February 20th, 2006

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
This is where our readers tell their stories . . .

Bamboo, Brookies and an Antique Stream
By Rob Jagodzinski, Irvington, NY

I'd like to think I own the river.

It begins as a dozen spring seeps that trickle from ledges far up the highest slopes of the Catskills.

The seeps weave together into a stream that threads through deep woods and plunges over moss-backed boulders until it reaches a narrow valley.

The emerald torrent loses a bit of steam as it pours down the valley, slowing into occasional glides, dark undercuts and rare, chest-deep pools.

Big hemlocks lean over the water, throwing black shadows, helping the river stay cool even on the hottest August days.

Wild brook trout, most of them no longer than your hand, but a few an honest 12 inches or so, dart across the shoals and hover in the depths. Each fall, a few big browns and land-locked salmon follow the stream up from a reservoir miles below. They take refuge in the deepest pools, and some of them spawn before returning to the reservoir before winter's arrival.

The trout and salmon, some sculpins, frogs, caddis and mayflies, mink, deer and an infrequent bear or two own the river and woods. Technically, a conservation society also lays claim to several miles of it.

But I'd like to believe it's mine.

Of course, I'd also like to believe acid runoff doesn't leach into the stream, a road doesn't run parallel to it for a ways and no one else fishes it.

But despite the acidity, the stream's spooky trout somehow hold on. The dirt road carries little traffic and often wanders away from the river before it dead-ends at a trailhead. And if I come here on a weekday, I seldom if ever have to share the water with another flyfisher.

So on warm summer mornings in midweek, I make the ritual two-hour drive to the river, and I stand on the edges of misty pools and drift little Catskill dry flies down through the eddies and slicks. The hush of rushing water fills my ears, the damp scent of sweetfern and pine fills my lungs. And for awhile, the stream is mine.

I cast a bamboo rod when I fish here. Sometimes an old 8-foot Heddon Black Beauty fitted with a 1940s Pflueger Medalist spooled with double-taper silk line. Sometimes a newer A.J. Thramer with a Hardy Lightweight reel. These rigs feel right on this stream, where I'd like to think the spirits of John Burroughs, Theodore Gordon and Ed Hewitt still haunt the banks.

I usually begin fishing the stream at a trail intersection a mile or so below a battered steel bridge. I pick my way down the steep path that winds through thick hemlocks and white pine, and I enter the water at the tail of a swift pool.

I never tire of looking into the lens of flowing water, which holds its green, antique-glass tinge even after heavy rains. The water magnifies bright sunlight. Current rushing over little shoals bends the light, distorting and animating the cobblestone bottom. In the deeper pools the streambed drops away and dissolves into dark turquoise.

I seldom see trout holding in any of the pools or eddies. When they ambush a dry fly, they often appear out of nowhere, gathered from pebbles and shadows. When they leave my underwater hand as I release them, they just disappear.

When I arrive, I look for bugs on the water and in the air. This headwaters stream doesn't support much insect life - some caddis, a few stoneflies. I more often than not tie on a number 12 dark Hendrickson, a pattern developed for swift Catskills waters like this.

The first pool is 50 yards long, a little more than six or seven yards wide. The stream drops over a lip of smooth stones and cuts knee-deep under a bank upholstered in thick, lime-green moss. I stand on a little gravel bench on the opposite bank and cast tight against the undercut.

The fly rides high on the quick current and wavelets, and if I make a good cast I can get a drag-free drift for several yards. A poor cast, which is often the case, lands me on the moss or snagged in a hemlock overhang.

This is one of the deeper pools in this section of stream, but I've had little luck here. On each trip when I make my first few casts here, I fully expect a big brookie to bolt from under the banking and blast my fly. But I've only brought a few six and seven-inch fish to hand here. They usually peck at the fly for a couple drifts before I can hook them.

On this trip I come up empty here.

After I've worked the water along the undercut and the riffles at the head of the long pool, I slosh across, climb onto the bank and move upstream.

Now I'm into pocket water. The river rushes down a wide channel ballasted by fist-sized stones, with a few boulders and deadfalls providing the only real holding water.

I cast above a big midstream boulder, and my fly drifts above the shallows and over the darkening water where the current has scooped a trough beside the rock. A little trout, maybe seven inches, darts out and takes the fly with a smack. I quickly strip the fish in and as I kneel to scoop him he shakes the hook free and vanishes back into the current.

I move on upstream, where boulders create smooth, black eddies and log jams make bathtub-sized pools. No big fish here, just a few jeweled brookies, wild and lightning fast.

I force myself to hunch down and move slowly along the bank. The water is so clear and the sun so bright that movement and shadow will put every fish down.

Now I come to one of my big pools. I'll call it White Pine Pool for the stout tree that towers over its inlet. A laurel-covered ledge of bluestone borders the far side of the 20-yard-long pool. A sand bank shaded by the big pine lines the near side.

The stream plunges down a little rocky staircase, rushes into the head of the pool and glides into a waist-deep run. I start working the lower end, where the stream cuts into the far ledge before emptying into riffles. I usually pick up a few smallish trout here, but nothing today.

Keeping low, I creep toward the sandbar until I can reach the center of the pool, the mysterious water.

On one breezy afternoon in early fall, I cast a woolly bugger into the head of the pool and let it drift into the deeper water before beginning my retrieve. In a silver flash, something big turned on the fly as it sank, and my rod doubled over. Then the fish erupted out of the pool in a twisting jump. I got one look at him - a powerful landlocked salmon of three or four pounds - before he dove back into the pool and snapped me off. I sat down and replaced my frayed tippet and fly, and for awhile the sound of my pulse pounding in my ears drowned out the rushing stream.

But today, White Pine Pool doesn't give up any fish. My Hendrickson rides down the current undisturbed. No big swirls, no heavy strikes. Nonetheless, I check my knots as I fish this pool, and my nerves get ratcheted up.

I move on. There's more pocket water ahead as the stream sluices over a shallow, rocky bed. I pick up a couple more little brookies in the lee of a couple boulders.

A little tributary enters the mainstream from the far bank. It flows from far back into the hills. As clear as its water looks, a water quality study showed tribs like this carry acid runoff into the stream. The runoff comes from acid rain that falls on the Catskills peaks and leaches into the ground. Decades of this pollution, caused by power plants, auto exhaust and other sources, have left the soil highly acidic in some places, so much so that the runoff overcomes the stream's natural buffering ability.

So the river is wounded, its fertility diminished from the long-ago days when each pool held scores of trout, each little trib harbored schools of fingerlings.

I guess I love the river all the more for the way it refuses to die. And I try to treat it with care, the way you might treat a spry but aging grandfather.

I reach a spot where the river wanders through a meadow, and I see a few hoppers jumping in the late-morning heat. I nip off the Hendrickson, knot on a heavier tippet and tie on a deer hair hopper. I put a drop of floatant on the fly, make a false cast and land it into the current sweeping past the far, grassy bank. The fly glides about a foot before disappearing in a swirl, and I set the hook on a fair sized brookie.

The fish shows the burgundy flecks on his side as he angles into the current, putting a little bend in my rod. I trap the line, reel in the slack, crouch and lead the fish to my hand. I pinch and twist the barbless fly and it slides from the trout's lip. The fish darts free, gliding under a canted rock. I see his translucent tail waving in the current as he rests for a moment, then he scoots along the bottom back to his lie.

Up ahead is the biggest pool in this stretch, deep and wide. It looks as if a great bucket scooped out tons of gravel until it hit ledge, six feet down or so. Gravel lines the far side of the pool. A bluestone outcropping, bright green with moss and spring trickles, lines the other. Some fractured slabs rest on the bottom. I'll call it kettle pool.

From 50 feet back, I watch the pool for rises. I don't spot any but see a couple caddis in the air, so I tie on a lighter tippet and a number 14 elk hair caddis. I stalk through waist-high grass until I can hit the center of the pool. I make a few casts tight against the cliff. Nothing. I crawl a little closer, drop my fly into the middle. One backcast snags weeds, and I curse as I crawl back to untangle it.

I finally work up to the head of the pool, but I draw no strikes. I take a break for a moment, watching the sun play off the quiet water. Then I decide to change to a muddler. I'm sure there must be a fish in the depths.

From the head of the pool, I dip the muddler in the inlet to wet it and help it sink, then I flip it into the current and strip out some line as it drifts down. I let the fly disappear and swing through the water before stripping it in with little jerks.

There's a pause, then a heavy drag as the line goes tight. The rod tip goes down. I lift and feel the rod thrum as a larger fish sets his weight against the flex. A little line shoots through the guides and the reel gives out a sizzle as the fish bulldogs toward the bottom.

I put side pressure on him and the line slices the water as he makes a short run downstream. Then he puts his side into the current and his nose to the bottom and tries to shake loose.

I walk to the edge of the pool and turn the stubborn fish out of the deep water. In a few moments I kneel and draw him into the shallows. He's a nice brook trout, maybe 13 or 14 inches, with a thick body and scarlet flanks that darken into a black belly. His green-dappled back is nicked with a faint old scar, about two inches long, maybe from a mink's claw.

He lays quiet in the gentle current for a few seconds, gills pumping, looking at me from the corner of his eye as I reach down with forceps and flip the fly loose from his jaw.

The fish whips his tail and shoots toward the riffles at the head of the pool, free. I catch one last glimpse of him as he turns and coasts back toward the tranquil water in the depths. Then he disappears, to become part of the river again. ~ Rob Jagodzinski, robjag@optonline.net

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