Hooked: Reporter David Rainville reels in a good time on the Quabbin Reservoir
Reporter David Rainville with the smallmouth bass he caught after eight hours of fishing on the Quabbin Reservoir.
Photo by Wyatt Meyers
Wyatt Meyers and David Rainville fish for smallies on the Quabbin. Recorder/Paul Franz
Wyatt Meyers looks through his assorted tackle for just the right piece for the job for a day on the Quabbin Reservoir.
Wyatt Meyers of Northampton takes David Rainville out on the Quabbin Reservoir in a rented boart as the early morning fog begins to lift.
Four towns — Dana, Prescott, Greenwich and Enfield — were evacuated, torn down and drowned to make the Quabbin Reservoir, which supplies 48 Boston-area towns with drinking water. It took seven years to fill, from 1939 to 1946, and contains 412.24 billion gallons of water when full.
Seventeen miles long at its longest point, the Quabbin covers some 25,000 acres, with motorboat fishing allowed on 17,000 acres of it. Its 60 islands have an area of 3,500 acres, with 63 miles of their own shoreline to add to the 118 miles of shore along the reservoir’s perimeter.
There is no other place in Massachusetts like the Quabbin. Recorder/Paul Franz
Wyatt Myers with a nice smallmouth bass in the Quabbin. Recorder/Paul Franz
Wyatt Myers and David Rainville fish the Quabbin. Recorder/Paul Franz
Quabbin fishing with Wyatt Myers. Recorder/Paul Franz
The beauty that is the Quabbin. Recorder/Paul Franz
Fishing the Quabbin. Recorder/Paul Franz
David Rainville and Wyatt Myers on the Quabbin. Recorder/Paul Franz
The first rule of fishing in a rented boat on the Quabbin Reservoir is simple: get there early.
Gate 31 off Route 122 in New Salem opens at 6 a.m. and that could already be too late depending on the day and the number of cars already in line when the lock comes off. The gate’s season starts in April with about 20 boats to rent. As the season wears on, there are fewer and fewer boats available as they go in for maintenance or the motors just plain quit.
You can bring your own boat, but it needs to be inspected before you hit the water. (See our sidebar story for details.)
One recent Friday, I awoke at 4 a.m., washed up, filled my cooler and hit the road in time to see the daybreak in my rearview mirror. I stopped at Circle K on the way and made a bleary-eyed dash for convenience store coffee before jumping on Interstate 91 to pick up my guide in Northampton.
Wyatt Meyers, 55, was standing on the corner of Hampton and Pleasant at 5 a.m. wearing shorts, a T-shirt, ballcap, shades and a smile. I stopped under a “no parking” sign nearby, put my hazard lights on and hopped out of the car. We began placing his fishing gear — a trolling motor and 12-volt battery, fish finder, seven rods, a five-gallon plastic pail, tackle box, anchor and net — into the back of my Jeep. We piled in and hit the road at about 5:15, putting us on track to arrive at the gate right when it opened at six.
Then, we just had to hope that “on time” meant “in time” that particular day.
Meeting my guide
“This is the only anxiety I face in my life — wondering whether or not we’ll get a boat,” Meyers, said as he climbed into the passenger’s seat. “There have been three times I haven’t been able to get a boat. It’s the worst feeling.”
If Meyers was anxious, I couldn’t tell. He wasn’t nervously drumming on the dashboard, nor telling me to “step on it.”
Meyers and I had never met before — I found him through a friend — but we had plenty of time to get to know each other on the ride up Route 202 to Quabbin Gate 31 in New Salem and in the hours of fishing that lay ahead.
When he’s not busy with maintenance work at the 22-apartment building where he lives or doing some heating and air conditioning side work, Meyers heads to the Quabbin every chance he gets.
“I’ve been fishing on the Quabbin more times than I can count,” he told me. “I’ve already been at least 12 times this year.”
I had never fished the Quabbin by boat nor hiked its shores. I wasn’t sure what to expect besides a big, sprawling, man-made lake.
Meyers, on the other hand, began fishing the Quabbin Reservoir in the 1980s when he lived in the Orange area. Unlike me, he didn’t have the benefit of a fishing guide to show him around and went solo in his early days on the reservoir. While he learned to navigate the Quabbin on those early trips, he learned the most about fishing after moving to the West Coast and angling with others.
“I was part of a bass-fishing club when I lived in California,” he said. “They would put everyone’s name in a hat and pair up guys with boats with guys without boats. You learn a lot fishing with different people all the time.”
He took those tips and tricks right back to the reservoir when he moved back to western Massachusetts in 1998.
He’s gotten to know the reservoir pretty well in all his trips and he loves taking first-timers like me out to show them around and teach them to fish its waters.
The Quabbin is different
“Fishing the Quabbin is different from any lake, pond or river you’ve ever fished,” he said. “It’s deeper, for one thing, and there are no weeds, which takes away the ‘cover’ fish use to hide.”
At 25,000 acres, it’s also far larger than any lake in New England south of Lake Winnepesaukee, N.H.
Unlike that popular pond in New Hampshire, the Quabbin isn’t bordered by vacation homes and fishing shacks. It’s also relatively quiet. The lands around the Quabbin are protected wilderness, with certain trails accessible for hiking and shore fishing, while other parts liked the Prescott peninsula are off-limits entirely.
With motors larger than 25 horsepower prohibited (20 hp for two-strokes), you won’t get swamped by the wakes of speedboats. Jet Skis, water skiing, tubing and other popular watersports are also forbidden, so you don’t have to worry about boats zipping up and down the lake all day scaring off all the fish.
You also don’t need to worry about swimmers or recreational craft like kayaks, canoes, sailboats and paddleboards crossing your path, since they’re not allowed either.
The driving time passed by as Meyers briefed me on the Quabbin and we swapped fishing stories. Then, a sign appeared. “Route 122 — South Athol,” it read. It gave no hint that the Quabbin was just a stone’s throw away — Massachusetts’ “best kept secret” indeed.
We arrived just a couple minutes shy of six, with three cars and two boat-towing trucks ahead of us, guaranteeing us a boat unless the fleet had fallen victim to calamity, commandeerings or cannon fire. I stopped next to a little shack, handed over $40 for the boat and motor, $6 for parking and $5 for my one-day fishing license, signed my name, parked and we began to load our gear onto boat No. 325.
Recorder photographer Paul Franz got there a few minutes later and there was a boat left for him, too.
No experience necessary
The little rental boats are good for veteran fishermen and less-experienced boaters alike.
“You couldn’t sink one of these boats if you tried,” Meyers said. “You could go full-throttle and jerk the tiller to the side without capsizing — you’d just turn.”
It should be noted that “full-throttle” really isn’t that fast in one of the rental boats.
“They go a neck-wrenching six miles an hour,” Meyers likes to say.
While he’s content to do the driving, Meyers also likes to let others have a turn at the helm.
“I love taking people out here with their kids,” he said. “You let a kid steer, and you just know that all week at school he’ll be telling his friends ‘I went fishing and I got to drive the boat!’”
The boats are pretty simple to operate, once you get the hang of cold-starting with the choke. A simple lever shifts the transmission between forward, reverse and neutral, a twist of the handle sets your speed and a kill switch cuts the motor. Toss an anchor into the water and tie it off its line when it hits bottom and you’re good to fish without floating away on the wind.
While the Quabbin is deep in many places, it’s quite shallow in others. You’d do well to keep an eye out for the shallows, which often seem to come out of nowhere, lest you run the propeller into the rocks.
Hook, line and sinker
Like me, Meyers fishes for bass and that was a good thing. It was mid-July and this late in the season, Meyers said, the reservoir’s trout, land-locked salmon and other cold-water fish would be spending their days toward the bottom of the reservoir, 40 to 100 feet below the surface in most places.
“If we wanted to catch trout, we’d need downriggers,” Meyers said.
A downrigger includes a boat-mounted reel that’s equipped with heavy line, a heavy weight and a “release” that, when closed, holds the fisherman’s rod-mounted fishing line. Letting out the heavy line and weight while trolling takes the fishing line and the lure on it into deep waters. A fish strike is supposed to activate the release, releasing the fishing line and letting the fisherman reel in his catch.
While trout are tasty, bass were more within our reach.
“The smallmouth bass should be between 11 and 15 feet underwater,” Meyers continued.
Now that we knew where they were lurking, the trick was to get them to take our bait.
Meyers recommends an array of tackle, from soft plastic worms, grubs and tube-baits to hard-plastic jerk-baits and crank-baits. Lead sinkers and jig-heads are prohibited, so you may want to invest in some made of tungsten, brass or other metals.
For soft plastics, Meyers uses a Carolina rig. The line is threaded through brass and glass beads, with a simple swivel at the end so they don’t slide too far down. Meyers recommends weights that total ½ to ¾ oz. A 12- to 48-inch leader is tied to the bottom of the swivel and a weighted jig hook is tied to the leader. The bait is hooked in a “weedless” style, with the top of the hook going through the top of the soft plastic bait horizontally, its point buried in the bait’s midsection to keep it from snagging plants, logs and rocks.
“You have to set the hook a little harder, because it has to go through the plastic” before going into the fish’s jaw, Meyers advised.
Setting the hook properly is the difference between saying “he got away” and landing a fish.
“I tell people to imagine that they’re going to yank the fish all the way into the boat with one motion,” Meyers said.
Once the hook is set, he said, it’s all about holding the rod tip high and keeping the pressure on throughout the fight. If you’ve snagged a large fish, use a net to scoop it from the water rather than lifting it out with your rod. Otherwise you’ll run the risk of snapping your line and losing your bragging rights.
Know when to quit
When the fish don’t bite for a few minutes, it’s time to swap fish stories. When the fish don’t bite for an hour, it’s time to move on.
“Don’t get hung up on fishing one spot,” Meyers advised. “Some people will go fishing one day, and catch a few fish by a stump. The next day they got back, fish their stump all day and don’t catch anything. Then they go home and say ‘they just weren’t biting today.’”
While some fish the shoreline “cover” provided by downed trees, Meyers prefers to fish the Quabbin’s shelves — spots where the bottom drops off quickly, creating “structure” where fish like to lurk.
That’s where his fish finder comes in handy. They’re not so great at actually spotting fish.
“I’ve never caught a fish that I saw on the fish-finder. I just use it to get an idea of the structure below me.”
You can also use your eyes to spot some of that structure. Look for lines where shallow, light blue water gives way to dark-and-deep, and fish along the transition.
Sometimes, what you see on land will give you an idea what’s beneath the surface.
“Look at the slope of the islands,” Meyers said. “Are they gentle or steep?”
A slow sloping shoreline likely means a long, smooth shallow area, he said, while a sheer drop or rocky shoreline is a good indicator of more drop-offs underwater.
In the clear waters of the Quabbin, you can also get an idea of what’s beneath you by looking over the gunwales. We could see the bottom at 12 feet and deeper.
“I prefer spots where you can see gravel and rocks on the bottom,” he said. “If you see nothing but muck and silt below you, move on. There are fish there, but you’ll have a harder time catching them.”
When the big bass aren’t biting, Meyers said, he’ll boost his spirits by going after some of the younger, more aggressive fish that hang around by the shoreline.
We fished some length of shoreline in the northern neck of the reservoir, as well as ledges that lay along islands and sunken hills and rock outcroppings.
I worked the top of the water with spinner baits, surface lures and deeper-diving crankbaits while Meyers worked the bottom with weighted soft plastic lures, but we didn’t catch anything for hours.
Nothing, in fact, until Recorder photographer Paul “I’m bad luck for fishermen” Franz left to go on another assignment.
Once he left, we decided to make a run for the main body of the Quabbin, through “The Pass,” a channel that runs between Mount L in the north and Mount Zion in the south.
Once we were through The Pass, the view opened up. It was more than I could imagine, with each island and hill becoming more and more hazy, fading into the distance as we looked out over what once was Greenwich. The view was breathtaking and I still couldn’t see all the way past the islands to Goodnough Dike at the Belchertown end of the lake.
Besides, we still had work to do. We had to outsmart the fish.
“There are a million fish in this lake,” said Meyers. “I only catch the dumb ones.”
A game of patience
After eight hours on the water, I caught my first — and only — fish of the trip. Weighing somewhere between three and four pounds, the smallmouth bass I caught was well worth the wait.
I wielded one of Meyers’ bait-casting rods with his go-to Carolina rig and a green Yamamoto plastic worm. When the fish bit, it was so heavy I thought I’d hooked a log — until I saw my line start to run from side to side and knew there was something alive on the end.
“Pull it up with the rod, then reel it down,” Meyers coached.
I complied, reeling in line as I lowered the rod, then pulling it high to bring the fish closer to the surface. Meyers stood at the gunwale, net at the ready.
The fish eluded capture for a while, narrowly dodging Meyers’ net. After a few tries, however, it was caught in the net’s ropy embrace and I gave Meyers my camera as I took the net.
“Grab him by the lower lip — it’ll paralyze him and make it easier to take the hook out,” Meyers said.
With the hook out and a photo taken, I put the bass back into the lake where he belonged. He was lucky he wasn’t a tasty rainbow trout.
I’d steered clear of baitcaster reels in the past, but Meyers swears by them. He does keep a couple spinning rods on hand for hard-plastic lures, though. Spinning reels can make for a quicker retrieve, making crankbaits look alive.
Baitcasters, he said, are more accurate and, with the right amount of practice, can cast much farther than a spinning setup.
“I like to be able to cover as much water as possible,” he said.
Meyers recommends a seven-foot, medium-heavy rod for baitcasting. If you’re on a budget, he suggests saving a few bucks on the rod — the rod he’d handed me was $23 at Walmart — and spending at least $60 on a good baitcasting reel.
“You get what you pay for,” he said. “How much engineering do you think goes into a $20 reel?”
For some, the word “baitcaster” may conjure up visions of tangled bird’s nests of fishing line caused by overrun; newer reels are much more forgiving. While old baitcasters required the angler to put a little (but not too much) pressure on the reel with their thumb to prevent snarls, many new reels offer adjustable resistance to prevent overrun and the headaches that come with it.
While I’ve shied away from these setups and opted for spinning rods in the past, after seeing the accuracy with which Meyers could cast at such distance, I made a note to add a baitcaster to my arsenal as soon as I could.
My catch was the last of the day. Meyers caught a shorter smallmouth about an hour earlier and, before the left, Franz caught two fish, a smallmouth bass and a perch.
Meyers said he usually has much more luck on the water.
“I’ve had days when I’ve caught seven fish the size of the one you got,” he said.
If I’d had a few more hours to kill — and maybe another sandwich — I may have kept at it. I know there are more fish out there, as well as wildlife to watch, like bald eagles, loons, swans, mink, beavers and more, and I plan to return to the reservoir soon to fish and explore.
A fishing map of the Quabbin can be found online at goo.gl/dS5QaS. Maps available for purchase are much more detailed.
Staff reporter David Rainville has worked at The Recorder since 2011. He covers Bernardston, Leyden, Northfield and Warwick. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 279.
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.