A Catskill Catalog: April 4, 2012

It was Ray Smith Day at the Phoenicia Library, Saturday, the day before opening day of trout season.

Fitting. Ray Smith was the most celebrated fisherman on the Esopus Creek. Ever. From the 1920s and ’30s to the 1960s and ’70s, Phoenicia, Esopus, and Ray Smith were names tightly linked in he collective mind of the angling world.

Ray Smith was born in Chichester in 1900, and lived in and around Phoenicia, Mt. Tremper, and Chichester most of his life. Growing up in the years before the First World War, Ray was “the kid who always had a string of fish,” according to his son, Cal, who reminisced about his father in a circle of 15 or 20 folks, eager to talk fishing on the last day they couldn’t actually fish.

One of five brothers, Ray was a baseball player as well as a fisherman, playing on some pretty good Chichester and Lanesville town teams. In the summer of 1947, Hank Greenburg, the Hall of Fame slugger, spent time in Lanesville, staying at the hotel and tavern owned by Ray’s brother, Harry Smith. The great Detroit Tiger and Pittsburgh Pirate first baseman fished and played ball with the Smith brothers and their friends.

Cal was home from the war then – he had served in the Pacific – and he remembers Hank Greenburg hitting long towering drives. “He hit balls out of our field,” Cal said, marveling at just how much better a hitter Hank was than anyone else on that country ball field.

Not a better hitter than Babe Ruth, of course, who was one of Ray Smith’s fishing clients. Ray was a licensed fishing and hunting guide. Cal passed his father’s state-issued badge around for all to see. Cal never met Ruth and didn’t know much about the Babe’s connection to his father or to Phoenicia.
Others remember that Babe Ruth fished the Esopus and the Bush Kill in the summer of 1938. There is no evidence that the Sultan of Swat ever stepped foot on a local ball field, though Harry Smith’s Bar and Grill may have hosted him, and the old Phoenicia Hotel boasted the Bambino’s patronage for years afterward.

During World War I, Ray Smith worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He worked on tugboats in New York Harbor for a while, married Christine Semler in 1922, and, back home in Phoenicia, worked as a dairy farmer, WPA road crew worker, justice-of-the-peace, hunting and fishing guide, and fly-tier.
Ray Smith’s wet and dry flies are famous. He tied 10,000 to 15,000 flies every year. Folkert Brothers store was Phoenicia’s Main Street Mecca for fisherman, a kind of hometown Cabella’s before fishing shops became chain stores. Most flies sold in Folkert’s were Ray Smith’s flies, which were displayed elegantly in the store window.

Abercrombie & Fitch and Macy’s and other New York stores also featured Ray Smith’s angling flies, and Ray sometimes did fly-tying demonstrations in those stores. He developed a strong clientele in the New York Athletic Club, becoming the favored hunting and fishing guide for many NYAC sportsmen.

One set of clients was the Sportsmen’s Quartet, regulars on Fred Allen’s wildly popular late ’30s radio program. They arranged to have Ray appear on the air, and the upstate hunting and fishing guide more than held his own in repartee with the city entertainers.

The best job Ray Smith ever had was fishing for trout in the East Branch of the Delaware for $50 a day. In 1957, changes in the trout population were blamed on the new Pepacton Reservoir. Hard evidence was needed to determine what was what. Ray was hired to fish the East Branch - to do what he loved best - for what would, even today, be a pretty embarrassingly decent fishing-salary.
Ray was a great caster. As a young man, he and his brother Floyd had won all the local fishing club casting contests. One fellow in Saturday’s circle remembered Ray’s casting skills well. “Unbelievable what he could do with a dry fly,” he told his fellow Ray Smith admirers.

And Ray was opinionated. He hated spinning rods, tubing the Esopus, and worm fishing. He was a fly fishing purist.

As was Ted Williams. Ray met the great Boston Red Sox left fielder at a National Sporting Show he attended in Boston. It is only natural that these two, Ray Smith and Ted Williams, should arrange to fish together and become friends. Williams was as perfectionist-analytical about casting a fly as he was about hitting a baseball. Ray was as perfectionist-analytical about casting a fly as he was about tying one. A great match.

There are people around here now who learned to tie flies from Ray Smith. One or two were in the room. Ray taught adult-ed fly tying at Onteora Central School. He preached economy of design. “You start the thread so far up the hook, all you do is waste thread and time,” he’d say. Sometimes, a little less is more.

Ray Smith died in 1975. Perhaps his greatest legacy is his son, Cal, an RPI-educated electrical engineer, retired from Boeing, who never showed the slightest interest in hunting and fishing, and was never coerced or pressured by his father, a true fly-fishing icon.
That says something special about Ray Smith.
billbirns@gmail.com