It’s said that the sport of fly fishing found its North American place in the streams and brooks of the Catskill Mountains. What did those curious, observant, patient fishermen have in mind as they stood in the middle of a downhill flow of cold, fresh water and whipped their rods around, attempting to mimic the flight of busy insects that would pause just long enough on the surface to be nabbed by a passing trout? It’s also said that Phoenicia is the epicenter of this development. The town is located on or near the convergence of such waterways. In the 1830s, there was even a boardinghouse in town – a B & B, if you will – that catered to fishing enthusiasts.
The Phoenicia Library is home to the Jerry Bartlett Memorial Angling Collection, an impressive inventory of books about fishing and fly-tying. “It could be hyperbole, but we like to say we have the largest circulating collection in the Northeast,” says Library Board member Beth Waterman. “I’m sure the New York Public Library has more books on fishing than we do. Other libraries may have rare books. But we do have a really impressive collection.”
Housed in a comfy upstairs parlor, the Angling Collection includes other historical memorabilia, artworks, archives and other resources, such as a series of podcasts titled Sporting Legends of the Catskills. Each segment features stories about the greats in fly fishing, with special panel discussions by people who remember them. Made possible by funding from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Catskill Watershed Corporation and the Ashokan Watershed Stream Management program, the recordings are just one way in which the culture and history of fishing in this region are kept alive and available to people.
Living legends have shown up in Phoenicia to inspire anglers with their tales, including Woodstock publisher Nick Lyons and Joan Wulff, the “First Lady of Fly Fishing.” Early conservationists like Art Flick and Frank Mele are celebrated for their steadfast activism aimed at protecting natural resources in the Catskills and beyond. “Mele was a fierce lobbyist,” says Waterman. “He’s responsible for helping to get important legislation passed that regulated the reservoir tail waters in order to maintain healthy fish populations. New York City was only concerned with their own use and not so much for what flowed out of the reservoir. In hot summers there were terrible fish die-offs. It was a big battle that took seven years to pass.”
Waterman explains that the Special Collection got started the year after Jerry Bartlett died in 1995. “A local angler and conservationist, he taught classes in fishing and was the president of the Catskill Mountain Chapter of Trout Unlimited. I went to the library to get a book on fishing, and they didn’t have any. I don’t know much about fishing, but I think Phoenicia is pretty important in the history of fishing. They said that someone checked the books out and never brought them back!
“At that time, the upstairs wasn’t being used for anything, for various reasons. The floor couldn’t support the bookshelves. So, they agreed to let me make it into a sitting room with books on fishing around the perimeter, which would support shelves. I got all my friends to volunteer to help – carpenters, painters, donated wood; it was a big community effort. Then I spoke to a friend who had just published a book on fishing. He’d collected about 80 books to write his book, and he was wondering where to donate them. That was the beginning of the collection.”
An interactive website (http://catskillanglingcollection.org) provides Catskill anglers with a comprehensive digital “hatch chart” that shows what the trout are eating, the artificial flies that best imitate those insects and when and where to fish the trout. It also offers a history of angling on the Esopus Creek, the natural history of local trout species, recipes for tying the flies and photographs from past programs.
A major fire in 2011 destroyed all the books that had been amassed. “But most of the historical framed artifacts, like the Frank Mele memorial and the photographs, we were able to restore. I put them in a plastic bag with baking soda for six months, and that absorbed the odors. Otherwise they were undamaged, because that part of the building wasn’t as badly burned as the back. We were able to save something and preserve some of the important objects. The furniture now in the parlor was the original furniture, but we had it restored. The books have all been donated as replacements since the fire.”
Designed in the spirit of a rustic fishing cabin, the bright parlor is partially paneled with wood that was actually part of the original 1850s building. “It has a homey feeling that’s very attractive, I think,” says Waterman. “The fire damage was not 100 percent, so the building was not deemed a total loss. With a partial loss, we didn’t get the full insurance payout. And since we owned the property, we didn’t want to start new in a new location. We wanted to keep our location on Main Street, where people can walk to the stores. It creates a viable downtown; we wanted to stay there.
“The rebuilt structure is done to something called ‘passive house standards,’ a European set of design specifications for extreme energy conservation. Our walls are 13 inches thick; our windows are triple-glazed. These are unusual and very advanced energy conservation techniques. We’re proud of that. We have very low fuel bills.”
Asked about upcoming events, Waterman says, “We’ve just received funding for two more podcasts. On Saturday, July 27 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., we’ll have a hands-on macroinvertebrate workshop in the Sunny Clove Creek, just across the street from the library. Aaron Garnett, an educator, will teach about macroinvertebrates and help kids to collect them from the stream and identify them on land. It’s fun for kids and adults. You can begin to learn what they tell us about water quality.
“And at the end of October, Ed and Judy Van Put from Livingston Manor will be here. Ed is author of several seminal books on fishing. Judy writes a column for the Catskill Mountain News. They’ve done research on Hudson Valley painters whose paintings depict fishermen and fishing scenes. Ed has even identified the locations.
“We’ve had a few introductory classes in the past, but we work closely with the two chapters of Trout Unlimited: Catskill Mountain and Ashokan/Pepacton Watershed. These groups are better qualified to lead fishing trips than I am. You can check out a rod – fly or spinning – through the library. In February we teach free fly-tying classes in a series over four weeks.”
The Phoenicia Library is located at 48 Main Street in the Village of Phoenicia. Check http://catskillanglingcollection.org for podcasts and http://phoenicialibrary.org/jerry-bartlett-angling-collection or call (845) 688-7811for further information.