While visiting a friend, Darvey Bosma, part way up East Hill in the Town of Cherry Valley, we saw two of his sons – Dave and Dan – with fly fishing rods in hand, each aiming their flies at water in joint compound buckets. After discerning what they were doing – practicing their angling technique – we marveled at the fluid motion of their wrists and their remarkable accuracy. They explained that their dad had recommended this setup to improve their skill and that they would soon be going on an outing to their favorite local creek in pursuit of trout. They wouldn’t tell us what creek, however, since it is a family secret.
Fly fishing has a long and rich history around the world and in the hills and valleys of upstate New York. The modern equipment includes a fly rod, a reel, weighted line, and a lure, known as a “fly.” The nearly weightless fly is crafted from various materials – such as fur, feathers, and silk, as well as some synthetics – tied onto a fishhook to resemble insects or other small creatures that will attract particular fish. Many anglers tie their own flies, and their artistry is inspiring. Fly fishing is the most challenging kind of casting. One has to develop the proper motion in swinging the long, flexible rod and causing the fly to hit the water’s surface accurately and gently. When the fish strikes, one has to have the proper timing to hook it and reel it in. The most common target fish for fly fishing has traditionally been trout and salmon, but some anglers go for other freshwater species including bass, pike, carp, steelhead, grayling, sunfish, and perch, as well as certain ocean fish, including striped bass, bonefish, redfish, snook, and tarpon.
Fly fishing goes back to ancient times. The first literary reference is found in the natural history writings of Aelian (Claudius Aelianus), a Roman of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. He described fishing methods in an unknown river in Macedonia he called the Astraeus. He wrote that the fishermen used rods, lines, and lures to catch “fishes of a speckled hue,” thought to be trout. The Treatyse on Fysshynge with an Angle was published in 1496 as part of the Boke of Seynt Albans (or Book of St. Albans), a compilation of activities favored by gentlemen, attributed to Dame Juliana Berners who is thought to have been an English prioress. In it are found instructions on the making of rods, lines, and lures, with dressings for different flies to be used at different times of the year. It is thought that the first use of the term “artificial fly” appeared in the Izaac Walton’s The Compleat Angler, published in England in 1653. He referred to fly fishing as “the contemplative man’s recreation.”
Charles F. Orvis, founder of the Orvis Company of Manchester, Vermont, in 1856 – the oldest mail-order retailer in the United States – began designing fly fishing reels and flies, which helped popularize the sport in North America. The 1874 Orvis reel is considered the first fully modern fly reel.
The Catskill Mountains have been referred to as “the birthplace of American fly fishing.”
The writings of Theodore Gordon about the Catskills in outdoor magazines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – typically under the pseudonym Badger Hackle – also helped the sport grow. Gordon imported English fly fishing tackle and flies and altered them to match insects that hatched in the Beaverkill, Willowemoc, and Neversink, tributaries of the Delaware River. Other writers, many out of New York City, continued the literary tradition. People from around the world came to fish these and other Catskill rivers. The Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum, located on Willowemoc Creek in Livingston Manor (about 95 miles south of Sharon Springs), celebrates this history.
Nearby Roscoe, near the intersection of the Beaverkill and Willowemoc, calls itself “Trout Town, USA.” Susan Benedict Hand, who now lives in Buel, part of the Town of Canajoharie (her home in the Mohawk Valley about equidistant to Sharon Springs and Cherry Valley), grew up in Roscoe. Her grandparents, Frank and Josephine Keener owned the famous Antrim Lodge, where in the bar – “Keener’s Pool” – anglers would congregate, many of them well-known outdoor writers. Susan speaks of her life being enriched by the characters she met from all walks of life and the stories they told. As a child she also watched the famous fly tying couples, Walt and Winnie Dette and Harry and Elsie Darbee, at work. She remembers their workshops filled with feathers of pheasants and other birds. And Susan herself often went fishing on the Upper Beaverkill. But not with hands, worms, or any other means, family members insisted – only with fly rods, reels, and flies!
Another famous fly fishing creek in the Catskills is the Esopus, which feeds the Hudson River. It is named after the Esopus band of Lenni Lenape (Delaware) Indians, who fished its accessible banks for centuries. The high reaches of the Schoharie Creek near Indian Head Mountain are also famous for trout. The lower parts as the river, as it winds along the Schoharie Valley toward its outlet into the Mohawk River (passing about 20 miles east of Sharon Springs), are good for bass fishing.
Multicolored brook trout, native to the region, having been fished for a century and a half by devoted anglers, are now rare. But the DEC maintains hatcheries and now stocks German brown trout and rainbow trout, native to tributaries of the Pacific Ocean in Asia and North America.
Talking with Mark Hanlon, a local fly fisherman – actually a transplanted Englishman of Irish ancestry – has given us special insight on fly fishing in the region. He has traveled often to the Catskills to the south and is fascinated with the fishing lore and literature. But he has also sought out the perfect spot in the Adirondacks to the north and has fished the famous Ausable River that drains from the mountains into Lake Champlain.
“Finding a big trout is a challenge,” Mark says, “but if one can be satisfied with going after the smaller fish with a lighter fly rod, one has more options, such as in the smaller creeks in these more rolling hills around Cherry Valley and Sharon Springs. I have my secret spots.” Both Mark and John Bennett, a Scot from Glasgow recently visiting Cherry Valley after fishing the Ausable, both compare the local countryside and waterways to parts of the British Isles. Even though the fly fishing season is short, Mark explains, with the best trout fishing in the cool months of spring and fall, for those who are content with stillwater fishing rather than flowing brooks and who are happy to catch any fish that comes to the surface to feed – not just trout – there are lakes and ponds to seek out all summer. “I have a new JP Ross rod I’ve been using,” he proudly states.
For Mark fly fishing is actually a year-round activity since he ties his own flies. He makes a study of what insects are common at different locations, their behavior, and how fish respond to them. He takes advantage of roadkill for feathers or fur and favors silk as his third material. “I guess I’m a purist. The natural materials are more translucent,” he says. “But many fishermen now get good results with synthetics.”
Mark has his concerns. “The unusually warm spring made for a tough time this past April and May. Global warming is affecting us on so many levels. I’m hoping for a seasonally cool autumn.” He also dreads the effects of fracking (hydraulic fracturing for natural gas) in New York State after what he has seen in parts of Pennsylvania. “The sport of fly fishing is for many about catch and release for conservation,” he says. “But waterways have to be protected for catch and release to matter.”
Fly fishing is Mark’s solitary, tranquil time. Even when he goes out with friends, each finds a different spot along a stream or lake. He is always working on his technique … targeting rings on the water’s surface that reveal fish below … letting the weight of the line control the fly … creating minimal disturbance on the water … letting the fly drift with the current as an insect might ride it … fooling the fish …
The History Boys are
Chris Campbell has made his permanent home in Cherry Valley, NY. The Campbell family dates back to 1739 in this town, situated about eight miles from Sharon Springs. Some family members were captured by Tories and Iroquois allies in the Cherry Valley Massacre of 1778 during the American Revolution and taken to Canada, released two years later in Albany as part of a prisoner exchange. Chris is a rare book and map collector and has had a lifelong interest in history, especially relating to upstate New York and colonial land patents. He was the founder and first chairman of the Cherry Valley Planning Board and has worked as a surveyor and realtor as well as a researcher for the Otsego County map department. His hobbies include Ham radio.
Carl Waldman, also living in Cherry Valley, is a former archivist for the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown. He is he author of a number of reference books published by Facts On File, including Atlas of the North American Indian and Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, both originally published in the 1980s and both in their third editions. He is the co-author of Encyclopedia of Exploration (2005) and Encyclopedia of European Peoples (2006). Carl has also done screenwriting about Native Americans, including an episode of Miami Vice entitled “Indian Wars” and the Legend of Two-Path, a drama about the Native American side of Raleigh’s Lost Colony, shown at Festival Park on Roanoke Island in North Carolina. His hobbies include music and he works with young people in the Performance and Production Workshops at the Cherry Valley Old School.
Carl has recently published an ebook through Alva Press, Streetscape: A Jake Soho Mystery