Meditations on flyfishing

Brown trout caught last year in the Esopus. (photo by Ed Ostapczuk)

Brown trout caught last year in the Esopus. (photo by Ed Ostapczuk)

June 30, 2015 — Saw Kill Creek, plus: I think over the many years that I’ve wandered these Catskills I have learned to fish its numerous trout streams, if in no other matter than simply through the long-ongoing process of osmosis.  Yet, there still is at least one stream that haunts me.  Over the last four-and-a-half decades I’ve fished the Saw Kill Creek at least a half-dozen times and never, ever caught a single trout, much less nicked a fish.  This stream is on my bucket list.

I owe this obsession to Nick Lyons, yes, the noted author-publisher of fine books. I recall him writing about his early angling days, fishing the East Branch of the Croton. Well, I eventually went down to the East Branch, following in his tracks and those of the late Art Broadie. And, I caught a trout, though of hatchery origin. I truly enjoy reading about someone’s angling experiences and then trying to follow in their tracks. Well, Nick Lyons also wrote about catching many trout in “his” Saw Kill Creek, while poo-pooing my“Esopus.” Heck, Nick is one of the best angling-authors there is; I’ve read most of the stuff he ever wrote. So maybe there’s something to this Saw Kill Creek. On the other hand, if you read Mr. Lyons’ work, he’s also the self-proclaimed master of piscatorial mess-ups. Thus if he can catch trout in the Saw Kill, why can’t I? And, I don’t want a freshly planted NYS fish; I want a wild boy.

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For the last two years plus now I’ve been studying maps, asking questions of everyone who’d listen, and driving backroads along the Saw Kill Creek from Route 375 in Woodstock upstream. I even hiked into Echo Lake, the stream’s source, hoping to resolve this issue; nope. Well today my good buddy, Tony Cocozza — Mr. Spundun — and I assaulted the Saw Kill Creek in Shady, just a couple miles downstream of Echo Lake. While setting up, before descending down into the hidden ravine below, the feeling was exhilarating, perhaps akin to the first time one kisses a member of the opposite sex. I was excited!

Not knowing this part of the stream at all, the Saw Kill appeared up, running almost full-bore, and stained the color of grey water. However, the setting was wild; it was everything I could have imagined in a mountain stream. I nymph fished, with a weighted #12 Prince dropper while playing around with a #10 Martinez Black and/or black #8 Conehead Woolly Bugger on point. When I got my first hit, I nearly wet my pants. All these years, finally I nicked a trout — a wild boy — in Saw Kill Creek. 

We fished Saw Kill Creek for 1½ hours today. I nicked 6 fish, never touched any…

 

One of the favorite pursuits in these Catskill Mountains is trout fishing; it’s a longstanding ritual dating back to our forefathers. And following this winter that never materialized, what angler isn’t excited about Friday’s opening day of trout season?  Chances are fairly good it won’t be the typical April Fools’ Day many of us have endured years past.

The mild winter and lack of snow runoff should be an advantage for local anglers. As of this writing, many streams are low and clear; very fishable to say the least. Recently while inspecting favorite fishing spots I noticed tiny tan caddis and small black stoneflies about; so trout should be in a feeding mood. That is, if conditions stay the same. The only thing predictable about early spring Catskill weather is its unpredictable conditions can, and often do, vary greatly from one day to the next. But, hope burns eternal in zealous anglers.

No matter, I have lofty expectations come April 1. Bait fishers should do well drifting garden worms slow and deep using light monofilament. If you prefer chucking lures, use a favorite.

Flyfishers should resort to weighted nymphs, maybe a #12 Prince or Hare’s Ear fishing slow and deep also. However, don’t be surprised if you encounter a surface feeding trout.  Remember we didn’t have any winter to speak of and streams already appear to be in early summer conditions.

If you fish a small stream or local tributary, stealth will be the watchword to observe no matter what methodology employed. On the Esopus, though, given its heavier volume and slight stain, careless wading might be tolerated somewhat more by hidden trout.

As for the type of trout most lucky anglers may encounter, expect either wild fish or hatchery holdovers. Usually NYS DEC does not stock local trout streams until mid-to-late April, although upon checking with New Paltz fisheries I was informed a few streams around Woodstock will be stocked prior to opening day. Nothing against hatchery trout, but they don’t hold my fancy so I didn’t inquire as to what streams will be stocked. Readers of this piece should follow-up on that detail if so inclined.

 

July 6, 2015 — Saw Kill Creek, plus: Back in the mid-70s I was involved with an ad hoc environmental organization called Catskill Waters; it brought about the passage of the current water release regulations which govern flows downstream of NYC reservoirs. And, fondly I remember the late Frank Mele, a mainstay and leader of those concerned. When Frank wrote a letter on the issue, he would painstakingly agonize over every word he put to paper. I was in my late 20’s then, still wet behind the ears, and I’d think to myself, “Frank, just write the damn letter!” Well decades later I think I finally understand what Frank felt. 

I invested this morning drafting a letter to the NYS Attorney General’s office on behalf of the Esopus Creek and a March 20 DEP press release. The activity drained me. It was exhausting; every word had a meaning with so much at stake on this issue. When I was done, I needed a break, something to reinvigorate me. I yearned for an adventure. So I told my wife I was off to Saw Kill Creek, once again in search of my first trout there ever.

Last Tuesday my good buddy Tony and I wandered the upper reaches of this stream in pursuit of my bucket list trout. This afternoon the stream was still slightly stained, but transported a lesser flow. Once again I used a Martinez Black and Prince dropper, two weighted nymphs. 

I could not have made a half-dozen casts when I had a solid strike. Almost instantaneously a wild brown was lifted through the air and quickly flopping on a wet stony bank. On the very next cast I caught/released a smaller wild brook trout. From this point upstream perhaps I wandered some hundred-fifty yards of pocket water in 45 minutes before a hemlock reached out and stole my Martinez Black. During this time I caught six browns and one brook trout, all but two on the Martinez Black, all wild fish. At that point I quit; mission accomplished!

This is the Saw Kill that Nick Lyons wrote of in Bright Rivers, his chapter on “A Catskill Diary”: “The Sawkill is always a genial, clear, underfished creek, rather small and growing smaller each successive day of summer; some years the water simply vanishes — slipping between the rocks to some underground shelf and leaving small, unmoving, stagnant pools.

At best, ten years ago, it provided a pleasant evening’s spot-fishing for ten-inch browns, with always the chance of moving a holdover of some size on a delicate cast to some deeply undercut bank.”

Those were the words that fired the passion in my search of the Holy Grail, a Saw Kill wild trout all these many long years. Sadly, I don’t think this brook is quite what Nick Lyons wandered decades ago.

On the drive out, a certain emptiness set in having just checked off this bucket list activity. That said, I’ve never caught a trout in Chestnut Brook over Grahamsville way.  It’s popped up to the top of the bucket list now.

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Well, it’s been four dull months since I wet a line in a Catskill stream, so I am eager for the opener. On November 30, 2015, the last time I fished the Esopus, I tried just long enough to catch a 17” inch brown trout that ate a favorite autumn streamer, a yellow Madonna. Since then I’ve grown antsy to get back out into local waters and fish again.  Personally it’s the planning and anticipation that’s often the best part of most angling outings. If my actual fishing experience ever measured up to this piscatorial foreplay, I’d probably fish less often. And the number and size of trout I might encounter is not the ultimate measure of a successful outing. During 2015 I was lucky enough to catch a few rainbows and brown trout that measured 20” or better.

Wherever you fish this Friday, or anytime soon, may you enjoy the experience.  And remember it’s often said that a “bad day of fishing is still better than a good day at work.”