Catch & Cook in the Backwoods of the Adirondacks
On a damp, cool fall morning, David Alexander and I shouldered our packs, lifted the Hornbeck canoes over our heads and started down the 5.9-mile trail in pursuit of a lake nestled in these Adirondack mountains. We had reason to believe it was loaded with heritage strain, natural reproducing Brook Trout, which would be in their vibrant spawning colors at this time of year.
The forest welcomed us with a carpet of golden leaves as the pinnacle fall foliage dropped from their limbs. This weather was perfect for a trek through the woods with a heavy load. Ideally, our packs would be lighter, but we were bringing some of my camera gear, which seemed questionable a quarter mile into this trail. The 45 pounds on my back and the 20 pounds over my head seemed like a heavy load as the path dwindled into a game trail at times, and the beautiful carpet of leaves turned into muddy bogs and boulders. Yet something about this gurgling journey starts to feel incredibly fulfilling and rejuvenating. Each mile feels like an eternity, staggering at times from the heavy load up steep inclines. I'm constantly questioning if this is even worth it, but there is no turning back now. I treat myself to a pocket full of dried fruits and force myself to "enjoy" this. Sure enough, it starts to happen. I notice the squirrels playing tag, animal tracks veering off onto game trails, and the birds letting everyone else in the forest know we are arriving. As my mind is writing fictional stories based on the clues I gather along the trail, I look up, and there it is. It looks like heaven as the sun shines through the clearing in the forest to make room for the little log lean-to that we would be calling home for three nights.
David and I smash fists and smile, knowing we just arrived at a beautiful mountain lake we would have to ourselves. A walk down to the water confirmed we had arrived in paradise. The fall foliage speckled across the mountains, glistening in the sun's rays and it seemed like foreshadowing to the speckled trout we would soon be holding.
David didn't waste a minute. He quickly set up his hammock, lined a few rods, pulled his WeatherWool Anorak over a CPO and pushed his 12' Hornbeck into the water.
It would be nice if you could toss any old hook into the water and start catching fish, but that often isn't how it goes. It seems that was the expectation of many who visited this lake. "NO FISH HERE" was carved into the lean-to, and multiple entries in the lean-to journal indicated they did not catch any fish. But David was coming at it with a bit more experience. We selected this time of year because water temperatures are optimal for fish activity. David was well experienced in a Wabbler system with a drop hook that would prove very effective out here.
Most importantly, though, he was persistent. He headed one way around the lake and I the other until we had met halfway. Neither of us had caught anything nor even felt a bite, but that didn't wipe the smile off our faces. We were just thrilled to be floating around this magnificent little lake. It would be easy to make the excuse that there are no fish here, call it a day, and log it in the journal, but experience told us that we were simply paying our dues.
David was trolling from his canoe at a plodding speed. Two spin-cast rods sit in holders, one out each side, running an 8lbs fluorocarbon line down to a Clear Lake Wabbler Spoon with swivels on each end tied on with the improved clinch knot. The speed you are looking to achieve is the speed that will make the Wabbler wobble back and forth but not spin in the water. You know you're at the right speed when you can see a subtle twitch on your rod tip bouncing smoothly at the rate of a heavy heartbeat. Behind the Wabbler is about 18 inches more fluorocarbon line with a size four baitholder hook speared through a scented artificial bate resembling a leech or earthworm. David prefers the ones that are about four or five inches long with paddled tails for a little extra action in the water.
David's Pro Tip: You can also run 6lb leader from Wabbler to hook, so if you snag, you only lose the hook, not the Wabbler as well.
It was about 4:30 pm when I started to think about all those meals I pulled out of my pack at the last minute to reduce some weight for the hike. We had felt confident we'd eat fish for dinner earlier that morning. My brain shifted into a hunter-gatherer mindset for a brief moment. Although self-imposed, the realization settled that we were now in a situation where our calorie intake, comfort, and safety were in our own hands. It always feels incredible when this moment rushes through my body. It's almost like your mind and body fire up characteristics that have gone docile in a world of comfort and food on demand. Doing these back-country trips always makes me feel alive again.
As I pondered the deeper meaning of these trips and counted my blessings, I saw David double back on a section he had just covered. That wasn't his typical pattern. Not a moment too soon, I saw David set the hook, and the fight was on. The orange and gold Wabbler pulled out of the water, and the splashing began. It wasn't a big bright male that we came here looking for, but we had caught food and, more importantly, had confirmation the Brookies were here. We weren't confident we'd catch many more that night, so we decided to keep it for the grill. I had to ask David how he knew he should double back and cross that same line again. He mentioned two key factors that indicated it was a suitable fish habitat. First, he heard running water coming in off the hillside, which washes bugs, aquatic macro-invertebrates and other food sources into the water for the fish to eat. The flowing water also produces dissolved oxygen for the fish to breathe, making it a comfortable place for the fish to rest. The second thing he noticed was fallen trees below the surface, making excellent fish habitats. Having found an active location, David didn't take long to hook up a second one that was a little bigger. This time, it was on his other rod sporting the blue and silver Wabbler with the same artificial leech bait.
That night, we smiled into the flames of the crackling fire. We were out here living our dream. The smell of wood smoke, the warmth of WeatherWool, the fresh fish on the grill, foraged mushrooms sizzling in the pan and towering trees above us flickering in the firelight with an opening into the blanket of stars.
While most people don't think of this time of year as good camping weather, David and I are WeatherWool advisors, so it was prime product-testing weather. We were all suited up in double layers of WeatherWool to keep us warm and comfortable in these damp, breezy conditions. Whenever I'm on one of these trips, I fall deeper in love with WeatherWool. It takes a lot of time and various experiences to appreciate it for all it truly is, but you eventually realize WeatherWool makes you more comfortable in a broader range of situations than anything else.
As we get our first glorious taste of the brook trout and take in the beautiful wilderness, I still can't help but think that there must be bigger, brighter brookies in that lake. We probably both fell asleep dreaming of the 15" bright orange bellies.
The sound of wind gusting and light mist was enough to get me to roll over in my sleeping bag for a few more minutes, but it was hard to justify sleeping away even the ugliest of days out here. After a morning coffee, David was back out putting in his hours on the water. He was experimenting with the fly rod and a level sinking line, a technique Adirondack Woodsman Jim Abbott had explained to us the previous day. I spent the earlier part of the day collecting firewood and exploring the woods. To most people, it was an ugly day by all measures, but to two guys dressed in two layers of WeatherWool, it was perfectly comfortable once you got moving.
In these conditions, clothing can play a huge factor in being comfortable out on the water, especially when we don't have a warm place to dry off other than around the campfire at night. These small canoes don't make layering on and off easy, so having an outerwear system that keeps you comfortable regardless of the weather can make all the difference in the time you want to spend on the water. The "Double W," as we were calling it, did the trick just right—two layers of MidWeight WeatherWool and nothing else. I had a MidWeight WeatherWool CPO on bare skin as my base layer and topped it with the WeatherWool MidWeight Hooded Jacket and FullWeight WeatherWool pants. I was incredibly comfortable the whole trip. It was so cozy; I would have felt guilty had I been with anyone not decked out in WeatherWool. (I did swap the pants for something lighter during the hike in and out.) When the big gust of wind would sweep across the water, I could certainly feel it penetrating the wool, but the temperature of that breeze was already a little warmer than the external air as it was pushing the warmed-up air trapped in the layers of yarn against my skin. For a moment, you think it's going to be cold, but it's incredibly comfortable having that body temperature air moving around your body, ensuring any perspiration is getting circulated and dried.
When David came in for lunch (he had caught one more female that morning, which he released), we sat down and shot some video of him explaining his fishing setup and techniques.
After all that fishing talk, David and I were feeling confident we would have a nice big brook trout to cook over the fire tonight, and we decided we'd skew it up on a green wood stick. The only issue is that the park policy states that no standing trees should be cut. So we decided to walk the portage (carry over) and see if any trees had fallen across the trail that could use some maintenance. David is a naturalist and conservation biologist, so I didn't waste the opportunity to ask him about all the plants I didn't recognize. I probably sounded like a curious kid to David as we walked the woods together, asking, "Hey David, what's that called… what's this…can you eat those….". I've spent a lot of time with my nose in plant and mushroom identification books and the apps, but nothing beats having someone with you who knows much about this stuff. David is used to this as part of his professional job is taking groups of kids on walks through the forested areas of New Jersey and teaching them about plants and animals. He's got incredible patience and seems to enjoy sharing his knowledge. He pointed out some interesting plants, one of which was wood sorrels, which we would be seasoning on our fish if we were to catch any more tonight. We also collected a fallen green tree branch and dragged it back to the campfire for cooking equipment.
Around 2 pm, David hopped back in the canoe to keep fishing, and I tossed a few lures off the rocks to see if that would bring in any luck, which it didn't. After a few too many snags in the rocks, I decided it wasn't worth the effort and got back in the canoe to see if David was having any luck. He had again caught another female, which he once again released. That was the fourth fish, but still no bright, beautiful males, but that was about to change.
Around 5:30 pm, just as the sun was giving us the last of its brightness, David hooked up a beautiful male in its full spawning regalia. It was slightly over 14 inches, had bright contrasting colors and was simply gorgeous! It was everything we set out to discover here. With the excitement of the beautiful fish stored away on the memory card, I decided it was time for me to do a little more fishing for myself. I threaded on the 5" night crawler imitation behind the orange and gold Wabbler and trolled it as David had instructed me. I passed through the same rocky section David had caught the fish 30 minutes before, and WAM!!! My goodness, was it a fighter! This fish had vigor, and I wasn't about to lose it. The excitement quickly switches to a practice of patience. Yeah, I could reel in fast and fight with all my might, but I'm liable to snap the line or rip the hook out of the fish. With my rod tip up, I let him have a few runs as I slowly worked him towards the boat. Seeing that bright orange flash for a second before the line started running back out of the reel was about as much excitement as I could have asked for. It indeed made up for the few hours I spent questioning whether I even liked fishing anymore. The tug is the drug, and man, this fish wasn't even in the boat yet, and my fishing addiction was back at full strength. As I lifted my rod with my right hand and leaned back with my left to scoop him out of the water with my tiny little net, I smiled and quickly understood what makes these fish worth 6 miles of hiking. I like it when other guys pull the fish up, unclip the hook, and release it back into the water. Those guys are seasoned pros, but measuring a chunky 15", this was by far the biggest brook trout I had ever caught, and I wanted to enjoy it for a while. It was probably going to be supper anyway.
As David paddled up, I showed him my fish. Like a small kid at a pet shop, I asked David, "Can we keep him"? Like he was the authoritative figure in this situation. David already had a fish selected for dinner, but my grin seemed to convince him, and it was clear we were having a feast tonight.
Brook trout only live about five years and can start breeding after the first year, so taking a few bigger brook trout may be the more sustainable choice over the smaller ones, making them all the more fun to fish for.
In the spirit of the great outdoors, David and I prepared a dinner of 100% wild-gathered food that night. The feast would include our two brook trout, and we would add a lemon flavoring using the wood sorrel we had discovered earlier in the day. David had also gathered a Bear's head tooth mushroom on the portage into camp that we fried up in salt, pepper, and butter. It would all get accompanied by a pot of wild rice I had harvested during a previous WeatherWool production with Caleb Musgrave. We could have stopped there, but we had been noticing crayfish coming to clean up the fish remains we had left in the water, so with quick hands, we grabbed a few by the back, tossed them in a kettle and boiled them for an appetizer.
By 7:30, the first fish was butterflied and rocketed out over the fire. The second one was speared through a stick with two forks and rested against a rock on the other side of the fire. We gave the fish an hour's head start before we started cooking the rice and the rest of our dinner because we wanted to cook the whole fish low and slow. Time isn't a concern when you're sleeping out there. What could be better than sitting in front of a fire, sipping some maple whiskey with a friend and watching the golden reward of your efforts crisp and drip in the light of the flame?
For a camp cooking utensil, David found a scrap of green wood, folded it in half, and sharpened the tips to make a fully functional set of tongs to transfer the crayfish into the boiling water. They quickly turned a bright red. By 9:45, we deemed dinner done, spread our bounty out on a sheet of birch bark and took a few moments to appreciate what the earth had provided us before digging in. We started with the crayfish as they would be best enjoyed hot. Although there was not much to eat on the little fellas, they were a fun, bite-sized appetizer to kick off the meal. The trout was undoubtedly the highlight of the feast as it pulled perfectly off the bones, leaving a complete fish skeleton for display. The flaky flesh paired with a garnish of wood sorrel for a lemon-flavored kick was refreshing. The wild harvested rice is unlike any wild rice you can buy in a store. Unlike store-bought wild rice that often seems to never fully soften when cooked, this rice was creamy and delicious. Mixed with the wild mushrooms and washed down with balsam tea, we were living the woodsman's good life. The body was taking in the nutrition, the pride and endorphins were flooding us with smiles, and the cracking fire and wood smoke curling up into the dark sky set the perfect ambience for a forest feast.
I woke up the following day feeling fantastic. I had slept incredibly well, bundled in my down sleeping bag, and woke up to the first caw of the crow. An excellent healthy natural meal like that can go a long way when you have spent a few days on the road. It was a gloomy morning, and despite having plenty of room in the lean-to, David still preferred his hammock set up and was still fast asleep. I grabbed my camera and did my best to capture the subtle beauty of fall mornings on video. (A second video focused on wild food is coming soon)
When David crawled out of his cocoon shortly after, it was a quick breakfast and back in the boat. By now, he had the waters pretty well sorted and was catching fish more regularly. The rocky area produced a higher percentage of males than the earlier location of grasses and blowdown. One might conclude that the females are focused on gathering food for the fry, and the males are waiting in the spawning area to put on their show. By mid-day, we were ready to explore and hike down the lake outlet following the sound of trickling water. David grabbed a rod and blue fox number 3 lure, I, my camera, and we jumped from rock to rock and pushed bush until we came to an opening. Water levels gave us little hope for fish, but we did catch signs of various animals, including deer, otter, coyote and moose.
It was our last day out here, and as the sun peeked through the clouds, it felt like we had made a special connection with this little lake, the surrounding forest and the beautiful brook trout that had become much more prevalent than only three days earlier. By that evening, having caught many more fish, David and I had felt we had both achieved what we had set out here to accomplish. David's mission was to reel in a few of these vibrant heritage-strain brook trout; mine was to document that in photos and video. We had a relaxing dinner, mixing the rest of the foraged mushrooms with some of our freeze-dried meals and calling it an early night. We had a long walk home in the morning.
By the time the sun was fully stretched out over the worn-down mountains that next morning, we had packed our bags and gathered a generous collection of tinder, kindling and fuel wood for the next visitors - an ADK tradition to leave some fire prep for those who might arrive wet, cold and hungry. We balanced the camera on a rock and took one last photograph of the two of us together in front of the lean-to here at Brooktrout Lake to keep the memories a little more alive until the next adventure together.
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November 2023 --- Cody