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Martin James award-winning fisherman consultant,broadcaster,writer


Are The-Catskills The Home of American Fly Fishing?

Recently American Airlines started a new schedule from Manchester to Boston for the cost of £301-00 return. You leave Manchester around noon arriving in Boston about 2-0pm, with an excellent exchange rate of the US dollar against the pound sterling. There isn’t a better opportunity to fly the Atlantic. It was time I visited and fished the Catskills area of New York with its history of fly fishing in America. It was an ambition I had held since the 1950’s
Most people when they hear the words New York immediately think of Central Park, theatre’s, shopping malls, museums and the Statue of Liberty. But there is much more to New York, it’s a State with an area of 40,108 square miles roughly the size of England, but its not all concrete glass and chrome. A huge area of the State is covered by forest, Lakes Rivers, streams with an exciting coastline, offering some magnificent fishing in both fresh and saltwater. The two major areas of freshwater fishing are the Adirondacks in the north of the State and the Catskill Mountains north of New York City and west of the Hudson River.
Was the historic home of fly fishing - The Brodhead's?
Many anglers recognize the Catskills as the historic home of dry fly fishing in America, as the place where it all started. From my research dry fly fishing really got started in Long Island and Pennsylvania, with much of the fishing taking place on the Brodhead's and its sister rivers of Pennsylvania. A magnet for fly fishers visiting the area in those early days 1835 and onwards was Henryville House, though it was just one of the many places hosting fly fishers. Many inns, boarding houses and hotels prospered in the latter years of the nineteenth century. With many fly fishing celebrities visiting the area which included such personalities as John Sullivan, Lily Langtry and Jake Kilrain who added the glamour of the music hall and prize fighting to the area.
In 1895 fifteen well known anglers who were bankers and brewers formed The Flyfishers Club of Brooklyn. In 1897 The Brooklyn Flyfishers after a poor season of brook trout fishing, then moved north from the Brodhead's into the Catskills and a log cabin at Hardenburgh farm on the Little Beaverkill. No doubt they would have known that Theodore Gordon was already fishing the area and so perhaps this prompted their move. But the move north by the Brooklyn Flyfishers could have been a bit premature, as the fishing on the Brodhead's greatly improved the following year.
Catskills Legends
Some of the great anglers, legends and fly dressers who lived or fished the Catskills were Thaddeus Norris 1811 - 1877 his book The American Anglers Book (1864) is of great interest and Thaddeus when writing about chub fishing writes. The best season of the year is September; a grasshopper or grub-worm, or a small cube of cheese, is a good bait. Later in the chapter he writes about Bologna sausage as bait. There is nothing new in fishing. Thaddeus was also one of the great bamboo rod builders in the 1800’s. Probably the greatest legend of the past was Theodore Gordon his dry fly The Quill Gordon is still in use today. Rod Steenrod the inventor of The Hendrickson was a Gordon disciple who was also in residence in the Catskills. So great was the friendship between Steenrod and Gordon that in 1890 Gordon willed his famous collections of flies sent to him from Hampshire by Frederick Halford to Steenrod. The great Lee Wulff who in 1929 while fishing the Ausable River in the Adirondacks developed the Gray Wulff one of the most popular dry flies of all time was also a resident in the Catskills. It must have been a wonderful sight to see Lee and wife Joan fishing these historic waters. Today the lady, who is in her seventies, can still cast a fly as good as any male angler. She is without doubt a great ambassador for this magnificent and wonderful sport.
Fly dresser Harry Darbee known as the Dean of the Willowemoc lived in a farmhouse above the river not far from the Covered Bridge Pool that John Atherton used in his exquisite pencil drawings of the river. Writer Art Flick author of the best selling classic Streamside Guide to Naturals and Their Imitations lived in The West Kill Tavern which sadly has gone. George M, L, La Branche Dry Fly and Fast Water (1914) though published in 1914 it’s a book I recommend to all fly fishers. Ed Zern who was at one time the fishing editor of Field and Stream fished and lived in the area. Another great Catskills fly fisher was Leonard M Wright, Jr author of Fishing the Dry Fly. Other great names from the past who fished the Catskills were Lew Beach, Reuben Cross, Ray Bergman author of several books including Just Fishing, John Alden Knight, Preston Jennings and Sparse Grey Hackle who once said "Livingstone Manor, Hearthstone and the Ward’s DeBruce hotels in the Catskills were our Mecca"
Today's Catskills
Having arrived in Boston airport after a seven hour flight Kate and I were soon clear of immigration and customs, as we came out the airport I noticed a guy holding up a sign with my name. After introducing myself he grabbed our bags and we headed off to a large van parked nearby. Two hours later we were in Greenfield Western Massachusetts at the home of John Carpenter and his daughter Ellie. Also waiting for us were Trevor Bross, his wife Christine and their baby daughter Autumn. For the next two hours John, Trevor and I gossiped about the weather, fishing and the prospects for our coming trip to the world famous Catskills where we would be joined by New Jersey tackle shop owner Harry Huff and his son John. I had met Harry a larger than life character at many of the fly fishing shows I attend as an advisor for Thomas and Thomas fine fly fishing rods of America. From my many conversations with Harry I realized he was a very experienced and knowledgeable fly fisher.
Our journey for the Catskills started on the third day of our trip, it was some four hours from John’s house from John’s home to the town of Hancock close to the East branch of the Delaware in the Catskills. A drive through clean, green and pristine countryside with no litter. After driving south to Springfield, we travelled west across Berkshire mountains, crossing the Appalachian Trail ( which crosses the highway via a footbridge ) and route 90’s highest point of elevation in the east, and to the Taconic Parkway. We then drove south along the eastern border of New York State, also the eastern edge of the Hudson Valley. Looking west across the valley to the Catskills you realized how green and lovely this part of the world was in the afternoon sunshine. We then crossed the Hudson River on the Tappen Zee Bridge continuing south to Harry Huff’s tackle shop in New Jersey. Harry I suppose could be best described as a modern day legend that stands tall alongside the great Catskill legends from the past. After some time with Harry in his shop, we left following him northwest back to the Catskills on route 17 and as we drove we crossed over the historic Willowemoc and Beaverkill rivers before arriving in the town of Hancock.
The Catskill Mountains were green and magnificent. A huge forest of hardwoods hemlocks, maple, pines and oaks covered the mountains between the Hudson and the Delaware. When first seen, one is reminded of the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. In one area near the town of Hancock, I could see where a tornado had torn through the riverside trees scattering them like matchsticks. Amazingly three house were untouched. Along the riverside were rhododendrons and dogwood. At dawn there is the chance of seeing Wild turkeys, black bears, grouse and a dozen of bird’s species, including red and yellow winged blackbirds. If you are extremely lucky you might even hear the pileated woodpecker in a hemlock thicket. At dusk or during the darkness if you’re on the river you might hear the very rare horned owl.
Make Sure You Have a Licence
In the town our first stop was the local tackle and gun store to purchase our fishing licences. Never ever attempt to fish in the United States without a fishing licence. You could end up in jail, and then it was into the grocery store to pick up food and drink for a few days. Back in the vehicles we drove over the East branch of the Delaware river into Pennsylvania where our recently purchased New York licences were legal and fifteen minutes after leaving Hancock we arrived at Harry Huff’s fishing camp on the banks of the west branch of the Delaware to witness fish sipping down Mayflies as the Americans called them but these were olives not Mayflies as we know them with three tails known as Ephemera danica.
Jumping down from the truck we were introduced to Harry’s son John and another couple of fly fishers. It was warm handshakes and hugs all round. After dumping our bags in the riverside cabin, Harry fired up the BBQ and we all enjoyed the steaks. While the rest of the gang washed their food down with cold beer Kate and I had big mugs of Yorkshire Gold tea. Within an hour, The Huff’s, Kate, Trevor, and John and myself were getting ready for an evening session in conditions which could only be described as perfect. Across the river I watched an angler strike, a few minutes later he bent down and released a fish. Overhead two buzzards worked the thermals. Lots of bugs hovered over the water making it look as if someone had emptied a huge box of confetti
The Evening Session Was Full Of Promise
I made up two outfits, for Kate I chose a nine foot five weight Thomas and Thomas Helix with a Joan Wulff Signature floating line and a ten foot leader tapered down to a five X point.. While I chose to fish an identical make of rod and line in a four weight with a 12 foot leader tapered down to a six X tippet. I have been using the Joan Wulff Signature fly lines for several months for my grayling and trout fishing and find they shoot smoothly, pick up quickly and have no memory. In my book they are an excellent line for dry fly fishing. Having made up the tackle I checked my vest making sure I had fly floatant, tippet material, Polaroid glasses, fly boxes and digital camera. It was time to change the soles of our wading boots from a hiking sole to a felt sole. The new Korker wading boots with there five different soles have certainly taken wading boots into the 21st century. No longer do I have to carry two pairs of wading boots when I go abroad on a fishing trip. Pulling on our chest waders we quickly laced up our boots and were ready for an evening on the river.
From our camp a few yards from the waters edge of the Delaware it was a ten minute drive on a tarmac road before turning off and driving several hundred yards alongside a railway line before parking under some trees. Pushing our way through the bushes shrubs and long grass we were soon at the waters edge it was the perfect evening, warm with a light breeze, bugs were coming off the water in profusion. But I couldn’t see any rising fish. Kate and I went off upstream, John and Trevor downstream while Harry chose to fish at our point of arrival. Sadly within thirty minutes of arriving the temperature dropped and the bugs were gone. In the two hours before dark we didn’t see any rising fish; it gave Kate the chance to practise her casting. As we met up in the darkness we were pleased to hear that Trevor had caught a nice fish on a size 10 March Brown. Harry and John had also caught fish leaving John Kate and me fish less but it was great being there. With no bugs and a dropping air temperature we all headed off to camp where Harry cooked more steaks, burgers and sausages.
Drifting the Delaware
It was about eight in the morning when Kate and I climbed from our sleeping bags, after a shower and a mug of tea we were ready to face the day. I spent some time recording material for my programme ‘At The Waters Edge on BBC Radio Lancashire’ while Trevor and John fished the river in front of the camp. John Huff tied flies and Harry cooked himself more food. About 11-0 am we left Harry at camp while the rest of us went off to Hancock for breakfast. Even though I have visited the United States for many years I am always surprised at the excellent service we get in American Diner’s and Cafe’s also the good quality food and low prices. It always amazes me the amount of food my friends put away and non of them are out of shape. Trevor even plays a high standard of tennis two or three times a week. After breakfast it’s back to camp to get ready for the afternoon and evening fishing. Kate and I were to join Harry Huff in his drift boat for a drift from Shehawkin which is the lower part of the West Branch down to Buckingham a trip of about ten miles, while John Carpenter Trevor Bross and Mark Kondak would drift the river in pontoon boats. While John Huff rowed and guided a client on the river for the day.
Icy Cold Wind
About 12 noon the wind increased until by mid afternoon it was gusting at 25 to 30 miles an hour, I shivered then pulled a sweater from my bag. It had turned icy cold; the wind lashed the water which had small white caps in the more exposed areas. I was gutted. My first full day in the Catskils and it felt like being on an English river in January. If I was to see a fish rise, I would be well tested to reach it with my four weight outfit in these condition. As we rounded a bend Harry noticed a fish rise under the near bank where the water was sheltered by some riverside trees. Harry held the boat in position for some ten to fifteen minutes, twice the fish showed on the surface. Five minutes later two fish showed with two feet of each other. Harry said "Go for it Martin" I made a side cast then watched the March Brown land some six feet upstream of the first fish. It was a perfect drift, as the fly reached the spot where the first of the two fish had shown, a small dimple appeared the March Brown was gone. The answering strike connected with a fish, sadly not a trout but a dace of about 12 inches. This American dace had the head of a chub the body of a dace and the anal fin of the dace. On the Grass River in St Lawrence County NY it’s known as a chub.
At sixty seven years of age the body doesn’t always work as it should, I was getting colder and more sluggish by the minute. Some three miles further down stream I clambered from the boat and started to wade ashore to stretch my legs, the cold from the water gripped my legs causing me to have problems with wading, cramp was taking hold. I turned back towards the boat. I was feeling lousy as I pulled on my SST jacket and mittens, hypothermia was setting in I couldn’t focus my eyes, my coordination was lost. I felt terrible. Suffering from Multiple Sclerosis and being diabetic does have its problems. I let Harry fish his way downstream to the take out point. All I wanted was a mug of tea and a hot shower. I think Harry realized I was having problems, but I put on a brave face. Half an hour later Harry was hooked into a good fish on a Sulphur Spinner which had taken him well into the backing. I switched on the tape recorder and recorded the action. It was a brown trout of about twenty five inches. We covered the last couple of miles in the darkness hearing good fish crash or swirl on the surface. Why did the weather turn so rough I thought to myself? Still that's fishing. Fifteen minutes later Trevor, John, Mark, and John Huff arrived they had all caught fish. Having said our good byes to Harry, John and Mark we climbed into John’s truck and headed for home arriving about three thirty in the morning. I had slept most of the way.

Martin James Fishing