We Homo sapiens love our rituals. Beginning with myths of cavemen clubbing their women over the head to tribal dances as cure-alls for whatever ails one to turkey on Thanksgiving or the seventh inning stretch at a ball game, we love them all — it’s in our DNA. And fly fishers as a specialized collective group of anglers dating back hundreds of years, we have our piscatorial rituals also.
Much has been written about opening day; some anglers comparing this day to their childhood Christmas’s of past while others argue for its elimination. In Trout Madness Robert Traver devoted the first chapter of his book to the topic, while William G. Tapply named an entire book after this annual rite of passage. Maybe opening day of trout season, April 1, is even comparable to Groundhog Day and the celebrated yearly appearance of Punxsutawney Phil; the proverbial end of one season and the beginning of another. For the enlightenment of those folks not of a piscatorial persuasion, there really are only two seasons of every year anyway; that’s it — there ain’t no more, a fact my wife knows only too well.
Yes, opening day of another trout season is a special event on every real fly fisher’s calendar, even if one doesn’t venture forth. For the most part in these Catskills the weather and stream conditions are non-considerations. You can bank on the weather being foul and the streams: high, cold, and probably off color. This sort of takes the guess work right out of the fishing equation. Still there is something very special about opening day. If nothing else, this day is the clear demarcation mark between the end of one season, non-trout season and the beginning of another, trout season.
By now all the trout flies I could possibly need for several years have been tied and my cane rods highly polished; I can even see my reflection on the bamboo shaft. Hopefully the waders were patched properly and no longer leak. And hopefully I’ll be wearing a new pair of wading shoes as the ones I used last year didn’t quite grip the river bottom the same as that season ended. And, there’s plenty of tradition association with this first outing of every new season. My wife always makes me two fried egg sandwiches for lunch, but somehow they get ingested by 10 a.m. in addition to a thermos of hot coffee that’s brought along. And the first fly I attach to my leader, that’s a no brainer; it’s a weighted #12 Epeorus Nymph with #14 Hare’s Ear dropper some two feet above it. Tradition, it’s a beautiful thing as long as it doesn’t get in the way of imagination.
As to where I fish, well that varies a bit from year to year. The opening day angler is constantly seeking out the best of “least desirable stream conditions.” This could be anyplace in the Esopus Creek river valley, maybe even up near Slide Mountain somewhere. Furthermore, catching the very first trout of a new season habitually seems like the toughest fish I’ll seduce all year; sometimes I even wonder if I forgot everything I knew about fishing over the long, cold winter. But actually the feat often boils down to luck in finding fishable water with a cooperative trout. And, those first few wading steps I take on April 1 are not always my most secure. After months of walking about on dry land finding my sea-legs takes a bit of doing; more so as my grey hackle continues to grow thin.
Once another opening day is history, no matter what the results, I know each new day in the weeks ahead will only bring better fishing. Days will grow warmer, mayflies will eventually hatch, trout will rise, and rivers will become much more inviting. I believe that the customary theme associated with this annual piscatorial ritual is the future is bright and improving with time. But, there’s more.
Back in ’04 Lois and I took our oldest two grandchildren, Taylor and Ethan, to the movies to see The Polar Express. While most folks might think this flick, based upon a book by Chris Van Allsburg, is about Christmas, I believe it’s about life and our willingness to remain young at heart no matter what one’s chronological age. I clearly recall Hero Boy saying, through the voice of Tom Hanks: “At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.”
For me, opening day of trout season continues to be all about hearing that bell and responding to its call no matter one’s age or stream and weather conditions; it’s about staying young at heart and getting excited about the simple pleasures in life — a longstanding angling ritual.
At age nine Ed Ostapczuk received his first fishing pole, at age thirteen he obtained a fly tying kit as a Christmas present and has been busy doing both ever since. Ed and his wife Lois moved to the Catskills in 1970, drawn to the region by the Esopus Creek, which he has been fishing from that time forward. He is a retired middle school teacher and licensed NYS fishing guide.
In 1991, Trophy Trout Streams of the Northeast was published and included a chapter on the Esopus written by Ostapczuk. In 2012, he wrote Ramblings of a Charmed Circle Flyfisher, recounting his fly-fishing adventures.
Ostapczuk joined Trout Unlimited in 1969 and has been a member ever since. He also belongs to several other conservation and fly-fishing organizations including the Catskill Fly Tyers Guild. He still resides in Shokan with his wife Lois.
The above is an excerpt from his book, Ramblings of a Charmed Circle Flyfisher.