Summer Days and Simple Flies

The well known Farm Pool on the upper West Branch, in a rare moment with a single boat parked in it’s middle. The crowds would gather a short time later, but thankfully nothing like last year. I drove by once in early July 2020, counted three boats anchored a long cast apart, and at least a dozen waders zigzagging in between them. I kept driving, describing the scene to friends later as “a circus, complete with clowns and balloons”. No reach of trout water deserves such behavior.

These days I expect the worst when I venture to the West Branch, though fond memories of my West Branch Angler years still draw me thence. I visited twice this week, and was surprised to see the crowds thinner than expected, though the Farm Pool itself always draws the elbow to elbow crowd. I simply don’t understand that in a fishing sense: standing in one of the country’s most productive wild trout rivers, glued to the same two boot prints on the bottom, and making the same cast over and over. That simply is not fly fishing in my vernacular.

I need to move! A large part of the game involves the approach to each rising trout we encounter. A few steps can make all the difference. Suddenly the fly line is no longer stalling in that little pocket of slower water, my fly drifts true, and a good trout accepts my fraud like he has been waiting for it. To me the classic fly fishing experience involves working a pool, a run or riffle; watching and observing not only where trout might be holding, but how best to approach and fish that water.

I see guys standing in one spot along the edge of the river all the time, simply making the same cast right in front of them over and over, not even looking to see where there may be some rises or other signs of activity. They do have the proximity of a dozen like minded souls I guess, but one can find that in a supermarket. Follow not the crowd! Follow the call of Nature!

I feel fortunate, as on my visit to the West, the little hoard of fishers that assembled remained tightly grouped and paid me no mind. I walked and found my own small reach of water, then began to dissect it. Waiting is a big part of fly fishing. Too many are impatient when they come to a river to fish a hatch. They wade out in the middle of their dry fly water and drag nymphs through it or cast blindly with dries, oblivious that their presence and movements will prevent the best trout from ever rising once the hatch has begun. Some will tell you they never see many trout rise to a hatch. That can indeed be Nature’s plan for the day, or it can be the impatient angler’s own doing.

On my first outing I didn’t need to wait very long for the hatch to begin, though day two was a different story. Thursday brought a nice hatch of tiny sulfurs, a handy occurrence as I had a dozen freshly tied size 20 imitations, and not a lot of choices for larger versions. As the trout began to rise, they tended to hold close to their lies and feed, for there were enough mayflies on the surface for them to do so. In the grand West Branch tradition, the majority of them paid no attention to my lovely little dun imitation.

Though it was early in the hatch, I changed to a simple little fly I call a CDC soft hackle, tied differently with the same materials as my ineffective little duns. The trout liked it, and I had an enjoyable afternoon. I brought half a dozen hard fighting brownies to hand, pricked a few that struck short, and had one that seemed solidly hooked simply pop back off as soon as he was on. There were no big fish in the mix, just nice quality fish from fifteen to seventeen inches. I carried my 7 1/2 foot Jim Downes Garrison 206, a very full working, slow, smooth casting stick of bamboo that made the entire experience extremely enjoyable. This classic Catskill rod wore a CFO III and DT3 line that perfectly matched the small dry fly fishing for the day.

Downsie’s little Garrison 206 was built true to the Master’s style: save the blued cap and ring, it is a faithful reproduction of a classic Catskill rod. It handles the twenty inch and over trout as well as it handles the foot long specimens, as testified by this West Branch brown from another day astream. Intended for a four weight line, it’s smooth casting nature works perfectly with a DT3 when the most delicate presentations are required.

Friday found me back in the same area, this time sporting Dennis Menscer’s 7 1/2′ four weight, another classic Catskill trout rod, crafted on a Payne Model 100 taper. I’d had so much fun with a little rod Thursday, I simply had to stay with the program. Friday though would prove to be a very different day.

Weather wise it was a few degrees warmer, and the warmer air got the wind blowing harder as the afternoon progressed. There were fewer anglers bunched in the Farm Pool, and I don’t think the absent ones missed a whole lot. Fridays hatch was later, more brief, and featured just a small number of larger size 18 flies. I don’t think I saw any of the little twenties I expected, and for that matter I didn’t see any for an hour and a half. Waiting as I said, is a big part of fly fishing.

The sulfurs were so sparse that the trout simply didn’t feed. An individual trout was good for one to three rises, and that would be it. By the time I approached within casting range, all that was left would be waiting, as that fish never rose again. I caught the first trout that rose within casting range, and the last one. In between I maneuvered and cast fruitlessly after the original fish targeted had moved on to other things.

That first fish was a true rod bender, a plump, fired up brownie in the seventeen to eighteen inch range, and he spun the drag on my old Hardy St. George many times. They like the 48 degree water in this upper reach of the tailwater! I fished diligently for better than two hours after that, covering places where fish had risen, and would not again.

The sparse hatch of mayflies was nearly exhausted, even the small crowd had vanished from the Farm Pool, but I saw a couple of quick slashing rises as I waded through the faster, wind whipped water. With my line ready on the water, I cast immediately to each little wink, knowing that a rapidly moving trout had taken a crippled or drowned dun from the film. I watched his zigzag path: one slash, two, then three; placing my fly ahead of each little wink as fast as I could. I pulled more line from the old reel for cast number four; the charm.

When the wink came where my half drowned fly had been I raised the rod sharply, and a big brown catapulted himself out of the water! The light rod bucked feverishly and the St. George began it’s chorus as the trout raced for a downed tree limb and weed balls near the bank. Did I mention that I had changed to 5X tippet earlier, figuring the 6X wasn’t the best choice when I tried a few larger terrestrials along some bank side cover. I was glad I had it when that brown headed for freedom, as the extra strength and the full arch of the Menscer cane turned him short of disaster.

It was quite a fight! The smooth power of bamboo absorbed all his rushes and rolls, kept his nose out of all the weeds, and finally brought him to hand, a very bright golden bronze brown of twenty inches. Just two fish this day, but two good ones! Perfect.

My friend Dennis Menscer quietly makes some of the finest bamboo fly rods available, right here in Hancock, NY. Dennis tells me that this 7’6″ four weight is the only rod he makes from an unmodified, classic, Catskill taper. The rod uses the legendary Jim Payne’s Model 100 taper, with Dennis’ hand made cap and ring seat and perfectly fitting ferrules, and of course his distinctive signature flaming pattern. The rod is both beautiful and a joy to fish.

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