Thy Kingdom Come: Boating and Fishing Vermont's Northeast Paradise
May 8, 2019
Thy Kingdom Come: Vermont’s Northeast Paradise
Unplug your family—and yourself—on an epic vacation in northern Vermont’s natural wonderland!
Text and photography by Steve & Dyan Wyman
Ticklenaked, Memphremagog, Namagonic, Passumpsic, Menenbawk. The Abenaki names for the myriad lakes, ponds, rivers and streams scattered throughout Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom are as varied and mysterious as the waterbodies themselves. Indeed, there are over 40,000 acres of lakes and ponds and 4,000 miles of rivers and streams in this far-flung corner of New England, making it a vast, aquatic playground for boaters, paddlers and fishermen, as well as adventure-seeking families and outdoorsmen.
And budding ocean explorers, apparently. While researching the boating and fishing options available in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom prior to our family vacation last summer, I discovered that Jacques Cousteau enjoyed a formative experience in this sweet-water paradise. In 1920, Cousteau and his brother were sent to a summer camp on Harvey’s Lake, in the town of Barnet. Smitten by the lake’s crystalline waters, 10-year-old Jacques was inspired to pluck a hollow reed from the shoreline, which he then used to take his first underwater breath.
Harvey’s Lake had my attention, so I dug a bit deeper and discovered that it’s also considered a fisherman’s paradise, with deep, cool waters harboring trophy lake and rainbow trout. Sealing the deal was my phone conversation with Kathryn Vereline, whose father Michael owns The Cabins on Harvey’s Lake, a handful of well-appointed waterfront cottages complete with a shared private dock.
It sounded like the ideal spot for a family getaway, so in mid-August the Wyman family found itself pulling up in front of Cabin Number Six with our Bass Pro Shops Tracker aluminum boat in tow, ready to begin our very own Northeast Kingdom adventure!
Harvey’s is just one of hundreds of lakes and ponds in the Northeast Kingdom, many of which offer small-boat, kayak and canoe access. In fact, there are over 50 public-access points throughout the NEK, thanks in large part to the foresight of Ed Keough, who served as Commissioner of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Commission in the 1980s.
Many powerboaters and sailors set a course for Lake Memphremagog (Abenaki for “big water”), which stretches 31 miles from Newport, Vermont, to Magog, Quebec. The big lake’s wide-open sections are perfect for waterskiing, wakeboarding, tubing and sailing, plus there are several islands to explore.
The small, lakeside town of Newport is packed with shops, restaurants and a handful of cozy B&Bs for boating families that want to plan an extended stay. Trailer-boaters can launch at the concrete ramp on South Bay or at Whipple Point, both in Newport. A smaller gravel launch is located on the John’s River in Derby.
Naturally, “Magog” boaters need to be aware of the U.S.-Canadian border that divides the lake. If you plan on crossing, you must file a float plan and check in with U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP). This can be done at the Newport City Dock via videophone or an on-site inspection of your vessel. In 2013, Vermont’s CBP introduced a Small Vessel Reporting System that streamlines the process. You can fill out an online application at svrs.cbp.dhs.gov or schedule a visit to an enrollment center.
While Memphremagog is the largest of the Kingdom’s lakes, many consider Lake Willoughby to be the crown jewel. Covering over 1,643 acres below the watchful eyes of Mount Pisgah and Mount Hor, Willoughby’s Caribbean-clear waters plunge to a depth of 308 feet, earning it apt comparison to Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne. Willoughby also serves up some pretty good fishing, as evidenced by the 34-pound, state-record lake trout that was landed here in 1981.
Visiting boaters will find a convenient launch area in the town of Westmore, off Route 5A. A lovely, white-sand beach to the north offers a scenic spot for a picnic and a swim, while the southwest portion of the lake is bordered by Willoughby State Forest and its many miles of hiking trails.
Back on Harvey’s Lake, public boating access is available via a ramp on its southeast corner, off Roy Mountain Road. From here you can loft a salute to the resident bald eagle as you head off to explore the lake. Harvey’s is a terrific spot for watersports activities and fishing—as long as you have the right gear.
As mentioned, the lake is famous for its trophy trout fishing. However, these cold-water fish typically move to the deepest part of the lake in the summer months, so my attempts at trying to catch them without the use of deep-water trolling tackle proved fruitless. Undaunted, I decided to range farther afield and seek, um, professional help.
With my family and boat in tow, I found myself in Lyndonville at the Village Sport Shop, whose owner Chris Hibshman introduced me to local fishing guru Chris Raymond, a retired game-warden-turned-history teacher and Vermont guide who considers himself lucky enough to be a “one-percenter.”
“Only one-percent of us ever get to experience something as special as this place,” he declared shortly after we shook hands. I would soon know what he meant.
A Fishing “Pro” Gram
On the subject of fishing, Raymond was direct. “You want brookies, you want rainbows, you want lakers, you want bass, you want pike? What do you want to fish for?” he asked. When I told him I had a 14-foot aluminum boat, a couple of medium-light spinning outfits and a tackle bag of lures for bass and pike, along with two kids who like fast action and a wife who likes sunshine on her shoulders, Raymond designed a five-day flight plan. We would spend a couple days fishing the Moore Reservoir on the New Hampshire-Vermont border, another day on Lake Willoughby, and a few days on some local streams, brooks and “sun ponds.” I couldn’t wait to get started, and I did so on the mighty Connecticut River.
The Connecticut, which flows for 410 miles from northern New Hampshire to Long Island Sound, offers some terrific places to boat and fish as it winds along the border of the Northern Kingdom. Among them is 3,500-acre Moore Reservoir, which is shared by Vermont and New Hampshire, and serves up stunning views of the White Mountains. PG&E National Energy maintains several access points on the reservoir, and there are plenty of spots along the shore where you can beach your boat to picnic or swim.
In our case we launched just above the Frank D. Comerford Dam at the western end of the reservoir. The launch area here is perfect for small craft, and offers ample free parking. Despite the beautiful day, we had the place to ourselves, and the smallmouth bass were hungry and willing. Over the course of a few hours, my daughter and I caught fish after fish on a “wacky-rigged” Senko worm that proved irresistible to the local smallies. I was in heaven!
Over the course of our vacation, we mixed boating adventures with side trips to St. Johnsbury. After just a few hours in “St. Jay’s,” I was not surprised to learn that National Geographic voted it the “Best Small Town” in its “2015 Where to Live and Play” issue.
But ultimately it was the Northeast Kingdom’s outdoor activities that captured our hearts, and our last day found us back in Westmore, hiking through Willoughby State Forest, where we found beautiful Mill Brook. Flowing alongside a dirt road, Mill Brook drains out of pristine Long Pond into Lake Willoughby. It’s peppered with swimming holes and even features a couple of natural water slides, which our kids enjoyed to no end. No powerboats are allowed on the pond, but there’s an excellent canoe and kayak launch off Long Pond Road. And like most small ponds in the Kingdom, Long Pond is full of trout.
From Mill Brook, we headed south to a granite formation called Devil’s Rock, on the Mount Pisgah side of Lake Willoughby. As its name implies, the imposing edifice presents the profile of a devil’s face, and is a popular diving spot for daring locals and vacationers alike. Here, my wife and I watched as our kids repeatedly launched themselves off the devil’s “forehead” and plunged into the lake, some 20 feet below.
Our day culminated with an off-road odyssey through East Burke to the Moose River, in the town of Victory. As I slipped and stumbled over slippery river boulders, flipping worms into quiet pools for native brook trout, I was transported back to my childhood days of wading New Hampshire streams.
It was then, with my kids flopping and sliding behind me like river otters and completely unplugged from the world of electronic devices, that I finally discovered what it meant to be a “one-percenter.” Visit the Northeast Kingdom and you can be one, too!
Harvey’s Lake Havens
Named after Colonel Alexander Harvey, one of the original settlers of Barnet, Vermont, Harvey’s Lake is a spectacular hideaway in the heart of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. During our visit to the lake last summer, our family stayed at The Cabins at Harvey’s Lake, at the northern end of the lake and near a public park with a quarter-mile of sandy beach.
Owned by Michael Vereline and tended to by his daughter Kathryn, The Cabins on Harvey’s Lake [(802) 633-2213; harveyslakecabins.com] consist of 14 unique, post-and-beam units on 39 acres of private, communal land. Each cabin is equipped with pots, pans, dishes, glassware, silverware, a toaster, a coffee maker with filters, cleaning supplies, trash bags, toilet tissue and paper towels. Also included are pillows, mattress pads, and blankets for the comfortable mattresses or futons. Outside you’ll find a fire pit, picnic table and lawn chairs. Note that bedsheets, pillowcases and towels are not provided, so you must bring your own or rent them from Harvey’s. Also, the cabins do not have telephones, microwaves or televisions. A shared dock offers enough room for a small aluminum boat.
Our cabin for the week was “Perfect Perch,” an airy, three-bedroom unit that sleeps up to six people. One of the largest cabins at Harvey’s, it was built using kiln-dried wood milled from trees harvested from the Vereline’s property. The cabin’s cathedral ceilings and wide-open interior spaces really showcase the wood’s natural beauty. Perched on a hillside, 100 feet from the lakefront and nestled among the trees, Perfect Perch is the perfect spot for a family retreat!
The Cabins on Harvey’s Lake are available for rent between Memorial Day and Columbus Day. Groups and families may rent up to all nine cabins for retreats, reunions and other special events. And if you’d like to buy one of the cabins, that can be arranged as well!
Retired Vermont game warden, fishing guide and history teacher Chris Raymond knows just about everything about fishing in the Northeast Kingdom, and he prescribes a four-pronged approach to tackling its various waters and species.
Mid-weight rods and conventional reels loaded with leadcore line, as well as a good depthsounder, are the gear you’ll need to score with trout and salmon in the Kingdom’s deep-water glacial lakes during summer. The trick is to troll between 1.5 and 1.8 mph (drag a sea anchor or five-gallon bucket behind the boat to achieve the right speed) and to get your lure to the bottom or below the thermocline to find the trophy lakers and rainbows. The Dave Davis Rig and lures such as the Sutton Spoon, which creates a vibrating, smelt-like flash in dark, deep water, will generate strikes.
The upper Connecticut River has a great smallmouth bass fishery, but also harbors some huge northern pike. Rainbow trout are plentiful as you work your way farther upriver, and walleye can be taken below the Moore Dam. For this fishery, pack a medium to lightweight spinning outfit and lures such as soft-plastics, drops and grubs for fishing around structure. Topwater baits can draw explosive strikes from bass, pickerel or pike as the sun goes down.
The Kingdom’s 10- to 30-acre “sun ponds” such as Jobs, Center and Long can provide quality fishing for brookies, rainbows and occasionally the type of trophy trout that keeps a fisherman coming back for the rest of his life. This is quintessential New England, best fished from a canoe or kayak with a fly rod or ultralight spin outfit. If fly fishing, make sure you have some time-honored mayfly patterns like the Green Drake. And remember: big trout like a big meal! In the spin department, small spoons such as Mepps and Daredvls will do the trick.
When it comes to fishing the thousands of miles of streams that wind through Vermont, pack an ultralight spinning outfit and a healthy selection of light lures and flies. Mepps spinners are a tried-and-true staple, but many anglers swear by Joes Flies, including the Joe’s Favorite and the Potomac Coachman.
Northeast Kingdom Resources
Boaters born after January 1, 1974, must have a boating education card in their possession when operating a motorboat in Vermont. Also, many of the lakes and ponds have powerboat restrictions and speed limits, so check local regulations before launching.
Terrific resource for launch ramp and water-access sites in the NEK.
- Bathymetric charts of Vermont’s lakes and ponds.