to Route 30 just north of Paul Smiths College in central Franklin County. Portions of old Rt 30 border the pond, but you better have 4WD on your vehicle to bounce through the potholes.  There is a car top launch on the south end of the pond and there are several primitive campsites along the shoreline. Mountain Pond is managed under Catch and Release (No Kill) and artificial lures only regulations. It is one of the brood stock ponds for the Windfall strain. DEC nets it every fall to get eggs.  Mountain Pond has darkly stained water, just like the home water for this strain.  Catch rates are good here if the loons keep their distance.  The longest brook trout I have ever caught (19.5 inches) hit a Hornberg streamer I was casting near a log on Mountain Pond.  Unfortunately, the fish was a spawned-out female that weighed barely two pounds.  Mountain Pond fishes well on the deep north end of the pond in the spring and in the shallow south end of the pond in the fall.   About 10% of the trout are wild here.  The stocked Windfalls have their adipose fin clipped (the same goes for all the ponds below).

Black Pond – At 73 acres, Black Pond is one of the largest heritage waters.  It has roadside access along the Keese Mills Road which joins Route 30 adjacent to Paul Smiths College.  The College and the APA’s Visitor Interpretive Center own the lands and Black Pond.  A management agreement with DEC allows for angler access.  The six-car parking lot fills quickly in the spring.  A 100 portage is needed to get a canoe or jon boat to the outlet area.  Then you must paddle a few hundred yards to get to the main pond and be prepared to pull you boat over a beaver dam or two.  Black Pond has great natural reproduction, but still gets stocked a bit. It can produce big brookies and is also a stained water.  Black Pond can reach 40 feet deep, but don’t bother fishing deeper than 15 feet after mid-summer because it loses oxygen down there.  Black Pond is another DEC brood stock pond and I urge anglers to return those big females and males to help generate more eggs to perpetuate this great strain of brook trout.  You will catch plenty of 10-12 inchers to grace a frying pan.

Long Pond – About 10 acres, Long Pond drains into Black Pond. It won’t appear on stocking lists because natural reproduction has created an abundant population of brookies.  A fish over 10 inches is big for Long Pond, but this is an excellent water to catch brookies on a dry fly all summer long.  You access Long Pond by canoeing the length of Black Pond to its northwest corner. A small landing there lets you hop out for the 150-yard portage to Long Pond.  Long Pond is shallow, not much over eight feet in most spots but springs keep it cold.  There is a lean-to on the northwest shore, but overnight camping is not permitted.

Ledge Pond – This 43-acre pond is in the St. Regis Canoe Area, but is well away from the better-known ponds in that area.  Ledge Pond is deep with a rock/cliff northern shoreline. But, it can be fished from shore in spots on the south shore. Access is challenging and involves parking off the Floodwood Road in central Franklin County, then portaging to Long Pond, then canoeing (no motors allowed) to the far northwest corner bay of Long Pond, then another lengthy portage to Ledge Pond.  If you hustle, it takes about 1.5 hours to go the distance.  Ledge Pond has clear water and because it is deep, can be tougher to fish.  Natural reproduction has not been great here due to a lack of spawning streams. Ledge was reclaimed with rotenone in 2012 and last I heard can produce brookies up to 17 inches, but not a lot of them.

Round Pond/Twin Pond – Round Pond is 17 acres in size and well named. It’s a round bowl with gradual depth changes. But, it has a great spawning stream and high natural reproduction, so catch rates are good.  A big trout in Round Pond would be 15 inches. Twin Pond is a little quarter acre pond on the outlet of Round Pond, you can almost cast across it and no boat is needed to stalk the brookies. Round Pond has trail access from Route 73 just to the west of Chapel Pond and Keene Valley in Essex County. My recollection is it takes about 15 minutes of walking and the uphill climb with a Sportpal was possible on my old 55 year knees.  A popular hiking trail borders the pond, so don’t expect solitude.

Giant Washbowl – This little 3-acre gem is located directly north of Chapel Pond off Rt 73 and east of Keene Valley.  You can almost throw a rock and hit the road, but you have to climb a pretty steep trail  to get to that vantage point.  Natural reproduction has generally been good in Giant Washbowl, so catch rates are high. A lot of the pond can be fished from shore, which I have done to avoid the grueling nature of portaging a canoe up that trail.  The nearby views of the High Peaks and Gothic Range are spectacular, especially during fall foliage season.  Hikers frequent the area, but few of them fish.  Giant Washbowl has a great name and is a classic Adirondack brook trout pond.
Palmer Pond – (15 acres) is not named on topographic maps.  It is located just east of the Raquette River in central Franklin County.   Find the Corey’s Road off Route 3 at the south end of Upper Saranac Lake and drive to the parking area just past the bridge going over Stony Ponds outlet.  Then you hike two miles south along the horse trail leading to the Cold River area.  Find a small stream crossing the trail and follow a herd path east a quarter mile to reach Palmer Pond.  Palmer Pond has a marshy shoreline with plenty of tree stumps and some weed beds to give brookies shelter.  It can produce large fish, but your likely best will be 15 inches.  Palmer Pond is productive with plenty of bugs to make the trout fat and sassy.

Balsam Lake – Balsam Lake (38-acres) – is a mystery. It is located just west of Spruce Lake in the West Canada Wilderness in central Hamilton County.  My angler contacts see fish rising there, can mark them on graphs, but haven’t caught one to brag about.  Balsam Lake used to have acidity problems, but more recent testing showed a pH improvement and since no other fish species were present, I gave it a go for experimental stocking.  To reach Balsam you drive to the very end of the Jessup River Road, then portage two miles to Spruce Lake, another half mile or so along Spruce’s eastern shore and then bushwhack east to Balsam Lake.  So, you really must want to get there.  If you go, though, and figure out those trout you might just get the trout of your dreams.

Loomis Pond – Another very remote pond of about 30 acres located along the western edge of the Silver Lake Wilderness.  Access involves crossing the West Branch Sacandaga River near Avery’s Place off Rt 10 south of Piseco Lake in Hamilton County.  Then you head east for a couple of miles over poor trails.  It takes true woodsman skills to get to Loomis.  I have heard of trout being caught in Loomis and I suspect there is a cadre of repeat anglers who are keeping the place to themselves.  Loomis is another recovered, formerly acidic water.

Silver Lake – Last, but nowhere near least, is 74-acre Silver Lake.  Silver Lake is the namesake water for the Silver Lake Wilderness in south-central Hamilton County.  It’s an eight-mile hike from the Benson area to reach Silver Lake and you need to bring a boat with you, so good luck with that. BUT – Silver Lake produced the current state record brook trout, caught by Rick Beauchamp, who’s story will appear in this magazine soon.  Silver Lake is a recovered acid water that Beauchamp recommended I stock. Five years later, Rick caught his 6-pound monster there which I certified as a state record.  That fish was a four-year-old Windfall strain brookie – demonstrating just how fast a heritage strain trout can grow in a remote water with no competing fish species.  Silver Lake is very clear and deep.  It can be a real pain to fish with even expert Beauchamp blanking there much of the time. But, if you want the ultimate brook trout challenge…go see if you can break Rick’s record.

I hope these articles whet your appetite for a true Adirondack fishing experience – one similar to what our great great grandfathers enjoyed.  New York still has traditional fishing opportunities and these trout strains embody all that makes the term “heritage” vital to our sport.