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"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.

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, 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 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,
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.

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