Honor Thy Teacher

Late summer on the Neversink, and the river runs deep and cold from bountiful releases from it’s reservoir in this rain blessed year.

Growing up in suburban Maryland, I lived for each new issue of Field & Stream, Sports Afield and Outdoor Life, dreaming of trout and fly fishing, a mystical art once practiced by my grandfather. I knew, as I devoured every article I could find, that one day I would catch a trout, that I would become a fly fisherman.

That journey took decades as it turned out. Pappy passed in 1970, never having the opportunity to pass the torch. There was no trout fishing where we lived, and it was not until the 1980’s that I first spent time on a wild trout stream. That little unnamed brook in Massachusetts Berkshire Hills held treasures; beautiful wild brook trout that I caught on an ultralight spinning rod. The fire burned hotter, but southern Maryland was still far removed from those mountain streams. Around 1990 I discovered the Gunpowder Falls and purchased my first trout rod and a small selection of flies, and truly began the journey.

The first day of Autumn will mark thirty years since the doorway was flung wide and I was truly welcomed into the magical world of fly fishing. I had fished two seasons on my own, but that September I attended the fly fishing school at Allenberry On The Yellow Breeches, taught by Joe Humphreys and the man who would become one of my greatest influences as an angler, the late Ed Shenk. Ed lured me into the world of difficult trout, taught me to tie and fish the iconic flies he had created to draw the leviathans from the hallowed waters of the Letort. He became a friend and mentor, and I have never stopped learning from his example.

We lost Ed in April last year, and the bitter reign of Covid prevented me from attending the services and honoring a great angler and teacher. During the following winter, I acquired a special treasure from Ed’s estate, his Hardy Featherweight fly reel. I knew that I was meant to fish the reel, not place it upon a shelf, and my thoughts turned to an appropriate fly rod to pair it with.

The rod had to be bamboo and it had to be a short rod. The Master of the Letort was known for his love of short fly rods, and his diminutive bamboo rods were his special favorites. My fishing here generally requires longer rods, as the lessons I learned from the Master have been adapted to the larger rivers of the Catskills, so this special commemorative rod, the Shenk Tribute Rod, had to be capable of the longer casts that stealth requires here. I recalled Ed’s teasing me as I wielded my favorite seven foot four weight rod on the Letort and her sister streams, laughing “it’s all right, but about a foot too long”. I could tell he appreciated my choice by the smile on his face.

I spent a great deal of last winter studying rod tapers, and learning how to interpret rod maker’s graphs and relate the numbers to the feel of the bamboo in my hand. When my task was complete, I called Tom Whittle to discuss making a rod to honor my mentor. I had known Tom for more than twenty-five years and long coveted one of his Stony Creek Rods, and it was more than appropriate that Tom was a founder of the Pennsylvania Fly Fishing Museum Association and a Cumberland Valley angler himself. Shared roots.

The rod was commissioned and Tom developed a new taper for this special seven foot four weight fly rod, building one to test to ensure he had captured the unique qualities we envisioned, before setting his hands to work on the Shenk Tribute Rod itself. Tom attended the Catskill Rodmakers Gathering last weekend, and passed the rod to me on Friday afternoon beside the Willowemoc Creek.

The Shenk Tribute Rod and The Master’s Hardy Featherweight are introduced to Catskill bright water at Buck Run on the Willowemoc Creek, the oldest named pool in the Catskills. (Photo courtesy Tom Whittle)

Tom and I enjoyed a short time fishing the riffled waters of the Willow, and I was immediately stricken with the rod he had crafted for me. His cane work is impeccable and the design of the taper provides the delicacy that stealth demands and the crisp power to cast a long line accurately.

Tom Whittle of Stony Creek Rods fishes the riffles at the head of Buck Run, appropriately with the prototype rod he made to test the new taper he designed for the Shenk Tribute Rod.

I knew that Tom would make an amazing rod, and I appreciated the fact the he shared the feelings of respect and honor for Ed that I have. This project was important to both of us. I look forward to another fishing trip with the man whose stellar craftsmanship has allowed me to honor my teacher, my mentor, my friend.

The late summer sun graces the flamed caramel tone of the Shenk Tribute Rod and Tom’s unique curly maple rod case. The reel seat is special too: a gorgeous stabilized maple burl carbon dated at more than eight hundred years old.

One of the things that most amazed me about Ed Shenk was his ability to hunt and capture the elusive trophy brown trout, those that haunted the historic waters of his dear Letort, or those swimming in both small and large rivers from the West to Argentina. His tutelage set me upon a lifetime course of trout hunting. I am still learning from his example. The thought that guided the conception and making of the rod was a perfect foil to hunt the trophy browns of the Catskill rivers of my heart; to hunt them on his terms, with a short, light rod and the dry fly. And so the journey has begun…

With high releases on our tailwaters, and slowly receding flows on the freestone rivers, I began my search on the Neversink, mother river of the dry fly in America. I noted the first tinge of approaching autumn on the trees lining the mountainsides as the miles rolled by on the Quickway. Along the river there were signs too. It is the last week of summer, and even a warm afternoon such as this has a different feel than high summer.

I came upon a long pool with dimples scattered like the floating leaves: ants! I plucked one from the film to determine the size and color, an eighteen, black with a slight reddish brown tinge to the gaster; and this ant was still quite alive. I knotted a matching fly and stalked the first riser. Three perfect casts, gentle accurate…and fruitless. The rises ceased. Another required just a few careful steps upstream; there perfect! Again there was no take and the rises subsided after a handful of casts.

Leader lengthened to include a long 6X tippet, then another sample from the drift, this time smaller, perhaps size 22. Once again a matching fly is chosen, and consistently refused. The game continued in that vein until a rogue wind rose and put an end to it. No trout came to my flies, though the rod made the presentations exacting and delicate: bravo Tom!

I rested once the wind fell, and before too long there was another rise, and then two more further upstream, and I started in again. The ants were lively, and I suspected the marvelous adaptation of our wild Catskill browns was the culprit. Surely a CDC ant would provide enough movement to trigger the rise, certainly with the help of the remnant breezes that came and went. Utter failure once again.

I decided that fishing the ant fall was not going to succeed on this day and clipped the tippet, knotting a new four foot strand of 5X fluorocarbon and my cricket securely. Owing homage to Ed’s classic Letort Cricket, the pattern I designed in January 2020 was conceived to deal with our most difficult trout, to trigger their obsession with movement; proof of life. It has been more than up to the task this summer.

The trout I stalked now wasn’t in the center of the pool. It rose beneath an overhanging branch, it’s sparse leaves turning the reds and yellows of autumn. It rose from deeper water, down among the rocks and eddies. I lengthened my line and the Tribute flexed crisply and silently to drop the fly above the secretive lie. A bulge formed at the surface and the fly disappeared in a bubble; I waited then struck!

Ah the joy, the emotions I felt as that venerable old Hardy caught its voice once again, the cane throbbing with weight and power! I saw the flash, and I knew: one for the Tribute Rod.

First Tribute: a fine Neversink brown, a bit over twenty inches, broad strong and golden, proved a fitting first fish for the Shenk Tribute Rod.

The last week of summer, and the rivers are flowing high for a wading angler, with storms in the forecast. I hope I am granted the grace to wade bright waters with the Tribute rod and find another fine trout to continue building its history. For now I relish this first conquest, dedicated to the man who led me down this road, who invoked the passion of a trout hunter. Bamboo and the dry fly, bright water, stealth and observation meet the art of the rod maker and the fly tier. Honor thy teachers. Honor the history and tradition of fly fishing, and the legacy of those who have made it great.

Ed Shenk, Master of the Letort: may your legacy continue, and may you always angle that great river just around the bend!

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