By Peter Shea
The reason that diamonds, Picassos, and the dilithium crystals that powered the Starship Enterprise have such high value is their rarity. So it is with Vermont’s backwoods trout ponds. For purposes of this article, they are defined as those that require an angler to hike to get to them, even if it’s only a short portage of a few hundred feet.
By my estimate, there are no fewer than two dozen of these places in the state. I have fished nearly all of them, including some additional ones that no longer hold trout.
I am wild for fishing these places, and have fished them for the last 50 years, and write about the best of them in Vermont Trout Ponds (from which this is excerpted).
The kind of magic these ponds hold for me is perhaps conveyed a little by recalling a trip to a certain reclusive pond in southern Vermont. It was the Columbus Day weekend, the solemn high holiday of the fall foliage haj, when thousands of tourists, includ
ing hikers and anglers, come to visit our state.
That evening’s outing had yielded two very special, eight-inch brook trout. They were what I call “football trout,” with shapes more like bass. They were hunch-shouldered, with jaws kiped, as you might expect on a 15-inch brookie.
Adorned with a riot of spawning colors, their bellies matched the fiery trees and the scarlet constellation points on their flanks were surrounded by a royal blue that would shame a bird of paradise. There are many larger brookies and other large trout that have long faded from memory, but I will always vividly recall this prized brace.
The only other person sharing this pond during my stay was my backpacking partner. In the glare of brilliant morning sunshine, he had managed to sleep in while a pack of coyotes came yipping and howling to within thirty feet of where we were camped. Fortunately, last minute they veered off in a panicked surprise.
We hiked out later on that glorious day. In the midst of Vermont’s busiest tourist season, we had just spent three entire days without seeing another soul. This was true even on the trailed portion of our hike. There are wild places in Wyoming or Montana where you cannot easily accomplish this.
Some of the ponds noted here host wild brook trout well beyond a foot in length. But their value and meaning are way beyond the fish. These backwoods waters are places to see an eagle steal a trout from an osprey; to be transfixed by a field of lady slippers; to get nervous as you confront a moose; to listen to an otter crunch on the bones of a fish he just caught; to have a hummingbird perch on a cord that guys your tent; and, to fall asleep to the tremolos of loon and the splashes of feeding trout.
There is a mystery to the waters of a lake or a pond. A stream or river presents the trained eye some obvious places where trout can lurk. A lake or a pond, at least at initial observation, often offers up a blank slate— even for trained eyes. Given a decent temperature range, even a tough day on a stream will likely yield at least a little stinker or two. A pond or a lake will do you no favors like that. The fish can disappear for days on end.
On the other hand, that still water can explode into action, with fish of eye-popping size jumping all over the place, making your knees weak and your hands shake with excitement.
Here are just five of the nearly two-dozen ponds included in Vermont Trout Hikes. While the book has GPS coordinates and more detailed maps, if you are going to hike to some of these ponds, especially the few that have no trails to them, you should have a working knowledge of maps, compasses, and GPS technicalities.
Please also know the rules of the lands you are on when it comes to camping and campfires and follow the “leave no trace” principles.
The Branch, Bourn and Stratton Triangle, Sunderland
One of the best multi-day fishing/hiking destinations is the Lye Brook Wilderness. Here, you can pitch a tent, fish several different ponds and have a chance at catching some of the biggest trout in the state. Plus, there are options for hiking loops of up to 16 miles.
Branch Pond, Bourn Pond and Stratton Pond are all just a few miles apart with campsites at Bourn and Stratton Pond. All are in the Green Mountain National Forest, and most are within or bordering the Lye Brook Wilderness. They are most easily accessed from the Kelly Stand Road in the town of Sunderland, a seasonally maintained road that is closed during the winter months. Keep in mind, depending on road conditions, “winter months” can sometimes include both edges of the trout season calendar.
Branch Pond is the first you will come to if you are heading north on the Branch Pond Trail from Kelly Stand Road. To get there, take Forest Service Road #70 (Branch/Bourn Ponds Access Road,) 2.5 miles north to the Branch Pond Parking Lot. The short trail to 53-acre Branch Pond is on the west side of the parking lot.
At an altitude of 2,637 feet, Branch is one of the highest in the state and plunges to a maximum depth of 34 feet. Branch receives an occasional planting of spring fry brook trout, and an annual stocking of one-year-olds. These have numbered between 1,000 and 2,000 for the last three years and there are some very nice, 9-inch-plus brook trout.
The pond has several primitive, social campsites along its shoreline. All are handily reached from the water. There are three campsites that are easily reached by foot from the vicinity of the boat access. At about a hundred feet or so, before you reach the launch area, a narrow trail enters the main trail from the right. Take this trail, which after a hundred feet or so braids relentlessly through the woods, paralleling the east shore. In the course of about 800 feet, it passes through three established campsites. After that, the trail gets pretty squirrelly to follow.
If you are looking for a more reclusive camp, but don’t have a boat, another campsite is a three-quarter-mile hike. From the parking lot, take the short spur trail east, to where it joins the Branch Pond Trail. Take this trail north (left) about a third of a mile. Another short spur trail comes in from the left, and leads to a primitive campsite just above the lake shore.
If you continue north on the Branch Pond trail, about a 2.5-mile hike from the trailhead, you come to Bourn Pond. Bourn has held a decades-long reputation for producing some of the largest brook trout in the state. It is more than reputation: U.S. Forest Service samplings have kicked up brookies up to 18 inches in length. Natural reproduction is limited, however, so each year about 8,000 spring fingerling brookies are stocked, and evidently do quite well. Its most recent stocking was 9,300 so we should see a nice cohort of big trout in coming years.
The trail is easy with just some rolling ups and downs, and a net elevation loss of about 120 feet. A common camping area is near the northwest side of the pond, which adds another three-quarters of a mile to the hike.
You can hike from Branch to Stratton Pond, although the trail is often muddy and can be overgrown or follow the more popular route, the Long Trail, for about a 4-mile hike in from Kelly Stand Road.
Although Stratton Pond does not share the same reputation as Bourn Pond for big trout, I suspect that may be simply a function of it being fished less. Most of the Long Trail/Appalachian Trail thru-hikers seem to have little interest in fishing, while for the locals it’s almost four miles of hiking versus the 2.5 miles for Bourn.
At 47 acres, Stratton Pond sits at a 2,575-foot elevation. It has a maximum depth of 15 feet and in most years, from 7,000 to 9,300 brook trout fry are planted there. In the previous three years, an average of 7,500 brook trout fry have been dumped in.
With a size that is comparable to Bourn Pond, there is no reason to believe that Stratton would hold fish any smaller.
The pond is located a couple of thousand feet east of the Lye Brook Wilderness boundary, right along the Long Trail/Appalachian Trail. The Green Mountain Club describes the shelter here as the busiest one on the Long Trail and the Vermont section of the Appalachian Trail. Spots in the shelter and tent sites (a $5 camping fee goes to the Green Mountain Club) fill up by early evening.
Here, I will point out a favorable difference between us anglers and the thru-hiking denizens of these monumental trails. We anglers tend to arrive much earlier at our destinations, and are quite content at pitching our tent, or dropping a pack in a shelter, at 11 in the morning, and then fishing in the afternoon. Or, more importantly, we want to be all set up and ready to go at the golden hours, from say, six in the evening until you can’t see any longer.
So, we land earlier than many of the hikers who are trying to add miles to their day. Early the next morning, we are fishing while the rest of the trail world is eating a hasty breakfast and packing up to go.
Silver Lake, Leicester
This is a great destination for a first-time camper or a family. It is a beautiful location, a short hike, and there are 15 designated campsites, with picnic tables and fire pits and a building with toilets. The Chandler Ridge mountain bike trail passes Silver Lake and there are miles of other trails to explore.
This is also a great destination for a day-hike, if you are staying at nearby Branbury State Park, with their full-service campground and cabins on the shores of Lake Dunmore.
Silver Lake is located within the Green Mountain National Forest, and has two access points. One is to the west of the lake, with a trailhead located a half-mile south of the Branbury State Park’s entrance. It is on the east side of State Route 53, an easy 2 mile walk up a wide forest road. Along the way you will pass the stunning Falls of Lana, deep gorges and scenic overlooks.
At 101 acres, Silver Lake is hardly a pond and goes as deep as 69 feet. It has been regularly stocked and in the last few years the numbers of brook trout stocked have been bumped up to 1,200 – 1,600. There are nice brookies, 9-plus inches on average. These fish are joined by what has been a metronomic stocking of 500 rainbows each year. These are in the 10-plus inch range. There are also brown trout present from stockings in the previous decade.
You can also access the lake from the parking area off the Goshen-Ripton Road. Some overzealous anglers will actually carry a jon-boat, a canoe, or kayak in from the Goshen side (all downhill) and then, when they finish fishing or camping, continue the downhill trek to the Route 53 trailhead, where they have parked transportation. This is not an easy feat, so know your limits. The short trail from Goshen is a trail, not the forest road that comes in from the Lake Dunmore side.
Kettle Pond, Groton
Another great pond for family camping is Kettle Pond, the central feature of Kettle Pond State Park, within the Groton State Forest. Like Silver Lake, it’s a bigger “pond” at 109 acres and it has a maximum depth of 18 feet. This pond sees an annual stocking of 1,000 rainbows (generally in the 10-inch range), but in 2020 only 800 were put in. For those who may occasionally go slumming for smallmouth bass, this pond also holds some good ones.
There is a day-use fee that allows access to the several state parks in the Groton State Forest. A portion of Kettle Pond State Park is dedicated to organized group camping, but of interest to the freelance angler are the day-use launch and the remote campsites. Seven lean-to sites and one tent site are accessible by watercraft with a short portage.
If you are registered for a campsite, you can launch your canoe or non-powered craft from the campground itself. It is a much shorter haul. The campground’s entrance is just a couple hundred feet south of the Route 232 parking lot. (Please note that registration for campsites or day use is at nearby New Discovery State Park.)
Sterling Pond, Stowe/Cambridge
Each spring, fisheries managers head up Smuggler’s Notch Resort’s chairlifts carrying not skis but fish. They are headed for Sterling Pond, which gets stocked with catchable-sized trout. Over the last decade, the annual number of stocked trout has ranged from 200 to 1,000. Their size has ranged from 8.5 to 9 inches. Most recent stockings (2018 -2020) have been at the 300-level, because some stunting has been reported with higher levels of stocking.
Situated on the saddle between Smuggler’s Notch Resort and Stowe’s Spruce Peak ski trails, Sterling Pond, covers eight acres, and is 26 feet deep at its maximum. At an elevation of 3,019 feet, it is the state’s highest trout pond.
Sterling Pond also lies along the Long Trail, and is most easily accessed by a one-mile steep climb from Smugglers Notch, following the Sterling Pond Trail. This leaves from the east side of Route 108, a short distance south of the Smugglers Notch Visitor Center. This trail meets the Long Trail on the ridge, and the pond is a 0.1 mile hike north (left) on the Long Trail.
The Green Mountain Club maintains a busy shelter at the pond, and there is a nominal fee for an overnight stay.
An early arrival will ensure a place in the shelter. I do not recommend walking into or out of this pond after dark. Even with a good headlamp. It is about an 850-foot climb, and in places, you may be required to use your hands to balance.
Unknown Pond, Avery’s Gore
The farther you get from civilization the wilder the fish. For those willing to make the trip to this corner of the Northeast Kingdom, Unknown Pond, a small, 19-acre pocket pond, is a find.
Vermont has two ponds that are named “Unknown Pond” —this one is in Avery’s Gore. Unknown has a maximum depth of 14 feet and sits at an elevation of 2,319 feet and was last stocked in 2009. But the following year, the pond was sampled and 95% of the trout found were wild, and had an average size that approached 10 inches. That’s a siren call for me.
Visiting this pond, though, is as much about the hikes as the fishing. In 2019, the Kingdom Heritage Trail System was completed forming more than 20 miles of trails that connect several mountain tops—Bluff, Middle, and Gore Mountains. The trail system starts in Brighton State Forest, near Island Pond, where the Bluff Ridge Trail runs north, connecting to the Gore Mountain Trail which hits Route 114 just five miles south of the village of Norton, on the Canadian border.
The easiest access to this pond is from the Unknown Pond Trail. The trailhead is located on the east side of State Route 114, about 75 feet north of where Hurricane Road comes in on the west. A good pair of legs is required for this trip.
In less than a mile and a half, you climb almost 1,000 feet to this trail’s juncture with the Middle Mountain and Bluff Mountain Trails. From here you head south (right) on the Bluff Mountain Trail, for about a half mile, where the Gore Road (an old logging road) comes in on the left. Take this left another half mile to the pond; the Bluff Mountain Trail continues straight south.
The lands here are owned by timber companies and protected with easements. The trail system is now managed by the Green Mountain Club which asks that you follow Leave No Trace principles: travel and camp on durable surfaces, dispose of your waste properly, minimize campfire impacts and be respectful of wildlife.
For more on a great gear for a hiking/fishing/camping trip see Traveling Light.