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. Preparing 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.
Keuka 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 and 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.
We 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.
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.