It's said that once you visit the Hudson Valley, you'll always return to stay. I never had a chance of living anywhere else; I was only six weeks old when my parents bundled my sister and me into the car and headed north for a fall weekend upstate. My parents' destination was the bank of the Esopus River, and the purpose (at least my father's) was fly fishing.
He'd certainly come to the right place. The Catskill's abundance of wide, mountain-born streams make it the perfect habitat for trout and the fishermen who've been heading here to tempt them with feather-wrapped hooks for over a hundred years.
Fly fishing is bait fishing's elite cousin; fly fishermen use long, flexible poles, weighted lines, and light, artfully crafted imitation insects to trick fish into mouthing a hook. It's a skilled, ancient sport favored by the European aristocracy, but it wasn't very popular in America until a reclusive Catskill fisherman named Theodore Gordon made a big improvement in lure craft in the late 1800s. European anglers used "wet" flies to mimic the larval insects that enticed continental trout, but Gordon's stiff-hackled, feather-winged "dry" flies copied the flying insects American trout preferred.
Other anglers were quick to catch on to Gordon's ideas, and the word spread, and spread, and spread...By the end of the 1800s, the Catskills were a mecca for fly fishermen and fly fishing-related craftspeople, scientists, and writers. That period of intense, creative fomentation changed the sport enormously, and made the Catskills forever famous as the cradle of American fly fishing..
In the early days, the plentiful Eastern brook trout were anglers' primary target. But then overfishing took its toll, and so did the leather tanning industry's Hemlock harvests. Bare, eroding streamsides added silt and heat to the water, and brook trout, deprived of the chilly temperatures they needed, started dying off. Imported stocks of the more heat-tolerant European brown and Western rainbow trout came to the sport's rescue; these fish adapted well to the Catskills' waters, and have thrived here since.
It's rare to find a local fly fisherman or woman who doesn't wax poetic on the subject of fishing in the Catskills. Pure atmosphere is one obvious reason - towering blue mountains and abundant wildlife surround the wide, rippling, resonantly named trout streams: the Willowemac, the Neversink, the Beaverkill. But the legendary "Catskill mystique" is another.
Shokan fly fisherman Roger Menard has been supplicant to the mystique for fifty years. An avid fly fisherman and fly-tyer, he's also a writer with a recent memoir, My Side of the River, (Black Dome Press, 2002) that details his long love affair with both the sport and the Catskill region. He's fished all over the country and throughout the Canadian provinces, but he'll tell you that fly fishing in the Catskills is still number one on his list. He's not alone with this sentiment; fishing here isn't only enjoyable, it's a fly fisherman's must do, like a rock climber's pilgrimage to Yosemite, or a surfer's trek to Maui. Says Menard, "Back in the '60s, I used to fish quite a bit in the Beaverkill. And one time, I see a guy come along, and he catches a small trout. I asked him where he's from, and he says he's from Montana, and he'd wanted to come here to fish all of his life. And I say to him, you can catch six-pound brown trout out in Montana, and here you are with this little thing? But he's caressing it, and he says, 'It's a Beaverkill trout, and it's the Catskills. This is where it all began.'"
It may be a holdover of that turn-of-the-century brook trout crisis, but it's rare indeed to find a Catskill fly fisherman who doesn't have a greater-than-average environmental consciousness. Bert Darrow is one of the local fly fishing community's most outspoken conservationists. He's a Tillson-based fly fishing guide and instructor with 26 years of experience, and seems to be the media's current go-to man for the sport. He's taped TV fly fishing segments for Good Morning America, Fox, and PBS. (His high profile may have something to do with his former business partner, Karen Graham. A former Estee Lauder spokeswoman, she often poses for cosmetic ads geared out in chest waders, fly rod, and racing, waist-high water.) Darrow recently gave key testimony in a successful lawsuit brought by an aggregate of local fly fisher organizations against the City of New York. The complaint was faulty water management practices that led to fish-killing river siltation; the judgment was for $5.75 million.
"The trout are like the canaries in the coal mine," says Darrow. "When you lose them, there's a reason." Darrow's help in the lawsuit won him last years' New York State individual conservation award. "Fly fisherman in general take a keen interest in the environment. They're pollution police armed with fly rods."
They're also streamside philosophers. "It's not much about catching - it's a different way to fish, an art form more than anything," says Tony Bonavist, fly fishing instructor and former DEC wildlife biologist. Bonavist is a 40-year fly fishing veteran who's taught at the world famous Wulff school in Lew Beach. He's currently heading up a brand new school just opened at Emerson Place, the marketplace/fine dining/hotel and spa resort known formerly as Catskill Corners. "Rivers are mysterious," Bonavist says. "I think if you try to figure all this stuff out, it's like a native, inborn thing that goes back to the Neanderthals."
I joined a class at the Emerson on a chilly and overcast spring day. Bonavist gave an indoor run-through of basic skills and equipment, and then led the students to the Esopus, which runs right behind the resort. He found a larval caddis fly in the water, a detail that helps an angler "match the hatch," by using a lure that imitates the dish of the day. Finally, he got down to the sport's real nuts and bolts: casting. He waded into the middle of the stream and in one fluid, arcing motion, unspooled his line onto the water.
"You start collecting it as soon as it's out," he said, and then he reeled back in and cast again. And then he did it again, and again. And again. "How long does it usually take to catch a fish?" one of the students asked. "This is a sport where you don't make any promises to bring fish home," Bonavist said. "Can you catch a trout with a worm?" asked another. "Sure, you can get a spinning rod and a sinker and go fishing, anyone can do that - but this sport involves a line that sinks and a lure that floats," he replied enigmatically. When it was time to practice our own casts, my rod didn't sweep - it jerked, and my line spurted giddily, like a jet of silly string. But I kept at it and, finally, it began to happen: the coming together of focus and function, the elegant rhythm of the wrist, the silky float of the line...
Two fly fishermen were casting upstream from us. They were waist deep in the water, their faces reverent with concentration. A flock of swallows swooped in front of them, snatching bugs from the surface of the water. The sun broke free from the clouds.
I've always wondered how my father could spend hours in an icy stream, return home with an empty creel, and still look so happy.
And now I know.
WHERE TO LEARN
Here's a handful of Catskill region fly fishing schools,
and a selection of fishing guides, as well:
THE WULFF SCHOOL was started by fly fishing's golden couple, Lee and Joan Wulff, in 1979. It's located on the Beaverkill River in Livingston Manor, and 78-year-old Joan Wulff, a former international fly casting champion, still oversees operations.
See www.royalwulff.com/schools.html, or call (845) 439-5020.
The brand new EMERSON PLACE FLY FISHING SCHOOL in Mt. Tremper offers intensive two-day courses, available with or without overnight stays in one of their hotels. See www.emersonplace.com for details or call (845) 688-2828.
Bert Darrow of FLY FISHING WITH BERT DARROW is a guide and an instructor. He can accommodate small groups as well
as corporate parties of up to 40. See www.flyfishwithbert.com,
or call (845) 658-9784.
For those who already know the ropes, but would like to know where the fish are biting:
HANK ROPE Pine Hill / (845) 254-5904
LENNY MILLEN Margaretville / (845) 586-2220
ED OSTAPCSUK Shokan / (845) 657-6393
RICHIE AUGUSTINE Highmount / (845) 254-5944
THE PHOENICIA LIBRARY'S ANGLERS PARLOR was created to honor the memory of fishing guide and conservationist Jerry Bartlett. This rustic shrine to the sport features displays of classic fly fishing gear, photos of legendary local fisherman, and bookshelves overflowing with circulating fishing tomes. Contact the Phoenicia library at (845) 688-7811 for hours.
THE CATSKILL FLY FISHING CENTER AND MUSEUM is a 53-acre former farm sited along the Willowemac River in Livingston Manor. The museum features fly fishing equipment, artifacts, and related art. There's an educational center there as well, with an environmental research center in the planning stages. www.cffcm.org, or call (845) 439-4810.