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.