June 20, 2017
When you have found the river or creek that matches your angling persona, you will know it. If the stream in question has plenty of fish, a diverse landscape and adequate water levels and temperatures, that sounds like my kind of trout water. You're getting warm, I'd say. If your next breath was a sigh, in remembrance of heavy mayfly hatches and brown trout rising with dorsal and caudal fins half-in and half-out of the smooth surface, I would be "this close" to getting up in the middle of the night and taking off in my fishing car to erase the distance between here and the trout-fishing paradise you have just described.
As the National Basketball Association coaching legend Red Auerbach used to put it when his team narrowly missed a come-from-behind win and he had to stuff his unlit victory stogie back in its shirt-pocket pouch, "Close, but no cigar."
Do you know the one factor you left out of your otherwise on-the-money portrait of a perfect trout stream?
Not just the vague mental pictures of fish reeled to net and tossed back into the water, either. I'm speaking in this instance of close-up color images of big browns, and long, flat pools covered by so many fluttering insects that there isn't any way for a real trout to see your imitation, let alone eat it.
Trout-water memories aren't just about fish, hatches or catches. Any stream that you can't wait to try again, and again, has the potential to take over our sentimental hearts, but the famous rivers and remote tributaries won't quite qualify as one of your lifetime streams until you find yourself day-dreaming, smiling and laughing out loud about the friendships you have made during your many long-rod adventures. Sometimes, and more often as you get older, the buddies you made while fishing leave your life abruptly, and all you can do is give them a proper good-bye.
My boyhood friend, Danny Skinner, died of leukemia when he was only 35 years old. He saw it coming, and presented several pals with fly rods, shotguns and other gear months, weeks or days before he surrendered to his fate. Shortly after his passing, a group of us gathered at a pull-off adjacent to Nine Mile Creek, a Syracuse-area stream that fit the picture of a perfect trout fishing destination for Danny and me, alike. The love of his life, named Ginny, greeted the standing-room only crowd that gathered at the site, and invited several of us to say a few words. Then she picked up a funeral urn, waded out to midstream and scattered Danny's ashes in the icy currents.
More than 30 years have rushed past me since that farewell, but I have never forgotten it. Good fishing is not the only way to judge a stream, but Nine Mile is stocked with more than 20,000 browns and brookies annually and has many other attributes. I look forward to each and every day spent on the creek. It is the place where I caught my first trout, back in the late 1950s, and it would not come as a shock if that is where my last one inhales a dry fly and comes grudgingly to the net. In the interim years, I plan to check out the creek's famous sulfur hatches (dorothea and invaria) each June.
Now, that "last trout" thing hit a bit closer to home than I'd expected, so let's broaden our theme a little, by noting that memories and memorials don't necessarily go hand-in-hand. Looking back through my more than 35 years' worth of angling diaries, I can see at least three other beautiful New York rivers to which I feel a special degree of loyalty. These include the Genesee River near Wellsville, the Beaverkill in and around Roscoe, (which promotes itself as "Trout Town U.S.A."); and the breath-taking West Branch of the Ausable River, in the shade of Whiteface Mountain in Essex County.
The part of the Genesee River I'm talking about now is between the Pennsylvania-New York border and the village of Belmont. It is in view of Route 19 for much of the way as it heads north to its eventual meeting with Rochester and Lake Ontario.
Like many streams with broad, open valleys, the 50- to 80-foot-wide Genny is subject to significant warm-ups in the summer. From late June through Labor Day, most of the fishing action is before 8 a.m. and after 8 p.m. Water temperatures are often in the high 70s in the middle of a summer day. That's okay with smallmouth bass, which will soak up that sun in from Wellsville, downstream. Not so sanguine about the heat, however, are the trout which live in the upper reaches of the river, including the 2.5-mile no-kill area which is popular with fly fishers who often drive a considerable distance to take it on. If you can put yourself on or near the Route 19 crossing at the Shongo bridge any time during the month of May or in the first half of June, close your eyes and cross your fingers when you arrive. When you open those orbs, you could be looking at your own "life-long trout stream."
I know I made some lasting memories the first time I pulled into the anglers' parking area at Shongo. It was early June, approximately 5:30 p.m., and the "big sulfurs," Ephemerella invaria, were riding the surface. Now and then, a nose or fin popped through the river top, but the trout must have been just practicing, for they missed most of their targets when I watched them, 50 to 100 yards from my observation point.
At about 8:30 p.m., the sulfur duns on their way up flew into squadrons of sulfur spinners that were on their way down — and mere minutes away from their life mission of propagating their species. I couldn't have known, but somewhere in these swarms was a 21-inch brown trout with my name on it — figuratively, of course.
As the sun started to slip behind the overlooking hills to our west, trout were tipping and sipping egg-laying spinners at every opportunity, just upstream from the broad flat which is visible from the highway. My friend, Mike Brilbeck of Syracuse, was looking through his fishing vest for a high-floating pattern that might fool the risers in a knee-deep riffle. And me? I was up to my waist and trying hard to get within casting range of a pod of trout that had moved into the head of a sweeping flat.
It took me half an hour to catch and release that brown, which was 20 inches long and better than 3 pounds. On a sulfur dry fly, yet! I took one even bigger the next evening, then matched that fish's diet, too, with my "spinner special." One more the following day left my total at four trout of 20 inches or better, all from the same hole. Can you guess the most vivid character I found in that pure Genesee water? Let me give you a hint. He sure had a heap of large, black spots.
The Beaverkill, famous throughout the anglers' world since the 1800s, is literally reverenced by the many skilled fishermen who won't feel successful until they have scratched it off their personal "bucket lists." Like the Genesee near Shongo, the Beaverkill has some no-kill fishing. But the Catskill river's currents can make wild swings when a heavy storm rolls through its valley, and in recent years, summer floods have caused frightful damage to the Beaverkill and its neighboring communities. Yet the river seems to come back, one year after the next.
This summer could be a litmus test for my optimism, however, because 2016 was a year troubled not just by floods, but droughts, as well. If the Beaverkill ever had to survive a year-long drought, the river's history might be its most important spiritual and commercial asset.
Generations of angling authors, fly tiers, and tackle purveyors made their living on the river, and the place has turned around once again with the steady development and expansion of the Catskill Flyfishing Center and Museum, which is just a couple of miles east on Old Route 17 from Roscoe, in the village of Livingston Manor. The actual fishing, to me, is every bit as exciting now as it was in the 1970s and '80s, when the catch-and-release gospel was spreading fast, up-river and down.
June has always been a desirable time to fish the Beaverkill River because the first week or two of the month is marked by a bewildering blizzard of hatching aquatic insects. It starts over the Memorial Day weekend with inch-long Green Drake mayfly buzzing the water at dusk, and the month concludes with the first appearance of the morning Trico hatches, which feature bugs almost small enough to fit on invisible hooks.
There are, of course, many dozens or perhaps hundreds of New York waters which might be worthy of life-long testimony and adulation, but in this space I have room for only one more; that is, if I am to treat it with appropriate respect. For me, it is an easy choice.
The West Branch of the Ausable River between Lake Placid and Wilmington is, to my thinking, the prettiest piece of trout water in the state — although it doesn't always fish as good as it looks. I have told more than a few people that if God ever felt like building his own, personal trout river, he would use the Ausable as his scale-model.
Any fair-size trout caught in a river as handsome — or dangerous — as this one is a fish to remember. Although the scenery along the banks of the West Branch is often described in simple superlatives, the people who treat it so reverentially ought to spend a few less minutes staring at all those storm-toppled pines and a few more watching their step. Those slick boulders have broken a bone or two in their day.
Even more dangerous than the rocks, however, are the sharp curves on Route 86, which is just east of the famed Monument Falls. The Falls is the place where an estimated 500 people gathered in 2009 to celebrate the life of the late Francis Betters. The posthumous honoree was a puckish fly-tier, author and angler who passed away and joined the cadre of spirits said to roam their old favorite spots at night, with spectral rods and reels flashing in the darkness.
Such talk is silly, I know, especially among tourists who are already gullible enough when the topic of discussion is whether the fish are biting, and, if so, on what. Many times I had the great pleasure of talking with but mostly listening to Fran Betters hold court while sitting at his fly-tying vise, and his response to most inquiries about the fishing changed very little from one day to the next.
Not even glancing up while he worked at his trade, the master always touted his Ausable Wulff, a bushy dry fly that was then and still is a great pattern to bring up a big brown just before dusk.
"Try that Wulff," he would tell any customer, for he always had a cardboard box or a paper towel or some other fly-holder covered with the concoctions of orange possum fur and woodchuck guard hairs, right next to him. Still, I'm not disparaging that old pattern, which Fran invented. It always was a good fly to use, especially when its creator didn't feel like tying something else when he was about ready to close the shop and get home for supper.
Editor's Note: J. Michael Kelly is the author of several books, the latest of which is "Trout Streams of Central New York." It is available from Burford Books, Ithica.