A Catskill Catalog: April 2, 2008
To trout fishers, the Catskills are the home country, the old sod, and the reverently referred-to birthplace. Words like Beaverkill, Willowemac, Esopus and East Branch are uttered almost like prayers, the names of the steams where trout and dry fly first made their American acquaintance at the beginning of our national life.
In his 1856 History of Delaware County, Roxbury native Jay Gould tells of ‚Äúa regular disciple of Isaac Walton‚Äù who fished the West Branch of the Delaware as far back as the late 1780s. Isaak Walton ‚Äì the k is the correct spelling ‚Äî was the 17th Century English author of The Compleat Angler, the original bible of fishing lore. Walton spent 40 years fishing and writing about the recreation (or is it a spiritual pursuit?) that was central to his life.
Fishing and writing have gone together ever since. Judy Van Put, who writes for this and other Catskill Mountain papers, has been fishing and writing for decades. On a Saturday in March, 20 or 30 local folks eager for opening day, gathered at Margaretville‚Äôs Fairview Library to see and hear the world premiere of Judy‚Äôs excellent power-point presentation on the History of Trout Fishing in the Upper Delaware Valley.
While never much of a fisherman, I learned in my first months in the mountains to adopt a certain reverence for the native trout ‚Äî Brookies! My first spring here, the late Dan Morse got me out fishing with worms up the small streams, seeking the small, lively, colorfully-spotted brook trout that were, even then, getting scarce, but were highly prized by even the most casual fisher. Dan, who taught history to high school kids in Margaretville for 30 years, was a mentor to so many of his young teaching colleagues, as well as to his students, and learning how to fish was high on his list of required country skills.
Those native brook trout were once amazingly abundant in the cold, clear, highly oxygenated fast-running streams that feed the East Branch. With no creel limits, 19th century fishers would take upwards of 100 fish in an afternoon. Judy told the story of one fisherman in the late 1800s who caught 384 trout in a single day‚Äôs angling, feeding all 100 guests at the hotel where he stayed, with fish left-over. There was no report of how many loaves were consumed alongside. On July 9, 1884, 300 trout were taken out of the Millbrook.
That venerable stream was the site of an important moment in trout fishing history. On the Millbrook, sometime in the 1840s, Judge Fitz-James Fitch tied an imitation fly he inexplicably named the Beaverkill, one of the first artificial trout flies tied in America. Fitch was born in Delhi in 1817, moved to Catskill when he was 38-years old. He did well there, becoming Greene County Judge. This pioneer of fly-fishing also invented the creel harness and was an early proponent of catch-and-release, the now environmentally sensitive preference of many of today‚Äôs trout fishers.
In Roxbury, the first hotel in town, the 1798 structure, now gone, that became the Hendrick Hudson House was known as the ‚ÄúFly Fishermen‚Äôs‚Äô Hotel.‚Äù Arkville and Margaretville, Cold Spring, and Shandaken were all important destinations for serious 19th-Century anglers. Hudson River School painters Worthington Whittredge, Sanford Gifford, and Jervis McEntee were frequent visitors to the Arkville area, sketching mountain landscapes while fishing for mountain trout.
Judy Van Put is a well-known and accomplished fly-fisher herself, as is her husband Ed, whose 2007 book Trout Fishing in the Catskills belongs on the shelf right next to the 1983 Catskill Rivers: Birthplace of American Fly Fishing by Austin M. Francis. Both tell the stories of some remarkable people, regular folks who worked regular jobs, but made their lives remarkable through the tying of feathers and the study of trout. One such person was Niles Fairbairn, born in Seager in 1886, whose skill and intelligence led to a varied career as outdoor camp director, state fox trapper, and animal advisor to Walt Disney Pictures.
It‚Äôs said that Niles Fairbairn did his most successful fishing on moonless nights. Reminds me of my old neighbor, Bob Russell, who seemed to knock on my door at the end of every rainy day to show me an old enamel pan filled with five or six fat trout he‚Äôd just taken out of the Plattekill. Interestingly, Niles Fairbairn taught Helen Keller to fish in 1935, while she and her family stayed in Dry Brook.
The neat thing about the history of trout fishing in the Catskills is that a new chapter is written every April 1 with the opening of each new fishing season.
Great fishers, an inclusive term that sounds more natural with continued use, still populate our mountains. One of them, the accomplished Lenny Millen, was on hand that March Saturday to demonstrate the flourishing Catskill Mountain arts of fly-tying and fly-casting.
Our history is alive.