Messing About in Boats

My friend Tim D. and I decided to fish the southern end of Keuka Lake in boats… In little boats… On the broad Finger Lake closest to our homes. We got there before daybreak on a Sunday morning with intent to catch a large brown trout or a landlocked salmon in the tranquil waters of this popular lake.

I fumbled with my gear in the cold and darkness and prepared to fit myself in a life-preserver, not to mention the over-sized fins that would attach to my wading shoes. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPreparing to enter Tim’s one-man pontoon boat, I took high, backward steps into the vessel, feeling like an overstuffed bear entering a beehive in reverse.

That’s to say, I’m not a lake fisherman, and have limited experience with trout fishing on lakes and ponds. That’s to say, I have limited experience with boats of any kind, but I was thankful to Tim for a new casting opportunity. When Tim inserted himself as snugly as possible into his float tube, we were ready to sail.

Oh sure, a guy my age has had some experience with boats– before I was old enough for school, I took a trans-Atlantic voyage on the largest ocean-liner of the time, and later I was on a tin can in the middle of the Aegean Sea in a major windstorm that I thought would send me to an early grave among the octopi. And I’ve steered around in leaky canoes, but I was never before in a situation like this.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKeuka Lake has 58.4 miles of shoreline nestled in the grape-producing hills of central New York. Its cold, clear waters have a mean depth of 101 feet. Its fishery is almost legendary, and on at least a couple of occasions it has produced a state record brown trout of some 23 pounds in weight. Having lived nearby for several decades, I should know it better than I do, but I’m mainly a stream fisherman, and not much for motorized fishing vessels, which is what I assumed you needed here.

I can thank Tim for straightening me out on that score. In fact, the little pontoon boat, easily piggybacked on a small car for transportation purposes, was so relaxing (like drifting in an old recliner, when I didn’t have to paddle) that I might even consider getting one for exploration of the last two wild lakes in the Finger Lake system, Canadice and Hemlock.

Later I would think of my favorite young person’s story, The Wind in the Willows, by the Scotsman, Kenneth Grahame… Pushing from the boat launch in Hammondsport, Tim OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand I were akin to the characters Mole and Water Rat. Early in the story, Mole said, “I’ve never been in a boat before in all my life.”

Rat replied, “Well I– what have you been doing, then?… Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing— absolutely nothing– half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Basically at that point, we were the only humans up and around the big lake early on this autumn morning. Even the duck hunters were still scraping their dishes and brushing their teeth in distant bathrooms.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe were casting streamers with the use of powerful fly rods. We drifted and paddled eastward to the calm water off Keuka Lake Inlet (Cold Brook). It took me a while to get the hang of casting from an easy chair, then paddling to keep ahead of the rising chop produced by a strengthening breeze.

The lights of dawn over the eastern hills were beautiful and ever-changing.

Chapter 7 in The Wind in the Willows is a masterful creation called “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” the title of which was adopted by the band Pink Floyd for their first record album (1967). I would think of the chapter title as I paddled and drifted toward the eastern lights…

“Then a change began slowly to declare itself. The horizon became clearer, field and tree came more into sight, and somehow with a different look; the mystery began to drop away from them. A bird piped suddenly, and was still; and a light breeze sprang up and set the reeds and bulrushes rustling…” And so, Mole and Rat were about to meet the piper demi-god (Pan) while on their quest for a missing young otter.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The change occurred over the eastern hills and the cottages with their glowing lamps. Tim caught the first and only fish of the morning– a large pickerel that at first seemed to be a salmon. Oddly enough, great carp were still rolling on the surface of the weed beds. The breeze built itself into a wind. A pair of tundra swans flew by us toward the marshes of Cold Brook where the coots were paddling around in small flocks.

Eventually we retreated from the tight-lipped haunts of Keuka Lake to the cold and windy banks of the Conhocton River where each of us would catch a nice trout. It was the earlier messing about in boats, however, that clearly defined our day.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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15 Responses to Messing About in Boats

  1. Bill Ragosta says:

    Looks like fun to me. I hope to be messing around in a larger boat on Keuka one day this week.

  2. leigh says:

    Walt, good story. We love Keuka Lake and have been going there over the years. In fact, our terrier mix is named Keuka. Hope we can meet there next year.

  3. Brent says:

    The Piper is my favorite chapter of the book. I learned about the sublime in an English course in college; following that, Grahame’s writing in this chapter was the very first thing I read that seemed to touch on that. On the fishing side, it’s almost as though the lake fish were still asleep–or that they were laughing at the guys trying to outsmart them in their domain.

    • Didn’t know that you were familiar with the book, but yeah. The sublime really comes together in that chapter, and to think that some folks blow off the story as kids’ literature only. If only high school kids would appreciate it for what the story really is. Adults would do well by reading it, for sure. As for the lake fish, they were laughing/scoffing at us or, as Tim said, uncomfortable with a sudden weather change, rather than at our “messing.”

  4. markw says:

    Gorgeous sunrise!

  5. Bob Stanton says:

    Ah, I’ve sometimes longed for a boat and the freedom it can give, other times I think of the freedom a boat can deprive one of. The Floyd reference made me think of some alternate titles for this post, such as “Tim and Walt gathered together on a lake and grooving with a fish” or “Careful with that 8 weight, Walt”. Yes, I’ve got too much time on my hands.

  6. Possession of a boat can cut both ways, for sure. The small ones are alluring sometimes, in my opinion, but the bigger ones not so much. Bob, your alternate titles almost made me laugh into my wine glass. Luckily I didn’t have another accident as I did last night when I spilled beer into the side of my computer and nearly caused a meltdown (had to buy a new mouse today)… I remain, gathered with several small furry cats and a wine glass… together in a cave… and groovin’ on a fish tale.

  7. There are several reptile-related problems with using those boats down here, but it sounds like a blast. Despite my many misadventures in them, I tend to agree with Mole Rat.

  8. Mole Rat is a character combo I’d agree with, too, Jim, seeing both sides of the issue. Gators would eat either one of the guys if they had a chance. The little boats are fun if you can keep your toes covered.

  9. Mike says:

    Great story and pics, Walt. Always wondered about those belly boats. Funny description of you getting in one. I have a jon boat on the local reservoir and it really offers a different type of serenity, though serenity just the same, than stomping around the streams. I sure do love both.

    • That jon boat serenity you speak of is what I aspire to occasionally, but I so seldom fish the lakes that I’ve never yet taken the plunge. Still considering a floater of some sort, though, for an added dimension of experience. Thanks, as always, for your input, Mike.

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