“Two Ponds,” by William G. Tapply

Written by: William G. Tapply


Bill Tapply drifts a dry fly on a mountain stream.
Photo by Phil Monahan

[Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. He was far and away the best writer I have edited, and we developed a friendship around our shared angling and literary interests. He wrote books and articles on fishing and hunting, as well as great mystery novels that often featured fly-fishing. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here. So, once a month, I’ll post a piece of Bill’s outdoors wisdom or angling know-how. If you are not familiar with Bill’s work, I encourage you to check out his website and the links below.]

We need to protect our “gems of the woods.”
I have lived my life—more than half a century, now—in the neighborhood of two Massachusetts ponds: Walden, which is the most famous pond in the world, and White, which is known only to us locals. When I was a boy, I pedaled my bike to both ponds to swim, to fish, to catch crawfish and frogs, and generally to do the things that boys do at ponds. They offered good trout fishing then, and they still do. Trout are native to neither of them, but they have been stocked for a century and fish thrive in both. Double-digit browns are taken from both ponds every year.

In the early summer, trout don’t begin feeding on the surface of the ponds where a fly fisherman might catch them on dry flies until dusk. At Walden, that is precisely when the loudspeaker announces closing time and calls in the fishermen. If you ignore the warning, your car is locked in the lot for the night.

I resent this regulation. I would prefer it if the government did not govern me, even while I am grateful for the pond it preserves for me. And so I come to White Pond to fish in the evening instead of to Walden, because I want to be the one who decides when I will leave.

Had Henry David Thoreau built his cabin on the shores of White Pond (and he might have, so entranced was he with its beauty), the state reservation would likely be located there, instead of at Walden, and everything would be different.

“That government is best,” Thoreau famously wrote, “which governs not at all.” And yet Walden still looks and smells and (except for the loudspeaker at dusk) sounds the way it did 150 years ago because the government has insisted on governing it aggressively.

“Since the woodcutters, and the railroad, and I myself have profaned Walden,” wrote Thoreau, “perhaps the most attractive, if not the most beautiful, of all our lakes, the gem of the woods, is White Pond;—a poor name from its commonness, whether derived from the remarkable purity of its waters or the color of its sands. In these as in other respects, however, it is a lesser twin of Walden. They are so much alike that you would say they must be connected under ground.”

Like Walden, White Pond is a kettle hole, gouged from the earth by receding glaciers eons ago. It is spring-fed and bowl-shaped and surrounded by steep, sandy, pine-studded banks. Thoreau surveyed White and found it to contain “about forty-one acres,” just two-thirds Walden’s size. Like Walden, White Pond “has no island in it, nor any visible inlet or outlet.” Only a few miles separate the two sibling ponds.

“White Pond and Walden are great crystals on the surface of the earth, Lakes of Light. . . . They are too pure to have a market value; they contain no muck. How much more beautiful than our lives, how much more transparent than our characters, are they!”

Today Walden is as crystalline and pure and muck-free and forest-rimmed as when Thoreau sojourned there—because the government owns it and the woods that surround it, and because their agencies forbid development or commerce on it or its shores. They regulate it with marked pathways, posted signs, admission fees, rangers on horseback, and loudspeakers.


Despite the development, White Pond remains lovely.
Photo via Preserve White Pond

White Pond, which was, when Thoreau knew it, unprofaned by railroads or woodcutters or solitary philosophers in one-room cabins, is today unprofaned by government regulations. A paved road leads to a popular public beach where matrons direct their toddlers to the water to pee. In the forty-odd years since I first pedaled my bike there, permissive zoning has spawned an architectural stew of cottages and houses that crowd helter-skelter against the pond’s shoreline. Concrete abutments and wooden boat docks jut randomly into the water. On a warm summer’s evening, residents bring their folding chairs and boom boxes onto their little beaches and docks, where they drink beer and listen to rock music and laugh and flip cigarette butts into the water. If birds sing here, their music is drowned out by different drummers.

White Pond is governed not at all.

* * *

I like to fish locally. I insist on fishing locally. I love to plan adventures and to travel to distant places, but I also need to be able to fish when the spirit moves me. I like to wake up, take my coffee onto the porch, and let the smell of the morning air inspire me to go fishing for an hour before I turn on my computer. And when afternoon shadows lengthen in my back yard and bullfrogs begin to grumble in my imagination, it’s important to me that I can be fishing in ten minutes.

I don’t always go. But I need to be able to go.

There are bigger trout and more beautiful ponds and rivers half a day’s airplane ride from my home in eastern Massachusetts. But there is water here, too. I’ve spent a lifetime exploring it, and I refuse to abandon it just because it’s flawed.

* * *

Now, towards sunset on this warm early-summer evening, I find the public beach at White Pond still mobbed. I feel conspicuous, carrying a fly rod instead of a picnic basket and wearing a fishing vest and waders instead of a bathing suit.

I know midges will hatch, and trout will come to the surface to eat them, when the sun leaves the water—just about the time the loudspeaker will blare over at Walden. So I’ve come to White.

Unlike Walden, no path circles the banks of White Pond for the convenience of walkers, Transcendentalists, and fishermen. Here it’s all private property to the waterline. I climb over a dock and then step around a middle-aged couple who are sitting in beach chairs with their feet in the water. They are wearing bathing suits and sipping from beer cans. The man is puffing a cigar.

“Excuse me,” I mumble.

“You know you’re trespassing,” says the man mildly, as if he’s said the same thing a dozen times already this evening.

“I’m sorry to bother you.” I hurry past them.

“Good luck,” calls the woman.

The easiest way to circle White Pond is to walk in the water where, technically, I will not be trespassing. It’s noticeably warmer on my legs than Walden’s, and the bottom is mucky, no longer cobbled with clean rocks as Walden’s still is. The faint aroma of decay hovers over White Pond. Human habitation has closed in, and it no longer glitters like a crystal.


The serene, beautiful Sachem’s Cove on White Pond.
Photo via Preserve White Pond

At the far end, halfway around from the public beach, I arrive at my destination—a shallow cove where woods, not buildings, rim the shore. Here I can fish peacefully for as long as I want. I wade out onto the bar that separates the cove from the main body of the pond. Here the water is cool around my legs.

A few fish are swirling in the shallows. Not trout, I know, but I cast to them anyway. I catch a couple of bluegills and one miniature largemouth bass. I lose myself in the rhythms of fly casting. The light is fading from the sky. Out toward the middle, a lone trout swirls—not close enough to reach, but I cast in its direction anyway. It’s probably cruising, and if it cruises in my direction . . .

A sudden splash directly behind me, then another, then laughter and loud adolescent voices. I glance back. A boy and a girl in bathing suits are pushing at each other, wrestling, up to their knees in the water, laughing. The boy throws a rock—not exactly at me, but out into the pond where I am casting. The girl tries to throw one in the same direction. It falls short of his. The boy grabs her arm and pulls her underwater. They come up giggling and grappling at each other.

“Nature,” wrote Thoreau, “has no human inhabitant who appreciates her. The birds with their plumage and their notes are in harmony with the flowers, but what youth or maiden conspires with the wild luxuriant beauty of Nature?” Not, certainly, this youth or this maiden. Thoreau is right: Nature “flourishes most alone, far from the towns where they reside.”

“Hey,” calls the boy. “You catch anything?”

“Not yet,” I answer.

“Come on,” says the girl. “We’re scaring his fish.”

The kids slosh to shore and disappear.

Now the surface of the pond lies as flat and dark as a sheet of carbon paper. I can still hear the faint thump of music from the other end of the pond, but it is muffled by the mist rising off the water.

A bat flaps overhead. Behind me, a frog burps. Some swallows swoop over the water. Their wingtips tick the water, leaving rings like rising trout.

And other rings appear—a few, at first, way out beyond casting range. The swirls catch the light of the setting sun, and they spread, moving closer, and now, quite suddenly, the pond is pockmarked with the rings of rising trout.

I wade out until the water is over my hips, spot a rise, cover it. I let my little Griffith’s Gnat sit motionless. Another rise, off to the right. Then another. I resist the urge to lift and cast again. I wait. I give it a tiny twitch. Wait, wait . . .

A swirl. I lift my rod. It bends, and I feel the urgent life pulsing through my line to my fingers.

And now I am truly alone on White Pond, this Lake of Light, this gem of the woods.

* * *

Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply (available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.):

And visit Vicki Stiefel’s new website and facebook page to learn about her new book, Chest of Bone.

One thought on ““Two Ponds,” by William G. Tapply”

  1. Tap was one of my inspirations to learn the art of fly fishing. While I’ll use any method to play with a fish I do enjoy the rise of a trout to a hook wrapped with feathers. Thank you for continuing my relationship with Tap

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