Spring at last, spring at last, oh Lord its spring at last! Of course, there was more warmth here in the Catskills during the last week of winter than we will enjoy during this first week of spring, though the change of seasons still rates a celebration. I recorded eighty-three degrees on my porch Friday afternoon as the sun shone down from the western sky. It is a degree above freezing this morning, here in Crooked Eddy.
I finished up the winter with a little research, checking references and reading up on the late Ray Smith, Catskill fly tier, guide and sage of the Esopus Creek. I had read about Ray in some of the books collected here chronicling fly fishing in the Catskills, though I learned even more through a chance correspondence. Interested in adding to my little library, I had responded to a listing on the Classic Fly Rod Forum a couple of seasons ago and made contact with the widow of an angler named Terry Finger. Mrs. Finger told me a bit about her late husband, whose books she had offered, and was kind enough to send me an electronic copy of an article Terry had written about the man who had taught him to tie flies and fed his youthful interest in fly fishing, Ray Smith.
I had wanted to tie Smith’s signature fly, The Red Fox, and wished to learn any details of the pattern that I could. Like so many heralded Catskill flies, the fur of the red fox provides the body and the main coloration for the fly, though the photos I had seen looked to me to have more of the reddish coloring from the shiny guard hairs that give the animal its name. One of the things I learned in reading about Mr. Ray Smith was that color was of paramount importance in his fly tying. Legend has it he cared more for hackles with the perfect color than the lip-piercing stiffness many fly tiers covet.
While I was conducting my research, I came across a posting on the Forum asking about the Beaverkill Red Fox. When I think of Catskill patterns, I think of some of the fine works by author Mike Valla, and I found both red fox dry flies in his “The Classic Dry Fly Box” published by The Whitefish Press in 2010. Mike’s work provided a photo which confirmed the recipe posted on the Forum and, so armed, I picked up a red fox pelt and set about blending the appropriate dubbing for the fly spawned on the Beaverkill.
Both the Forum post and Mr. Valla’s book referenced Harry Darbee’s “Catskill Flytier” (Lippincott, 1977) in which Harry provided the following account of the pattern’s history: “Vera York, Neversink, picked from an alder branch one of Ed Hewitt’s secret flies, the Beaverkill Red Fox, and made it popular with many anglers. Johnny Woodruff got it from her and brought it to us. Soon it became known up and down the Beaverkill, and is credited for winning one of The Anglers’ Club contests.” With such a resume, what Beaverkill fly fisher could resist tying a few for use on the river?
Roy Steenrod’s venerable Hendrickson may be the most famous dry fly to come from the banks of the Beaverkill River, its fawn colored fox fur and blue dun hackle are notable differences from Ray Smith’s famous tie. Both of these gentlemen used woodduck flank for their tailing and winging, and both chose generally light shades of blended fox fur dubbing. Certainly there are a number of major hatches on both rivers that are well matched by a tannish colored mayfly, though the Hendrickson pattern has been aligned with Ephemerella subvaria for generations. The late Arnold Gingrich wrote that he felt the Esopus was “basically a Light Cahill stream”, though in analysis of his own comment he seemed to question his reasoning. Ray Smith certainly believed that light ginger hackle was more effective for his Red Fox. Traditional Light Cahills were tied with light ginger hackles as well.
Ed Ostapczuk, the reigning sage of the Esopus, has written that the dark Isonychia mayfly provides the best hatches on the Esopus today. The dark tone of Hewitt’s Beaverkill Red Fox immediately had me thinking about Isonychia. Curious, though I have it in mind that both of these classic Catskill dry flies will take trout on both rivers. In truth, the direct associations of classic Catskill dry fly patterns with specific species of mayflies is a more modern development. The early, innovating Catskill tiers developed flies that were effective under varying conditions throughout the season, and during multiple hatches, one of the reasons they have stood the test of time and countless trout.
Now that spring has dawned, our anticipation for the season of the dry fly grows moment by moment. Soon I will slide a classic Hardy reel into the seat of a favorite bamboo fly rod, open my fly box and choose a fly to offer to that first rising trout. If it begins like most such seasons, there will be a handful of mayflies noticed upon the currents, likely flies of more than one variety. The rise will not be that of regular feeding, it will be impulsive and sporadic, as fitful as the changing weather of spring in the Catskills. Perhaps the perfect opportunity to present a classic Red Fox or Beaverkill Red Fox, don’t you think?