From Wiscoy to West Branch

The driving distance from Wiscoy Creek, in western New York, to the West Branch Delaware River, east of Binghamton, is about three hours. I didn’t drive the route in a single shot, but connected the streams on two occasions, six days apart.


My reason for establishing a connection between the stream and river has to do with fly-fishing, naturally, but aside from the enjoyment that I hoped to gain by fishing through these hot and dry conditions, it was paramount to consider the health of wild trout.

Although it looks as though a long stretch of wet and stormy weather is finally about to settle on my region now, a drought was here, for sure, and it took its toll on the region’s waterways, overheating the diminished flows and imperiling the lives of trout, a fish that struggles to survive when water temperatures climb into the 70s and deplete the oxygen levels of the water.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Wiscoy and the West Branch Delaware are possible exceptions to the water problem in my fly-fishing realm, at least for now. Both streams have sufficient water flow and temperatures cool enough to allow some fishing with a clear conscience. Despite some similarities, there’s a world of difference between the small stream and the mighty river.

The Wiscoy, flowing through a fairly level agricultural district in New York, is sustained by numerous springs and tributaries. It’s a small creek feeding into the Genesee River near Letchworth State Park, and it’s arguably the finest trout stream in the western sector of the state. The West Branch Delaware, on the other hand, is a Catskill Mountain tail-water flowing southward from the Cannonsville Reservoir (a water source for New York City) to its junction with the East Fork at Hancock, New York. There the branches join together and form the main stem of the Delaware that rolls on southward into Delaware Bay and the Atlantic.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It’s hard to imagine a more disparate brace of waterways, but both the Wiscoy and the West Branch are important streams in this rivertop realm. The Wiscoy is an unassuming little trout stream and the Delaware’s West Branch is a world-class fishery that is sometimes described as the “eastern-most western river in the U.S.”

The big river has it all, from brook trout to giant browns that dwell with a smorgasbord of dining possibilities, from heavy insect hatches to the alewives that flush out from the Cannonsville Reservoir. Here the fish can be highly selective at times, and the angler has to cast precisely, or be skunked. This is big water, and it’s cold, even in the heat of summer. When I fish the West Branch, I tend to enjoy the experience and do pretty well, or have a frustrating time and catch nothing at all.

DSCN9245On this occasion, I did nothing. I fished for two hours in the wind and the high afternoon sun. Sulphurs and occasional Cahills were hatching but I saw no obvious sign of a rising trout. There was algae in the 55 degree water, and it snagged every cast of a wet fly. There were drift boats passing by but, oddly enough, I didn’t hear a single hoot or holler, the typical expression of success.

To fish a small stream like the Wiscoy, on the other hand, was to fish with greater confidence at home. The water was 63 Fahrenheit degrees and alive with surface-feeding brown and brook trout, at least for a little while. I could cast a dry Black Ant and watch the rise; I felt the intimacy of a stream that helps produce what the writer Ted Leeson called the “archetype of fly-fishing.” Here was a link to the earliest days of fly-fishing, to the possibility that fishing on the Wiscoy, and small streams like it, was related to casting on the Greek river Astraeus, known to the Roman writer, Aelian, who wrote of fly-fishing as early as 200 A.D.DSCN9251

Sure, the fish in the smaller stream are going to be sized more modestly when compared to the big ones in the river. Modest, but delightful nonetheless. And undervalued, too, in today’s big push to fish “the best water available” and to get its trophies for display. I don’t care if the small fish of the archetypal Wiscoy streams are sniffed at by the hook-and-bullet press. I’m proud, as always, to picture them here, where readers understand that we take even the small ones seriously.

But fishing is fishing, and the West Branch Delaware is a hoot of a river. It’s not always easy to work, to say the least, but you can do real well there. Just recently, the night before my latest river stop, my friend Tim D. caught a couple of massive trout nearby while fishing in the middle of the night with ungainly streamers.DSCN9253

Then, of course, there’s the cultural aspect to consider when fishing the West Branch. It’s not far from “Trout Town, U.S.A” (Roscoe) and Livingston Manor’s great Catskill Fly Fishing Center & Museum where L. and I had just made another visit to the annual Anglers’ Summerfest. The history and magical presence of that Catskill location is still more than I am capable of absorbing, though I keep on trying. And when its famed Beaverkill and Willowemoc Creek have warmed too much to fish safely, as they’ve done again this summer, there’s always the neighboring Delaware to beckon the compulsive flinger of the fly.DSCN9254

The West Branch will absorb the fishing pressure and do so easily. Even the distant Wiscoy can be thankful for that.DSCN9256DSCN9257DSCN9258OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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18 Responses to From Wiscoy to West Branch

  1. Doug says:

    This brings oodles of memories, speaking of the West Branch of the Delaware and other areas east of my home town. I don’t think there are a lot of places I’ve missed over the years. I’m sure there are, but it’s an area I’m fairly familiar with. Great stories and fantastic photos as well. I’m glad to see you hitting all the good spots brother. It gives you a connection to NYS that can’t be broken.

  2. Doug, One of the places where I’m always reminded of you is in or near Binghamton, knowing that you knew the area well. Even when I took a wrong turn off the highway there in all of that new construction (again), I tried to stay on this side of madness, saying Doug did it; he survived; I can, too. Thank you, man!

  3. Brent says:

    I’ll be honest, this is a particularly great fishing post for a non-fisher! You touch on all the aspects of your craft that should be of interest to the lay person: water conditions, weather and climate, geography and community, and part of the history (ancient and modern) of the sport. Plus, I think the photos are getting better all the time as your familiarity with the camera and its capabilities increases.

    • Thanks Brent. I appreciate those observations. As you know, this love for fly-fishing is about something more than simply catching fish. That’s the way it is for me, and I’m sure plenty of other readers would agree. If I can touch the hearts and minds of non-fishers, too, than I feel my efforts are justified.

  4. Leigh says:

    Hi Walt,

    Sorry I couldn’t join you at Summerfest, Hope it was fun.

    • Leigh, We missed you there. L. asked if you were going to be around and I said I hadn’t heard. Hope that things are going well your way, and that we get another shot at fishing together sometime.

  5. One of the finest things in my mind is the way you weave all the important elements of fly fishing together. Like a finely tuned machine, if one part is broken, everything breaks down. It’s been tough summer all around. I hope that those important places survive.

    • It’s been a tough one this year, Howard, and I know you understand that as well as anyone. Here’s hoping for better times East and West. Thanks always for your support and kind words.

  6. Bob Stanton says:

    Great pics, Walt. Let it rain, rain, rain!

  7. Thanks Bob. Raaaaaain I don’t mind… The first Beatles song that doesn’t mention “love.”

  8. Bob Stanton says:

    Well, I was thinking Clapton…

    • I knew you were, but was thinking that the lyric sounded too strongly incantatory, reminding me of a “raindance” recently performed just prior to a twister’s appearance. I know, still a little superstitious….

  9. There’s no place like a small stream and what the small wild trout lack in size they more than tip the balance in spunk and beauty. You are fortunate to have one the stays cold in your rivertop!

  10. plaidcamper says:

    Another fine post, Walt. Love to read them, I understand little on the fishing front (that’s on me, although little by little…!) but can’t get enough of your stories, photographs, knowledge and enthusiasm. Hope your rivertop realm has had some rain.

  11. We’re getting some rain now, Plaid, but the heat is still excessive and isn’t doing much to fire up my enthusiasm. When things cool off a bit, I’ll be rarin’ to go, no doubt. Meanwhile, I hope you’re weathering all the changes well as summer shifts its ground for you and, as time allows, you keep those stories coming… Yr humble servant….

  12. rommel says:

    I hear you, bud. I lived in California from 2011 to 2014. I definitely saw the effects of drought when I travel around in California, especially when it comes to waterfalls.
    I’m glad you found a place for great fishing, and somewhere that seems to actually honors the art of it. 🙂

    • Thank you, Rommel. It’s a good place for a fly-fisher to call home. But whether we’re in California, New York or Japan, the weather is changing and we’ll try to ride it the best we can.

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