Bird’s eye view of the fishing season

Fast on the trail of the recent Labor Day crowds will be the hundreds of paddlers who journey north each year to participate in the Adirondack Canoe Classic 90-mile race.

By the time the paddlers arrive, big yellow school buses will have already been on the roll and the scents of autumn will begin to tinge the cool evening air.

Before long, wood smoke and wet woolies will be in fashion again and “huntin’ stories” will be lived and relived throughout the far reaches of the Park.

I can’t wait to take my first fall stroll and shake the dust off my boots. The first bracing cool morning always provides an opportunity to help clear the cobwebs from my mind.

I’ve always considered the fall months to be the high holidays of the sportsman’s year, and for many local residents the season provides a well-deserved break in the action after a long tourist season.

As always, I’ve spent a fair share of my time pondering the various options for our annual fall fishing forays. Often these efforts entail a thorough review of old rolled maps that have become increasingly worn from use and are covered with notes and remarks that are scribbled in the margins.

Despite the convenience of reading the layers of overlays that serve to decipher the information available on the Google maps of today, I far prefer to return to a crusty old supply of crinkled, folded and rolled sheets that betray their wear and service.

Although Google maps certainly provide the most up-to-date information – with actual photos of ponds, streams and the surrounding country – there is never any assurance the current conditions on the ground will match those on the screen. Nature is always in flux, and changes came come quickly.

I recently realized the importance of this reality after having spent a few days humping into the backwoods ponds with a pack raft on my back.

A few of the ponds I visited were fishless, while others were nearly waterless due to a lack of maintenance from any nearby busy beavers.

I was stumped and annoyed after taking two long slogs that led to no bogs, and I was determined not to let it happen again.

I figured if Google couldn’t get it right from above, maybe I could. So, I set off to the Lake Placid airport to seek the assistance of a local pilot.

Fortunately, that is where I ran into Phil Blinn, who is both an accomplished pilot and an avid angler. It appeared my luck had taken an abrupt turn for the better.

Phil is a pilot with Adirondack Flying Service, which provides both private charters as well as scenic sightseeing flights. Over the years, I’ve often flown with Helms Aero Service on floatplane excursions to backwoods lakes. I’ve also enjoyed numerous helicopter flights my regular guests.

In most cases, with the exception of Helms, the pilots were often not familiar with the local landscape. Fortunately, Blinn appeared to know the local landscape like the back of his hand, which came as no surprise.

Although he’s been a pilot for more than 40 years, he also appeared to have the type of intimate knowledge that’s only earned by putting boots to the ground.

When I asked if he would be able to fly over a few nameless ponds I was interested in, he seemed to know the locations immediately.

“Are you talking about the little pond on the backside of McKenzie, or the one that’s down off the shoulder of Whiteface? It didn’t look very deep to me the last time I was over that way.”

When the conversation got around to the Upper Chubb River area, Blinn revealed, “I used to fly up that way with Floyd Gilmore.”

There was no more need to compare notes. It was obvious I had the right man for the job.

I left the airport with a promise to return soon, before he got too busy during the popular fall foliage season when he can be up for as many as 15 flights a day.

As I was headed for the door, Blinn suggested, “Why don’t you give me your phone number? If I have a slow day, I’ll give you a call and maybe we can get up.”

Two days later, my phone rang.

“Hi, Joe. I know it’s short notice, but I’ve got to take my small plane for a flight and I was wondering if you’d be interested.”

“I’ll be there,” I interrupted. “When?”

“Around noon. Will that work for you?”

“I’ll be right over,” I replied as I fumbled for my car keys.

Minutes later, I was standing outside the hanger, watching Blinn wash the dust off a beautiful little two-seater kit plane that he built himself.

“It’s powered by a 160 Lycoming engine, and it took me between 3,500 and 4,000 hours to complete,” he revealed. “I started it in ’91 and finished up in ’95.”

The plane had the look of a sports car, with a bright chrome exterior and a full view bubble cockpit. It was definitely retro. Cool!

As I climbed into the seat and adjusted my earmuffs, Blinn completed a flight check, adjusting, tinkering and taking note of the various instruments and gauges.

I knew a bit of what he was doing, but my primary field of study was the gas gauge.

We strapped on the seatbelts and shoulder harnesses, and soon we were on the runway, taxiing into position for takeoff. There was a pleasant rumble as he cranked up the throttle before we made a slow turn to get in position.

“Yeah,” he explained. “I always like this part, out on the runway in the early morning. I’ve seen moose out here, deer and coyotes. There’s also been turkeys, geese and seagulls, and I’ve also had to watch out for the groundhog. People are always amazed to see the wildlife.”

After a quick 180-degree turn, we were rumbling down the runway and the little plane took to the air. We headed over the village of Lake Placid toward the backside of McKenzie Mountain, and soon I was staring out over a landscape that could never be duplicated by Google.

We flew along the spine of the ridge, and he circled above the ponds to allow me to take photographs. From above, it was easy to gauge the depth of the water and to get a feel for the extent of vegetation.

The darker waters were obviously deeper and the ponds that were weeded over with lily pads or green algae were likely shallow and too warm to support a population of brook trout.

It was also interesting to note the extent of blowdown, especially in places where an entire ridge had been toppled.

After cruising over Lake Placid, we flew east toward the valley of the West Branch of the AuSable, in order to scout Owen, Copperas Winch and a few other unnamed ponds, one of which had a large cliff with long distinctive white stripes which indicate the possible location of peregrine falcon nest.

Soon, we circled back to the west to follow the Chubb River valley toward Moose Pond. However, the bumpy ride and gusting winds did not mix well with my recent lunch, and my fair complexion was soon as green as the trees below.

With no barf bag in sight, I suggested we had better head back soon. I certainly didn’t want to be responsible for endangering the plane’s immaculate interior.

I had already seen what I set out to see. The two ponds in question obviously were out of the question. There was no sense in hauling a packraft back in there.

I had saved my sore back, and a couple of weak minds, from the agony of undertaking a long uphill journey through thick blowdown to find a pond that had become a nearly empty mudhole.

In the process, I met a skilled pilot and a new friend. I also discovered that scouting from the air is a great way to get an intimate lay of the land, whether for purposes of hiking, climbing, hunting, paddling or backcountry skiing.

Pilot Phil Blinn works with the Lake Placid Flying Service at the Lake Placid airport. He pilots scenic fall foliage flights and can be contacted at 523-2473.