September 27, 2021
I bobbed along in solitude, save for the occasional bald eagle making gentle loops overhead. The tranquility was broken by brook trout rising to inhale the mosquito pattern I’d been fishing with great regularity.
While none of these fish would break any records, what they lacked in size they made up for in quantity. When the hatch turned off, trolling streamers produced just about as many fish.
I can’t get enough of trout fishing in small ponds. Bill Bernhardt, now head guide at Pittsburg, N.H.’s, Lopstick Lodge, taught me the ins and outs of float-tube fishing some 25 years ago when I first fished with him in the White Mountains, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I ran into Bill at a fly-fishing show a few years ago and he regaled me with stories of the fishing in the remote ponds that dot the woods around Pittsburg, so I decided to pack my rods and float boat and check it out for myself.
Pittsburg is a fly fishers’ paradise, but it’s so much more than that. Tucked up just this side of Canada where the Vermont and Maine borders almost touch, this section of the Great North Woods offers plenty of solitude with just enough amenities. September is a great time to visit, with plenty of outstanding fishing opportunities. Peak foliage occurs around September 30, providing a brilliant backdrop for the excellent fishing.
"You can still catch fish on dries right to the end, with Iris caddis, baetis and stoneflies all showing up for last licks," says Bernhardt. "We even get a pumpkin caddis in October."
Pittsburg’s biggest attraction is the Upper Connecticut River, where anglers can connect with sizable brook, rainbow and brown trout. Landlocked Atlantic salmon are also present, but they are typically only found in the river during the spring when they feed on spawning smelt, and again in the fall when they return to spawn themselves. Spinning gear is legal on most of the river, but about 6 miles are fly-only, including the trophy stretch between First Connecticut Lake and Lake Francis. As you might have guessed, this is one of the better sections to find large fish regardless of the season, thanks to the dam releases that keep this section cold no matter how warm the air gets.
The Connecticut Lakes chain offers conventional anglers plenty of opportunities. Fourth Connecticut Lake sits about a tenth of a mile south of the Canadian border and serves as the headwaters of the Connecticut River, though "lake" is a bit of a misnomer—it’s a tiny, 2 1/2-acre spring-fed pond with a maximum depth of only five feet. Third Connecticut Lake, a stone’s throw from the border, holds healthy populations of rainbow, brook and lake trout. Second Connecticut Lake holds salmon, lakers and brookies. First Connecticut Lake is 160 feet deep, offering plenty of thermal refuge for the lake trout, brook trout and landlocked salmon that call it home. First, Second and Third lakes all offer public boat launches. Trolling is the best way to target fish on these larger waters; downrigger techniques are preferred by locals. At times, anglers can also score by fishing minnows down deep.
"The ponds turn on in September, as temperatures drop," says Bernhardt. "Most fish well throughout the year, but the cooling really gets the bite going. Ten-fish days are typical, but 20-fish days aren’t unheard of."
Aside from the main river and the larger lakes, the backcountry is speckled with ponds filled with trout. You almost can’t go wrong just flipping open the Atlas & Gazetteer and driving to any of the blue dots, but I’ve had excellent luck on Boundary Pond, Coon Brook Pond and Scott Bog. These are all fly-only, but several others, including Middle Pond, Round Pond and East Inlet Flowage are only subject to general regulations. These remote ponds are tailor-made for float tubes, but you’ll catch just as many fish sitting in a canoe or kayak. Lopstick has a number of rowboats stashed at many of these ponds that can be rented for a small fee if you don’t want to haul your own. Though there’s no pavement leading to the ponds, the roads are well maintained. A typical family SUV will have no problem getting there.
If you’re planning to fish the tail end of trout season, don’t forget your shotgun. Grouse season kicks off on October 1, giving sportsmen the opportunity to connect with trophy trout in the morning and chase the Northeast’s finest upland bird in the afternoon. In most places, flushing a couple “pa’tridge” would make for a good day, but in the Great North Woods around Pittsburg you can expect a couple dozen or more. During my visit, it seemed that I kicked a few up on every gravel road I rolled down. Bill reports that Lopstick’s bird guides record around 1,400 flushes in a typical season. Of course, not all of those result in bagged birds, but there are plenty of opportunities. Woodcock also are present in good numbers, owing to the abundant alder and poplar swamps. Expect timberdoodles to show up in force from October through early November, with migrating birds bolstering local populations.
Trout season closes on October 15, but that doesn’t mean the fishing is done for the year. Bernhardt pioneered a pike fishery just outside of Pittsburg about five years ago, and he’s really got it dialed in now. Pike can be caught at any time from ice out to December, but anglers can do particularly well as fall gives way to winter and water temperatures drop. You’ll have to drive a little over an hour from town to get to them, but pike are present in some still waters around Pittsburg and farther downstream in the Connecticut River. Bernhardt targets them using intermediate lines in standing water and sinking lines in the river. In both cases he uses streamers in the 6- to 8-inch size, but conventional anglers do well with traditional baits like spoons and big inline spinners.
Dress for Success
Whenever you go, be prepared for rapidly changing weather conditions. It’s best to dress in layers as temperatures can vary widely throughout the day. My visit occurred in June and I started each day in a sweater, was rowing in a t-shirt by mid-day and hiked back to the truck in a flannel at the end. Be sure to pack raingear, too; if you stay long enough, you’re sure to encounter some precipitation.
Big woods, small ponds, great rivers and everything in between can be found in the northernmost part of New Hampshire. The fun doesn’t stop when the snow starts either, as Pittsburg is known as the snowmobile capital of New England. But there’s no time like the present. Head north now to cash in on a bite that’s heating up as the temperature drops.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay and eat in the Pittsburg area.
If you’re planning on staying in Pittsburg, your first choice should be Lopstick Lodge (800-538-6659; lopstick.com), with a variety of cabins available to suit groups of different sizes. Whether you’re looking for a streamside retreat or a lakefront cabin with a view, Lopstick has you covered. Campers should book a site at Lake Francis State Park (603-538-6965; nhstateparks.org), which offers tent sites as well as RV sites with water and electric hook-ups.
If you want to treat yourself to a proper sit-down meal, check out the Rainbow Grille & Tavern (603-538-9556; rainbowgrille.com) or Murphy’s Steakhouse (603-538-9995; atbeartree.com). For more casual dining, pop in to the Buck Rub Pub (603-538-6935; thebuckrub.com) for bar food and handmade pizzas. The Green Acres Farm Stand (603-538-9504; greenacresnh.com) offers takeout, including sandwiches made with fresh organic produce and baked goods.