Biology and beauty: Phoenicia gets a new fly fishing shop

Paul Schiavo and Todd Spire. (Photo by Violet Snow)

Although I don’t fish, I’m fascinated by fly fishing. It’s partly the names.

On the chalkboard at the door of Esopus Creel, the new fly fishing store at the Phoenicia Plaza on Route 28, the list of promising flies to fish today includes beadhead prince, blue-winged olive, and flashback pheasant tail. Even “creel,” the word for a wicker basket used to carry fish, has an elegant ring to it.

Then there’s the artistry of fly-tying. It’s a marvel that husky guys with stubby fingers can create the miniscule imitations of stream insects that trout prey upon. Tyers take fishhooks and attach such materials as chenille thread (sold in spools of scarlet, lime green, amber, copper), hackle (slender neck feathers plucked from hens, roosters, ducks, or peacocks), and fur (water-repellent hairs of elk or coastal deer, as opposed to white-tailed deer, whose hair doesn’t shed water properly). Some of the flies on sale at Esopus Creel have been tied by the proprietors, Todd Spire and Paul Schiavo, both licensed fishing guides. They also sell the work of other local tyers, as well as the materials and tools that avid anglers would need to tie their own flies.

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Schiavo places a hare’s ear nymph on the counter. The body of the fly, he explains, is made of hairs from a hare’s ear, ground in a coffee grinder to shorten them, mixed with wax, and then wrapped around the shank of a fish hook with gold ribbing, to represent the segmentation of the living creature. A spray of longer hairs completes the shape.  

What really grabs me, though, is the biology. The hare’s ear nymph is designed to resemble a type of caddisfly, a stream insect that lives in a tube, which it manufactures from sand grains or bits of leaves or twigs or its own silk, depending on the species, 800 of which live in North America — luckily not all of them on the Esopus Creek. This particular tied fly corresponds to the caddisfly’s nymph stage, when it’s a wormy-looking creature living underwater, only the head sticking out of its case, except when it’s hiding inside. A different fly is required to attract the fish after the nymphs have left the water as winged adults. In between, there’s a version for the emergent stage, when the caddisflies are shedding their skin and making their way to the surface to fly for the first time. Furthermore, Spire explains, when an adult dies, its upright wings collapse as it falls to the water, so yet another type of tied fly imitates that form, still edible to the rainbow, brown, or brook trout striking up from below.

Trout also dine on species of stoneflies and mayflies in all their phases, each with their own shape, size, and color. The angler must be aware of which of all these varieties is likely to be active in or over the creek on a given day, if there’s any chance of fooling the fish. Esopus Creel’s chalkboard helps with the predictions, in addition to listing the creek’s water temperature, flow speed, and turbidity, as reported online at the nearest stream gage. There’s a lot to know, which is why a guide comes in handy. Some flies and gear are available at Phoenicia Supply on Main Street, but the new shop also furnishes professional expertise.

I’m perusing equipment for sale or rent, including rods, reels, waders, and boots, when a young man, having just earned his guide license, comes into the store to discuss working with Schiavo and Spire. When the visitor leaves, I ask if they are worried about competition. “Not at all,” says Schiavo. “The guides help each other out, especially with big groups. If the people are experienced, one of us can work with about three of them at a time. If it’s a group of eight, we have to bring in another guide. And there’s more demand than we can handle.” They also instruct beginners.

There’s been a resurgence of fly fishing in the Catskills in recent years, says Schiavo, and Spire is skilled at maintaining customers’ interest on social media. Of the local guides, the two of them are the only team. They started working together last year. In addition to their full-time fishing business, Schiavo is a sound engineer and volunteer firefighter, and Spire is a designer with a fine arts background.

Esopus Creel runs special weekend trips in connection with the Lodge at The Pines in Mount Tremper, with packages that include room rental, Saturday breakfast, and a day of fishing on the Esopus Creek, famed as a world-class trout stream. In early September, they’ll be holding a fly fishing tournament hosted by the Emerson Inn, with fly-casting demos, food and drink, live music, and a day of competition.

On May 25 at 6 p.m., Esopus Creel will sponsor, for the second year in a row, an International Fly Fishing Film Festival at the Phoenicia Playhouse. They’ll show nine short films, and the proceeds from the $10 tickets and a raffle will go to the local chapter of Trout Unlimited.

The store is sparsely furnished at this point, since they rushed to open for business on the first of April, the first day of fishing season, in response to local anglers’ demand for flies. By the Memorial Day weekend grand opening, a small lounge will be set up, with tables, chairs, and fishing books. Next to the chalkboard, a display case is already arrayed with work by Shandaken craftsman Cornelius McGillicuddy — handmade bamboo fly rods (“a lost art,” says Schiavo) and meticulously engraved metal fly boxes. On the windowsill sits an antique creel, the inspiration for the name of the business. Spire found it half-buried in the crawlspace under the first cabin he rented in the Catskills.

Of course, the aesthetics of fly fishing include not just the tools of the art but the pleasure of standing in running water and communing with the creek, while surrounded by spectacular landscape, not to mention enjoying the sinuous curves traced by a line as it’s cast over the water. In fact, I experienced those pleasures once, for an article, but failed to catch a fish. Some day, I have to get out there and try it all again.

Esopus Creel, located at 5579 State Route 28, Phoenicia, is open Thursday through Monday. For information on the shop or to book a fly fishing trip, visit https://www.esopuscreel.com. 

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