A General Breakdown of Methods, Gear and What to Expect
Article by Adam Klagsbrun
For many years of my life I’ve been backpacking the Adirondack High Peaks Region. There’s something magical about the ageing exposed rock, the alpine tundra above tree-line and the warm light of the afternoon, when juxtaposed against the whispering and howling of the wind on a ridge between any of the 46 high peaks, at over 4,000 feet. No wonder people travel from around the world to visit this place.
In the process of hiking many these peaks myself and with friends, I’ve discovered that in select streams and a few key areas within the high peaks wilderness, native strains of brook trout are making a solid comeback. This article is meant to serve as a guide in how an ultra-light backpacker might approach hiking, camping and fishing in the high peaks wilderness areas in order to catch (and hopefully then release) these small and unique symbols of a recovering, healthy-again ecosystem that was recently in need of serious help.
For most people, a trip to the Adirondacks is no “walk in the park” even though you actually will be walking in the largest national park in the United States. It’s a unique place in that its “public/private” land – meaning that a confusingly complex (and sometimes hotly contested) set of laws determine what can and can’t be done with land that is supposed to remain forever wild. But don’t underestimate these woods. Travel-to, in and around this region requires at least a basic set of skills and knowledge about backpacking, camping and wilderness etiquette, as well as map-reading skills and a strong will.
In order to catch fish in the high peaks, you have to be ready to cover ground. The streams near trailheads are mostly either fished out, on private land or in an inaccessible swamp that would take a beaver to find and navigate. Therefore, you must be ready to make the long drive, move fast and light on the trail, forego long nights of sleep, and generally stay focused on finding where the fish are. This is work, like hunting, and is nothing like a leisurely day close to your car on familiar water. But that makes it all that much more fun…
Unlike the small streams of the Rockies that I fished last year, not all of these streams are teeming with fish. Not long ago a significant portion of lakes and streams in the Adirondacks were so acidic that they could not support fish life or other aquatic life at all. In 1988 the NY Times wrote an article confirming that a study had found this to be true, and around the same time, it was determined that pollution in the form or acid rain, from Industrial activity concentrated in PA, IL, OH and IN was blowing in with the weather and being deposited right over the Adirondack region of NY. The area is particularly susceptible to such pollution because of the thin, delicate soils that can’t absorb or process pollutants or filter them fast enough from the atmosphere.
In 1990 the clean air act helped to turn the tide on the acid rain and the pollutants that make it a problem, but it took many years for the smog to truly fade and for the region to filter and process the acidic soils and return to a healthy state. The smog has noticeably decreased over the years, and one can now see significantly farther into the distance than just a decade ago. Its impressive. We are rounding a corner pretty much as I write this, and according to some recent reading I’ve done, the health of the area is on the rebound –and so I have started to poke around and see where the brookies are making their comeback now.
Planning your Destination
Choosing an area to fish takes a bit of guess work, but you will have tons of thin blue lines and small, still bodies of water to explore. I am most interested in the steeper tumbling streams higher up in the mountains, what looks a lot like the Genryu trips we see and hear so much about in Japan. Using the maps from National Geographic or the ADK mountain club will allow you to find the gorges and figure out where to access them. The latter has both campsites and shelters marked on the map as well, and I recommend purchasing one if you plan to hike and fish in the area. There is no central resource for fishing these streams, and the only really good info comes from word of mouth and the few anglers that have spent time exploring the area recently.
Choose an area with a few streams that you can scout because some of them will be too small or have too many steep waterfalls to hold any fish. It helps if these streams run into or out of a lake or pond where the fish may be able to hold in deep water during the winter freeze. Be aware that not all of the streams hold trout, and you’ll have to pay attention to where you are fishing them… at some point in the ascent of a mountain stream, you will not find any more fish above a certain point, mostly due to lack of unfrozen winter hiding spots and steep waterfalls that prevent upward migration during the warmer months after the freeze is over.
Additionally, rain is really important. Sometimes these streams dry up a good bit during the warmer months, making trout much more wary of your presence, but not any less likely to take a fly. Its almost comical sometimes the places you’ll find trout – the low water spots in small streams that you think are empty may actually be home to a beautiful fish. But you do want to go when the water is a bit higher, so late spring and early summer tend to be great times… just after melt out when it is still a bit chilly, muddy, and before the crowds descend on the region for “peak bagging season.”
Make sure to leave enough time to hike to your destination, as the high peaks are known for gnarly trails, big rocks, slippery roots, and boot-swallowing mud. You want to have a good amount of time to fish, because you will definitely have to cover some significant distance while fishing in order to find the limited pockets of fish.
Tackle & Fishing Gear
First thing to say here… absolutely NO WADERS, NO VEST! Leave this stuff at home. You don’t need to wade in a stream that you can rock-hop across. The idea here is to be fast and light, and you certainly don’t want to weigh yourself down. All you need is a small pouch or pocket to put your tippet and flies in, as well as a spare spool of line. I bring a Zimmerbuilt Strap pack and rod quiver that I can detach from the main pack while fishing. A separate day-pack might be useful, but usually is not necessary at all. Think like a hiker… you shouldn’t look anything like a fly fishermen to passers-by. You don’t want to give up your “secret” streams, nor do you need to risk damaging your waders on the rocks and sharp sticks you’ll be navigating while bushwhacking between prime pools or waterfalls.
You will want to carry more than one rod with you, and you should probably use some kind of rod tube to protect the rods while they are strapped to your pack. Rods break, especially in the backcountry when you’re far away from a backup. So bring a backup, silly! This isn’t a contest for who can carry less gear for the sake of proving minimalism… this is about being light, but not leaving what you actually need at home.
Chances are you’ll want or need this backup rod, and it would help if it were a different size from the first rod you are carrying – especially for the sake of versatility. I like to take one long zoom rod, like a Suntech GM Kieryu Special 39, which will be effective on most of the water you find, and will have the reach to get your fly under the waterfalls in those bathtub pools that can only be accessed from downstream at a distance. The second rod I take is always shorter, sometimes an Oni III, even more likely a Nissin Pocket Mini 270, or another similarly short rod for the really small streams.
In addition, you’ll want one fly box with a selection of different flies – some beads, some soft hackles, and some dries. Most patterns work, so don’t get too wrapped up in having the right flies. The key is to have different hook sizes and keep it between size 12 and size 18. I usually bring nippers and mini forceps, but I leave the floatant and all the other “gadgets” at home. Don’t forget the extra spool of line and some tippet, and a way to carry your water bottle (and water filter) in you’re going off trail and away from camp all day. That’s all you really need.
Backpacking trips like this are always easier and more fun if your pack is light. Nobody likes trekking with a heavy pack… mile after mile of slogging through mud and climbing over rocks is not fun if your pack is too full, so focus on this and you’ll be rewarded.
There are a few ways to do this. First, lay out all your gear on the floor. Start questioning why you need each item and begin to take things away from the pile that may be unnecessary. Instead of thinking “I can bring item x, it only weighs a few ounces…” think “I really don’t need item x, it weighs a whopping few ounces!” Just that simple shift will help you take pounds out of your pack. Do you really need an extra lantern if you already have a headlamp? Are you going to have time to read that book after hiking and fishing all day? Is the extra bit of rope you keep on you really going to come in handy or just sit unused in the pack? Do you need a huge knife or will a small pocket sized knife work? These little things really add up.
Another great way to lighten up is to get ultra-light gear. This doesn’t always mean spending a lot of money, but it can. For example, you can use a cheap flat tarp instead of a tent and be completely happy and dry all weekend. Weight saved! I use a number of Cuben Fiber gear items. Cuben fiber is the lightest and most incredible material available for backpacking gear these days. It is expensive stuff to make gear with, but it is ultra-light and completely waterproof, more waterproof than pretty much any other material aside from solid rubber. My pack and tent are made out of it, and weigh just over a pound each. And there’s no compromising. I have more space, more waterproofing and more comfort than setups that weigh 4-5 times as much. You don’t have to sacrifice comfort to go lite, but you may have to make other sacrifices to afford Cuben gear. Its all about choices – but its worth it if you backpack regularly!
You’ll need a few basics, which I’ll list here:
- Tent or Tarp
- Backpack to hold your gear
- Water Bottle & Water Filter
- Fishing Tackle
- Bear Barrel
- Backcountry food
- Camping stove
- Wet Wading socks (mountain water is cold!)
- Sleeping bag or quilt rated down to about 30 degrees
- Quick dry shirt & pants – NO COTTON!
- Long underwear
- Extra warm layer – NO COTTON!
- A small pot or pan to cook your camping food
- Bio-degradable soap & mini sponge to clean your pot/pan/cup
- TP & Cat trowel
- Garbage bag to keep stuff dry if it rains
- Bug headnet (you’ll thank me for this later.)
- Headlamp with extra batteries
- Extra set of heavy sleeping socks
- Flask & Cup (optional but leave the heavy beers at home!)
What to Expect?
Small, wild trout in great abundance in cold, clean water is what you should expect to find. There are stories of trophy brook trout coming out of the Adirondacks, but mostly those stories are from before the pollution destroyed the area.
Many of the streams you will encounter will be small enough to jump across in just a couple of moves, but you can be assured that there are wild brook trout in many of them. Unlike out west, you won’t see quite as much water running down in those streams… we don’t have the glacial melt to keep the water levels high all year, and to add to the size of the streams. However, we do have the same cold, clean, totally gin-clear water. And the fish are hungry all the time!
You should be prepared to get a serious workout, and don’t expect to have the kind of day you get walking 100 yards to the river from the car. Hiking this region is difficult and most of the trails are rocky, steep and muddy at any altitude. Be prepared to have limited time to fish each stream and try to make a plan of where you want to fish before you arrive. Its easy to underestimate the time it takes to hike to your campsite or to the streams and back.
The High Peaks region is absolutely breathtaking and you should try to fit in some summits along your route if you can. This is often made easier by carrying your pack along the way and camping wherever you find a place to fish or sleep that suits your needs. You can also set up base camp and just head out for the day, leaving your stuff in your tent.
Rules & Regulations
The rules and regulations in the Adirondacks are simple and easy to understand. They involve limiting group size or registering as an official group, camping either in designated areas or a pre-specified distance away from trails and water, depending on the sub-region you are going to be exploring, and using bear barrels in most cases to keep your food out of the mouths of bears and other hungry critters. Its also important to remember that you need to dig a deep hole to bury any human waste, and to cover it and prevent ground-water contamination and a negative experience for other campers in the area.
Finally, the fishing is covered by a basic NY state fishing license, and there may be slightly different rules based on where you’ll be, so read up! Generally speaking, NY permits keeping trout of any size with a daily limit of 5. I’m not so sure how great that is, but that’s the general regulation. Other areas have rules by county or specific to the river you might fish. For example, the Ausable west branch has a few nice sections of catch & release, and there are also rules specific to the county. Essex County, for example, holds a number of these Adirondack regions and adds some minimum length to the fish you may keep.
However, I would gently ask the if you read this article and plan to take a trip up to the Adirondacks, that you read up on all the rules, and please – practice catch & release fishing there! Chances are that the fish you catch will be smaller than the ideal 8-12” that make the best meals on average. Beyond that, the region really needs to continue its recovery and isn’t ready for any real pressure from catch & keep anglers just yet.
Go get out there!
I hope this inspires some people to get out there and try some backpacking & fishing with tenkara tackle in the Adirondacks. You’ll be pleased out how light and small the setup is, and how you may be able to catch fish where you think there aren’t any at all. Soak in the sun, bathe in the cold water, and just enjoy this spectacular piece of nature for what it offers… you may be sore and tired by the time you get out of the woods, but I guarantee you won’t be disappointed!
Adam Klagsbrun is an avid lightweight backpacker and angler of all flavors. Originally fishing small streams in the Northeast USA, Adam has relocated to Colorado where he enjoys all that the outdoors have to offer. Find some of his journals at Of Rock & Riffle.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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