July

A typically beautiful July evening at The Angler from back in the good old days.

I called it my Summer Jam, and it was most often my final big road trip for the fly fishing season. The tradition began some twenty years ago. Memory gets a bit foggy, but my July Fourth wanderings to West Branch Angler were tied to the more stable summer releases of cold water from Cannonsville Reservoir. Back then, the summer sulfur hatch on the West Branch Delaware was truly legendary.

The trout were difficult even then, but the little yellow-orange mayflies came wriggling to the surface and got them excited. There were thousands of mayflies, day after day, and usually plenty of rising trout. The trick was to pick out the larger fish among the throng and concentrate efforts on them. On the best days, a windblown cast might land two feet off course, with the fly being taken by a different trout than the one I was casting to. Sometimes the eager neighbor was a good fish, a wild brown in that 17″ to 19″ range, a trout that would test your tackle. Landing these guys on 6X and 7X tippets and size 20 dry flies depended a lot upon the weeds on the river bottom. If the trout got you down deep in those weeds, you were done for.

I landed some beauties over those trips, and I had my heart broken too. My first two-foot-long brownie was taken on the first afternoon of Summer Jam 2005, on a borrowed rod; Matt Batschelet’s 8’6″ Winston. That was quite a sales booster, and I purchased my own 8’6″ Winston five weight from Matt and Sam at West Branch Angler the next morning.

July 7, 2005, and the first trout of my Summer Jam. He taped out at a full 24 inches long and took a size 20 cream colored
X-Caddis before the sulfur hatch began: a very special fish to me!

Those were wonderful years, and I grew a lot as an angler. I haunted different pools on the West Branch and encountered just a handful of anglers. Sure, there were popular places where you could find half a dozen or more guys lined up through the pool, but there were spots where finding anyone else was honestly a surprise on a weekday. Ah, how I wish I could return to those days!

A couple of terribly cold winters with below normal flows, to say nothing of the October 2020 dewatering of the river for maintenance work, seem to have effectively humbled the once prolific insect population of this great river. I have wandered over to the West Branch thrice in recent weeks and seen very few sulfurs, or anything else, on the water. There are plenty of anglers, plenty of boats, but not many bugs or rising trout these days.

The Stilesville Riffs on October 5th, 2020. These riffles once produced thousands of sulfur mayflies, day after day from June through early August.

According to my recollection, the Stilesville gage recorded a low flow of approximately 36 cfs during that time. The plan was to shut down release flow completely, zero for three full days, before the community of anglers, guides, resort owners and conservation groups cried foul loud enough to make New York City curtail their murder of the West Branch Delaware. Something was saved by our community’s reaction, but we are living the legacy of lesser hatches. Summer Jam no more.

The promise of summer: a big wild Catskill brown trout decorates the shallows beside my Sweetgrass rod.

Summer has offered many gifts, from visions of mist wraiths retreating from the sunrise to big, bold wild trout racing away to the accompaniment of the celebrated Hardy click pawl chorus. This summer is brand new, and I hope it will share it’s bounty too in time. It seems clear that this will be another summer offering little in the way of mayflies. Anglers must remain ready to grasp whatever fleeting moments of dry fly bliss that come to pass.

I stood in the river yesterday afternoon, bamboo rod at my side, my waders open and rolled down to my waist in deference to the heat. For about an hour, a very few of those little yellow-orange mayflies appeared. Two trout found time to rise, perhaps a dozen times. The first shook the hook in a wink, the second gave a fine account of himself before resting a moment in my net: he was eleven inches long. The tenacity of that small wild trout was heartening, giving me hope for a return to the plenty of an earlier time.

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