I started fishing beaver ponds when I was young and still learning how to cast. Most of the ponds I fished were well beyond the nearest road and it took quite a hike to reach them, so there was never anyone else around to witness my casting ineptitude. To my way of thinking, that made them good places to practice.
It was on such a pond that I saw a big trout rise and tried to cover it with my first double-haul. I tugged violently, line flew in all directions, and the #16 dry fly ended up deep inside my right nostril. But that’s another story.
I now realize that beaver ponds are not the best places to practice casting. Most are so full of standing snags and other obstructions they can cause trouble even for expert casters. But they were good places to learn to fish. Small and shallow, they were inhabited by wary trout that demanded a quiet approach and a careful presentation. Either you learned these things or you didn’t catch fish.
Those wary, demanding trout are one reason I still enjoy fishing beaver ponds. But there are plenty of other reasons. In my backyard, on the wet side of the Pacific Northwest, beaver ponds have their own peculiar haunting beauty. Under dark, rain-swollen skies, they glisten like obsidian; during rare moments of sunlight, their acid-stained waters light up with the color of strong, bitter ale. They exude a scent of mustiness and decay that’s perfectly in character with their gloomy aspect.
Skeletons of drowned fir, cedar, and hemlock rise from their muddy bottoms like dark stalagmites, gesturing wildly with spectral, moss-draped limbs. Great blue herons stalk these waters, ospreys nest in their tallest snags, and swallows and bats come to feed on their hatching insects.
So do trout. Some ponds hold rainbow or transplanted Eastern brook trout, though their bright spots and speckles are usually sullen and subdued in the dark beaver-pond water. In the fall, a few ponds hold coho salmon, resting briefly from the rigors of their upstream spawning journey. But the most familiar inhabitant of Northwest beaver ponds, the fish for which such places seem especially to have been made, is the cutthroat.
Perfectly at home in these cluttered, hard-to-reach waters, the cutthroat prowls narrow passageways between flooded thickets in search of damselfly nymphs or hatching mayflies in the spring, then rises to capture flying termites, craneflies, or almost anything else in the fall. Even in dark water, these fish are neon bolts of olive, silver, black, and crimson, glowing as if from some mysterious inner source of light. Beaver-pond cutthroat always look happy to be where they are.
Fishing in these ponds can be wildly unpredictable from one season to the next. Sometimes you go back to a favorite pond and find it isn’t even there anymore; the beaver have been trapped out or they fled, their untended dam has washed away, and what was a pond last season has this year become a meadow. Even if the pond is still there, the fishing will depend on whether the season has been merely wet or even wetter than usual, whether the beaver have faithfully tended their structures, or whether the trout have been successful in their spawning.
Sometimes you will find a pond that holds many small trout and the fishing will be fast and easy. Occasionally you will find one with no fish at all and end up wondering why you spent the time and effort to make the long hike in. Once in a while—just often enough to make it worthwhile—you’ll come across a pond that holds a few large old trout, perhaps the last survivors of a population trapped when beavers built the dam to make the pond. These places can present the best fishing of all, but it can be maddeningly fascinating and maddeningly frustrating by turns, sometimes both on the same day.
Conveniences like float tubes had yet to be invented when I started fishing beaver ponds. We used inflatable rubber rafts instead—“two-man” rafts, they were called, although the two men would have to be very small and need to know one another very well to occupy one of them without disaster.
Even with only a single passenger, the rafts weren’t very maneuverable, and in the snag-filled waters of beaver ponds you had to be wary of splinters lying just beneath the surface. If you hit one, it could result in a ruptured air chamber and you’d suddenly be left clinging to only half a raft. The rafts weren’t very comfortable, either, because if it rained—as it nearly always did—the rainwater would collect inside the raft and it would fill up like a floating bathtub, leaving you nearly as wet as if you’d fallen in.
It was a peculiarly masochistic kind of fishing. At the end of a day you’d have lost at least a half-dozen flies and tippets to the ubiquitous snags and you’d be wet, weary, and covered with mosquito bites. Maybe you’d have caught fish and maybe not, but you’d be absolutely certain of one thing: You had really been fishing. None of this wimpy stuff with guides manning the oars, and chilled bottles of wine and grilled lamb at streamside; we’re talking tough, do-it-yourself, hairy-chested fishing. That’s what it takes to join the brotherhood of beaver-pond anglers.
A few beaver ponds reach the status of major impoundments. In one of my favorites, many generations of beaver have worked to construct a long, serpentine dam across a shallow basin, backing up enough water to flood 25 acres or more. Despite its size, the pond is only about four feet deep and choked with waterlogged brush, fallen timber, and standing snags. Wreathed in morning mist, it’s a ghostly, mysterious place, a good spot for a Halloween party any day of the year. But I love it.
It holds just a few fish, mostly cutthroat and a few rainbows, all big and extremely shy. On a good day I might hook one or two of them and leave several flies hanging from the surrounding snags. But a 19-inch cutthroat captured from such water, admired briefly, and then carefully returned, is a memory ever to be savored.
Of course the Pacific Northwest has no monopoly on beaver ponds. They can be found wherever there is cold, running water, lots of trees, and a population of eager beaver. I imagine they all offer similar fishing. But beaver ponds have not fared well in the face of metastasizing suburbs; many have been drained, bulldozed, filled in, or artificially landscaped to provide centerpieces for tasteless “developments.” Others, yet beyond the reach of subdivisions, have been spoiled by logging. So there aren’t as many beaver ponds as there used to be.
But there still are some good ones left—dark little jewels of water hidden back in the woods, filled with dark little jewels of trout. If you make the effort to find them and fish them, I promise you won’t be disappointed. Well, not all the time, anyway.
Beaver Pond Trout Fishing