Often, we wish we could keep a place from changing. That’s the case with one of my favorite fishing spots.
One of my favorite places to fish growing up was on Upper Chateaugay Lake, where my aunt Joan and uncle Pete lived in a small log cabin.
The opportunities for catching trout there were endless. Rainbows fed along the shoreline at sunset and brook trout could be caught in the small feeder streams at almost any hour. All it took to catch the fish was some live worms and patience.
The worms were easy to find. They could be found under any of the logs in the yard. Plus, Pete had dozens in a large wooden box filled with dirt in the basement, where he also kept a four-inch brook trout in the small stream that ran along the edges of the foundation.
Patience was also not a problem, whether we were sitting on the still lake waiting for the fish to bite or stalking brook trout in the small streams. This is what we wanted to be doing. It was spring. It was fun.
Of all the trips, perhaps the one that I would look forward to the most was heading to the southern inlet. Getting to the inlet entailed some planning, a trip across the big water and usually, in the end, resulted in a stringer full of fish.
In the morning, we’d eat breakfast in the kitchen, sitting feet from where hummingbirds would congregate in the garden.
After eating, we’d fill the tractor’s wagon full of gear and drive it to the lake. The wagon would be filled with fishing poles, nets, hooks, warm clothes, emergency gear, a garden rake to break beaver dams, a couple Genesee Cream Ales for my uncle, and a few of my uncle’s quirky inventions that he must have thought up during the long winters.
One of my favorite inventions of my uncle was a large four-feet-wide table umbrella that he would use when we were in a wind-protected place during a rainstorm. The boat was rigged so the umbrella would sit securely in the middle of the boat.
Once we had the boat loaded, my uncle and the crew — which would sometimes include my brother Doug and our father — would head out to the lake. This often would be a rough ride, as the waves crashed against the bow, spraying water on the passengers.
When we arrived at Chateaugay’s southern end, the lake transformed into a marshy area and the choppy waters became calm. Here we’d locate the channel leading to the inlet and follow its path upstream. I would stay in the bow and be on the lookout for obstructions, shouting out directions when we came to a downed log or large rock.
As we progressed up the windy and sometimes narrow inlet, we would encounter beaver dams across the streams. After my uncle lodged the boat into the beaver dam, we’d hop out, then pull the vessel forward until it was free.
If a hole looked especially fishable, we’d stop for a while. Otherwise, we’d continue upstream as far as we could get, hopping beaver dams as we went.
Once we’d gone as far as we wanted that day, we’d drop a few lines and wait for the fish to bite. More often than not, it seemed that my uncle had his line in the water and a beer in his grasp before I’d dug a worm out of my bucket.
Usually, if the black flies were biting so were the fish, which included colorful brook trout and plenty of pesky yellow perch.
We’d catch trout in the deep holes on the upper side of the beaver dams, in the running water below them or in the shadows of the alder thickets growing along the shorelines.
That was perhaps my favorite activity in the spring.
Unfortunately my uncle passed on about a decade ago.
As for the trout fishing, it hasn’t been the same for even longer. That’s because someone introduced pike — a large aggressive non-native fish — into the lake. Since they’ve taken over, I haven’t caught a single rainbow trout along the shoreline and I’ve landed very few brook trout in the inlet.
There’s also a milfoil problem that is especially prevalent in the southern section of the lake and boaters have been restricted from going in certain sections in recent years.
So with the opening day of trout season having taken place on Thursday, I have mixed feelings. It’s always exciting to know the season is upon us, but it’s discouraging to know that trout waters are disappearing at Chateaugay and other places. The Saranac Lake chain is a good example. Historically, the Saranac Lake chain of lakes and the surrounding water bodies had brook trout in 94 percent of its 19,000 acres of water. Now, there are brook trout in three percent of its waters, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
It will seemingly always remain a mystery of who put pike into the Chateaugay Lake, changing it forever. It’s too bad. Personally, I preferred it the way it was. I know Pete did, too.
A view of Chateaugay Lake’s southern inlet from a plane. The inlet has changed over the years because of the introduction of invasive species, such as pike, which have negatively influenced the native brook trout population.
(Lake Placid News photo — Mike Lynch)