April 1, 2020: I never find all my gear in time for opening day of trout season. Usually, I don’t find trout either. My annual list of rationalizations is familiar: cold water, heavy runoff, spring debris, few insects, angler error. This year, my stream thermometer has gone missing since I packed it away last fall, so I can’t take a reading. The water is clear and looks cold. Mist hangs in the air, clings to the stony trail.
The Beaver Kill laughs as it rushes to join the Esopus Creek in the broad valley nine miles below. Occasional shafts of afternoon sunlight break from behind low hanging clouds. Birch branches wait for their buds to emerge. Unseen forest birds call to their mates. Streamside boulders, the handiwork of a glacial finger that stretched south down the narrow gorge, sit quietly counting the centuries. Another spring day unfolds in the storied Catskill Mountain trout stream of Mink Hollow.
The Munsee band of the Esopus tribe, part of the Algonquin-speaking nation, once traversed Mink Hollow through a notch between the two mountains presently known as Plateau and Sugarloaf. Their footpath led south to fertile cornfields in the Esopus Valley and north to a verdant plain the Mohawk people called Schoharie. I start up the old Munsee trail just before noon. All winter, this day has occupied my mind. Last year, I did not see a single fish in Mink Hollow. I’m seriously concerned about the health of the trout — not to mention the planet.
I tie on a Red Quill, the harbinger of spring, given to me by my neighbor Nick who has plied these waters for six decades. Just after noon at the First Pool, I spy a black fly crawling up a rock in search of sunlight to dry its gray leaden wings. But no fish bite. An hour later at Hidden Pool, I spot another fully formed little black stonefly with wings like stained glass. No shadows flicker in the clear, deep pools. No glimmers from under the cut banks. I take heart knowing the insects are here.
I change to a Royal Coachman with its flashy red vest and tufted white wig. It is in vain. I find no lookers or takers. I call it a day as the infrequent sun slides behind Olderbark Mountain whose upper face bristles with fir and spruce. I hike out along the trail the Munsee established, then abandoned. A foreboding sense of death seeps into my brain. The native people were driven from the valley, up this hollow, and over the notch. Perhaps the trout are finally gone too. Maybe this is how it ends.
April 2: English colonial merchants built a road on top of the Munsee trail to shorten the route to market for cultivated goods from the Schoharie Valley. First, they fed hungry mouths in Brooklyn and the growing populous of Manhattan. Then, they fed a revolutionary army. I retrace the colonial traders’ route along Mink Hollow Road past forsythia buds and ready to burst open. I park on the gravel lot maintained by the NY DEC and continue on foot up the hollow on the Munsee path beside the stream. Last night’s dread has silted up my mind. Where are the trout?
The stream, fed by runoff and a subterranean mountain spring, stubbornly resists this morning’s thermal uptick. My newly purchased stream thermometer reads 44 degrees – not yet mayfly weather. On my delicate Hardy rod, I switch to a small black stonefly from Nick’s flybox. It looks like the stoneflies I saw. Today, I am using two rods so I can switch flies more quickly. On the Japanese tenkara rod, I tie on a stonefly nymph. It has a tighter wrap on a smaller hook.
First Pool is whisky colored and quiet. At Hidden Pool, I find littles stoneflies again. While I crouch behind a fallen timber, one alights on my wrist. I admire the smoky stripes bisecting its Gothic windowpane wings. I wonder whether insects will proliferate if trout are no longer around to pursue them, or will they too die off. I gaze upward at the lattice of barren birch branches and search for any signs of life. Will the warblers be next? I peer back at the water as my hope begins to dissolve. I recall past summers when I caught and released trout at Hidden Pool. Four years ago, I returned a fiery brook trout right by this rock. Three years ago (and two years ago!), it was healthy brown trout. I close my eyes and try to remember these gem-like fish.
I am completely unprepared for the furious strike from the middle of Hidden Pool. A trout! A trout! Alive in Mink Hollow. Sweet relief ripples outward from my chest, but this hesitation is costly. The line goes slack. The fish is off the hook. Somewhere in Hidden Pool, a trout is looking up at me. Perhaps, it is hiding near the front of the submerged rock ledge where the deep water is undisturbed by the current. The waterfall laughs as it spills into the pool. The corners of my eyes crinkle as a smile spreads across my face.
I retrieve the line and refloat the stonefly from the waterfall back into the middle of the pool. Nothing. I switch to the second rod. I try the nymph. It rides the water’s surface from the bubbling line of the waterfall over the far ledge, then submerges. From a watery shadow, the trout shoots out and bangs his nose against the nymph. For a second, I feel tension from tippet to line as the rod bends ever so slightly. I move my wrist to set the hook but am an instant too late. The fish slips back into the shadows. My slack line drifts across Hidden Pool.
I stand up to examine the pool’s depth more closely. As if by some boreal magic from a higher elevation, a breeze rushes down the hollow sending ripples across Hidden Pool obscuring the water’s surface and my view of life beneath it.
April 3: After helping to usurp the English crown, colonial revolutionary officer Elias Hasbrouck built a trading post at the foot of Mink Hollow Road as a stopover for the wagons and carts loaded with goods for the city. A historical marker and weed-covered headstones are almost all that remain of his venture. Gone as well are the stands of hardwoods that fell to charcoal pits, then sawmills, and finally glass-making furnaces. Next the hemlocks vanished — victims of tanneries. Then, the quarrymen arrived to cut the land apart and cart away the bluestones for use as city sidewalks. Only the upper reaches of Mink Hollow were spared because the terrain was difficult.
As I hike in, I focus on my plan and its execution. I remind myself where I caught the fish four years ago. I vividly remember it. This trout lived in the deepest part of Hidden Pool under a ledge on the eastern side. It watched for insects floating from the small waterfall and down the pool’s far side and only took bugs drifting over the deep pocket just off the ledge. Anything on the near side, in the middle, or directly above the ledge passed by undisturbed.
As nymphs, stoneflies live beneath the rocks in streambeds until they are ready to molt. Most stoneflies crawl to exposed boulders to shed their skin and dry their wings, but a few slip from their outer casing just below the surface. They emerge in colder temperatures than mayflies. Trout take them when no other insects are hatching. For three days, I have watched stoneflies emerge and am confident they are the insect to imitate.
If a strike happens, it will only take a millisecond. I must prepare to feel the moment the trout’s nose touches the fly and set the hook quickly, but gently. I must keep the line tight and let the rod provide the tension. I also must stay low to the ground and behind the fallen timber. I don’t want my shadow to spook the trout.
I clear my mind of all thoughts and focus on each step. I crouch down on approaching the pool. I slide behind the fallen timber. I extend my flyrod just over the waterfall. I release the line. It swings out beyond the column of bubbles created by the cascading water. The stonefly touches the surface, spins a quarter turn, and heads down the riffle toward the ledge. I lose sight of it while keeping my head low behind the boulder. I train my eyes on the point where the line meets the rod’s tip. To estimate the time my fly needs to travel to the submerged ledge I count: Three. Two. One. My fingertips anticipate the trout’s movement. I tighten my wrist and raise my forearm.
The rod doubles over. The line is taut. Fish on! The trout races toward the falls, then doubles back to the end of the pool. The tension releases, and the line goes slack. The trout is gone. No more than a few seconds have passed; not even a blink of time’s eye for Mink Hollow.
April 4: In 1885, angler and Hudson River School artist Jervis McEntee painted with oils on a small board and entitled the work “Mink Hollow Brook.” In it, two boulders cradle a pool while in the distance, a mountain ridge rises to eclipse the blue sky. McEntee and several other painters frequented the stream to catch trout as well as to paint in the unspoiled reaches of the upper hollow. Their work beatified the simplicity of the natural world while the new American civilization rushed headlong to destroy it. Their paintings were like siren calls to hordes of men and women, an invitation to enjoy the wilderness before it vanished. This afternoon, my daughter, Ava, has joined me. We arrive at Sunny Pool in the upper hollow. I sense that we are stepping into one of the Hudson River School canvases.
Why am I returning to Mink Hollow with my daughter? There is no real need to continue menacing the fish still living in this hollow. I know the trout are here, even though I can’t land one. Strangely, I feel as though I am reliving the conflict in myself that Jervis McEntee may have felt. Like the Hudson River School painters, I want my daughter to experience Mink Hollow’s ethereal beauty and feel alive in its presence before it vanishes.
Located on the upper reaches, Sunny Pool is only accessible in early spring before a dense wall of seedlings and underbrush sprout. On this stretch, the brook runs deep and slow from east to west through a broad southern exposure and a steep northern ridge. Sun bathes the pool from mid-morning to late afternoon. In the middle of the run, a waterfall plunges into a deep pool crisscrossed with three fallen trees. The largest of these timbers is half submerged in front of the waterfall.
Three years ago, I spied a pair of trout in the pool. But I approached from the south and could only watch them as they sunned in the clear water just behind a submerged timber. The moment my shadow touched the water’s surface, both trout flicked their tails and disappeared beneath the crisscross of fallen trees. The only way to get at the pool without casting a shadow is to come directly over the waterfall from the east end in the afternoon.
Ava remains low on her approach, while I climb the trail for 20 more yards then follow the stream back down to Sunny Pool. I nestle into a gravel bank behind a massive boulder beside the waterfall. If I raise my head over the rock, I will be directly in the sight line of any trout the in the pool. Beside me, the stream plunges down several feet into the deep water. Careful to keep my body behind the rock, I slowly extend my flyrod over the fall while holding the fly and line between my fingertips. When the ten-foot rod is fully extended, I release the fly. It arcs out and down over the clear water and onto the pool’s surface. The fly catches a riffle and drifts over the submerged timber. Just as it passes the log, a trout rises from somewhere in the crisscross of fallen trees and bumps the fly with its snout. Then, it turns and disappears leaving the fly alone on the water’s surface. I raise the rod and lift the fly off the water. Three subsequent passes yield no renewed interest.
I retrieve the tenkara rod and switch to the seven-foot Hardy. To its thin tippet, I tie a stoneyfly nymph which will sink below the surface. I know this is risky. If the sinking nymph catches on the waterlogged timber, it will stick to the soft wood and become imbedded. Any attempt to dislodge it will either drive the hook into the wood or cause it to jerk unnaturally. In either case, the trout will be spooked.
I gently push the shorter rod forward and swing the nymph out. It lands just past the bubbling fall and begins a slow descent in the pool as the current pull it toward the log. The sinking nymph continues downward in the clear water. When it is just below the partially submerged timber, a shaft of sunlight falls on the log painting a shadow on the pool’s bottom. This is all the camouflage that the predatory trout needs. It slams the nymph and runs for the waterfall. The tiny rod doubles over.
Ava emerges on the south bank with the net. I raise the rod tip and the line tightens as the hook holds fast. I guide the trout her direction, and she scoops up a sturdy brown with ruby-crusted spots glittering in the sun. With the hook removed from the corner of the trout’s jaw, she cradles the spent fish in the pool while its crisp gills fill with oxygenated water. Then, the trout ripples its slender body in one motion and propels from her palms back into depths of Sunny Pool.
Glacial boulders rest on one another in the warming light. The Munsee people silently traverse the notch to their cornfields. Colonial merchants whip oxen teams pulling overladen wagons. Glassmakers stoke their furnaces at the foot of the hollow. Artists unpack their easels, canvases, and paints. Ava and I sit on the bank of Sunny Pool and eat a late lunch. An eight-inch icy brown trout tucks back under the watery shadows. We are all alive in Mink Hollow.