Friends On the Water

A surprise May afternoon on the West Branch showcases the natural beauty of the Catskills.

It was a busy week for we have come to the heart of May in the Catskills. This is the time of year I expect to spend time with visiting friends, drawn by our mutual expectations for the prime dry fly fishing of the season. My own fishing has been more urgent of late. With our long-awaited spring season coming so much later than anticipated, there is a sense of trying to catch up on opportunities missed, despite the inevitable understanding that hatches missed cannot be recaptured for another year.

Memory has a strong controlling interest during such times, for the urgency can increase the importance of favorite haunts in our plans and decisions. Even residing here in the mecca of my dreams, I find too little time for both exploration and satisfying the natural wish to return to the scenes of my fondest memories. My own search for solitude compounds this dilemma at times, for I have never been one comfortable fishing among crowds.

I learned recently that my friend Henry made a move that brought him much closer to the Catskills. Living within day trip striking distance of these rivers means we will have more opportunities to fish together throughout the season. I met Henry by chance, sometime around a decade ago. Both travelers hanging our waders at West Branch Angler’s Lodge, we struck up a conversation that turned into a lasting friendship. He has a gregarious personality and makes friends easily, welcoming the comradeship of fishing. Our approaches differ markedly.

While I have studied insects and currents, water temperatures and flow regimes, Henry seems to take things as they come. He pretends to be uncertain as to the names of the flies in his boxes, though he rarely makes the wrong choice in his selection. Calling me “the Professor”, his casual demeanor belies an accomplished angler, a fine fly caster with a knack for taking trout and a passion for the rivers. A New York City boy, he told me how his father brought him to the Catskills in his youth. The region and its rivers earned a permanent place in his heart.

We fished together a few weeks ago, a quiet day as it turned out, spending most of it sitting on a riverbank and talking of the fishing we had hoped to be doing. It was a good day, one we both enjoyed to the fullest, whether trout or insects played their roles or not.

I heard from Henry again a week ago. Feeling the pull of the season, he messaged me about coming down for a couple of days. I warned of the storms on our doorstep and suggested a meeting later in the week would offer better fishing. After a rainy night and morning, we agreed to try the West Branch with blue-winged olives in mind. It was barely 56 degrees when I left the house to pick him up and make the short drive to the river, expecting a damp, chilly afternoon.

Upon reaching the river, it wasn’t long before I shed my rain jacket as the sun burned through the cloud cover and brought its welcome glow to the riverscape. We waited a while and talked as we searched for evidence of a rise, which wasn’t too long in coming.

It didn’t take long for the sun to burn through the cloud cover and light the riverscape while we talked. Here we discuss our chances, right before the trout showed us their ways.

Noting the smaller than normal shad flies flitting here and there over the water, I tied a size 20 imitation to my tippet, handing Henry the same fly with the admonishment not to look at it but simply to fish it. That fly design is more than a decade old, yet Henry is one of four anglers that have ever seen it. A few things we keep close to our vests!

About that time a couple of risers invited us to wade in gently and do a little fishing. We separated, dividing the pair of trout and plied our trade. A third riser started up while I was working on my first, and then my attention was grabbed by the fine brownie that grabbed my tiny fly! He fought with splendid strength and vigor, using the current of the run to full advantage, and I was happy to bring him finally to net. Henry’s trout had not responded, nor risen again, thanks perhaps to the drift boat that was kind enough to pass right over the lies of his fish and that third one that had continued to rise throughout my battle with number one. The continuing lack of courtesy of so many of the overabundant guides on the river sadly continues to impress.

I called Henry down in the hope that fish number three, the most consistent of those we had spotted, might resume feeding after recovering from being bumped on the head by the boat’s keel. He did not, though another eventually decided it was safe to enjoy a caddisfly snack. Henry fed him my little size 20 secret deftly and enjoyed a spirited battle until the tiny hook pulled free close to the net.

In the meantime, trout number five took a quick dash for a skipping caddis, allowing me to get back to fishing as opposed to watching. This one also found my little dry to his liking. Bigger and heavier, an equally gorgeously colored brown of nineteen inches, he fought with a will and purpose to be admired. A bit more sunshine, and several more boats passing too close, brought an end to the sparse activity before long. Henry wandered a bit further down the run and fished to a couple of one-time risers, but neither of us would feel our rods arching again.

We waited and talked, scanning down river into the great pool receiving the run that had brought us good fortune, nearly taking the long walk down. It seemed that each time I decided to head there, another boat would row through the pool and put down what I thought might have been a sipping rise two hundred yards away.

As Henry continued easing downstream after those one-timers, I turned back up and stopped surprised to see a sipping rise quite close to my bank. He was in shallow, moving water, in a slot between small piles of rocks, and was happily and steadily sipping away. I accepted his challenge.

I worked close, my anticipation heightening as he stuck his nose out once or twice, confirming his size. He fed eagerly, whether gently sipping or popping that big head right out of the water. Reading riseforms is a time-honored art we use to help unravel the puzzle that leads us to the manna of the right fly. The tiny rings of gentle sips in shallow water speak to tiny duns or spinners, and it was a spinner I offered after a number of casts with the size twenty caddis of the day.

I worked close that I might cast delicately with the six-weight line, such that only my long leader would land near the trout. Neither caddis or spinner drew interest, though I was hampered by a poor angle of light and terrible glare. No matter the fly I chose, I could not see it in the drift, and guessing is doom when it comes to striking in such a scenario.

As usual, I studied the drift at the bottom of that little slot. There were tiny caddis now and then, a handful of Lady H mayflies both living and dead, and an occasional Hendrickson sized rusty spinner. I offered them all, as well as an olive T.P. Dun tied that morning just for the expected rainy day. I couldn’t clearly track any of them, so if any were taken I didn’t see it. I did lift a number of times when the amount of leader drifted back to me suggested that his sipping rise just might have enveloped my fly, never touching that trout, nor spooking him out of his shallow bankside haven.

Eventually I risked backing further out into the river to present my fly from the side. The light angle was much improved, and I could see my fly on most casts, though the results remained the same. I worked that old boy for an hour at least, until he finally seemed satisfied with his afternoon meal and simply ceased rising. If he moved back out into the more comfortable depth of the run, he did so gently and undetected, confident I suppose that he had successfully avoided another pesky angler intent upon leaving him with an unrequited appetite and bruised dignity.

I saluted his mastery of his domain with a tip of my cap and turned back to the run to check upon Henry’s progress.

We both cast for another hour or so in hopes of enticing one of the scattered one-timers, knowing in our hearts that the best part of our fishing was done for the day. At dinner that evening, Henry asked what I had in mind for the morrow. I replied simply that I would be awake at my usual five AM, get up and check the rivers, the winds and weather, and take my best guess at where we might find some unencumbered fishing. One dance with the boats was enough for the week.

The wide waters of May hold promise, but no guarantees. Their beauty and solitude just might be enough.

On Friday Henry joined me at a quiet little pool where we waded in to await the news, which quickly arrived in the form of rising trout. Just a hint of caddis were to be seen, and indeed the fish ignored our copies. We were hoping for March Browns, and Henry was the first to try one of the big mayflies despite evidence of a hatch. I was hip deep when I heard his reel and turned to see him battling a heavy fish. I teased him after watching a bit, for his foe seemed rooted to the same spot on the bottom. “It’s a big fish”, he grunted, then “it’s a brookie” when he first had a glimpse of dark greenish color. His prize turned out to be a huge chub, bigger than the one that had fooled me there a few days earlier. We shared a laugh at our mutual deception.

It would be a day of mixed bag fishing to say the least. I stalked and battled a beautiful twenty-inch brown to the net, then landed surprise as the next two fish to reach my hand were smallmouth bass, while Henry redeemed himself with a fine brownie!

Henry had the best fun of the afternoon, when a powerhouse ate his March Brown Comparadun. I turned as I heard his exclamation, and the rattle of his Hardy St. George, watched the line streaking downstream and away until the great silver arch of a trout rose high into the air. I saw him follow as the reel continued its screams of protest. I silently cheered him on as I saw the end of his line so far away, nearing the boulder field on the far side of the river. I knew his favorite St. George Jr. stored little in the way of backing behind his four-weight fly line, all of which must surely have been extended as that trout failed to surrender.

Henry played that trout to a finish, just as I thought he would. Knowing his tackle, he used every inch of that line perfectly, and landed one terrific wild Delaware rainbow. To my question from a hundred yards upriver, he replied “eighteen inches” though I was convinced that bow looked even bigger in the air. A wonderful fish, and a wonderful memory between two friends. “I think that must be the angriest trout I ever hooked” said Henry as we waded toward the foot path in the afterglow of his battle. The excitement in his voice was still palpable.

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