Travel Holy Water

The birthplace of American fly-fishing is home to the world’s most elusive trout.

Driving down the road on my first visit to New York’s famous Beaverkill River, I spotted a beautiful lie. To any fisherman accustomed to casting in Western rivers, the flow of the stream would appear to be a perfect hold for trout. So I immediately jumped out of the car and waded in, casting where the fish are supposed to be, while my East Coast companions stayed on the road, smiling with indulgence atthe futility of my Western ways.

The Beaverkill is most famous for brown trout (though you also can fish for rainbow and brook trout). But the Western flyfisher should beware: These fish, residing in clear pools, are wise to the ways of the world. That first trip to Beaverkill River was disconcerting; almost none of my Western tactics applied. Fish weren’t where they hold in a Western stream. On the Beaverkill, as on most Eastern rivers, only feeding fish are worth casting to, and even then the cast must be precise. A delicacy and lightness of hand are absolutely essential for any kind of success. Fly patterns of exacting dimensions are required.

I learned this from later experience and from listening to fish stories on the patio of the Beaverkill Inn, alongside the Beaverkill River, Fishing clubs have flourished discreetly around this river for as long as anyone can remember. They are mostly quiet and unadvertised.

Memberships are strictly limited and often eccentrically exclusive. (The Brooklyn Flyfishers, for example, allows only 20 members, one of whom by ancient rules is the sitting president of the United States. None of its members, oddly, are from Brooklyn. But over the years the rolls have included a Who’s Who of American fly-fishing, casters more respected than most presidents.)

The Beaverkill Valley Inn on the Upper Beaverkill is unique among fly-fishing clubs. The Rockefellers have owned much of the land of the Upper River for many years, and Larry Rockefeller has centered his club around a marvelous Inn, nestled in the narrow valley. Beautifully outfitted and maintained, it is one of the mast comfortable inns in New England, with one of the best kitchens in the region, a heated indoor swimming pool, and conference areas, not to mention a wonderful croquet court (if you want to indulge in an action sport to contrast with the solo concentration required by fly-fishing.} As a guest, you receive fishing privileges on the largely private Upper River. Many guests drive from the large cities of New England, but the Beaverkill Valley Inn is only a two-hour drive from the Stewart-Newburgh Airport.

Not far upriver from the Inn is the famous Wulff Fly-Casting School. Throughout the cool summers the Inn is full of students from across the country who have come to learn more about– or even to begin-a life of fly-fishing. (The key, I think, is to learn from an expert at first, rather than trying to unlearn bad habits later. A fly cast is like a golf swing in this regard: It is unnatural, imper-fectable, and requires practice.)

New York’s Beaverkill, one of the few remaining undammed and largely unmolested rivers of the northeastern United States, is not a river at all by Western standards. Any fly casier from Colorado, Montana, or even Texas would rather kindly call it a “crick.” But that’s because the Catskill Mountain watershed, which forms the very soul of the Beaverkill, is made of old, rounded, and tired mountains that have, through the millennia, been ground down to a height of little more than 3,000 feet-foothills by Rocky Mountain standards. Also unlike the Rockies, with their stark 14,000-foot peaks, the Catskills have no edge or sharpness, but a quiet (and I believe quieting) rolling roundness. Instead of the bare rocks punctuated with points of Ponderosa and Lodgepole pines, the Catskills are blanketed by mostly deciduous forests of beech and maple and dogwood.

These are the reasons the Beaverkill is as she is; she chose her path thousands of years ago and can no longer change her ways.

MY INTRODUCTION TO THE BEAVERKILL was through the literature of fly-fishing-most notably Fishless Days, Angling Nights, by Sparse Grey Hackle. The river’s legendary status has spawned as many books as it has fish. My first chance to cast a rod in its hallowed waters came, coinciden-tally. from an encounter with the publisher of this magazine at William F. Buckley’s New York apartment. I had read a loving tribute to the Beaverkill by Wick Allison in National Review, and, knowing that I would meet him that night. I’d tied some flies to present to him as a token of appreciation for his article. In return, he invited me up to his secluded cabin on the largely private Upper River. My surprise was only equaled by my alacrity in accepting; private fishing beats on such renowned rivers are guarded like a good Woodcock covert. Over the years, I came to know the Beaverkill better and understand why this was a great river to fish and how to fish it. I saw that insect hatches came and went as if driven by a precise cosmic timetable. Trout find most of their diet beneath the surface of the river in larval and pre-adult insect forms; the great wonder of the Beaverkill is the predictability of insect hatches and, as a result, the opportunity to cast dry flies to rising fish.

In reviewing Wick’s fishing diary of many years, I found that particular hatches very nearly occurred on the same day from year to year. In the evenings, mayflies of great beauty and color burst through the surface film of the river and “emerge” from their wingcases, spreading wings sometimes three inches across. As they float with the current, they are at the most vulnerable point of their lives, wailing for their wings to dry so they can rise from the river and mate. This is when the reclusive trout of the Beaverkill will abandon their hiding places to sip the adult mayflies from the top of the river.

All of this (relative) stability has produced a river that lives predictably. The life that depends on the river emerges and grows and mates and dies in the same fashion year after year. In the West, where the landscape is still under construction, so to speak, such predictability is unheard of; the pools and bends of the high-elevation Western rivers can be blown out and reborn a mile away with a particularly large snowmelt.

This predictability of the Beaverkill is what attracted Theodore Gordon (reverently regarded by worshipers in waders as the father of American fly-fishing) to the valley a century ago. Before Gordon, American fly-fishing was just English fly-fishing in American water?-the traditions, tactics, and equipment of England were applied wholesale, with less-than-spectacular results. The problem was that English fly patterns did not work on American rivers. Gordon, through correspondence with English sporting writers, began to experiment with his own patterns, which survive today as the Catskill school of fly-tying. Fly-fishing streams are as specific as wine country-different streams, even different parts of the same stream, produce fish with a culture as distinctive as the flavors of different grapes grown in different terrain. Over the past century Herman Christian, Harry and Elsie Darbee, Roy Steenrod, Rube Cross, Walt and Winnie Dette, and Mary Dette Clark- names which mean nothing to those outside the fly-fishing fraternity-have developed patterns and equipment unique to American trout waters.

AMERICAN SPORTING LITERATURE SINCE 1890 is heavily weighted with stories and reports of the Beaverkill Valley, Great American fly-fishing pioneers of every era could be found on the Beaverkill at one time or another. (Corey Ford, the noted Dartmouth professor, poached Wick Allison’s water in the ’50s and actually bragged about it in Life magazine.) Much of this history is preserved at die Catskill Fly Fishing Museum in nearby Livingston Manor, N.Y. In this little gem of a museum one can follow the evolution of American fly-fishing in the great collections of rods, reels, and fly-tying materials of the past 100 years.

Fly casting is learned by feel. But because each place you fish is so different, you can profit from good advice. If there are some who still doubt the difference between Beaverkill trout and their more naive Western counterparts, one story should tell the tale. During the green drake hatch of one memorable year, I took a flybox of various green drake patterns to a pool separated by a small bend in the river from the pool my companion was fishing. The drakes began to emerge, and the fish began to roar out of the water with ravenous hunger. My first two casts, using my only two drakes tied by local wizard Ralph Graves, were snapped from the line by rapacious takes. With fish bursting all around me. I tied on a slightly different green drake pattern; no response. Another pattern; no response. Another, and so on until the hatch stopped 30 minutes later, and all grew suddenly and eerily quiet.

Despondent, 1 trudged back around the bend to find my friend sitting on a rock shaking his head. The same thing had happened to him. After he lost his only two Ralph Graves imitations to snapping trout in the first minute of the hatch, no other green drake pattern had worked. These fish can be large, they can be voracious, but on the Beaverkill River they will always be selective.

Forever Wild

The land that time forgot.

Fly-fishing-the so-called “gentle art”-actually inspires such tenacious passion in its aficionados that the whole Beaverkill Valley in New York has evolved into another shrine to the sport. (Or is it an obsession? An art?)

There are shrines to fly-fishing all over the world. The stained-glass windows of the Izaak Walton chapel in Winchester Cathedral depict dry flies as beautifully as angels. Here near the Beaverkill, the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum is a place of reverence for dedicated fishermen.

After the Industrial Revolution created a middle class (with time and money enough to spend on perfecting the rhythmic toss of a nearly invisible line tied to a dry fly to catch a fish they didn’t need for dinner), the Beaverkill became the destination for wealthy turn-of-the-century New York fishermen. They bought their own private trout preserves and formed elite fishing clubs to protect the valley from development. Built in 1893, the Beaverkill Valley Inn {pictured above) still operates the premier country Inn nestled in the valley.

In fact, the valley came close to turning into a tourist trap, but environmental lawyer Larry Rockefeller, nephew of the late Nelson Rockefeller, spent millions of dollars acquiring land and developing a strategy to protect the valley with restrictions that prohibit subdivision. So by the river where fly-fishing began, the valley will remain forever wild.


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