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
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
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
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
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, email@example.com