It started with an annual visit to the Catskill Fly Fishing Center’s Summerfest and Angler’s Market (sorry, there’s no useful acronym for this event as far as I know) in Livingston Manor, New York. It always feels great to return to the Catskill Mountains and, in my case, it had been a year. The Summerfest event is fun to attend and like no other that I know, especially if you enjoy browsing for classic fishing tackle and angling ephemera. It’s a place where you’re as likely to find well-known fly-fishing personalities, writers, and veteran craftsmen as you are of bumping into a friend who traveled hours to get there.
On these mountain fields along the Willowemoc Creek and near the Beaverkill where fly fishing in America had its humble birth, I stepped aside for the passage of amicable Joan Wulff, the queen of casting with a Catskill fly, but also stopped in my tracks when I recognized Tim the angler, from Bath, New York. We had first met in spring while entering and exiting a Subway Shop for lunch. A typical introduction–guys will often recognize each other’s fishing caps when they pass each other. Sometimes they will stop to chat about flies and trout, and occasionally they’ll even exchange emails or business cards. I was looking through one of the used book stalls at the festival and I asked the guy standing there if he had a copy of Jim Bashline’s Night Fishing. “I do have it,” said the fellow, “but I’m not the proprietor here; he’s sitting over there, and you’re Walt, right? We met at the Subway in Bath! I can loan you my copy of the book!”
Well, my eyes and fingers had been glazed numb from checking out too many beautiful rods and reels here at the festival, bamboo rods both new and used, many with price tags in the multiple thousands. I was ready to return to earth where I could hold on to my wallet with its cash that I hoped would get me home before another day passed by. It was good to speak with Tim about the Catskill scene but also about the more mundane stuff, like fishing on our common ground near Bath, New York. “If you like to night fish,” said Tim, “I brought some flies that I use after dark, and photos of big browns from the Conhocton. I’ll show you.”
He and a friend would be fishing the West Branch Delaware that afternoon, and I told him I would soon be heading there myself. And that’s where I went, as soon as I polished off a hot dog and a drink beneath the tents and watched a bit more of the casting tournament sponsored by Hardy Brothers. The accuracy and distance champion would win a new Hardy bamboo rod that evening or the next.
The West Branch is a world-class tailwater flowing out of the Cannonsville Reservoir near Deposit, New York. The summer flow was excellent this hot afternoon and it felt good to wade its deep 59 degree water. Although I headed upstream toward the top of the Special Regulations water, I tried to deliver a line that was basically “across and slightly down” on the current. My nine-foot, five-weight E.W. Edwards rod had been waiting quite a while to get some Delaware River exercise again, and I was all too eager to oblige.
Nothing happened for a while, except that the cool refreshing water slowly filled my leaking waders. There was an occasional rise from the riffles, and I spotted a few small mayflies, Blue-winged Olives, which became the primary hatch for the next few hours. But the wild browns (there are no hatchery trout in the West Branch) were extremely choosy and they certainly acted well-fed.
I didn’t start connecting till I reached the long quiet water downstream of the highway bridge. Although I took the first fish on a #20 dry, the pods of cruising fish soon keyed-in on emergers, apparently taking Baetis just below the surface of the river. Two other anglers worked the hatch across from me and we all acknowledged the difficulty and the challenge that fishing for these browns had suddenly become. The trout refused cast after cast of our emerger patterns and Pheasant-Tail Nymphs. Only after I switched patterns and tied an orange soft-hackle to the 11-foot 6x leader did I get a bit more action. Floating grass can be a nuisance while fishing the summer West Branch, and it seemed like we were pulling it off our tiny flies with each long cast across the pools. Just before everyone seemed to go crazy with frustration and exasperation, an evening thunderstorm rolled in quickly and malevolently and chased us from the river.