by Paul DiNolo
The last ice age left Southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod the recipients of hundreds of wonderful freshwater ponds, the result of large masses of glacier ice that gouged depressions in the sandy soil and then melted. The clear, cool, still waters that were formed have become a priceless resource for local anglers. And, while each of these kettle ponds were created in more or less the same manner, they are still each quite unique.
The majority of these ponds have water quality and temperature ranges that will support self-sustaining populations of warm-water species. These waters yield some spectacular catches of both largemouth bass and smallmouth bass as well as large chain pickerel, yellow perch, white perch, crappies and sunfish. These warm-water fish can be caught with all of the standard methods including fly fishing, spinning and baitcasting. These fish will also respond to a variety of live baits, flies and lures.
Fishing for the warm-water species is a rewarding experience. These fish will be available and responsive for many months during the calendar year. I have enjoyed many early summer evenings coaxing outsized bluegills as well as the occasional bass while wading the shore with my fly rod. However, I also look at these warm-water fishing sessions as great practice for sharpening my skills against the time when I will be chasing trout in the deeper and cooler kettle ponds. Even though most of these waters are not suitable for holding trout throughout the year, there are still a very generous number of ponds that Massachusetts finds suitable for stocking with trout. These stocked trout waters are the most popular of our kettle ponds because they offer great opportunities for both novice and expert trout fishers.
The peak trout-fishing periods on our kettle ponds occur twice a year. The first starts in the spring on or about the last week in March and starts to slow down near the end of May. Of course, these dates can vary with the weather conditions for any given year. I have had years when fly fishing for holdover trout was getting good on St. Patrick’s Day. I also remember years when the steady fishing started to slow down by Mother’s Day. The state likes to have its stocking schedule in progress by late March, when the weather and water conditions allow. The second peak period of the year comes in early fall, usually by the first week in October. Some years it starts as early as the last week in September, or as late as Columbus Day. The open-water trout fishing can usually be counted on to remain steady into early December.
These active trout-fishing periods correspond to the emergence of the rich chironomid (midge) populations, which form the foundation of the food chain in the majority of these kettle ponds, certainly in the ponds that hold trout. When the trout get tuned in to the midge-hatching timetable, fast and steady fly fishing opportunities arise. This form of fishing can be fairly technical at times and demanding on the angler, but the rewards are well worth the effort. This is especially evident shortly after the stocking occurs. It seems that after the influx of new fish in the spring and again in the fall (for those ponds that receive both spring and fall stocking), the holdover resident trout become more competitive in their feeding activity. In some ponds it looks like raindrops hitting the water’s surface during the height of the feeding periods. At these times the trout can be very fussy about what they want, and that produces the biggest challenge.
Over the years, this challenge has led me and a number of my fishing buddies to experiment with and develop a number of chironomid imitations and tactics that have helped us to be a bit more successful. It is no secret that I love fly fishing for these trout, but I know that fly fishing isn’t the only method, and often not even the best method for taking kettle pond trout. If surveys were conducted, I’m sure they would show that the majority of the trout had been caught with live bait using spinning tackle. Worms, minnows, Berkley PowerBait, salmon eggs and grass shrimp are the most popular and effective choices. Many of the anglers who use spinning gear also have their share of success using lures. There are many good ones available at a reasonable price. Spoons such as the Al’s Goldfish, small Kastmasters, Thomas Buoyants and the like have solid reputations as trout-getters. There are also many spinners that are quite effective. Mepps, Rooster Tails, and Panther Martins have all accounted for many fish.
When the trout are actively rising, the fly rod seems to be a better bet. However, there are many times when not a single trout can be seen rising and fly fishing becomes a “hit or miss” situation. Quite often the spin fisherman will do extremely well. The angler who takes these situations into account and is prepared to give the trout what they want, when they want it, is sure to succeed.
One of the features that seems to be common to the majority of these kettle ponds is their accessibility. The ponds are relatively small when compared to the ponds and lakes of northern New England. Most of our ponds have have enough shallow areas that are well suited for the wading angler. These ponds, especially the deeper, cooler trout ponds, are often surrounded by some higher hilly ground that offers some shelter from the prevailing winds. These high spots and their corresponding points indicate where the water drops off to deeper areas. Knowing this lets the shore-bound angler get his bait or lure out in productive places more efficiently. Another aspect of the kettle ponds accessibility is in terms of their boat-launching areas. Most of the kettle ponds can be very well covered with canoes, small boats, float tubes and kayaks. The use of these small water craft and small electric- or gasoline-powered trolling motors can open up large areas of the ponds that can be fished no other way. Trolling can produce some of the larger trout in any given pond.
While I don’t use spinning equipment very often, I can offer a few hints that I have observed from some of my friends who are very well versed in the use of bait. The first thing that I have noticed is that the successful bait fisherman will always use the lightest line, smallest hook and least amount of added weight that is practical in any particular angling situation. These anglers also seem very particular about the quality of the baits that they employ. They will find their favorite sections of shoreline based on their knowledge of the pond’s structure and many years of angling. The successful angler will also make use of the topographic maps that show the depth and contours of a given kettle pond. These maps may be accessed online from the MassWildlife website, downloaded and printed. They are a fantastic source of information. The other thing that I have noticed is the skilled bait fisher’s instinctive ability to show up at the ponds during the peak periods of productivity. Over the years, I have been lucky enough to witness these “bait guys” put on some impressive demonstrations of their well-honed techniques. I also realized that many of the subtle tactics that I saw were transferable to fly fishing.
For me, fly fishing the kettle ponds for trout occurs in two separate time periods. First, there are those times each year when the chironomid hatch is well under way. During these times (spring and fall), I try to be on the water as the initial stage of the emergence is starting. At this time there will not be too many actively rising trout. This is the time when I will try my luck using a midge pupa fished slowly just below the surface. In these situations I will use a size #14 or #16 fly on a leader that is 10 to 12 feet long and tapered to a 5-X or 6-X fluorocarbon tippet attached to a floating line. I will put my casts into areas over a muddy section of the pond, as the midges spend most of their pre-adult life there. The fish sense this as a good place to feed and will migrate to those spots as the insects start to move up from the mud. At this time, the trout may be making bulging rises. The angler may be tempted to switch to an adult midge imitation, but that won’t be so effective, as the trout will be getting most of their meal under the surface. A good tip to determine whether or not the trout are actually surface feeding is to look for an air bubble left in the middle of the rise ring. Unless you see a bubble, keep fishing the pupa. The key thing for the fly fisher to remember is that the midge pupa move at a very slow rate, and that the imitations should be fished accordingly. Eventually the midges start to break through the surface film, spread and dry their wings and fly off to the nearby bushes to await their mating duties.
As more and more midges surface, the trout will turn to taking them off the surface. Here is where you will notice the distinct bubble after each rise. Now is the time to switch to the dry-fly imitations. My two favorite patterns for this stage are the Griffith’s Gnat and the Loop-Winged Emerger, tied in sizes #16 or #18. Trying to cast to a specific rise form is often counter-productive. By the time you see the rise and cast to it, that trout will be elsewhere. A better alternative would be to look for an area where a few trout are rising and cast to a spot in between the actual rises. If you see a single fish that is rising in a particular direction in some rhythmic pattern, then just cast ahead of the fish where you would anticipate its next rise. Use these tactics as a starting point, and adapt them to meet any changing situation.
The other time period for fly fishing the kettle ponds is that part of the year when the midges are not active and the trout are chasing other food items. This is the time when I try to go down deep after the trout. Now, I tend to choose larger, heavier, flashier fly patterns that imitate baitfish, leeches, and dragonfly and damselfly nymphs. These days, bead-head Wooly Buggers seem to be the most popular, and for good reason.
Fished on sink-tip or full-sinking lines with an erratic retrieve, they are very effective patterns. They are usually tied in darker colors, with black being the most popular, followed closely by dark olive. If no fish are showing themselves, then I employ a fan-casting technique. I find a place that allows room for a decent back-cast and then start to make random casts in a 180 degree arc. I will vary the depth that I let the fly reach before I begin my retrieve, and I will also vary the speed at which I retrieve the fly. It is a slow, methodical process, but if you stick with it you’ll have a good chance at landing some fish. Once you hit on the right combination of depth and speed, you can then try fishing from different locations on the pond. These same methods will work if you are fishing from a boat, a canoe, a kayak or a float tube.
Ask any ten of my fishing buddies, “Which is your favorite kettle pond?” and you’re likely to get ten different answers. Some of these ponds are quite popular and see a great many anglers, while many are less well known and receive less pressure. It would be difficult for me to single out one pond as my absolute favorite, but I will suggest just a few to try. From my home in Duxbury, I am only six miles away from Little Pond and Lout Pond in Plymouth. Because of their proximity, I seem to spend more time fishing them than some of the ponds that require a bit more travel time. However, there are times when it is only natural to want to fish different waters, and there are plenty of options. If I want to stay in Plymouth, I can choose to try Big Sandy Pond, Fearing Pond (in Myles Standish State Forest), and Long Pond. If I don’t mind driving a bit longer, I can fish Peters Pond in Sandwich, Grews Pond in Falmouth, and Hamblin Pond in Barnstable. And if I want to make the trek to Nickerson State Park in Brewster, I can have my choice of four productive trout ponds: Big Cliff Pond, Little Cliff Pond, Flax Pond and Higgins Pond, all in the same area.
There are so many other good kettle ponds that it would be very difficult to name them all in this article. Anyway, a good portion of the angling experience is getting out to explore your own list of favorite kettle ponds. Perhaps, while you are waiting for the first strike of the day, you might be wondering what kind of fishing opportunities the next ice age will bring.