Each spring and summer, hordes of flyfishers descend on New York's Catskills region to fish the rivers made famous by Gordon, Wulff, Hewitt and other luminaries of the sport. The ensuing pilgrimage can leave name-brand pools on the more fabled waters so full that some stretches look like casting tournaments.
But there is relief.
When the Beaverkill's legendary runs are sewn up tight by a spiderweb of fly lines, or when drift boat hatches blanket the Delaware River's east and west branches, Catskills flyfishers can find solitude, tumbling water and wild browns and brookies by leaving the valleys and heading for the hills.
Mountain tributaries offer a cool elixir for anglers who want to escape the crowds.
Even during hot summer spells, many mountain tribs run cold and clear. And the jeweled little trout contained therein rise to dry flies throughout the day. What's more, warm and thin summer water on the lower stretches of the Beaverkill or Willowemoc can drive larger fish into spring-fed, hemlock-shaded little headwater streams. The sight of a hook-jawed brown rocketing from the tail of a bathtub-sized plunge pool to blast your Royal Wulff will put your heart in your throat and may lead to small-stream addiction.
That very scene unfolded before my eyes a couple summers ago while I worked my way up the rushing headwaters of a Catskills river. I was picking up a few small, bright brook trout on a rainy August afternoon when I came upon a chest-deep pool walled by a high bluestone ledge.
My elk hair caddis refused to float in the downpour, so I tied on a muddler minnow without taking time to cut back the worn 5X tippet. On the first cast into the middle of the pool, the streamer had just begun to sink when a shadow wheeled out of the dark water along the ledge. It transformed into the golden spotted flank of an immense brown trout, likely drawn into the headwaters when rains began to send the water levels up earlier in the week.
I'd like to say I played the big brown expertly, gently brought it to hand, admired it for a moment then released it back to the stream. But the fish slammed the muddler, drove to the bottom and snapped me off in about three seconds, leaving me shivering in the rain as my tippet pigtailed in the current.
The imprint of that fish on my memory has kept me coming back to the little tribs again and again. So has the sound of cold water purling over rocky staircases, the earthy smell of the woods after a summer shower, the sight of a newborn fawn standing on shaky legs on the bank and the tug of pan-sized brook trout on the line without another soul in sight.
One of the most challenging and rewarding parts of flyfishing Catskills rills is the actual process of prospecting for them. Like bird hunters who protect their prized coverts, small stream flyfishers are pretty cagey about giving out the locations of their favorite haunts for fear of having them overrun. After all, solitude is one of the rewards of headwaters fishing.
So you will have to do much of the searching on your own. It will require some topo maps, meandering drives through the hills, a few long hikes through mountain laurel thickets, some bruises, scrapes, mosquito bites, poison ivy and protracted hunts that dead-end in dry holes.
But once you discover a couple decent streams, you might find that the journey is the goal. The trouble may be worth the effort when you hook that first wild brookie in a plunge pool far from the nearest road, where your fishing companion is a mink or kingfisher.
For maps, start with a New York State Gazeteer. It has enough detail to show some of the smaller streams as well as trails, dirt roads and state forest boundaries. For even more details, go to USGS topographic maps in the 7.5 minute series (1:25,000). In addition, the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference puts out a set of five Catskills hiking maps that delineate trials, topography, streams and other landmarks.
Look to high ground for likely streams. The state of New York owns quite a bit of land around the Catskills peaks, to the tune of nearly 300,000 acres. Much of this lies within watersheds surrounding the big reservoirs that supply Manhattan's drinking water. State land is delineated by blue, yellow and white signs on trees. That land is open to hiking, hunting, camping and fishing. In addition, the state has purchased fishing easements along many Catskills waterways. Easements are marked with yellow signs.
If you find a blue squiggle on the map that starts on a hillside and is surrounded by state land, there's a good chance it's a trib that may contain some fish if it's fed by a couple good springs and seeps and holds water year-round.
By the way, map-studying is best done before a woodstove on wintry January nights...maybe when you're taking a break from your fly vise.
Once you pore over some maps and mark down a few likely streams, the next step might be some actual driving and hiking, if you happen to live within striking distance of the mountains. This may be best done in the spring, since snow in the higher elevations often shuts roads and trails up until April. Of course, combining back-country skiing or snowshoeing and stream prospecting is also a winter option.
Get out of your truck and hike in. Sometimes long hikes are fruitless. But sometimes an isolated stream will hold a good head of trout.
Don't immediately dismiss a trickle that you can jump across in summer. Bring a stream thermometer: If the water's cold, 65 degrees or so, and it's on public land, follow it into the woods a ways. You might find deeper pools or beaver dams that can hold nice fish. Blowdowns and log jams, while full of tippet-tangling snags, often become trout havens.
Conversely, if the water is above 68 degrees or so, keep moving. Fish hooked and played in warm water may be too exhausted to revive. Likewise, anglers should avoid the tribs during extended dry periods. Some little trickles tend to turn into rock gardens unless they're charged with summer rains.
For gear and tackle, think light. A pair of hip boots should be all you need in the tribs. The water is rarely knee-deep. Besides, you'll want to stay out of the water as much as possible, since small stream fish are easily spooked. In summer, consider wet wading, but be careful where you tread. Copperheads also find Catskills tribs appealing.
Matching hatches is not terribly important on headwaters streams. First off, many of these fast waters are somewhat infertile and only contain a few mayfly and caddis species. Second, the fish tend to be hungry from dawn to dusk. They will strike many dry fly patterns size 12-16 when the fly is presented properly.
Classic Catskills dries such as Hendricksons work fine. For a fly that floats high in the fast water of small streams, on of my go-to patterns is a size 12 elk hair caddis with a brown body and palmered hackle and bleached or tan wing. Not only is it easy to see, but it can catch fish either on a dead drift or skittered at the tail of a pool. Other good patterns include size 12 royal humpys, size 12-14 humpys and size 12-14 Royal Wulff. Terrestrials are important on small streams in summer, so bring some size 10-12 Dave's Hoppers and size 12-14 black deer-hair crickets. For streamers, size 10 muddlers work well, as do Mickey Finns in similar sizes. Keep it light and simple.
A 7-foot, 3-4 weight rod should be all you need on the tribs. Some people favor overlining by using one line weight heavier than the rod is rated for so it loads more quickly, making short casts easier. I just usually go with the normal rod/line setup. A 7 or 8-foot leader with a stiff butt and 12-18-inch 4X or 5X tippet should work well. A leader any longer or lighter will be tough to control in the close quarters of small streams. Delicate tippets aren't necessary; the fish don't seem to mind a 4X tippet, which won't snap when you have to retrieve your fly from overhanging boughs that inevitably snag backcasts.
Small stream flyfishing often means blind casting; you may not see too many rising fish. Brookies tend to ambush their food in the tribs, often holding in a quiet lie and darting out to nail bugs that wash down the main current. Cast in the eddies behind boulders and in the slicks beside undercut banks. It doesn't take much water for a decent fish to hide.
Practice roll casts and even bow-and-arrow casts for use on mountain tribs. Hemlock and rhododendron branches and all sorts of other obstructions play havoc with long backcasts. Learn to make a decent presentation with just one backcast; false casts often get hung up on the surrounding trees.
Stealth is key. Wear drab clothes. Crouch while approaching a pool. Walk softly. Wild fish in close quarters are ultra-spooky, especially in clear summer water. Movement, splashing and heavy footfalls will send fish skittering for cover.
Make a couple casts to the tail of a pool first. Sometimes larger fish sit in the riffles at the end of a pool. Throw slack in your leader when casting to the head of a pool. Even uneducated mountain trout will refuse some dry flies if they're dragging.
Expect to catch quite a few little fingerlings for every meaty fish you hook. Remember, you're fishing in nursery waters. Use barbless hooks so you can just flip out the fly with forceps quickly without handling the trout. Wet your hands if you have to pick a fish up. Use larger flies so the fingerlings can't hook up as readily.
Bring a fanny pack or daypack with water, something to eat, bug repellent, a rain jacket, a map and compass and other necessities.
Here are a few streams for starters:
1. The upper Willowemoc and Fir Brook: There are state fishing easements along the upper Willow around the village of Willowemoc proper. Also, way up in the headwaters the stream is within the Catskills Forest Preserve and is open to the public. Fir Brook, a major tributary to the Willow, winds through woods and meadows and contains beaver dam pools. There are state easements along the brook.
Bring a sense of humor and a sense of wonder. The humor helps when you're wearily slogging back from a deep-woods trib that looked good on the map but turned out to be a chub-filled ditch. The sense of wonder helps when you marvel at the colors of an 11-inch wild brookie hooked in a mountain pool that will remain one of your best secret spots for years to come. ~ Rob
2. The upper East Branch of the Delaware River: The river above Pepacton Reservoir is small to medium water. Try the stretch between Margaretville and the reservoir for solitude.
3. The Beaverkill Covered Bridge Campsite: About a mile of the upper Beaverkill flows through this state campground, which is open to the public from May through September. Surrounded by privately held river sections, the stream within the campground contains wild and stocked browns and native brookies. It's several miles north of Livingston Manor off Beaverkill Road.
4. The Esopus Creek headwaters above Olivera: It's small water here, but some of it is open to the public through easements and some intersects with state land. Wild brookies dominate.
Rob currently works for the Associated Press as News Editor for the Press Multimedia Services in NYC. Responsible for rewriting and posting breaking news, business and sports stories for AP online customers including Yahoo! news, ABC.com, and hundreds of Web sites operated by daily newspapers throughout the country. He has a wide background as a editor and writer, including a stint as Photojournalist for Pacific Stars and Stripes. We are delighted to welcome his voice here. You can reach Rob at [email protected]