Last weekend was the 10th annual Orvis Game Fair at Sandannona in Millbrook, NY. Orvis Sandonona Shooting Grounds is the oldest permitted shooting preserve in the United States. These grounds have a lot of history on them and it is a special treat to visit every year. The last two years have witnessed warm beginnings to the autumn, as you would expect this delay of cool weather and rain adversely impacts the fall Trout fishing season.
This year a group of us grabbed a few campsites at the Clarence Fahnestock Memorial State Park off of the Taconic State Parkway. The park is over fourteen thousand acres and features two bodies of water, Canopus Lake and Pelton Pond. The location was perfectly situated between the West Branch of the Croton and Dutchess County rivers. Our logic was that we needed to focus on the tail waters of the Croton watershed due to the low level drought.
The West Branch of the Croton below Boyd’s Corner was fishable, however mostly warm water species were hitting and flows were low. Mark had a swing and a miss out of the reservoir by a Brown Trout. The freestone streams of Dutchess County were all the lowest I have seen them over the past five years. They are still fishable for Smallmouth Bass when they are very low. I even managed to find a few Trout in one deep and cool pool.
If you live in the New York metro area, Trout fishing in the Catskills is a traditional rite of spring. Specifically, many of us head up to “Trout Town USA” or Roscoe, NY on most modern maps. Roscoe has been famous for Trout fishing since the 1800’s when the Ontario and Western Railroad brought people up here to Fly Fish. The first dry fly fishing in America happened on fabled streams in the area. I had been to Roscoe on opening day in order to attend several events including the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum’s, “Catskill Legends Dinner” along with their first cast event. The following day I attended the “Two Headed Trout Dinner,” hosted by the Roscoe Chamber of Commerce. At that event I was the winning bid on a silent auction for a weekend at a guesthouse in Roscoe. All of these events are a fine time and I recommend checking them out next year.
The West Branch
This fine stream, starting out in Stamford, NY and running all the way to where it meets the East Branch at Junction Pool in Hancock, NY is one of the best wild Trout fisheries in the State of New York. The river was dammed in the 1960s to create the Cannonsville Reservoir, storing additional water supply for New York City. Though it cost Trout anglers many miles of stream the dam created a steady cold-water release on the Delaware. The East Branch is also dammed to create the Pepacton Reservoir however; the releases from this branch are less consistent because the clean water is more highly valued for drinking purposes.
Mark and I secured guide Ray Ottulich through The Beaverkill Angler Fly Shop in Roscoe, NY. We met around 11AM at the shop and motored on up the 17 Quickway to a boat put in on the West Branch. This was the first time I floated an eastern river since my trip with dad up to the Andro in Maine a few falls back. I peaked with excitement at the prospect of floating the West Branch for Trout instead of plying the Main Stem for Smallmouth from shore. Fly Fishing from a drift boat is a superior method of fishing as far as I am concerned.
Seeking the Hatch
The Catskills are renowned for their Dry Fly Fishing; this does not mean that deploying the dry fly is the only way to prospect for Trout. This may sound sacrilege however, I remind you the reader; I convinced Mark a spin fishing only man to hang up the ole bait pole and give Fly Fishing a chance. He did, point of the story, sometimes you need to be open minded about fishing. Prime hatches occur on cloudy days or in the morning and evening, this forces us to go down deep with nymphs or fish streamers in rising water when there is no hatch.
The fishing reports all indicated March Browns and some Blue Wing Olives at dawn or dusk. Setting out a noon is standard procedure in these parts to ensure that you secure the productive water at dusk when the hatches do go off. I started plying the deepwater edges with a streamer to no avail. Then we all switched over to pheasant tail nymphs in the shallow fast water, where the Rainbow Trout stage to eat the Blue Wing Olives nymphs. Mark managed to hook one repeatedly working a stretch of fast water. This period of time did allow us all to hone in our casting for when the actual bugs started coming off of the water.
Pods of Fish
The sun began to cast long shadows and the noses of Trout touching the top of the water brightened our smiles. Sporadically at first, you could detect feeding Trout by a feint splash or a glint in the water. Tying on the March Brown and an emerger enticed strikes from wary Trout. A few more missed hook ups and we pulled the boat next to a trailer park, boom Mark hooks his first fish on the Dry, a 15-inch Brown Trout! While Mark was busy fighting his Trout I was busy not landing Trout. For some reason I had a major mental block to actually set a dry fly…very frustrating.
We continued our leisurely float down the West Branch, picking up speed through some rapids; unfortunately the bug activity was much lighter than expected. This season has been a strange one, very warm in March followed by a snowstorm on opening weekend that has kept the water very cool and delayed the season. As our boat rounded the Hancock 191 Bridge we again were treated to intermittent rises. Again Mark hooks a 17-inch Brown Trout on the dry fly! Lets talk about beginner’s luck…
The Beaverkill along with the Willowemoc are two of the only undammed major Catskill streams. All of the other’s have had some sort of influence by man, negative (the Esopus) or positive (the West Branch tail water). The Beaverkill northeast of Roscoe to its source is a pristine valley, is less populated and less industrialized than it was one hundred years ago. The public water is limited, sometimes forcing you to wait your turn, however even on a busy fishing weekend in prime season, glorious lonesome water was found.
Saturday was a cloudy day with a bit of humidity and intermittent sprinkles. Perfect weather for a Blue Wing Olive hatch and we were treated to one. Arriving at a secluded though popular pool in the upper Beaverkil we were treated to an empty parking area. I quickly tied on some Blue Wing Olives I had purchases twenty minutes before and the fish were keyed on. Again, I had a lot of action but they fish kept getting a clean release.
Things to Do
Combined the towns of Roscoe and Rockland have plenty of entertainment for anglers when they are not on the river. Rockland has three great establishments we stopped in the Trout Town Brewery, the Rockland House and the Courtyard Tavern. Roscoe has a the popular diner aptly named the Roscoe Diner along with a bistro and a Pizza place. There are five fishing outfitters (fly or spin) in this town and some nice cabins for rent throughout. We are looking forward to the next summer adventure up this way, which will likely be a camping trip.
Almost a quarter of a century ago, Brenton and I learned to fish on a babbling brook in Mamakating New York. Gumaer Brook, a freestone stream, originated high in the mountains, meandered past our farm, down a one lane-dead end dirt road; peacefully nestled at the base of the Shawangunk Mountain Range.
Uncle Joe (Zombo), Keith, Mike and father would take us out by the rickety bridge across the brook for Trout or over on the old D&H Canal to catch Bullhead and Pickerel. If we were lucky, Bandit (German Shephard) or Oliver (Black Lab) would avoid cooling off in the water and the fish would bite.
“The past is never dead, it is not even past.” ~William Faulkner
Similarly, Fly Fishing in America kicked off about twenty miles north of the farm where we learned to fish. In the early 19th century, New York City developed into the financial and cultural center of the United States, along with this rapid expansion came an influx of immigrants and urban strife. The invention of the Steamboat and Steam Locomotive gave the wealthier residents an option to escape to the bucolic bliss of mountain life if only for the weekends or the entire summer. The city was a cesspool of garbage, disease and humidity during its long summers.
In the early days, weary travelers had to brave rugged stagecoach rides to access the remote northern section of Sullivan County, the land where the Beaverkill, Willowemoc and Neversink flow. The New York Ontario and Western Railway erased the difficulty in transport, offering service from Weehawken, NJ through Orange County, Sullivan County and beyond. They even went as far as to develop a publication, “Summer Homes” and offer the free transport of building materials for new summer home construction.
People and access to rugged terrain was not the railroad’s only contribution to American Fly Fishing, they worked to pioneer stocking programs in rivers along their lines. In 1878 O&W Management stocked over 1.5 million Trout. Their commitment to Trout fishing went as far as to spend over $4,231 in 1891 to build a Trout car. A replica of this car is now parked at the Roscoe, NY O&W museum.
Sourced broadly from: “To the Mountains by Rail,” by Manville B. Wakefield
Present Day – Livingston Manor, NY
The Willowemoc Wild Forest is a 14,800 acre protected track of land encompassing nearly the entire headwaters of the Willowemoc. There are five spring fed lakes and ponds along with wild Brook Trout streams. Camping accommodations are available at Mongaup Pond, lean tos and other primitive camping areas. Further note, there is the Willowemoc Campgrounds at the confluence of Fir Brook and the Willowemoc. Every available option leaves you in peaceful serenity within two hours from Manhattan.
On the ride up, Mark and I stopped in at Fur, Fin and Feather Sport Shop on Debruce road in Livingston Manor to purchase fishing licenses. What a pleasant surprise it was to find that last weekend was free fishing weekend. Next on the way was a quick pit stop at Peck’s Market to purchase some firewood, Summer Shandy and Sam’s Summer Ale. I love the opportunity to explore all the little businesses located on the roads less travelled; my search for authenticity is a ceaseless quest. Soon enough, the two Toyota Trucks (#truckyeah) were bumping their way up the dirt mountain roads in Willowemoc to a primitive campsite. Unfortunately, as soon as we arrived, storm clouds were blew in fast over the mountains, the radio was blaring warnings storm warnings.
Mark and I quickly threw up the tent and lit a smoky fire with what dry wood we had. At least camp was made before the thunderstorms rolled through. The air was thick and hot, a little rain felt good especially combined with the summer ales. Once the rain ceased, I whipped up a chicken stir-fry on the camp stove and settled in to a few more summer ales before bed.
The feeling of waking up to sunlight on beautiful day with the sounds of a wild Brook Trout stream in the background is unparalleled. With so many fishing options available to us for the day, I opted to fry up some Taylor Ham and Eggs for protein, coffee for energy and get a head start on the day of hiking. The strategy was to hoof it around the park looking for Trout in the tiny head-water streams. After a cup of Cowboy Coffee (percolate and add American Whiskey) we were off.
Wild Brook Trout hit aggressively, they are especially driven to strike traditional attractor patterns or terrestrials in the summer. This is Dry-Dropper or Hopper-Dropper season and you need to take advantage of that! I rigged up my virgin L.L. Bean Pocket Water 3WT 6’6” rod with a 7ft 5X tapered leader. On the end of the leader I tied on a #14 Royal Coachman, trailing 15 or so inches behind was a Brassie. I intermittently would change up the Brassie with a Bead Head Hare’s Ear.
The key to locating the wild Trout is to find well-oxygenated water between one and two feet deep. Anything shallower and the Trout cannot find adequate cover, deeper and the run is too slow, in the summer Brookies enjoy running water. We found some great pools and runs under the thick Hemlock understory.
After a strong morning, the fishing died off by midday. Mark and I began a “forced march” up through the Wild Forest on a quest to locate Long Pond. This “walk” was much worse than I had led Mark to believe. When hiking with other people, I like to use a Kuhn mile; this being a unique measure, one Kuhn mile equals two normal miles. I find it drives people to follow for absurdly long distances. Eventually we stumbled into the Long Pond Lean To and laid down flat to deal with the pain. Later we made the final three-mile trek to camp and sat/laid, for an hour. All told, we marched between 12 and 14 miles.
The onset of dusk brought a renewed quest in catching another wild Trout. Due to the difficulty in spotting a Dry Fly in the prevailing light conditions, I switched over to my Brown and Coffee Woolly Bugger. Dead drifting this deadly pattern down the deeper runs pulled out another wild Brookie from under a bridge.
We returned to camp, located the firewood and set to the evening festivities. Other campers across the road were juggling flaming sticks to a laser light show, a strange sight to say the least, deep down this dirt road in the woods as we were. Another kid was driving around seeking his buddies in a Kia that had no business down the trail he was on.
The sky was clear and the sun bright in the morning, this was going to result in shadows being cast on the water. Today was a day that the fish could see the angler that sought after it. As expected, fishing was difficult; I only had a few hits before the thunderstorms blew in. Mark was able to land a nice Brown Trout on the Panther Martin. Further in one of the feeder ponds he landed a few Pickerel on the same lure. We eventually cleaned up camp and headed out.
Located across a bridge from “Wulff Run,” the Catskill Fly Fishing Center has a wealth of classic displays celebrating the yesteryear of Fly-Fishing. Historically the Catskills was home to the original 19th century celebrity anglers including Theodore Gordon, “Uncle Thad” Norris, Edward R. Hewitt and George LaBranche.
Later in the 1930’s another school of famous Fly Anglers included Herman Christian, Roy Steenrod, Reuben Cross, Hiram Leonard, Preston Jennings, Art Flick, Winnie and Walt Dette, Elsie and Harry Darbee, Ray Bergman, and Sparse Gray Hackle.
Modern contributors to the museum include Joan and Lee Wulff, Poul Jorgensen and Mary Dette Clark coming of age in the 1970′s; these individuals donated many of the materials on display.
If you are a Daniel Boone at heart, anchored in the New York Metro area, by gainful employment, a pretty girl, and enjoyment of the big city life or all of the above, the Catskills are a fine place to let your inner spirit out. The land is semi-wild, the water so pure, it is not even filtered before it flows downstate.