A Day on Somerset

Somerset Reservoir is nestled in the southern range of the Green Mountain National Forest.   The six and a half mile long reservoir is a man-made lake that was constructed in 1912 to control flows to downstream hydro-electric generation facilities.  This water body is the largest wild lake in the state of Vermont and boasts no dwellings or camps along all 18 miles of its foresteded shore line.  The lake holds many small islands, is fed by numerous cold streams, and supports wetlands and wildlife habitat along most of its shoreline.  The nearest township, Somerset, is located a few miles to the south and has a population of less than ten people.  The reservoir is surrounded by hundreds of square miles of forest, all protected within the Green Mountain National Forest system.  Moose, white tailed deer, black bear, coyotes, fisher, loons, bald eagles, great blue herons, and countless more example of wildlife inhabit this diverse ecosystem.  It is paradise for those that enjoy the natural world and want to get a glimpse of what central New England was like before civilization. 

This beautiful place is not too far from where I live.  It is excellent fishing and so I find myself wandering up to this area at least a few times every summer to enjoy the raw beauty of the natural world, catch a few small mouth bass, and take in the clear and fresh air that fills my soul with new energy and life.  On this particular day my youngest son Liam accompanied me.  We would spend the day fishing and exploring the reservoir and then Liam would travel north to camp with friends at Grout Pond as celebration for one friend who would be married next weekend. 

The trip from Heath to Somerset is breath taking. The journey begins on dirt and gravel roads, and on this day we were blessed with a very large black bear crossing the road not a mile from our house.  Curiously the bear had something fairly large sticking out of its mouth.  I stopped the truck with boat and trailer in tow, to see if I could see the bear in the woods where it had just crossed a stone wall.  Sure enough there it stood with what appeared to be a chicken in its jowls.  I looked closely and noticed the victim had a comb on its head which eliminated the possibility of it being some wild fowl.  The huge bear, with shining fur as black as midnight in a winter’s new moon, turned about and loped into the woods.  That was a new one on me; a black bear who chose to steal chickens.  I wondered if the bird was retrieved from a coop or if it was caught dozing while free ranging along a field edge.  The thought of a bear as a chicken thief brought a big smile to my face.  I laughed out loud.  This might turn out to be an interesting day!

As I continued north with boat in tow I wandered over roads that wound between hills and fields.  From some vantage points I could look north through the Green Mountain range.  Small white clouds and blue sky hung over wooded mountains and misty green valleys that were somewhat obscured by the fog.  Most of the trip however is along narrow wooded roads where you get to appreciate the close nature of the New England landscape now dominated by massive forests that are host to both deciduous and conifer trees of all types, sizes, and shapes.  Central New England, these days, is more about forest than field.  Agriculture has suffered as result of the competition fostered by far away markets.  Fields abandoned fifty years ago are now young forests.  Fields abandoned 100 years ago are now mature woodlands.

I have seen photographs of New England when wide open spaces were cleared across the region.  The rolling hills and distant mountains looked like Scotland does today; green meadows bordered by stone walls for as far as one could see.  Without a question those times had scenery that was beautiful to behold, but the landscape was somewhat sterile from an ecological point of view.  Today forests abound, wildlife is abundant, and the world, in these parts, seems to have achieved a natural balance that it has not seen for decades.  As I drove along viewing miles of forest along the narrow rural roads I wondered if what I was witnessing is just a fleeting glance.  I wondered if, by some wonderful accident, I was able to witness this resurgence of forest land and wildlife when it may be only temporary in nature.  All I know is that it was my wonderful good fortune to be able to experience this beautiful day and these breath taking sights.  And for that I was greatly appreciative.

After a short jaunt along Route 9 in Vermont, where we passed through the town of Wilmington and by Harriman Reservoir, we turned onto a long dirt road that will took us straight north for a distance of about ten miles.  At the end of this slow journey, after dodging potholes in the gravel road that shake both truck and boat trailer, we would find a boat ramp that allowed me to off-load my water craft (aptly named the Fishound) and Liam and I would begin a day of exploring one little corner of this beautiful planet that seems to be struggling these days under the weight of human greed and development. 

The dirt road was rough and I didn’t feel safe driving a much more than 20 miles per hour.  This speed was just fine with me.  I would have more time to enjoy the big woods that the Green Mountain National Forest provides.  This remote road travels along the Deerfield River.  The Deerfield River is anything but a natural stream.  Along its 70 miles it hosts numerous hydroelectric facilities.  Somerset Reservoir was constructed to provide relatively predictable flows for power production.  It is ironic that human effort, in this case, has produced wildlife habitat that would otherwise not be available.  Despite the hydroelectric development of this great river, the watershed is one of the most undeveloped in Vermont and northwest Massachusetts.  It is where I choose to call home.  I am here because it is wild.  When it changes, and I hope it never does, I will be gone.  There is a lot to see as one travels along a river basin.  Hundreds of years of clear, rushing waters have polished rocks so that they are round and shine in the sun.  The river winds around the base of ancient mountains worn down by millions of years of wind, weather and glaciers.  The Deerfield River stays within a wide channel that handles high flows in the vernal season when more run-off is produced by melting snows than can be controlled by the great earthen dams that hold back the waters of Somerset Reservoir.  As I travelled down this quiet gravel road I was keenly aware that there are almost no other cars or trucks.  Life seemed so good.

Upon arrival at Somerset there is a huge earthen dam.  It is somewhat shocking after viewing the glorious work of nature along the access road on which I travelled for the last half hour.  The dam is perhaps 60 feet tall and more than a quarter mile long.  It is completely covered with low herbaceous growth.  Woody shrubs and trees are discouraged as they may alter the integrity of this mammoth earthen structure.  Engineers are very careful with structures that hold back millions and millions of gallons of water. 

On this day there were few people utilizing this wonderful resource.  As we climbed up a steep narrow gravel drive towards the boat ramp we noted there was only three other vehicles in the parking lot.  Two had trailers from which boats had been unloaded and a third sported an empty kayak rack.  This was a little surprising given it was eight in the morning on a Friday in the month of July. After unloading the Fishound we parked the truck and trailer and it was now time to start our journey in a northerly direction where we thought the small mouth bass fishing might be promising.

My son Liam has, over time, become a good fisherman.  Like me he is not a professional, but could hold his own amongst most anglers.  It has taken me my whole life to learn all of the necessary skills to become reasonably good at this pass time.  Liam lacks the years of experience that I have but is well on his way to becoming an accomplished angler.  By the time he is my age he will likely have accumulated more knowledge and skill than I ever will.  I know this because when he is fishing you can tell he is at peace.   This is something that he and I share.  We both have a true love of wild places and embrace activities that bring us to these domains.

The State of Vermont has wisely made a regulation that boats with motors cannot travel at speeds greater than ten miles per hour on Somerset Reservoir.  This is, in my opinion, a sound practice that prevents fast moving boat wakes from damaging the shoreline and disturbing peaceful kayakers.  Somerset has gained a lot of attention amongst the flat water kayak crowd.  They love the undeveloped shoreline and peaceful atmosphere as do we serious anglers. 

One of the more sensitive species that inhabits these waters is the loon.  This water body is known for loon nesting.  The State Agency of Natural Resources has marked loon nesting sights and asked both the fishing public and kayaking  and canoeing public to stay away from these areas.  For some strange reason many people choose to ignore these signs.  It makes no difference to the loon if you are in a power boat or kayak.  Loons perceive humans, and other mammals, as a threat to their young.  Any disturbance from any human is inexcusable.  Stay out means stay out.  This short time frame in late spring and early summer is critical to future generation of loons, a species of some concern in the State of Vermont.

On this day, as we cruised north in the Fishound, the air was brisk and breezy.  Trees swayed along the shore as a cool front moving down from Canada graced the lake with its presence.  Large billowy clouds raced across the sky.  There were so many fair weather clouds, in fact, that the blue part of the sky was all but obfuscated.  The green hills around us displayed the first signs of color change.  A few red patches where red maples were already changing color dotted the landscape along wet stream channels that drained towards the lake.  About two miles up the lake on the east side we can see the north face of Mt. Snow.  The ski trails create large, meadow-like clearings on this one part of the mountain.  Liam explains to me that this is the side of the mountain that has skiing for the skilled alpine enthusiast. 

The tell-tale smile as he talks about this tells me that he is reminded of some good skiing on the north face of that mountain.  Far to the north we can see Stratton Mountain, another ski area.  There are no ski trails on the south side of this mountain so there is nothing more than a wonderful forested mountain side to view.  I tell Liam of a time more than 30 years ago when I started a hike from Somerset.  The idea was to hike to Stratton Mountain and back in a day.  Poor planning resulted in me getting back to my truck at something like four in the morning. Thank God for flash lights and well marked trails.

About half way up the lake there is a cluster of islands near the east side of the reservoir.  There are various channels along the lake bottom that were former stream beds.  These channels have sharp breaks in the bathymetry and host good potential small mouth bass fishing.  Via sonar and GPS we knew not only our exact position on the lake, but we had a good picture of the bottom of this rock filled reservoir.  Large cobbles make for good bass habitat and these islands and old stream beds produce plenty of this type of habitat.

The wind was too strong to allow us to drift while fishing so we anchored along the edge of an old stream channel that is now buried beneath fifteen feet of water.  Liam decided to keep things simple and started with a night crawler, red hook, and two small non-lead sinkers.  I started my fishing with a soft bait imitating a bait fish and intended to cast and reel in this artificial lure along the edge of the old stream channel.  Liam did not have his bait in the water for a minute when he landed a nice small mouth bass.  Not convinced that this was any more than luck I continued casting.  In about five more minutes Liam fought another scrappy small mouth bass and successfully landed him with some effort.  I began to get the message and started to change over to more standard fishing affair, namely a hook, line, and sinker.  By the time I was rigged up Liam had landed a third small mouth bass and a large yellow perch.  After about a half hour of fishing I finally landed my first small mouth bass.  Liam was beginning to wonder if I would ever join in on the fun. 

The small mouth bass in Somerset are bronze and gold colored.  When fighting beneath the surface of the water the second clue that an angler has a smally on the other end of the line is a flash of gold as light strikes the fish in the water.  Of course the first clue is the tremendous fight.  Pound for pound  small mouth bass are the beast fighters in the world of fresh water fishing.  Small mouth bass will take your bait and line deep into the dark recesses of the lake and then a second later peel through the water surface jumping two feet into the air.  It is quite common for the small mouth bass to unhook himself, a fate that I would experience later that very morning.

After a while we moved on to a point off of a different island.  There was some submerged vegetation that provided good habitat for small bait fish as well as predator fish.  It wasn’t long before Liam had another small mouth bass on the line.  I caught a few here myself.  At this point I wasn’t really interested in counting who had caught the most fish, mostly because it wasn’t me.

At one point as Liam was landing a bass I caught a glimpse of myself as a young man.  Liam really resembles my wife’s side of the family but at this moment it was if I were viewing myself twenty five years ago.  His combined determination and enjoyment lit up the boat.  It’s a funny thing seeing a little of yourself in an offspring.  It is somehow comforting that a little of you will remain behind after your passing.  I’m not really sure why that is comforting, it just is. 

A little after noon and twenty bass and a dozen perch later the bite slowed down.  We decided to try some trolling for landlock salmon and trout.  After setting up the down riggers and poles we started the small trolling motor and tried to stay in the deeper waters of the narrow channels of old streams that meander along the bottom of this peaceful reservoir.  Trolling with downriggers requires two major activities; steering the boat along the right course and manning the poles and down riggers in the stern of the boat.  I had the helm and Liam managed the downriggers. When fishing is slow while using downriggers it gives you time to absorb the beautiful landscape found around the lake as you cruise along.  Viewing mountains and forests from the middle of a lake has an entirely different perspective than looking across a lake at distant mountains from the shore.  In the middle of a lake you are surrounded by beauty.  The perspective from this place is awe inspiring.  It feels tremendously personal, like being in the center of the universe.  Every glance, every long look, each degree and angle are all full of mind blowing images.  It is very powerful.  It is truly inspirational.  And on this day it would be no different.  The completeness of the experience filled every fiber of my spirit. 

We caught no fish that day while trolling, but that made little difference to either one of us.  The late afternoon was settling in and Liam still had some distance to travel to rendezvous with his friends. As we made our last pass of the day down Somerset Reservoir in the Fishound we filleted our catch of the day.  The fish would provide sustenance that evening for Liam’s buddies while camping at Grout Pond.   Liam and I loaded the boat back onto the trailer at the boat ramp.  He went ahead in his Jeep Wrangler while I took the slow journey out on the long dirt road towing the boat at a speed suitable for an old boat and an even older boat owner. 

As I travelled the gravel road I thought about all that I had experienced that day.  We had seen some wonderful scenery at Somerset, caught some nice bass, and most important I had spent some quality time with my son.  The word perfect came to mind.  Yes, it is true, nothing is perfect.  But this was as about as close as it comes.

 Written for www.wildramblings.com in August of 2010.

  • http://gardenpath.wordpress.com/ Sandy

    Wow, it is hard to believe there is that kind of wilderness left. Are building prohibited there, or is it just that remote? Sounds like you had a wonderful day. One that made memories for the rest of your life.

    You know, I have been in Maine 40 years, and have never seen a live bear. Lots of hanging ones at the sporting camps in Jackman, but never one in the wild. I hope before I leave Maine I do get the chance.

    As usual, this was a great post.

  • bill

    Hi Sandy

    There is no building allowed because all of the surrounding land is owned by TransCanada a large hydroelectric company. The land was originally conserved by New England Power Company. Every so often Mount Snow tries to buy water rights for Somerset Reservoir for snow making but the opposition has been stiff (and should be).

    Bears are very common here. We have seen 4 or 5 in our yard this summer. Keep and eye out and eventually you’ll see one too!

    Bill

  • http://everyday-adventurer.blogspot.com/ Ratty

    You make me feel as if I am right there with you in this one. I’ve always been told before how relaxing fishing is, but I’ve never been able to experience it for myself. Your story this time goes a long way to help me understand it more. I’ve often compared it with the relaxation my hiking gives me, and now I’m sure it is the same great feeling.

  • bryan mannoia

    I was there 2 weeks ago. truly amazing! I go a half dozen times a year and it’s always great fishing. I went last summer on a “busy day”, and there were 8 boats and 20 kayakers on the water. nicely written story.

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