THE QUABBIN RESERVOIR — “You’ve got a fish on!” Clayton Sydla shouted, and I nearly bowled him over as I lunged for the rod hanging off the back of his little aluminum boat, where three levels of excited me were colliding.
The first came from the fact that I actually hooked a fish, an event so extraordinary the Vatican is considering it for a miracle. The second was the palpable excitement Sydla clearly felt watching me catch that fish. And the third, and in retrospect the most enduring, was the genuine delight I felt watching Sydla rush for his net to scoop up my fish, because I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who loves something more than “Syd” loves watching people catch their first fish on the Quabbin Reservoir.
You’ve got to know a lot of things to catch a fish on the Quabbin Reservoir. It is the single most complicated place to do so in the state (we’ll get to that in a bit). Or you can skip all that if you happen to know Sydla, and it’s amazing how many do. Last year alone, he took 43 different people fishing on the Quabbin, and those people caught hundreds of fish, including 34 so large they qualified for special pins from the state. Three of those fish were the largest of their species caught anywhere in the state last year.
Sydla has photos of every one of those fish, and that morning as we motored away from the boat ramp at Gate 43 in Petersham — his launch for the past 55 years, ever since an uncle first took him on the Quabbin when he was 10 — he tried to show me every single one, scrolling through his phone like a proud papa showing off his grandchildren.
“He is just so stoked on watching people fish the Quabbin,” said Dawn Metcalf, a ranger at the reservoir who has fished with Sydla for years. “I could catch a 3-inch perch and he’d be so excited. Sharing the Quabbin is his joy.”
But to fish there is wildly complicated, because the state is understandably protective of the 412-billion-gallon engineering marvel that provides drinking water for 2.5 million people in Greater Boston. Many people are surprised to learn that you even can fish on the Quabbin, for “no fishing” signs are as common at reservoirs as drinking teenagers.
But shore fishing has been allowed at the reservoir since 1946, and in 1952 the state launched a tightly controlled boat program for fishermen and fishermen only; you can’t take a boat on the reservoir for any other reason. (It’s also worth noting that it is illegal to relieve yourself off a boat, but there are bathrooms dotted along the 181 miles of shoreline.)
But the real concern is invasive species getting into the pristine water, and for that boats must go through a thorough decontamination process. Officials then place a security “seal” on the boat — a wire locking the boat to its trailer — that can be broken only at the Quabbin’s three boat ramps. A new seal is then installed when you leave each day. If you break the seal and use the boat anywhere else, you need to complete the $50 decontamination process again before you can return, so most regulars have a dedicated Quabbin boat. The state has a limited number of rental boats, but at just $40 a day, including fuel, they go fast.
It’s a lot to go through. And it is completely worth it, because the Quabbin is majestic on an immense scale, yet uniquely hidden. It’s two hours west of Boston, in a sparsely settled part of Western Massachusetts. It’s not something you might pass on your way to anywhere else, and you can only get a few quick glimpses of it from the roads around it. Its banks are often miles down dirt roads.
To see the Quabbin you have to go to it, and I’m ashamed to say I never bothered to do so until two years ago, on a bored road trip during COVID lockdown. But what I saw left me speechless, which ain’t usually a thing for me. It’s a view you can only get if you flood away all signs of humanity, which is precisely what the state did after damming up the three branches of the Swift River and literally wiping the towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott off the map (after relocating the residents, including those in cemeteries, and burning any structure they couldn’t move).
What’s there today is so pristine that it feels prehistoric. Bald eagles fly overhead, and the only things you see on the shoreline are moose, deer, and bears.
“It’s like heaven, it really is,” Sydla said at some point after a long, awed silence had come over us. “It’s such a privilege to come out here every day.”
And by every day, he means every day. The fishing season is open from mid-April to mid-October, and the only days Sydla skips are on the opening weekend, when the crowds are too much. He is president of the Quabbin Fishermen’s Association, and is known variously as “Mr. Quabbin” and “the Quabbin King.” But he prefers to just be known as Syd. (“Only my wife calls me Clayton,” he likes to say.)
For those who know Syd, his guided tours of the Quabbin are in high demand. As we made our way slowly back to the boat dock — engines are limited to 25 horsepower — he showed me his 2021 calendar, each date jammed with information on who he fished with and what they caught, with “pin fish” highlighted in yellow.
My entry on this year’s calendar would show we caught two lake trout, but none of his beloved “landlocked” salmon, which in Massachusetts can be found only in the Quabbin and Wachusett reservoirs. He was apologetic about our failure to catch a salmon, as if he had failed to show me every last bit of magic the Quabbin had to offer, and was already flipping the calendar to July and insisting I come back then and bring my sons.
“Do you ever fish alone?” I asked him, hoping I knew the answer.
“No, I always want someone to share this with,” he said before letting out another of his constant smiles. “Plus, who would take a picture of me when I catch a big fish?”
Then we motored along some more, in happy silence, nothing else to say until Syd said it again. “Isn’t this place magical?”