The Call of the Catskills

A pilgrimage to the storied streams just north of New York City is a trout fisherman's rite of passage. An insider's guide to the birthplace of American flyfishing.

Field & Stream Online Editors

For many trout fishermen, the rivers and streams of New York's Catskills are like comfort food, their currents and rising trout made friendly and reassuring by long familiarity. Spring fishing here is at once an old-timer's ritual and a rite of passage for younger anglers anxious to try their hands on some of the world's best-known trout waters. People come here as much for tradition as for trout, and both are abundant. The fishing can be exceptional, especially in the spring along less traveled sections of the various rivers. Then, too, there's the parade of famous anglers. Fishing where Theodore Gordon or Lee Wulff or A.J. McClane wet their lines in decades past is part of the appeal. Generations of fishermen have made so much of this area's angling history that newcomers might expect to see the entire region in faded sepia tones, a kind of old photograph come to life.

The Beaverkill, one of the most storied of all Catskill rivers, is old by geologic standards, but it's not the least bit faded. It has survived everything from early log drives to rampant water pollution to having a four-lane highway built through the valley in which it flows. It has also survived its own popularity. Since it's only 125 miles from New York City, it's been a favorite of Eastern anglers for more than a century. Even now among the angling crowds you'll see on holiday weekends, nearly half are from the New York¿¿¿New Jersey metropolitan area, while only 10 percent are local fishermen.

Most Beaverkill anglers, despite the river's notoriety, have no idea how much productive trout water there is along the entire watershed. There are roughly 100 publicly accessible miles of excellent fishing, and all those stretches of water are somehow connected to the Beaverkill in the immediate area of Roscoe and Hancock, New York. Those who join the crowds in a few favored, large pools just downstream of Roscoe, known as "Trout Town USA," are missing out on some really good and less crowded areas nearby.

Some of the finest fishing spots include portions of the Beaverkill upstream of Roscoe, before it joins the equally productive Willowemoc at the Junction Pool. Then there's the East Branch of the Delaware, which joins the Beaverkill at East Branch and has about 33 miles of great fishing from the Pepacton Reservoir dam at Downsville downstream to Hancock. There's also the excellent West Branch of the Delaware with 18 miles of trout water from the Cannonsville Reservoir dam at Deposit downstream to its junction with the East Branch (and Beaverkill combined) at Hancock. Finally, there's the main-stem Delaware, 27 miles of big-water fishing from Hancock downriver to Callicoon.

May and early June are the best fishing times on all of this water, with the best fly hatches and the most rising trout. Predictably, it's also when things are most crowded. Here's a quick look at the system, section by section, along with some tips to get you started.

[NEXT "Story Continued..."] UPPER BEAVERKILL
About 27 miles of good trout waters lie upstream of Roscoe through Lew Beach and beyond. Most of this is private and posted by old-time trout clubs, which, along with the presence of Catskill State Park, has helped to preserve the water quality downstream. The first 2 miles above Roscoe is public water, and so is about 2 miles of stream at the state Beaverkill Campground far upriver, which is accessible by taking County Road 151 north from Livingston Manor. The elegant Beaverkill Valley Inn offers lodging, a restaurant, and some private water for guests on the upper river near Lew Beach, and Joan Wulff's famous flyfishing school is close by.

THE WILLOWEMOC
The Willowemoc extends for about 26 miles east of Roscoe, again a mix of public and private beats. The catch-and-release section starting at the second State Highway 17 bridge east of town and running about 31/2 miles upstream is the mo popular. Take County Road 179 east from Roscoe to explore this area, where you'll also find the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum with its exhibits showcasing flyfishing history and lore. The trout in this no-kill stretch are often worked over by expert anglers and are very tough to fish. My favorite tactic here is to use a small Rusty Spinner dry fished in the last light of a calm spring evening, but you'll have to adapt to the hatch of the moment when you're there.

BIG BEAVERKILL
This is the most famous Catskill river, starting at the storied Junction Pool where the upper Beaverkill and Willowemoc come together (look for the sign on Old Route 17, which parallels the river, as you head west out of Roscoe). For the next 15 miles downstream to the village of East Branch, the river offers a mix of large pools and long riffles. The pools, which are often marked by signs, bear historic names such as Barnhart's, Hendrickson's, and Cairn's, and they are usually populated with dozens of flyfishermen. Avoid the popular no-kill zones, which are clearly posted, and head to less crowded areas. The trout are everywhere, especially in the spring before the falling water levels and increasing temperatures force them to move to cool-water refuges elsewhere in the system.

[NEXT "Story Continued..."] There are three don't-miss spots in Roscoe. The Roscoe Diner is a perennial favorite for a quick, square meal. The Little Store is notable for its old-timey general-store funkiness. And then there's Mary Dette Clark, who is 74 and still ties and sells flies in her modest home at the edge of town. Her parents, Walt and Winnie Dette, became global legends for their Catskill-style trout flies, and Mary is no slouch. Watching her tie a classic Quill Gordon dry recently was a huge thrill.

EAST BRANCH OF THE DELAWARE
"The East Branch Delaware is a sleeper," Ed Van Put, a state fisheries technician and highly regarded local angler, told me last spring. "And I mean all the way from the dam at Downsville downstream to Hancock." Take that as the best tip you might get all year. After more than 25 years of living and fishing in the area, Van Put really knows his stuff. The stretch he recommends covers about 33 miles, and its upstream reach runs parallel to State Highway 30 from East Branch up to Downsville.

The upper section is a tailwater, and it stays cold all spring and summer due to the releases from Pepacton Dam. Lots of brown trout are present, including some very big ones, but the slow flow and clear water make fishing difficult. I fish this segment often, partly because its reputed difficulty keeps many others away. There's bigger and faster water on the East Branch from East Branch village, where the Beaverkill joins it, downstream to Hancock, and rainbow trout are more common here. Starting at East Branch, head downstream, following the small secondary roads along the side of the river across from the highway to find pools where the trout are lonely.

WEST BRANCH OF THE DELAWARE
The West Branch contains the system's other tailwater, starting at Cannonsville Dam in Deposit and heading downstream to its confluence with the East Branch at Hancock. Except for short private stretches posted by the West Branch Angler Resort and Al Caucci's Delaware River Club, access is generally good from secondary roads. Because it often holds more and larger trout than other areas, the whole section is very popular, but a little walking will get you away from the crowds.

The junction pool, where the East and West Delaware branches come together at Hancock (it's also called Bard Parker, the name of a nearby plant that manufactures medical instruments), is heavily fished and interesting. Often colder than the East Branch, the West Branch enters the pool opposite from the access point. So the colder flows are concentrated by the far bank, and the larger rainbows frequently rise along the seam on that side. Instead of flogging the deep middle as so many anglers do, wade either the head or tail shallows to reach the colder water more easily. Because the Delaware River flows freely from this point all the way to Delaware Bay, trout frequently share this pool with a few striped bass, shad, and spawning sea lampreys, along with native smallmouths and walleyes.

[NEXT "Story Continued..."] MAIN STEM of the DELAWARE
This is very big water with pools that are more than 100 yards wide and a half mile long. The tailwater coming from upstream generally keeps the water here cold enough for trout to thrive from Hancock downstream 27 miles to Callicoon. Access is limited, and the best way to get to the river is at the bridge crossings, from which you can hike up- or downstream. Do not, as some fools used to do, attempt to drive downriver on the railroad bed. When the big freight trains come highballing through the valley, their engineers get righteously angry at idiot anglers impinging on their right-of-way.

I love fishing down here, partly because the water is so big that I can get lost in it. The hatches are prolific, and some huge browns and rainbows lurk in the big pools. In the fading light of evening, find a slow-flowing section next to the faster water at the head of a pool. Watch that spot carefully. The big boys move into such places to rise at dusk. You won't see a splashy rise; only a soft dimple or maybe a dorsal fin gently cutting the surface.

A Magazine Runs Through It
Just as Field & Stream has been vital to American sportsmen for 110 years, so have the Catskill waters long been a part of the magazine. Most of our well-known editors and writers have fished here over the years because of the area's proximity to New York City and because the rivers have always been good to us. Of these writers, A.J. McClane was the best known. When he was in high school, he worked-and fished-during summers on the upper East Branch of the Delaware near Margaretville. In the 1950s, McClane spent several summers living and writing from a house on the upper Beaverkill, and the river became a major part of his life.

Many great ones preceded him. George La Branche, author of The Dry Fly and Fast Water (1914), a seminal entry in the pantheon of American trout fishing literature, worked the Beaverkill and Willowemoc extensively, and F&S; published his work before it appeared in book form. Louis Rhead, who studied the Beaverkill, wrote about trout-stream entomology for us in 1914, and Emlyn Gill, another dry-fly pioneer and Beaverkill veteran, taught our readers tactics in 1911.

In later years Corey Ford, who wrote the popular Lower Forty column, fished here often, as did Ray Holland, who was the editor of the magazine from 1921 to 1941, writer Ed Zern, anlarger rainbows frequently rise along the seam on that side. Instead of flogging the deep middle as so many anglers do, wade either the head or tail shallows to reach the colder water more easily. Because the Delaware River flows freely from this point all the way to Delaware Bay, trout frequently share this pool with a few striped bass, shad, and spawning sea lampreys, along with native smallmouths and walleyes.

[NEXT "Story Continued..."] MAIN STEM of the DELAWARE
This is very big water with pools that are more than 100 yards wide and a half mile long. The tailwater coming from upstream generally keeps the water here cold enough for trout to thrive from Hancock downstream 27 miles to Callicoon. Access is limited, and the best way to get to the river is at the bridge crossings, from which you can hike up- or downstream. Do not, as some fools used to do, attempt to drive downriver on the railroad bed. When the big freight trains come highballing through the valley, their engineers get righteously angry at idiot anglers impinging on their right-of-way.

I love fishing down here, partly because the water is so big that I can get lost in it. The hatches are prolific, and some huge browns and rainbows lurk in the big pools. In the fading light of evening, find a slow-flowing section next to the faster water at the head of a pool. Watch that spot carefully. The big boys move into such places to rise at dusk. You won't see a splashy rise; only a soft dimple or maybe a dorsal fin gently cutting the surface.

A Magazine Runs Through It
Just as Field & Stream has been vital to American sportsmen for 110 years, so have the Catskill waters long been a part of the magazine. Most of our well-known editors and writers have fished here over the years because of the area's proximity to New York City and because the rivers have always been good to us. Of these writers, A.J. McClane was the best known. When he was in high school, he worked-and fished-during summers on the upper East Branch of the Delaware near Margaretville. In the 1950s, McClane spent several summers living and writing from a house on the upper Beaverkill, and the river became a major part of his life.

Many great ones preceded him. George La Branche, author of The Dry Fly and Fast Water (1914), a seminal entry in the pantheon of American trout fishing literature, worked the Beaverkill and Willowemoc extensively, and F&S; published his work before it appeared in book form. Louis Rhead, who studied the Beaverkill, wrote about trout-stream entomology for us in 1914, and Emlyn Gill, another dry-fly pioneer and Beaverkill veteran, taught our readers tactics in 1911.

In later years Corey Ford, who wrote the popular Lower Forty column, fished here often, as did Ray Holland, who was the editor of the magazine from 1921 to 1941, writer Ed Zern, an