Searching for Shangri La
Last weekend, I took a long wander through a vast area of familiar old woods and still waters. I blame it on all the rain; my mind was simply too soggy to think straight.
The purpose of the journey was to investigate a long told, old tale about a mythical little trout pond that has seemingly been lost to history.
I don’t recall who was the first to tell me of the solitary pond, but it has been on my angling radar for many years. It may have been “Rocky,” a crusty old character who frequently fishes the St. Regis area.
Over the years, I’ve sniffed around a bit and cast the pond’s name at several old angling acquaintances. But my efforts have never brought so much as a nibble. The usual response has been, “Nope, I’ve never heard of that one.”
Typically, their response would be followed by a query of their own, “Hey! Where’d you say the pond’s located?”
My patent reply would always be, “I didn’t say where it was, I was asking you.”
Although anglers prefer to catch fish, there always seems to be a lot of cat-and-mouse whenever the fishing conversation concerns brook trout.
Such responses are not unusual since most local anglers pride themselves on knowing the locations of all the best trout ponds. No one wants to admit they’ve never been there.
From the description I had received, the pond was supposed to be located on the backside of a long esker, in a little kettle bog protected by thick woods and heavy blowdown.
The description included few other clues, but most intriguing was the name of the pond.
The conversations usually went something like this.
“I don’t know if it has any name on the maps. I’ve always called it Shangri La Pond, ‘cuz you could always catch a batch of ’em in there, even when all the other ponds weren’t puttin’ out any trout.”
As can be expected, my response was immediate.
“Any size to ’em?” I recall asking.
“Nope, nothing real big, just big enough to fill a frying pan,” I was told. “And you never had to work too hard to catch a batch.”
The tale has remained tucked far back in the recesses of my meager mind for more than a quarter of a century.
But for some odd reason, the recent soggy weather seemed to peak my interest in slogging through another bog. I assume it was a case of water on the brain, or maybe I simply took too many shots to the head during a brief college hockey career.
Whatever the cause, I was soon hard on the case. I studied the maps, scoured the fishery surveys, checked the stocking records and even chanced a few gentle inquiries among some of the local Department of Environmental Conservation fisheries experts. But nobody would give up any information.
According to the tale, the square tails could be found within the confines of the 18,400-acre St. Regis Canoe Area, “just off the carry trail.”
The standard USGS quadrangle maps provided plenty of prospective waters, but most of them were just no-name specks on the map. A few of them revealed the presence of a flow, which is often a good sign. Brookies like the cold-water brooks, and so do beaver.
Over the years, I’ve discovered numerous beaver flows that were formed by impounded streams. In such environs, a finger-sized brook trout can grow to be the length of a man’s forearm in short order. I was hooked, and convinced that the time was right to find the pond.
I was certain the old tale of Shangri La Pond was about to be corroborated. I soon enlisted the services my friend George who has similar skills, as well as the compulsory weak mind and strong back necessary to spend a rainy day wandering through the thick Adirondack woods.
We set off in the early morning, and after completing several carries we were soon within easy striking range of the pond.
After stashing the canoe, we set off overland and followed an old trail to a point where it appeared we needed to cut off to reach the pond.
We made short work of the hike, and soon discovered the remains of a sizable beaver pond. The dam had obviously been breached many years ago. All that was left behind was a large grassy swale with a small brook flowing through it.
I noticed brook trout darting around in the small pool at first glance. It sure smelled fishy, but there was no longer a pond.
My morale was shattered at the prospect that Shangri La Pond was gone for good, less than a generation beyond its finer days.
However, George was not deterred. He was certain the dilapidated old beaver dam was not the true location, even though it appeared to be so according to the map.
He convinced me to carry on, and together we covered a large swath of the adjacent hillside and the nearby low-lying bog. We remained split up until I heard him shout from way down below my position.
“I found it, it’s way down here,” he hollered cheerfully as I bounded down the hillside. And indeed it was!
“The trail on the map is wrong,” he explained as he pointed to the map. “See, the pond is supposed to be on the other side of the trail, but the trail must have been re-routed.
Surrounded by a large bog mat in a spruce and tamarack forest, the small pond was bounded on one side by a long, steep esker that runs parallel to the carries route.
We had to push our way through the thick forest to access the shoreline. Quickly, I pulled a small telescopic spinning rod out of my pack, and I was soon sending long casts across the still waters.
I could almost cast across the width of the pond, and as I watched my lure drop, it became evident the pond was far too shallow to support a cold-water fishery.
But then I saw what appeared to be a rising fish, just a short distance away. And then there was another, and more.
George hurried to assemble his fly rod, as I sent long casts to the rises. But it soon became evident the rising trout were just large tadpoles frolicking near the surface.
For the second time in less than an hour, my dreams of discovering a mythical brook trout pond were shattered again.
Soaked, sore and battered by bugs and brush, we slowly climbed atop the nearby esker and returned to where we had left our canoe.
On the way home, George managed to take a handsome lake trout, before landing a huge bass on the last pond we paddled. Even though he didn’t take it from Shangri La Pond, it will remain a legendary catch in my mind.