Nick Lyons remembers the Opening Days of lore, when that April 1 kick-off to the trout fishing season in the Catskills was like the start of the baseball season. He tells stories of long treks by train, first from Brooklyn and then the Upper West Side of Manhattan many moons ago; of rambunctious rides north so a bunch of men could start casting into icy waters by 12:01 a.m. in the new season.
But that was all long ago, he says…from the perspective of a man in his eighties with two replaced hips.
“It’s still a ritual,” the part-time Woodstocker says. “But I don’t partake.”
Lyons started publishing fishing stories back in the 1960s. His books from the 1970s are considered collectibles now. In the 1980s he wrote The Seasonable Angler: The Adventures and Misadventures of an Angling Addict and Confessions of a Flyfishing Addict. In the 1990s he published A Flyfisher’s World, My Secret Fishing Life, and the first edition of his now classic Spring Creek, recently reissued. A decade ago a Nick Lyons Reader came out.
A city kid, he remembers fishing — and exploring the life of creeks, streams, ponds and marshes — from a very early age. He got used to heading up from Brooklyn to Greene County, where his grandfather owned the massive old Laurel House hotel up on the mountaintop near the Overlook Mountainhouse and Kaaterskill Hotel.
“I think I was always catching something, catching cragfish, minnows, newts, salamanders, frogs. I caught my first fish up there,” he remembers. “There was a comedian who would pay me a nickel apiece for the frogs, which he’d place under cups and scare the guests with. It was always a very crowded place; it was a special time…”
Lyons goes on to talk about the wonders of Sheepshead Bay, in Brooklyn, as a boy…and then starting to go up to the Esopus Creek, and Phoenicia, some 65 years ago.
“It was never really about fishing, because you usually can’t fish,” he says, headed back into the subject of Opening Day. “You’d have ice freezing up the guides, making it hard to get the line out.”
Over the years, he adds, he like many other ardent fisherfolk with busy working lives found themselves hankering more for that moment, later in April, when the first fly hatches would take place and the fishing got really good.
“There was nothing like seeing the flies coming off a creek, the trout rising for them,” he notes. “You could always go out there earlier with nymphs, or stone flies always work. But I liked it later…”
Lyons and his family — including his artist wife Mari, who has illustrated most of his books along with maintaining her own career creating complex cityscapes and expressionistic nudes, portraits and evocations of life’s edgier elements, along with a pack of kids — started taking a place upstate after he got a job teaching literature at Hunter College. He then augmented that career with separate ones as an editor and publisher, as well as a renowned writer about trout fishing.
“We would stay at a Byrdcliffe house, April 1 through October 30, for $300 total,” he recalls. “Then, eleven years ago, we bought Fletcher Martin’s old house in the village and I built a big studio for myself,” he adds. “What was remarkable was that Martin had been Mari’s first art teacher.”
Lyons looks back on years he spent fishing, writing, teaching, editing, and fishing some more as “a very pleasant period of my life.” Even though his wife wasn’t fond of standing in creeks and streams, casting for trout, she did take to sketching while he fished…and later working up landscapes of the Montana terrain they started taking to with regularity as circumstances allowed.
Lyons recalled how he first submitted a piece to Field & Stream in 1968, starting his second (or would that be fourth) career as a fishing writer.
“It was about a long road trip I took with Frank Mele, who I later published, where we caught up with Jim Mulligan and made our way out to the Beaverkill,” he remembers. “Frank was in his cups in those days so we stopped at every bar along the way. I couldn’t stand when we finally got to the creek but Frank, he promptly caught a couple of fish and was ready for the trek back to Woodstock again. I turned it into a story called ‘Mecca.’ And the writing just became very much a part of my life after that.”
Lyons recalls how his four kids wondered if he stayed up all night…he’d be writing when they went to bed and writing when they awoke.
Did he used to tie flies, back in the day, in anticipation of Opening Day each April 1?
“I did some but they were messy flies,” he says. “I preferred to get them through the publishing I did for other flytiers and fishermen. Art Flick would give me a handful every time I’d spend time with him.”
We speak about the Westkill home of the noted fisherman, innkeeper and author of the first notable Streamside Guide to flyfishing, still in print to this day. As well as a host of other legendary flyfishers around the region, including the great Ed Ostapczuk of Olive, Joan Wulff of Hardenburgh, and Judd Weissberg of Lexington, with whom Lyons has a tentative fishing date on the East Branch of the Delaware later this Spring.
“I tend to fish in ponds now. But I always loved the Esopus,” he says of the local waterways he spent a lifetime wading into. “It’s a difficult river to become intimate with, from its portal problems to its flooding.”
He also mentions the Willowemec, the upper portions of the Plattekill, out towards Saugerties, and a host of smaller streams around the region as having had continuous draws on his soul, and off-season memory, over the years.
“I’ve drifted towards the smaller streams over the years,” Lyons says. “And I like it better when things warm up and the flies are out, although I did get down to Junction Pool three or four times over the years for their Opening Day ritual.”
What he was referring to was a tradition where hordes of the faithful, both legendary and amateur, would congregate each April 1 where the Willowemec and Bearverkill creeks came together in Roscoe, down in Delaware County. The night before everyone would gather for a gala dinner at the old Antrim Lodge, now gone, where the main dining room and bar was overseen by a two-headed trout…and great revelry, and many toasts, were the order of the night.
“The big thing about Opening Day is that it’s the first time of the year for many of us to get back together and talk fishing,” Nick Lyons says. “It’s not really about catching fish but simply being together and getting another season started. The real fishing comes later…”