Night is losing ground to day as I step over a stone wall and onto a path I’ve taken many times before. The dim light of my headlamp guides the way while I’m mindful of my rod tips and the branches around me. A few minutes later, I’m alone at the water’s edge and the first signs of dawn are creeping over the tall pines in the distance. I can see my breath in the chill of the morning and the only sound for miles is the hum of the aerator keeping my bait alive. It’s October and I’m finally home.
Every year, when New England’s leaves are painted gold and its autumn air grows crisp, a mental alarm goes off in my fishing-wracked brain, reminding me it’s time to return to a pristine body of water in southwestern Connecticut. At first glance, one may be hard-pressed to believe the Saugatuck Reservoir and the lush forest surrounding it are not nestled in the Adirondacks. Instead, this 827-acre manmade angler’s paradise sits just a stone’s throw away from the I-95 corridor in Fairfield County.
Along with the Saugatuck’s raw beauty and breathtaking views, it’s what lurks below the surface that compels anglers year after year to purchase a permit from Aquarion Water Company, owner of the reservoir, and try their luck along this oasis. A bounty of freshwater fish species call this reservoir home and, with a strong forage base and special regulations in place, many are given the opportunity to reach trophy size.
At the north end of the reservoir lies the flooded remains of the village of Valley Forge. Once a proud and hardworking section of the rural town of Weston, the immigrants who settled in Valley Forge used the Saugatuck River to power mills and factories, manufacturing iron and steel products that helped the country win the War of 1812.
Over time, Fairfield County’s population grew and booming cities like Bridgeport needed more water. Eventually, the powerhouse Bridgeport Hydraulic Company (BHC) began buying land around the Saugatuck River Valley and used eminent domain to obtain the rest. Concerned citizens fought back, but in the end Valley Forge residents were forced to sell and move. The schoolhouse was closed, homes and mills were burned or razed, and bodies exhumed from the local cemetery. By 1942, a concrete dam 700 feet long and 100 feet thick was built to flood the valley, which now holds 12 billion gallons of water and supplies 300,000 Connecticut residents.
BHC has expanded and changed its name to Aquarion Water Company, but the Saugatuck remains its flagship reservoir in the Nutmeg State. Thankfully, Aquarion acknowledges the importance of their vast watershed lands to outdoor enthusiasts and allows controlled fishing, hunting and hiking on some of their properties. At the Saugatuck Reservoir, anglers can purchase a $25 season pass, in addition to their standard state fishing license, and ply its western shoreline daily between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. from the third Saturday in April to December 31 (or until ice sets in).
Fish Species in the Saugatuck Reservoir
During the Saugatuck’s open season, anglers target a variety of species including smallmouth bass, crappie and yellow perch, but two fish garner most of the attention: brown trout and walleye. Many of the brown trout stocked into the reservoir each year by Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) are “seeforellens,” a strain native to Germany that thrives in deep, cool lakes like the Saugatuck. Tim Barry, a fisheries biologist with CT DEEP, explained why this strain of trout is unique and highly sought after.
“Seeforellen brown trout are supposed to be a long-lived, late-spawning strain that grow to large size and that’s basically been our experience here in Connecticut,” Barry said. “We don’t see great numbers of them, but what we do see is that, in all of the places where they’re stocked, inevitably the biggest fish caught in those lakes end up being seeforellen. So, the fact that they do consistently produce large holdover fish is why we continue to manage them in our hatchery system.”
About 2,500 6- to 9-inch yearling seeforellens are stocked into the Saugatuck each year. To get an idea of just how large they can grow, look no further than the current Connecticut state record brown trout. From the shores of the reservoir in 2011, Tony Urbanowicz broke a 31-year-old record with a beast of a brown weighing 18.34 pounds. It was 32.5 inches long and sported a girth of 21 inches!
The other predominant target species in the Saugatuck is walleye, especially with the reservoir being one of only a dozen or so water bodies in Connecticut that hold these popular and excellent-eating fish. Every fall, approximately 7,000 4- to 6-inch walleye fingerlings are purchased by Aquarion from hatcheries in the Midwest and released into the Saugatuck. By the time these fish reach four years of age, they are about the legal harvest size of 18 inches. They often get much larger than that, like the impressive 30-inch specimen that was sampled there during a CT DEEP electro-fishing survey in 2012.
For a better understanding of why the reservoir holds the caliber of fish that it does, I turned again to Tim Barry. “It has a very good landlocked alewife population, so there is plenty of forage there for both brown trout and walleye,” Barry said. “That, and the limited accessibility as far as angling goes in permitting those fish the time to grow to a larger size. In the lakes where we have limited access like the Saugatuck Reservoir, whether it’s a closed season or limiting the amount of fishing effort by restricting the use of boats, it appears to us that these are the types of lakes that clearly shine as far as producing, year in and year out, trophy holdover fish.”
While the Saugatuck is home to plenty of trout and walleye that would look good over the mantle, it hardly means they are easy to catch. And for many anglers, that challenge is an integral part of why we keep going back. The reservoir is large and deep by Connecticut standards, and with fishing only allowed from its western shore, this leaves the vast majority of the Saugatuck unreachable by rod and reel. Results from electro-fishing surveys over the years have actually shown that the grass is greener on the other side.
“The difference in samples between the two sides of the lake—the side that’s open to fishing and the side that’s not—you would almost think you had time-traveled or gone to two different lakes,” Barry said. “The numbers and sizes of fish sampled on the eastern shoreline, as opposed to the western shoreline where the fishing is allowed, is absolutely mindboggling. What that says to me is that even with limited shoreline access, there can be some pretty significant implications from fishing pressure.”
The Saugatuck can be unforgiving on fishing tackle as well. With stone walls, foundations and erratic boulders crisscrossing the bottom, its craggy depths take more than their fair share of sacrificial offerings every season. A walk around the shoreline during low water will sometimes yield treasures in the form of lost lures and sinkers. Scouting during low water can also be good for pinpointing fish-holding structure like rocky points and steep drop-offs.
As water temperatures in the Saugatuck cool down in October and November, more cards are stacked in the angler’s favor. “I think there are several factors that help improve fishing at Saugatuck Reservoir in the fall,” Barry said. “First, the cooling water temperatures near shore tend to make bait and predatory fish move inshore. Second, brown trout usually spawn in fall. While we have no evidence that they are actually doing so in Saugatuck, they still go on the prowl, especially along the shoreline, looking for suitable sites to attempt to spawn. And third, many of the bigger predatory fish go on a feeding binge in the fall to pack on some fat for the long winter season.”
Saugatuck Reservoir Fishing Tackle and Techniques
At the Saugatuck Reservoir, you will usually run into three types of anglers: those who strictly use bait, those who only use lures, and those who employ a combination of both methods. Whatever your preference, pretty standard equipment includes a landing net, medium-action rods in the 6- to 8-foot range, and reels spooled with 6- to 10-pound mono or fluoro. While braided lines will give an edge in casting distance, be aware that they may be vulnerable to freezing on very cold mornings.
As for bait, the use of alewives, alive or dead, is prohibited, but fishing with live shiners from local bait shops is arguably the next best thing. Growing up, a shiner under a bobber was my favorite way to fish. There is just something awesome about watching a bobber get pulled under the surface and not knowing what’s on the other end. While that feeling has never left me, my float fishing has grown a little more sophisticated over the years. Those classic red-and-white bobbers I used were fixed to my line, making the setup challenging to cast if I wanted to set my bait more than three feet down. Thankfully, that all changed with my adoption of the slip bobber.
A lot like ice fishing with tip-ups, slip-bobber fishing is a clever way of targeting specific areas of the water column. By sliding up and down the line instead of clipping to it, a slip bobber enables an angler to fish a predetermined depth, no matter how deep, and still be able to cast the rig. The key to setting its depth is to add a bobber stop to the main line, which can be as simple as a nylon overhand knot. This knot will stop the sliding bobber at the desired position and will ensure it goes under the surface like any other when a fish takes your offering.
Slip bobbers come in all shapes and sizes and can be rigged up in a variety of ways. My slip-bobber rigging is always changing in the quest to find the perfect system, but regardless of what setup I end up with, they are all designed to perform in the same way. Whether for trout cruising under the surface or walleye hanging close to bottom, the use of shiners under a slip bobber plays a big role in putting fish on the banks of the Saugatuck each fall. If your heart is set on trout, try suspending a shiner 5, 10 or 15 feet below the surface. If targeting walleye, try to estimate the depth of the area you’re fishing and set the bobber so your bait is dangling a foot or two off bottom. Whatever the case, find the bathymetric map online and keep experimenting with depths until you discover what’s working.
The other mainstay bait presentation at the Saugatuck Reservoir is a bottom rig. Unlike slip bobbers, there is no need for guessing or setting depths when fishing bottom. And since walleye do the bulk of their feeding in the lower rung of the water column, it makes sense to put a juicy offering right in their kitchen. At a shore-only fishery like the Saugatuck, chances of connecting to an old “marble eye” increase during low-light conditions when they move into shallower water to hunt. So, in the early morning and evening hours, one of my rods is always set up for bottom fishing with walleye in mind.
A bait-feeder-style reel complements this type of fishing well, allowing fish to run with the bait without feeling any tension. In the years before I owned one, loosening the drag of any spinning reel to allow fish to bolt did the trick—you just had to remember to tighten the drag again before setting the hook! A rod holder can also help in fish detection, as it keeps the rod still and low to the water, out of any wind. My typical bottom rig consists of a short fluoro leader between a hook and a barrel swivel with a sliding egg sinker above that. For bait, I stick to live shiners to imitate the alewives, but night crawlers and leeches have been known to entice walleye as well.
While bait fishing can be effective, it can also anchor anglers to one specific area. Casting and retrieving artificial lures is another proven method at the Saugatuck Reservoir, and it enables a caster to easily cover a lot of water and probe different depths. It’s the perfect style of fishing for the mobile angler who prefers to bounce around from spot to spot, but it can also be a great complement to soaking bait. On many fall outings, I have deployed live shiner rigs on bottom or under a slip bobber, then fan-casted the area with lures while waiting for my bait to get eaten.
As in several deep water bodies throughout New England, lures of the metal variety are by far the most popular type on the Saugatuck. Spoons like Krocodiles and Kastmasters have superior casting ability and the flash they put off closely imitates the reservoir’s main forage. A tried-and-true tactic for big trout here is to launch a spoon as far as possible, let it flutter to the bottom and then slowly retrieve it. Oftentimes, bottom-lurking browns will strike the lure within the first few cranks of the reel handle. That’s exactly how Tony Urbanowicz enticed the current state record brown trout. Don’t be afraid to go heavy either—his lure choice that fateful morning was a 2-ounce Yo-Zuri L-Jack jig. The most popular sizes when casting metal, however, are between 3/4 and 1.5 ounces, and the classic gold or silver patterns are king.
Although most of my lure fishing in the Saugatuck is done with the hope of trout and walleye, other species, like pike-sized pickerel and trophy largemouth and smallmouth bass, can be taken this way as well. Anglers targeting walleye with lures will often get down deep using soft-plastic baits like Gulp Alive mounted on jigheads. Hard-plastic lures are another great option for just about every target species in the reservoir, including swim baits like Sebile Magic Swimmers and Storm Kickin’ Sticks, or lipped swimmers like Rapala X-Raps.
Best Fishing Spots on the Saugatuck Reservoir
When Valley Forge was flooded to create the Saugatuck Reservoir in the late 1930s, new roads were built to navigate around it. The aptly named Valley Forge Road was one of them, and it snakes its way past more than a dozen pull-offs along the fishable side of the reservoir. All of the pull-offs have well-worn trails that lead you right to the water. Some of the larger access areas are easier to find than others, thanks to portable toilets and the yellow signs reminding anglers of the walleye regulations.
One of the most productive spots on the whole reservoir is also the easiest to get to—the wheelchair-accessible fishing dock near the dam is the deepest part of the Saugatuck and just a few feet from where you park. Other locations require a bit more hiking over rocky topography, but that is where you can get away from the crowds. Even still, what constitutes “crowding” at the Saugatuck resembles a ghost town at more popular venues. Bring a good pair of hiking boots and don’t be afraid to explore—but you are prohibited from wading in the water.
If the fish aren’t cooperating, the sunrises, sunsets and wildlife at the Saugatuck are usually worth the price of admission alone. I always bring a pair of binoculars with me as the birding around the reservoir is top notch. Migrating birds use it as a stopover to recharge before continuing on with their journeys. Hooded mergansers, loons and pileated woodpeckers are not uncommon sights, and a fishing partner and I were once treated to a spectacular display of two bald eagles, talons locked, free-falling through the air.
The Saugatuck Reservoir is not an ideal fit for every angler. It is a humbling body of water with a reputation for quality over quantity and where “skunkings” can be commonplace. But, the same reasons that make it a challenging fishery also make it so rewarding when that slip bobber goes under the surface or when your lure gets clobbered mid-retrieve. The potential is there, each and every trip, to come tight with a fish of a lifetime, and that’s partly why I keep going back. Yet, it’s more than just fishing—the Saugatuck Reservoir is a remarkably beautiful setting steeped in history and one of those increasingly rare locations in southern Connecticut where I get the feeling of a much wilder place. That’s why, when fall sets in, I know where I’ll be.
If you go: Get a Saugatuck Reservoir Fishing Permit
To purchase a permit for the Saugatuck, you will need a valid Connecticut fishing license, non-residents included. Season permit fees are $25, one-day permits are $5, and permits for senior citizens and physically handicapped anglers are free. Anglers under the age of 16 are not required to have a permit but must be accompanied by an adult permit holder. Note that Aquarion’s Watershed and Environmental Management Office is currently CLOSED to the public (updated: 10/22/2020). Permits can be obtained at several bait-and-tackle shops in southwestern Connecticut, including Candlewood Bait & Tackle Co. in Danbury, Fisherman’s World in East Norwalk, Poster Hardware in Fairfield, Marine Sports Center in Bridgeport, Fisherman’s Paradise in Milford and Orbit Marine in Bridgeport.