Solo on the West

It may not feel like May on the West Branch, but May it is indeed, and there are flies on the water.

It was all of forty-five degrees yesterday morning when we loaded up and headed for Deposit and my first solo float of the season. With the drift boat in the water I was layered up and ready for a long chilly day: Capilene, Armour Fleece, Nano Puff and a fleece lined shell to break the wind. It is may isn’t it?

Yes, it is indeed May, though it still isn’t acting like it. Funny how these mountain weather patterns run sometimes. It was a year and a day since I shot a quick video of the snow squall that covered my boat in a white blanket last year. At least there was no snow in the forecast this time.

Birds were working low to the river as I slipped quietly down the Barking Dog Pool. There were a few caddis lying on the surface, not the insect I expected on a chilly cloudy day, but I tied one to my tippet just in case. The flies seemed stunned by the cold, either that or they were early morning egg layers shiverring through the last of their life cycle. The birds would be the only predators interested in them as I drifted quietly down the miles of the upper river, enjoying the solitude and the lapping of water against the hull.

It was after noon when I floated down a long riffle to find a horde of tiny caddis at the head of the receiving pool. I spotted rises along the bank, just as tight to land as they could get in the higher flow. I saw, or at least thought I saw wings amid the flotilla of caddis, mayfly wings, and I plied those bank feeders with a couple of blue quills and a tiny olive to no avail. Those trout had to be eating the caddis, and that realization let me know I was in a world of trouble. The tiny pale winged flies were as thick as pollen on the water.

The Shad Caddis or Apple Caddis as they are known on the West Branch is a prolific species, and nearly always imitated with a size 18 fly. I do tie a few twenties, and I knew just where they were: in the other Shad Caddis box tucked securely into my fishing vest, at home in my driveway. To tell you the truth I think size 20 may have been too big anyway.

My solution, after convincing myself that none of those trout was going to hit my 18, was to perform a little surgery, trimming the shuck and wings back a bit; not a size 22, but the best I could do. A trout with mud on his cheek from rubbing against the bank finally selected my surgical patient from the thousands of real bugs just long enough for me to feel a little tug. The breeze had blown some downstream slack in my line and I didn’t get the hook home. Small fish, not one of the good ones I expected. Easy solution, pull the anchor and drift down twenty-five feet to the next little bit of soft water.

I brushed up my carved dry fly and went to work on the first of the new group, steadily feeding on all of those tiny shadflies. Dropping down into the pool was all it took to find the larger trout. They don’t grow big by fighting any more of that 2,300 cfs current then they have too. By the way, my surgery was successful.

My fly bobbed along half awash three inches off the bank and became lunch for a very surprised and energized brown! He was off the bank like a shot and pulling downstream with all of that current on his tail. Fighting wild trout from the boat is always an adventure, particularly in high water. It’s hard to get them to the net, and fighting and handling the long handled boat net solo is a chore. The current wants to rip it out of your hand when you dip it. Nineteen inches, a very respectable full bodied West Branch brownie.

It took a lot of casts, and another short drop to put the fly in front of his twin, whereupon I got to repeat the wrestling match with trout, doubled over fly rod and net. Grinning from the tenacity of the fish and my good fortune, I just kept slipping down that bank, adding a couple more nice brownies to my tally, and surrendering a third one early when he managed to shake, rattle and roll enough in that heavy surface current to twist the hook free.

Time to relax and drift again, as I encountered a pair of boats working the soft water at the bottom of the pool. That drift covered several river miles and a couple of hours, as I stopped at a few favorite locations to sit and watch for rises.

It was getting close to three o’clock and the caddis still littered the water. Sliding down another long riffle, I found a telltale ring tight to the bank where the undulations of the shore line created a little haven. I swung the bow out, took hold of the anchor rope, and put my foot on the release pedal, dropping it gently as the currenty rapidly moved me toward my target. Perfect.

Hmmn, this fellow won’t eat my caddis… it is three o’clock…Hendricksons! I groped in my boat bag for my box of drift boat flies and selected a well hackled Pink Enhanced Hendrickson parachute. That brown was a tough one, sliding back and forth along the edge and absolutly refusing to pay any attention to my fly. The great thing about a good bug day is there is usually another nearby. The combination of the micro topography of the river banks, the flow, and the wind sets up little pockets of soft water, even along the banks of a fairly straight pool. The trout will congregate in these prime feeding lies when there is food on the table.

A dip in the bank downstream from my recalcitrant edge feeder featured another riser, this one out in the current trailing from a subtle jog in the shoreline. It took a few long casts reached back into the wind to put my P.E. Hendrickson on line with that moving target, but the take was solid. The heavy head shakes and the long, bulldogging run into my backing left no doubt this was the fish of the day. I was concerned when he took all that backing, as there was a lot of strong current between us, whipped even stronger by the rising downstream wind. A steady firm hand brought him back. You have to know your tackle’s capabilities. How much pressure will that 5X tippet take? The hook? Its easy to get impatient and pull just a little too hard.

He was an absolute bear to get into the net. I was still close to the riffle and the surface current was heavy. I had the rod doubled time and time again, trying to get him to the top beside the boat. Finally, after half a dozen aborted tries, I had him. A smile of relief, a quick measurement along the net handle’s scale, and a snapshot before release. Big head, wide shoulders and a bit more than twenty inches of muscle. Thanks Mr. Brown, glad you dined on my P.E. Hendrickson today.

Solid Muscle, with fins!

Boat traffic was heavier in the lower miles of my float, so I didn’t get to work a few spots I would have liked. I did get to the last one first though. I managed a foot long trout while I was waiting for the sippers this area attracts, then cast my 100-Year Dun Red Quill to the first sipper over in the funny water, where the current backs up. He sucked it down on my third cast and put up more of a battle than his size warranted: a Delaware Rainbow. You have to love them. What’s not to like about a fifteen inch trout that fights like he’s a lot bigger than he is.

As evening blossomed, the other sippers proved immune. Were they taking the caddis, Hendricksons? Not mine. There was still enough breeze that I doubted any spinners were around, though I tried one anyway. No sale. I took a break from casting and dug out my phone to check the time: six thirty. Time to go. Cathy would be at the ramp in half an hour.

I rowed through the flat water as glimpses of lowering sunlight illuminated the clouds: a beautiful evening, even if it was chilly for May.

Art Flick’s Schoharie

At long last, in my twenty-ninth season angling Catskill rivers, my boots finally trod the gravel of the great Art Flick’s beloved Schoharie Creek, completing a long delayed homage to a Catskill Legend.

I have often visited the Schoharie in print. The late Art Flick was a giant among Catskill anglers, a bright light from the Golden Age, and a champion of conservation. Many times I have dreamed of a walk back in time and drinks at the Westkill Tavern, and of course an afternoon on the stream with it’s proprietor. I have an audio recording of Flick reading from his Streamside Guide, and I have played it while my hands fashioned his pink bodied Hendricksons and Red Quills at my vise, imagining I am there in the bar just as Schwiebert described it, listening to the tales and pronouncements of how best to approach the hatch.

Fleeing the dangerously high waters of my own western Catskills, I made the long drive northeast as clouds gathered to soften the morning sunshine. Winding along the Pepacton I smiled at the greening of the landscape and glimpses of bright water right up to the boughs of the overhanging evergreens. Our rivers will run high for some time.

My route took me through Big Indian and I stopped to spy on the Esopus, finding it indeed “tan” as the river’s sage had promised. It was he who remarked that the Schoharie had looked “beautiful” up in Hunter the day before. I had hoped to fish the smaller West Kill, it’s reputation for wild trout drawing me as much as Flick’s reverence for his home water. Alas near the village the river ran chalky with silt, from the evident bridge work I thought at first, until my glance found clouded water coming down from upstream. My introduction to the West Kill would have to wait for another day.

In Lexington the Schoharie finally came into view, clouded itself, so I turned upstream to make for Hunter. Around Jewett a sign directed me to a short loop road and a parking area overlooking the stream. It’s river bed seemed a mixture of the angular rock I find in the West Branch Delaware and Pennsylvania, though with edges rounded by the fast flows as the little river seeks the Hudson. There was a slight stain here, and no visible pools of holding water, so I drove on to the bridge in Hunter. I like the name.

The access map showed perhaps half a mile there with PFR’s, and I found a pulloff just over the iron bridge. With an eye toward the smaller West Kill, I had chosen Tom Smithwick’s very capable seven footer for a five, and the short, crisp taper would prove a proper choice as a steady downstream wind greeted me as soon as I waded in near the bottom of the reach.

The Schoharie appeared tan here too, though its water was quite clear, the color coming from the rock and stones of it’s bottom. There being neither flies nor rises in evidence, I knotted an Atherton Number 5 to my tippet and began probing the deeper areas behind a few scattered rocks. I had been concerned about high flows, but the river ran at a very comfortable level through the flats below the iron bridge. I found no trout in that flat, but smiled as the first Hendrickson dun lifted off and posed midair for my inspection.

The Red Fox pelt hanging beside my tying bench has none of Art Flick’s urine burned fur from a Red Fox vixen as specified for his iconic version of the Hendrickson dry fly. To fashion the pinkinsh imitations he championed, I have to resort to blending my fox fur with a bit of fluorescent pink Antron. I called the blend Pink Enhanced Hendrickson when I conceived it, and it has proven itself on my home rivers. I hoped it would suffice for these waters, tied in an otherwise standard Catskill style.

The Pink Enhanced Hendrickson, in homage to Art Flick’s iconic Catskill dry fly.

Wading close to the bridge, I noticed a few more duns bouncing down the thread of current closest to the left bank, though no rises appeared. I waited as the flies continued, then resigned myself to continue upstream into faster water. There had been one bulge in the current, half seen out of the corner of my eye while I’d waited, and I sent a few casts downstream over that spot, one of them interrupted by a strong pull.

The trout gave a good account of himself, using the bright current to resist the pull of the bamboo, and coaxing a flourish or two from the ancient Hardy to accompany the music of the water. Eventually I brought him round with light but steady pressure and slipped him into the net. I noted his color immediately, a tannish gold overwash reminiscent of the unique hue of the Schoharie’s bottom. I hope Art was satisfied that I’d landed “one of the good ones a foot long” that he spoke about in that audio recording.

My first, and only foot long Schoharie brown. He accepted my improvised pink Hendrickson imitation, fashioned in homage to the great Art Flick’s iconic pattern.

I would fish all of that lovely, rock strewn, broken water in the photo with no further glimpses of trout. The sparsely hatching Hendricksons seemed confined to the moderate riffle just above the iron bridge, and I fished that water well a second time when I walked back downstream.

I bowed my head in thanks to the memory of the legend. At last I had waded his Schoharie, found a hatch of Hendricksons, and taken a trout on a pink Catskill style fly, enough to pay my respects. Home lay two hours distant, and heavy clouds were gathering. I bid the Hudson River Catskills adieu, and enjoyed the pleasant scenery as I retraced my morning drive.

Searching for Rivers

The Mighty East Branch Delaware above Cadosia Riff and the Village of Hancock

Seven AM, and I step out onto the porch to the heady scent of new mown grass and the incandescence of clear blue skies and sunlight; but the grass is frosted white and the thermometer hovers just below freezing. It is another spring morning in the Catskill Mountains, and I am searching for rivers.

The Delaware tailwaters are terribly high, above the dangerous range for waders and the experts only range for boaters, and I neither take life for granted nor fool myself with ego when it comes to my experience behind the oars. In short, there is no fishing.

Perhaps somewhere, in one of those high mountain streams I have neglected, a trout will rise today, but the prospects are incredibly low. So still I search, asking questions, sending inquiries over the wire to those who may know distant waters. Stream gages are a wonderful tool, though useless without practical experience to bring the numbers into real focus. One hundred cfs can be a delightful, somewhat low flow here, and a raging torrent there. Everything depends upon the river channel, its depth, gradient and bottom composition.

A favorite mountain stream, a small tight channel with undercut banks and log jams, where deep water comes to your knees.
The wide Delaware River near Buckingham, Pennsylvania where 1,000 cfs is the beginning of low flows.

With freezing nights and days in the fifties, the high mountain streams are still icy cold, their trout not conditioned to rise. The larger rivers, while more resistant to the cold, offer little in the way of surface feeding lies in high water flows. Neither welcomes the dry fly angler under current conditions.

Forecasts call for more than an inch of rain over the next four days, something I would welcome under different conditions. The City kept their reservoirs near capacity in April, as the rainfall for the first months of the year was less than normal, and there was no place to store the rainfall from recent events. Things balanced nicely for April, with perfect wading flows and plenty of feeding lies available to the trout as the Hendricksons heralded a new angler’s year, but nothing lasts forever.

My window is shrinking; it may be a mirage after all. Is there one smaller stream I could visit, one that reaches that just right flow and temperature on this afternoon, one where I could steal a few hours with wild trout rising to the fly? The tools are available; the little one piece Smithwick stands in it’s wooden case, nearly as tall as I am. It has been far too long since I cast a line with that magic wand!

Sixty-five inches of classic cane, the smallest CFO, and a lovely wild Appalachian Brook Trout

I have been seduced by trophy trout prowling broad rivers, places where half the game is finding the niches where such fish rest and feed, and live their lives in avoidance of casual anglers. As the unwanted result, I have left the Brook Trout to their mountain rills, forsaken the pure joy of weaving along these bright ribbons through the forest, ducking beneath the fallen branches ever watchful for the wink of a quiverring fin. Brookie streams are secret places, tight quarters where each cast, and each backcast must be planned, mapped out for their prospective paths through the understory. It is too long since I have listened for the sparkle of water within a solid hedge of rhododendron, and wondered…

Water

Strong flows in big rivers challenge the wading angler, but provide plenty of oxygen and insects in the drift for trout.

I started out yesterday morning with the idea of fishing some different water. My first choice was a drive to the Neversink and the opportunity to meet a fellow fly fisher, a Covid Friend. No he doesn’t have that virus, it is simply a term which applies to a number of guys, most members of the Catskill Fly Tyers Guild that I have corresponded with via email during the past fourteen months of coronavirus forced solitude. I think we all helped one another through the winter by talking fishing via our keyboards, when personal contact was too risky to consider.

I was looking forward to the chance to meet face to face and share the water, but the beginning of this rainy week had other ideas. Monday’s rain pushed the Neversink up to 300 cfs by early morning, and neither of us thought it would be good wading. That river won’t see either of us for a while, as the heavy rain they expected last night has the river roaring with the discharge closing in on 2,000 cfs with their reservoir spilling.

Our Delaware reservoirs were spilling already and rose further overnight. With more rain today, Friday and on into the weekend, wade fishing is pretty well over for a long time. It looks like time to get the drift boat wet. Floating has its charms, but I am a wade fisherman at heart.

A drift boat appears out of the gathering fog as evening nears on the West Branch

I like to float when the river isn’t busy. That can be quite peaceful, an introspective day gliding along, searching for mayflies and rising trout. Of course our Delaware and its branches gets very busy this time of year. I remember when there were a handful of river guides running float trips. Now there must be a hundred of them. Even when they spread out throughout the system, that’s a lot of traffic, and many of the newer guides insist upon floating even in low water and on the smaller reaches of the upper tailwaters, intimiate environs suited to wading only. Trying to navigate a busy river takes the joy right out of fishing.

In mid-May last year, I floated the West Branch on a weekday with the river still carrying an unfriendly wading flow in excess of 1,000 cfs. The morning was quiet, uninterrupted by either people or trout, but the afternoon was like running a gauntlet. In several reaches where I had hoped to fish, there were so many boats and waders squeezed into every inch of river that I had to row a zigzag pattern back and forth across the river just to try to get through without ruining anyone’s fishing. There was no spot for me to fish myself. At one pinch point, I had to drop the anchor and sit there to maintain a little courtesy, as there were waders stringing out into the narrow passage within casting distance of three anchored guide boats. It’s fly fishing folks, not a mob scene.

I was sitting there for half an hour when the Red Gods seemingly appreciated my patience and threw me a consolation prize. A trout rose to eat a Hendrickson a boat length in front of my bow, so I tossed him a fly and caught him, a nice 18 inch wild brown. After I slid him from the net into the river, his cousin rose very close to the same spot, and I caught another one an inch or two smaller than the first. By the time I released that trout, the waders to my right had backed out of the water and two of the boats had lifted their anchors and were moving on. I pulled my anchor and rowed through that crowded pinch point as quickly as possible.

When I got home that evening I parked the boat and proclaimed my West Branch floating season completed for the year. I honestly don’t understand the reasoning behind this crowd mentality. Fly fishing is the ultimate one man outdoor pursuit. Quiet solitude was once it’s hallmark. I particularly don’t understand some of these guides. Do they actually believe they are providing a quality experience to their clients? Back when I travelled to the Catskills for my fishing I treated myself to a day or two of drift boat fishing on the big river when I could afford it. The guides I fished with, Pat Schuler, Ben Rinker and Sam Batschelet prided themselves on providing a quality experience. I enjoyed some wonderful fishing, and got to appreciate the quiet and solitude of a beautiful, wild river. These gentlemen worked very hard to get away from the crowds.

More anglers need to learn to be flexible in their fishing. When you find a group of cars parked at your intended pool, keep driving, try another reach of water. If you fish with a guide, insist that they provide a quality experience, not a game of bumper cars in drift boats on the most crowded section of river they can find. If flows are low at your destination, tell your guide that you would prefer to wade fish and leave the boat in his driveway. Everyone’s fishing will be better and more enjoyable with a retuirn to courtesy, sportmanship and common sense.

The Little Dirty Yellow Hendrickson

The first pattern, a Poster: The Little Dirty Yellow Hendrickson
The Jave Quill version of the LDYH in a CDC dun pattern awaits testing.

I have been doing my mayfly research for the next hatch I hope to be fishing, and the more I read from my references the more interesting things have become. I first encountered the mayfly I dubbed the Little Dirty Yellow Hendrickson on the Mainstem Delaware in 2019, then my friend John and I plucked a few from the waters of the West Branch during a float trip that same spring. They showed up after the main Hendrickson hatch was over, though the first duns I got my hands on certainly looked like Hendrickson duns to me, though smaller duns of a decidedly different color.

Once upon a time, if you went into a fly shop for a package of sulfur dubbing, you got a fur blend that was reminiscent of sulphur, a dirty, dark yellow with a golden overtone. Where I fished, sulfurs were a major hatch, but they varied from a fairly pure sunny pale yellow to a pale yellow/ pale orange mix, like most of the sulfur dubbing you see today. When I first captured the “new” mayflies, I dug out a thirty year old package of Orvis sulphur yellow dubbing and started blending from there.

My name for these size 16 mayflies was purely descriptive. They had the gray tails and fairly dark gray wings of the Hendricksons, along with the same distinct rather blocky thorax. The back of the abdomen and thorax shared a dirty gray tone, and the underside was that darker, dirty, sulfurious yellow.

In talking with fellow anglers, several chimed in with an “oh, those are Invarias”, meaning Ephemerella invaria, commonly called Big Sulfurs. I accepted that for a while, until I did a little bit of research and decided these were not E. Invaria mayflies. Angler, author and Catskill legend Al Caucci maintained that he and Hatches co-author Bob Nastasi had sampled several different unidentified species of mayflies in the Delaware system that appeared to be closely related subspecies of the Hendrickson (Ephemerella subvaria), some of which they referred to as Ephemerella X. From Caucci’s description, I don’t think these are his X bugs, but I do believe they are Hendrickson relatives. I will stick with Little Dirty Yellow Hendrickson or LDYH (Lady H).

Though I have more curiosity regarding the science, I am not an entomologist. I am a fly fisher, and I have the knowledge I need to find them, tie them and fish them effectively, whatever species they may actually be.

The Poster pattern above is the first pattern I tied to imitate the Lady H hatch, and it has been well proven on a number of selective trout. Best of all, I landed a pair of two foot long wild browns on that fly last spring. I tie a parachute version too with the same materials.

Since I started seeing these duns coincident with the apparent end of the Hendricksons this week, I gathered the appropriate flies into one box, and then decided to try a quill bodied version of the CDC duns that have been some of my top flies this spring. The Jave Quill Lady H should be a killer as well. Just to be safe, I tie a few of my patterns in a size 14, though most of them are 16’s.

Perhaps one of these days I will make the acquaintance of an active professional entomologist who will know the species of this mayfly, or take a few back to his DNA lab to solve the mystery. It does seem that every time those guys do DNA tests they rewrite about a century of accepted fly fishing literature in regards to hatches, something I am not necessarily in favor of. After all, does it really matter all that much if we have a brand new Latin name for the bug tied to the end of our line? If we know the appearance, habits and habitat to encounter these mayflies, then we ought to be able to have some success fishing the hatch.

I kind of like Lady H as opposed to Ephemerella schmotium delawarus once Dr. Joe Schmo actually identifies and names this new species anyway.

Winter to Summer to Winter again

The mountains continue their greening as the roller coaster weather of a Catskill Mountain spring rolls on. We fished in summer conditions mid-week – 81 degrees, low, clear water and sparsely scattered mayflies, but the rains and winds transformed the rivers quickly. Talking with my friend John this morning he told me “everything is covered in white” at his cabin high in the headwaters of the Beaverkill.

It was close to freezing here in Crooked Eddy, and the rivers are high and clouded. Both Delaware reservoirs are spilling and, with showers expected regularly over the next week, that seems likely to continue. I expect to need my drift boat when the hatches begin in April, and often park it as good wading conditions herald the lovely month of May. This year looks to be a reversal of those norms.

My boat has been ready to go since March, when long stretches of warm weather had me itching to row and drift my way to some early dry fly fishing. To date, it has only been wetted by rainfall; and the dry fly fishing, though early, didn’t happen in March.

I prefer wade fishing, always have, as I like to stalk the riseforms that speak to me. Floating allows a pair of anglers to cover a great deal of water, though that perceived advantage is offset by the ever lurking decisions to be made. To stay or go; might the hatch begin on this pool as we drift downstream and enter the next one? One rule overshadows each choice: you cannot go back. A wading angler can walk both upstream and down, and he may take the time to study the water closely as opposed to wandering. That is often how I find the prize.

Neither fills my palette today. There are flies to design, a continuation of the trend, and tackle to maintain. Let the weekend crowds frolic in the cold, muddied waters. I will bide my time, perhaps try that rod that has been waiting five months to see water for the first time. There’s a new line spooled upon it’s designated reel, one not yet cast. It nearly got the test in last week’s fleeting summer-like conditions, though I blinked and the moment vanished! We’ll both be ready for the next time…

Jave Quill Invaria CDC Dun

Take A Breath

My 100-Year Translucense Dun is a size too big for this sixteen Dark Hendrickson. Tied on a size 14 hook, the fly’s attitude on the water and blended silk coloration equal a good imitation, but I should have tied them in both sizes to imitate both the lighter and darker Hendrickson naturals. There were other patterns in my box to match both of the duns encountered, as well as the Red Quill

It is raining here in Crooked Eddy, a sorely needed rain that I hope lasts throughout the day. The rivers need a recharge, and I do not mind the break from a busy week living the joy of spring and the Hendrickson hatch. It has been quite a week.

My first encounters with the lovely April mayflies were typical for the cold waters of early spring in the Catskills: brief emergences of flies with the trout taking no notice of them, and then gradually sampling this new buffet as it is spread before them. Conditions changed rapidly through the week, ending up with two days of stalking wary wild brown trout in low, clear, warming water.

I celebrated some relief from the fear of Covid, appreciating the safety of the vaccine as I fished comfortably with my two best friends. John joined me to begin this oddysey, fully insulated to wade the cold forty-five degree water, and we found the trout difficult to fool as always, but receptive to our best presentations and patterns. That first week’s fishing started well before its interruption by a quick return to winter weather. Better spring conditions slowly returned as the next week dawned, as Mike arrived from Maryland to sample the Hendrickson hatch.

That first day brought cold temperatures and brutal wind conditions, though we each found our moment of triumph in the midst of the maelstrom, Mike wrestling a trophy brown from the Cauldron, while I hunted one down in wind rippled shallow flats.

Our second day began with perfect conditions, though a couple of early arriving anglers camped on the choice water for the duration. We separated and worked secondary locations, the more difficult quiet, shallow waters, while the river continued to drop.

I had good hunting that day. As temperatures warmed into the seventies, stalking the low, clear pools became much more like summer fishing than early spring.

I spotted the first delicate sipping rise while taking a break for lunch, zipped my half eaten sandwich back into it’s bag, and began my stalk. The combination of the conditions and riseform led me to knot a Hendrickson spinner to my tippet, waiting after a few carefully chosen steps for a second rise. When it came, one cast brought a sipping take and a large Catskill brown streaking for the far side of the river, my Thomas & Thomas Hendrickson in full arch and classic CFO reel in full song! It is hard not to celebrate a day that begins with a spirited battle and a brilliantly colored twenty-one inch trout writhing in the mesh!

As the afternoon unfolded, various species of mayflies appeared sporadically: a few Blue Quills, small dark Hendricksons, then Red Quills. Now and then over the next hour and a half, I noted a few single rises within 50 yards of my position. If a trout rose a second time, I moved to it, though invariably there were no repeats once I entered casting range.

Eventually I spied a sipping rise within a thin line of shade along the far bank and moved in as stealthily as possible. Watching I noted three distinct trout sipping tight to that bank, all within a foot wide band of shade perhaps fifteen feet in length. Summer fishing indeed. I worked those trout for perhaps an hour. Their rises were sporadic, but they kept at it, as the mixture of flies in the drift varied. When the drift along that edge exposed somewhat taller, darker wings, I captured the next two duns that passed my position. The size sixteen dark Hendricksons were familiar from the previous day, and I had done my work at the vise in early morning.

The Mayfly: A Dark Tan Hendrickson Dun, Size 16
…and the dry fly: my Jave Dark Hendrickson CDC Dun

Like most tiny bankside feeding lies, obstructions play games with presentation. Fishing trophy trout with the fine tippets required is a chess match of subtlety and control. Finally, one of my perfect drifts entered that trout’s tiny shallow water window at the right moment and the battle was joined. He was the first in line and put a big bow in the warm caramel colored cane as he ran straight downstream along the bank, scattering the other two that had been tucked into that shade. I wouldn’t expect anything less.

He ran all around me, the fine tip of my Hendrickson alive with his energy and cushioning each surge of power and speed. At last I led him close, scooped gently, and took a measurement of an irridescent hued trophy Catskill brown.

The next player reminded me of the other side of light tackle angling, as he turned with a rush and cut my tippet in an instant. I never really even felt the pressure, though my eyes confirmed his size.

The afternoon lengthened with more of the familiar sporadic, here and there activity, until a quick flurry of Red Quills offered me another chance. The new flies appealed to a sporadic brown hugging the bank below a brushpile, and he sipped them with increased regularity. The obstruction made perfect drifts difficult, but my Jave Red Quill finally seduced him. A strong fighter, he just missed the coveted twenty inch mark, though his wildness and power made for an exciting closing act.

Each evening I wondered if the hatch would last for Mike’s visit. Our last morning brought that answer. We arrived earlier and found trout podded up and cruising to sip a mixture of morning spinners and duns. Their jockeying for postion made casting fruitless and it wasn’t long before all of the action subsided. In that brief interlude I’d identified both dark Hendricksons and Red Quills on the water, and I believed we had arrived just in time to witness the last of those hatches on that water. The remainder of the morning and early afternoon tested our patience.

I’d gone hunting again later in the day, while Mike chased the ephemeral sporadic sippers in deeper water, breaking off a large fish when his careful casting was finally rewarded. I too found sporadic risers, both delicate sippers and heavy rises to moving insects, but found nothing consistent that would come to the fly.

It was eighty degrees, and the first clouds of the incoming front softened the light a bit, when my summer hunting became interesting for the last time. The larger, lighter Hendricksons began to emerge in the shallow flats I’d been stalking, and swirls and a few heavy rises greeted them. I offered my darker size 16 fly until more of the emerging duns reached the surface, and I identified the change. I knotted a size 14 CDC sparkle dun, pausing as I wrapped the knot in the fine 6X tippet. I don’t like to go that light, and the cut off from a couple of hours earlier nearly made me go up one size, but the conditions demanded the extreme delicacy.

As so often in this type of situation, the feeding trout were cruising about the flat, some taking nymphs with subsurface swirls, while a few agressive rises marked the fish targeting duns. A quick cast to one of these made my heart jump, as the take was savage. He gave me everything he had, a raging bull of a brown trout, excited by the hatch, and I thanked Mssrs. Dorsey and Maxwell many times as their exquisite taper protected that 6X tippet from his powerful rushes. Deep flanked, and wide through the shoulders, that brownie taped twenty-three inches and easily weighed five pounds, more than a fitting end to a challenging but miraculous Hendrickson hatch, the best I had enjoyed in a decade.

A fine Hendrickson hunter shares the end of a challenging day.

I was fortunate to enjoy my best Hendrickson hatch in a decade, with flies in abundance I thought I might never see again. Half a dozen valiant Catskill brownies, each exceeding twenty inches, shared their energy with me and my obsession with dry flies and classic tackle over eight days of fishing. I feel more than blessed for the experience. The rivers varied from forty-five degrees to nearly sixty in that brief and tumultuous span, and wind driven waves zeroed out one day and nearly another. Weather like that amounts to a taste of everything you might hope (or fear) to encounter in a week of Catskill Mountain springtime if you stop and think about it, however; fishing like that is about as close to perfection as you can get!

The Hendrickson, circa 1974

Fishing In The Cauldron

Another breezy Catskill Spring day on a “protected” reach of water. The mountains have a unique ability to twist, turn and redirect the prevailing winds, effectively eliminating the protected areas. This is not a riffle. This is a flat, glassy pool that flows from right to left in the photo, thus the wind is pushing small whitecaps upstream, making for some interesting fly fishing. Yesterday was far worse, with rather large breakers pushing upstream on another “protected” reach hence, The Cauldron.

Back when we both used to travel to fish the Catskills, I teased my friend Mike Saylor about his (our) miraculous ability to foul the weather at our destination. We are both retired now, enjoying life, but we have not slowed down when it comes to those dubious magic powers.

Last week, when Mike announced he would be able to come up on Monday to fish the Hendrickson hatch, the forecast for his three day visit included three clear, sunny days starting in the low sixties and coming to a balmy crescendo near eighty; angling paradise! What welcomed us on Monday morning differed slightly. Temperatures were skirting freezing at dawn with a predicted high of fifty-one, oh, and winds from ten to twenty miles per hour. We got sunshine, as opposed to the cloudy skies forecast, though despite my best efforts to pick a location that would be somewhat protected from the prevailing winds, we really got the big blow.

Ten to twenty would not begin to do this little breeze justice. When the rushing air currents hit the bowl of the mountainside along the river it turned sharply, aimed straight upstream, and took advantage of the venturi effect to increase it’s strength and speed. If I had had a wind indicator I believe the readings would have been in the range of twenty-five to thirty miles per hour. It whipped up some upstream whitecaps to put those in the photo to shame, and some darn impressive breakers! When I thought back about the day, the phrase fishing in the cauldron came instantly to mind.

If you are a dry fly fisherman, you know that the key to convincing a trout to take your fly, as opposed to one of a few hundred actual mayflies drifting past his nose, is a natural presentation, a drag free drift. Winds of the magnitude we enjoyed on Monday afternoon do not allow a drag free drift, nor do they allow accurate casts, tracking one’s fly amid the froth and wavelets, or generally, catching fish.

However, when your best friend drives three hundred miles to fish, you give it your best shot, despite the weather. Turns out our best shot was good enough.

While I tried my best working upstream with a wind-straightened leader, Mike waded right down into the worst of the waves. Somewhere between the tenacious gusts, he managed to find a wild trout rising, and put his fly in front of him just right. I could barely hear him above the rushing air, but I turned and saw his rod aloft and heavily arched. Success! He shouted again when he got that big boy in the net, a beautifully colored, heavily muscled trophy Catskill brown well in excess of twenty inch standard.

Mike’s Big Brown From The Cauldron (Courtesy Mike Saylor)

I was happy with our day at that point, despite my own foibles with a couple of decent trout rolling on my wind skated, dragging flies. My buddy had fished hard in very tough conditions and caught the kind of fish we both dream about. It seems the Red Gods had a reward in store for my perseverance too.

I hiked around a slight bend in the river and found calmer water, there was still wind to deal with, but the surface was rippled, not a sea of crashing waves. I figured that was an improvement and set about hunting trout. There were a few scattered Hendricksons on the water, the hatch nearly completed for the day, but I saw no sign of rising trout. I continued walking, then finally spotted a splash about seventy-five yards up river near the opposite bank.

It was a long stalk, but the wind rippled surface actually allowed me to get there faster than normal, as the wind washed the disturbance from my wading straight upstream. As I neared casting range there was one more heavy rise and I was able to mark the fish’s location. Turns out he wasn’t holding that lie, but cruising, looking for those straggling duns as the hatch petered out. My casts to the lie I’d stalked brought no answers, but then a little blip of a rise right in front of me triggered a quick pickup and a short, accurate cast.

He popped my Hendrickson right away and exploded when I put the steel to him with my Menscer Hollowbuilt! This was a heavy brownie that was out of the water as much as he was in it during our battle. One of those jumps brought an exclamation from behind, as Mike had hiked upriver behind me. Another gorgeous wild Catskill brown trout in the net, though he jumped out of it before Mike could snap a photo for me. The Leaper simply wasn’t going to quit. Measured at twenty-two inches, with a fat belly, this fellow completed our day of fishing in the cauldron with another smile!

The Leaper gets the backbone from my Dennis Menscer 5 weight Hollowbuilt. Who says you can’t fish bamboo in the wind? (Courtesy Mike Saylor)

One Fish

Reclined With Dry Fly

After two days of pop up winter, spring has returned with all it’s bluster. The sun feels good, with enough layers of clothing to keep the worst of the wind at bay, and I am glad for it as there is a lot of waiting to do today. With water temperatures dropping from the low fifties to some forty degrees, it is anyone’s guess whether I will find a target for my dry fly.

Two and a half hours of contemplation, broken up with a couple of short walks, even a brief wading foray or two, just to test my leader for the wind. Fly fishing teaches patience; at least if you let it.

There was a time that I was like the multitudes, rushing in to beat the water to a froth. Trout were caught so surely this must be the way – or isn’t it. The gentle spring creeks taught me the value of time, observation, and the contemplation that brings understanding of just what it is that one is seeing.

I knew the odds were stacked against me when I saw him, suddenly rising four or five times in a pocket of dead water tight to the far bank, the full width of the flow between us; and the wind. A hard upstream blow, strong enough to reverse the current in that pocket, it really thrived as soon as I entered the water. Stalk and wait; nothing else to do. One trout to fish for, a lone player for the game.

The sun filtering through the budded tree limbs lights everything upon the surface with a glow, but there, among the seeds and detritus there are tiny wings! Blue Quills? My bright winged pattern hides between the flies and seeds and I still can’t track it on that brightly lit stage, and what’s this; he’s moving. Perhaps he doesn’t like that wind current playing with his dinner any more than I like it inhibiting my cast.

He’s got himself a fine little milk run now, fifteen feet of bank with a five foot wide dead zone. No, not dead, just very, very slow, just past the seam of the fast water. Slower still when the gusts reverse the flow and everything swirls. He doesn’t rise then, but he moves, follows things in toward the bank, but only sometimes. When the whim strikes him he follows something out to the seam and plucks a morsel there, right there where I can get him easily; but he doesn’t stay, won’t linger in that seam. There’s no pattern to deduce!

Those first happy rises, the ones that brought me over here to stand in the deep cold current, had me thinking he was a smaller trout, but the milk run and his sipping changed my mind. This is a big trout, a wily old brown taking advantage of the habitat he knows so well. He’s really eating, working upstream and down, back and forth along the five by fifteen foot alley. He pauses when the hard gusts blow, then starts hunting all of the bugs that got blown back upstream.

I can see larger flies out here in the current, Hendricksons, perhaps Red Quills. I’ll try one of them, yes this cripple ought to look vulnerable to him. Floating low, everything I put over there is tough to see. So many naturals, and all of those damned seeds – what I wouldn’t give for this wind to quit!

I can track the Hendrickson better, and its calmer now, but he won’t touch it. Has to be eating the small stuff. Red Quill? No. He won’t touch that either. Here comes the wind!

Back to the Blue Quills, a different pattern this time. I hate this wind. Come on… eat it! I’ll try a different one. Wait for the gusts to subside, yea that’s a nice float, but he ain’t buying. Maybe he’s only eating the ones with their legs crossed. Could they be olives? Don’t think so, not mid-afternoon on a bright sunny day. Spinners? Not in this wind.

Let me get a couple of steps closer, shorten the cast, give the wind less time to blow it off course. I think I can manage it with the staff. There, that’s better. Down and across would be better but I can’t wade there. Let’s try that Blue Quill Poster, maybe I can see it better now…

It’s not so brightly lit over there now. The sun’s going over the ridge a little. What’s it been, two hours? He got feisty a few times, stuck his nose out a couple of times and waggled his dorsal. They’re not as far apart as I expected. He’s not as big as I thought, but he will be if he keeps eating like that; a very worthy opponent. Not so many flies now, the hatch is dwindling.

Another calm spell and he’s moving again, sliding back downstream below his alley. Picking up stragglers. Let’s try this dark little mahoghany dun… yes, I can see that light CDC wing better. Not so much on the water either; time is short if I’m going to get him. Better drift down there with the downstream cast… but he still doesn’t want it.

I think he’s done. The drift looks clean now. Bravo Mr. Brown! You ate your fill and avoided my efforts. I’d like to find you running that alley on a calm day!

The Vagaries of Spring

Well, not this bad but it no longer feels like the fourth week of April…

Just took a walk to the Post Office to get a breath of fresh Catskill air. Two hours after sunrise and it is still only 29 degrees in Crooked Eddy, with snow flurries skidding about on the wind. Tuesday evening was perfection, but spring gives you a hiatus just when you are about to get comfortable with warmth and fly hatches.

I would be on the river anyway, but forty mile per hour wind gusts do not agree with fly fishing. I know this for a fact, as I have fished in forty, and even fifty mile per hour winds more than once. I honestly do not recall ever catching a trout in such conditions, though I may have caught a steelhead; once. Steelhead fishing on the Lake Erie tributaries is of course not dry fly fishing. It is chucking weight, and a lot of it, to bounce estaz eggs and Sucker Spawn flies along the bottom of the deepest, fastest, nastiest current you can find. Fly fishers use fly rods to do it, but it isn’t fly casting, so strong winds may be uncomfortable, but they don’t create impossible conditions either.

Retirement in the midst of the Catskills allows one to practice sanity on days like this. When I travelled to fish these rivers, I did so knowing I had a limited number of days each season. If I was up here, I fished, and did my best to try to fly cast no matter how bad it was. With fifty mile per hour winds that included several hours of standing huddled on a river bank, or out in a windswept river, for every half-hour of actual casting. Gusts of fifty seem to happen on days with at least twenty mile per hour sustained winds, so casting isn’t pretty, but it can be possible with a lot of patience and careful positioning.

Two days out of a young season isn’t a bad price to pay for the good days, and I look forward to a lot of them. Besides, I have friends coming and there is work to do.

I replenished my supply of Hendrickson Sparkle Duns and my Blue Quill Cripples early yesterday, but there are friends to consider. I am hoping these flies will still be hatching when they arrive, though one can never be too sure, particularly during a fitful spring. I will tie some extras today so I can hand them out without raiding my own boxes, and there is always the next likely hatch to get ready for.

There are fly lines to be cleaned and a reel to be adjusted, so I can fish trouble free and enjoy the company of friends that I barely saw last year. Yes, we will still fish safe and apart, but with everybody vaccinated we will all be able to relax just a little bit.

It’s kind of a shame that the winds will be horrendous today, as I like to use non-fishing days to cast some different fly lines on different rods; check reels for balance and feel on different cane, that kind of thing. I sort of like to fish period reels on classic rods, one of my own little eccentricities, but there are practical considerations that prevail.

I can keep myself occupied for the day all right. Tying flies and adjusting tackle is good work, and I went a little too crazy this winter to do a lot of it. Who likes to go out in a foot and a half of snow and cast in 25 mile per hour winds? Not me.