To Echo Lake: Fathers and sons

Bennet and Beckett

April 2017

The broad stagecoach road once brought guests, including President Ulysses S. Grant, up to the Overlook Mountain House. Now, mostly day-trippers hike the trail to admire views of the Hudson River cutting south to the Atlantic, to gaze east on Mount Greylock in the Berkshires range, to look west at the rolling expanse of the Catskill Mountains. My son, Beckett, 11, and I want only to hike across the top of Overlook Mountain and down into the isolated spring-fed waters of Echo Lake. A once legendary brook trout haven, its waters have long been known by other names — Shrew’s Lake, Shue’s Pond, Shen’s Lake, Horse Shoe Lake are a few of its aliases chronicled by Woodstock historian Alf Evers. 

Lore surrounding Echo Lake is plentiful. The legendary fly fisherman and author Ed Van Put cites the first written words about this mountaintop lake in an 1823 article by James Pierce in the American Journal of Science and Arts. “… at a great elevation above the Hudson, a deep body of water one mile in circumference called Shues lake is situated, and is environed by an amphitheater of wild, rocky, and steep mountains. It contains trout of large size…” In 1844, Charles Lanham, a landscape artist published an account of his overnight fishing party pulling out over one hundred trout from the lake. Others recount how Native American anglers and hunters gathered by moonlight on the shores of Echo Lake. 

Now, the fabled lake is mostly forgotten. Beckett and I ascend Overlook on the stagecoach trail for the first two miles of our four and half-mile trip stopping once to refuel on homemade honey nut trail bars and water. I sense that Beckett is neither hungry nor thirsty but is strategically lightening his load. He carries our provisions: the trail bars, Brie, salami, a baguette, toasted almonds, and water. I pack the inflatable kayak, a paddle and our fishing gear: two rods, assorted flies, and a net. 

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We talk little as we climb. After his mother’s sudden and tragic death three years ago as a pedestrian killed by an out-of-control driver, Beckett ceased to be the chatting incandescent boy of his childhood. Now, he is a contemplative — never brooding — and wry eleven-year old. I serve as the obliging pincushion for most of his needles.

Spring run-off on the rocky path makes for slow going. Small patches of crusty snow linger in the shadiest areas. Beckett eyes winter’s remnants with suspicion, prompting me to re-explain my strategy. The run-off is making streams too cloudy to fish — even at the higher elevations. So, I figure that Echo Lake is perfect for us. Fed by a cold spring and warmed by the sun, the trout will be awake, hungry, and not yet wary.

“I’m two of those three, at this point,” Beckett replies. 

We agreed to give Echo Lake a try despite an opening weekend miscue. Light snowfall dusted the Catskills during the first week of April that year, but I convinced him that fishing Mink Hollow would be productive. 

It proved to be chilly and fruitless. The once legendary Echo Lake is my attempt at redemption. Regardless of its stature, Beckett’s conditions for fishing Echo Lake, or anywhere, are simple. First, use only barbless hooks. Second, catch and release — no exceptions. Third, hold the fish in the water at all times if possible. As we climb, Beckett reminds me of this trinity — a tall order for me, and he knows it. But for a chance to spend a day together, I readily comply. 

I first tried Echo Lake in 2013, but short casts from the shore and tangles in the overhanging boughs kept me from the rising trout. In 2014, I returned with an inflatable kayak. An olive winged dry fly hooked me up immediately, but the trout spooked at the side of the kayak. It shook its head in my general direction, and left me with a slack line and a sense of awe about what lives in these black waters. The ridgeline trail descends sharply following switchbacks around bluestone outcroppings into the steep amphitheater surrounding Echo Lake. 

Beckett and I find a clear spot on the lake’s near shore. The wind is caught in the trees lining the bank, but the air around us is still. Within minutes, we are unpacking. I inflate the kayak with a hand pump while Beckett sets up lunch. We wolf down salami and cheese sandwiches, and then focus our attention on the black water of the lake. I rig up the two rods — on the Japanese tenkara, I tie on a blue wing olive. On the sevenpiece Hardy Smuggler, I tie a floating mouse at the end of the tippet, and a Mickey Finn on the dropper that falls about eight feet down. The kayak, designed for one, easily holds Beckett in the bow and me astern. He takes both rods while I shore off from the shallows and slide into my seat before the water becomes too deep. With the paddle in hand, I gently stroke the glassy surface and head for the middle of the lake. Here we unhook the flies from their keepers and paddle toward the far shore. On finding it, I spin the kayak, catch a slight breeze, and point our craft across the lake where we just shoved off. Beckett spools line out from the Hardy rig on the port side as loose line naturally unbunches from the reel-less tenkara on the starboard side.

With the breeze, we soon reach the near shore and silently spin the kayak again. I paddle slowly across the lake to our starting point while the lines lay lazily atop the water except for the slight sagging where the dropper is tied. 

In all, a complete pass takes fewer than five minutes. The day becomes gauzy. My thoughts are miles away. I sense that Beckett’s thoughts are, too. The water cradles us, and from somewhere within the spring fed lake, our thoughts are fed too.  

In the silence, I think about how much I love my son, how I want him to find happiness again. I sense grief running deeply from the weight of his shoulders leaning back against my legs. I can’t see his face, but Beckett’s regular breathing gives the impression that he is sleeping. We are so physically close yet so separated by perspective. I see his shoulders, the top of his golden brown hair. He sees the infinite dark of the waters of Echo Lake and two lines stretching out over its obsidian-like surface. We pass directly over the blackest section of the lake. I dip the paddle in softly — starboard, port, repeat. The wind calms. I look up into the endless blue and soak in the immense sky. 

On the near shore, the scent of wild lilac drifts sweetly over us each time I spin the kayak. I recall how night blooming jasmine filled Beckett’s nursery in California when he arrived home from the hospital. Does he smell the fragrance too, and think back to time lost and found again. We are together in a boat, apart in our thoughts. 

The wind regains consciousness and swirls the kayak. I awake from my reverie, straighten our kayak, and glide the boat toward the far shore. How many times? I’ve lost count. Without a sound, the mouse at the end of the tippet disappears. The line goes tight as the Hardy reel chatters, and shooting line disappears into the watery blackness. 

“It’s the Mickey Finn!” I shout. Beckett snaps firmly on the Smuggler rod to set the hook. The entire rod bends as the unseen force at the end of the line bores deeper into black water. 

“I’ve got this.” His voice is reassuring. I scramble to bring in the tenkara rod, and rest the paddle in my lap. The fish bottoms out then runs toward the shore. The reel chatters on, then stops. With a gentle flick of his wrist, Beckett halts the run and coaxes the fish to turn and swim toward the boat. He begins reeling line in.  “Here, I’ll net him.” Beckett hands me the rod — high and bent. I am in awe of his confidence. 

I also cannot believe the weight on the other end of the rod. It is a magnificent grunting weight from another time. I bring the line in by hand now, and Beckett leans to the water and dips the net in as the trout approaches the boat. 

“Whoa.  Look at that head,” Beckett says, then swoops the net under the approaching trout and lifts it part way out of the water. I have yet to see anything, but whatever is there, now we have it. The marking on the tail of a brook trout is unmistakably reddish orange. This tail is also exceptionally large. It hangs from the wooden frame like a crackling bonfire licking the air as the groaning weight of the brook trout’s body extends into the net. It is a black backed brook trout like I have never seen before. The dark color fades to a greenish black on the sides, and the thick vermiculation is deep green. The sapphire halos and ruby sparkles are saturated with profound hues, and the golden spots are generous and richly deep. This is the largest and doubtless most beautiful brook trout I have ever seen. It fills our little inflatable kayak with a spectral shower.   

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Beckett lifts the net from the water, and passes the trout to me. I quickly dislodge the Mickey Finn from the grim and weapon-like lip and hand the fish back to Beckett. He holds the enormous brook trout next to the rod for measurement. I reach around and snap a photo of the three of us: father, son, and trout. Only several months later will the Department of Conservation confirm that Beckett’s trout, measuring 20 inches, is the largest catch and release brook trout in New York State not only for 2017 but also since 2007. 

Beckett leans to the side of the kayak and cradles the brook trout just below the water’s surface. The enormous pearly belly rests on his palms as oxygen fills its crisp red gills. An eternity passes as he cradles the resting trout. One rhythmic wave of its fiery tail propels the trout from Beckett’s hands. It lingers as it glides between the surface and the black depths of Echo Lake. I see the jeweled sides for an instant more, and then with a slight wave of its tail, the trout disappears. I can contain myself no longer. “That was the most beautiful trout I’ve ever seen.  It was like opening a treasure chest of sparkling gems. I’ve never seen such deep blues and reds. And yellows. What a beauty.” The heat of the their brilliance still fills my chest. “What was the most beautiful part?” I ask him.   Beckett turns and looks into my eyes. He is radiant. “Letting the fish go,” he replies. In that moment, I know that we will be just fine.