Written by: William G. Tapply
Sometimes the rituals of fly fishing are as important as the quarry.
Every year on the weekend after Memorial Day, Marshall Dickman, Andy Gill, Jeff Christenson, and I spend four days in Roscoe, New York, in the heart of the Catskills, where the fabled Beaverkill and Willowemoc rivers meet at the Junction Pool. Fishing writers reverently refer to the region as “The Cradle of American Fly Fishing.” Here Theodore Gordon lived, fished, and invented the so-called “Catskill” style of dry fly. Here, too, flowed the home waters of fly-fishing icons such as Edward Hewitt, Preston Jennings, Harry Darbee, Walter Dette, Lee Wulff, and Art Flick.
Any angler with an ounce of piety throbbing in his veins venerates the sacred waters of the Beaverkill and Willowemoc, whether he fishes there or not. Roscoe, after all, calls itself Trout Town, U.S.A. I’ve been guilty of referring to our annual Catskill trip as a “pilgrimage” to “hallowed waters.” Marshall, Andy, Jeff, and I are not devout men. Profane is more like it, although we confess to being awed by the beauty of running water and the mystery of rising trout, which probably makes us pagans. But admittedly, there is a kind of religious fervor to our Catskill rituals.
Andy pulls into my driveway at seven o’clock on Thursday morning, and before he can toot his horn I’m lugging my gear from the front porch to the trunk of his car. We arrive in Marshall’s dooryard at ten, refill our coffee mugs in his kitchen, and shift our gear into his truck.
Two hours later, we pull into Roscoe. We are itching to fish, but our rituals must be observed. We drive straight to the Rockland House, where our regular rooms are reserved for us. Jeff, who has come from another direction, is waiting on the porch. We register, we dump our duffels, and we head for town. We get lunch at the little hole-in-the-wall cafe, where I always order a bacon cheeseburger, fries, and Coke. We buy our licenses at the general store next door, drop into Catskill Flies to see what’s hatching and buy a fresh spool of 6X, and then head for the Hazel Bridge Pool.
We walk down to the water and squat beside it. We let it run through our fingers, we check it for depth and clarity, we look for insects, we watch for rising fish, we debate hopes and possibilities. Then back to the car to pull on waders and rig up. Hazel Bridge is probably the most heavily fished pool on the Willowemoc. But we wouldn’t think of starting anywhere else. Call it superstition.
Each day goes the same familiar, comfortable way. Marshall, the early riser, bangs on our doors at 6:00 a.m. and leaves a mug of coffee outside. By 6:30 we’re on the water. We fish until ten, recess for breakfast at the Roscoe Diner (three over-easy eggs on corned beef hash, home fries, double order of wheat toast, large orange juice, coffee), then fish til. 4:00, when we break for our afternoon nap. At 6:00 we take our stand at the Railroad Pool for whatever evening hatch might materialize. We fish into darkness, then head to Raimondo’s for bourbon Old Fashioneds and steak and potatoes. In bed at midnight. Up again at six for another day of it.
There is, obviously, an element of spirituality to all of this. But we feel pretty much the same way about all our favorite waters, and we approach them all with reverence. We come to Roscoe every year because, when they’re right, the Beaverkill and Willowemoc are fine dry-fly rivers. We come here to fish, and we want it to be good, and we’re disappointed when it isn’t. Worship has nothing to do with it.
We’ve enjoyed some memorable times here–a spinnerfall at sunrise one morning at Hazel Bridge, hoppers in the downstream pocket water, a blue-wing-olive hatch after a midmorning thunderstorm at Wulff’s Run, an evening sulfur hatch on the Railroad Pool. The kinds of memories that build devotion.
Objectively, though, when you plan a trip a year in advance, you take what the fishing gods decide to bestow upon you. The weekend after Memorial Day, we figure, is Prime Time. But as often as not we find the water too high or too low, the air too hot or too cold, the hatches gone by or yet to arrive, the wind from the east, the barometer rising. The possibility of hitting it exactly right is what keeps us coming back.
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Last year when we got to Hazel Bridge at 2:00 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, a brittle wind was howling directly downstream. We saw a smorgasbord of mayflies, including some big drakes, being blown horizontally, and we tried to buoy each other’s spirits with the likelihood that toward evening the wind would drop, those drakes would fall to the water, and every fish in the river would rise to them.
It didn’t happen. But by the second round of Raimondo’s bourbon Old Fashioneds that evening we’d found solace in the fact that the drakes were, after all, hatching. Surely tomorrow …
Friday dawned sunny and still, and we found some fish sipping spinners at daybreak. By the time we broke for breakfast, gray clouds had begun to gather, and when we left the Roscoe Diner, a soft mist was falling.
“Ah,” whispered Andy, “a soft day. Olives.” It sounded more like a prayer than a prediction.
If it was a prayer, the fishing gods answered it. Blue-winged olives were popping all over the Bend Pool, and the fish were on them. We cast to them right through nap time before the hatch petered out, and if we had any complaints, it was that the fish were too eager.
At 6:00, per our ritual, we were standing on the bank overlooking the long, slow Railroad Pool. Wispy fog hovered over the glass-flat water. From where we stood, we could see a hundred yards in each direction. Not a dimple disturbed the surface.
“Huh,” muttered Marshall. “It’s dead.”
“Patience, my son,” I said. “It’ll happen.”
Ten minutes passed. Then Andy pointed with his rod. “There.”
Fifty yards upstream against the shadowy opposite bank I saw dissipating rings. “Go get him,” I said to Andy.
“You go ahead,” he said. “I’ve got to rebuild my leader.”
I looked at Marshall and Jeff. They waved me toward the water.
The fish came up two more times as I waded toward him, and I noticed that his dorsal fin, but not his nose, broke the surface. I spotted a few sulfurs popping up on the water. I knew what to do.
After I’d eased into position upstream and across from that fish, I knotted a foot of tippet onto the eye of my dry fly and tied a pheasant-tail nymph to it. The trout took it, first cast.
As I played the fish, I glanced over my shoulder. Andy, Marshall, and Jeff had waded into the river below me.
By the time I released the trout–a nice sixteen-inch brown–rings were spreading all over the pool. I took a couple more fish on the nymph before they stopped eating it. Now scores of yellowish duns were drifting on the water. They weren’t the tiny canary-yellow sulfurs that we usually found on the Railroad Pool. These were more tan than yellow and a size bigger, perfectly matched by the quill-bodied Pale Morning Duns[ET1] in my Montana spring-creek box.
It was not one of those blanket hatches where your fly gets lost in the crowd. There were just enough bugs to keep the fish eating, and the damp air kept the insects on the water. You could pick out a dun, watch it float down a trout’s feeding lane, and see the nose lift and the bug disappear. After a couple of rises, you’d find the trout’s rhythm, and if you dropped your fly precisely and if it drifted without drag, his nose would poke up and suck it in.
The fish ran from fourteen to seventeen inches, most of them. Jeff landed one that measured nineteen. Big, lovely brown trout. They demanded a precise imitation and a drag-free presentation, and they refused to move to eat. But if you did everything right, they rewarded you.
It was utterly engrossing, a gift from the gods, about as perfect as an evening of dry-fly fishing can be, and we didn’t even notice that the mist had evolved into a soft, steady rain until it got too dark to see our flies on the water.
We had a couple of extra Old Fashioneds at Raimondo’s that night while the rain ran down the restaurant windows. We discussed the certainty that spinners would fall all over the Railroad Pool the next morning, and we savored the fact that we still had two more days of this heavenly fishing ahead of us.
It rained all night, and once the crack of nearby thunder woke me up, but Saturday morning dawned cloudless and still. Perfect conditions for that spinnerfall.
We were the only car in the pullover by the Railroad Pool. We quickly tugged on our waders and rigged our rods, and then we strode down the path to get a look at the water.
None of us said anything for maybe five minutes.
The river was over its banks. It roared through the bushes, the color of cocoa, and I knew that Andy and Marshall and Jeff were thinking what I was thinking: It wouldn’t be fishable again for at least ten days.
We laughed about it. Then we got breakfast at the Roscoe Diner, packed up, and drove home.
The fishing gods giveth and they taketh away. Amen.
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Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here.
Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply (available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.):
- Sportsman’s Legacy: A Rich Memoir of a Man’s Life with His Great Sportsman Father, His Beloved Family, and His Adored Brittany,
- Bitch Creek: A Novel, and
- Death at Charity’s Point (The Brady Coyne Mysteries Book 1).