Fly-fishing the Pepacton Reservoir

By TONY BONAVIST
Posted 12/31/19

One could legitimately ask, why would fly fishers want to fish a reservoir? But yes, the title is correct. This piece is about the Pepacton Reservoir and the possibilities it offers fly …

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Fly-fishing the Pepacton Reservoir

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One could legitimately ask, why would fly fishers want to fish a reservoir? But yes, the title is correct. This piece is about the Pepacton Reservoir and the possibilities it offers fly fishers—which are not very many, and that is a shame, because the Pepacton offers some unique opportunities not found when fishing Catskill Rivers. 

Pepacton Reservoir was built in 1954 as part of a 1931 plan by New York City to expand and increase its water supply. The reservoir is 18-miles long, comprises about 6,000 acres and has a maximum depth of 180 feet.

While no one knew it at the time, construction of Pepacton Reservoir would provide excellent tail-water fisheries for brown and rainbow trout, but that’s not all. The reservoir proper offers outstanding angling opportunities for large brown trout up to 15 pounds. It also supports one of the best smallmouth bass fisheries in the eastern United States. 

As a bonus, anglers are reporting that rainbow trout planted in the Mill Brook tributary (by the Tuscarora Club) have migrated to the reservoir as part of their ever-expanding range in the Catskills. Right around the beginning of May, once the surface water has warmed sufficiently, brown trout begin to feed aggressively after a long winter. Years ago, we found them at a depth of five feet. I watched a friend hook a very large trout, fishing with live bait suspended from a bobber. By mid-May, I observed large trout feeding at the surface chasing bait fish (sawbellies) and even rising to a variety of insects. It is around this time that fly fishers who are willing to devote the time, and have access to a boat, will have the best opportunity to hook a very large trout on the fly. The most productive method is to troll large streamer flies behind a boat while rowing along slowly. 

It is important to get the flies down four to five feet. For many years, fly fishers in Maine have fished for land-locked Atlantic salmon using this technique with a sinking fly line. One late May afternoon while fishing Pepacton, I had large browns swirling all around my boat, but couldn’t raise one. Sound familiar? Nevertheless, it was very exciting to see such large fish feeding at the surface.

May, June and perhaps once the water cools in September are the only times during the year that Pepacton browns are at or near the surface. Once the water warms, trout will seek cooler temperatures, head to deeper water and become uncatchable on the fly. Then it’s bass time, which will be more productive and a lot easier fishing. 

Bass season opens the third Saturday of June. Fly fishers willing to cast popping bugs or large streamers toward the shore are in for some very interesting fishing. Ever have a smallmouth bass take a popping bug off the surface? It is not like a river trout rising to a number 14 dry fly; it’s an explosion. Once again, anglers will need a boat to ply the shoreline. 

Early mornings and dusk on calm days are best. The Pepacton is a much underutilized fishery. Access is not easy. Yet those anglers willing to devote the time, and comply with DEP boating and fishing regulations, may find some very exciting fishing. Hooking a large trout on a fly takes time, patience and perseverance. Raising smallmouths on a popping bug will be much easier. Plus you will have thousands of acres of a beautiful reservoir mostly to yourself.  

Among DEP’s reservoir fishing requirements are a DEP Access Permit (free), registration and steam cleaning of your boat by an approved vendor, an Angler Boat Tag and a valid NYS fishing license. For more information visit www.bit.ly/recreationfishing and www.bit.ly/anglerboating.

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