Saturday, July 2, 2016

Flyfishing the Delaware

I've been visiting family and friends in Pennsylvania, and have been revisiting some of my favorite flyfishing waters. The upper Delaware River system (including the tributary streams, the Beaverkill and Willewemoc) is one of the best fly fisheries, if not the best, in the East. My friend Paul Robilotti said the other day that it makes Western flyfishing look like a piece of cake. I can remember plenty of low-catch days on Western streams during my four trips out there, but I have to admit, the upper Delaware makes them look like put-and-take streams by comparison. No surprise that it's where Lee Wulff once said that the trout have Phds (specifically in regard to the fabled Cairn's Pool of the Beaverkill).

I fished the West and upper East branches of the Delaware every other day for two weeks, usually with Paul, who knows these waters better than I do, having lived in New York all his life. These waters are big and cold streams--converted to tailwaters years ago--with classic, abundant hatches and large fish. But wow, you can't imagine how difficult it can be until you've casted 12 different fly patterns to one rising fish for an hour without a single take. Of course presentation means a lot, but after making an entirely drift-free cast, you have to have the right fly in the right color in precisely the right size. And then the trout has already seen so many artificials, that it's attained an almost unbelievable level of discrimination. So I won't tell you about my daily take. Actually, the catching part was so unimportant compared to the rest that just being there was good enough.

Paul and I divided time between his half-mile of land on the East Branch--where we worked on pouring concrete for his pole barn--and flyfishing the West and Upper East branches. It had been so hot that the hatches were off and the fishing even more challenging than usual, even though the water temps vary from 48-the upper 50s on these upper branches. If you don't wear extra clothes, you'll be on the edge of hypothermia once the sun sets behind the mountains.

Here's two recollections that have nothing to do with catching fish, which I will remember far longer than the buttery browns that took our flies:

6/21/16 I met a man fly fishing on the West Branch of the Delaware yesterday. The flies weren't hatching so we sat and visited. He told about the recent loss of his wife after 52 years of marriage, his crushing grief, his subsequent drug addiction and full recovery into a new sense of meaning at 72. He felt like an old friend, but I'll probably never see him again. I cherish such moments.

6/29/16 It was my last day on the water yesterday, so it was hard to answer Paul's question, "Where do you want to fish?" We'd gotten into good action on the upper East Branch three days earlier, but had returned all prepped and ready only to find nothing going on. So, we opted for the West Branch above Hales Eddy. Although it was a weekday, there were a lot of flyfishers on the stream, probably because the rains had lowered the air temp, creating better conditions for the evening hatches. We made a good decision, and found rising trout along the far bank. But you had to wade half-way across the river, and it was too deep to get within easy casting. So the casts had to be 70-80 feet with a drag-free float. Not easy. But both of us landed nice browns before committing the cardinal sin of "leaving fish to find fish." We headed back upstream, and drank a beer while we contemplated our next step. Meanwhile, there was a little motorhome parked beside the road, with a generator running announcing the presence of its owner. I was surprised that Paul went up and knocked on the door, but then again, Paul is so outgoing and I am so introverted that I often want to go hide and watch from a secure location. An elderly man came to the door and came outside, carrying a toothbrush and wearing a faded scarf around his neck and a white dress shirt and sneakers. His near-toothless smile made me wonder how little time it must have taken to brush them, but then it occurred to me that he carried the toothbrush with him for some other reason, as security or somesuch. At first I was a little alarmed by him, but then he began talking about flyfishing, and about the morning blue-winged olive hatch. Suddenly he was speaking a universal language with such fluency that I was immediately impressed. Unassuming and eccentric, he was nonetheless a master angler, and a sweet soul beneath the odd exterior. At some point in the conversation, he mentioned spending many successive years on the stream, coming down as he did from Canada each year, and parking his RV in the Methodist camp ground. As we began to say goodbye, he mentioned another man who had spent many years on the river, driving from place to place in a Lincoln Town Car. He said, "I saw him every year, and then one day he was gone." 

When Paul and I got into the truck, He told me that he'd met the French Canadian years back and had run into him from time to time. He said that he also knew of the man in the Town Car, and that he was in a nursing home with advanced Alzheimers. I knew then why Paul hadn't told the Canadian where the other man had disappeared to.

Hours later, and miles downstream, Paul and I headed toward a bridge that would take us to the parking lot where we'd left the truck. I was shivering and clumsy from wading the deep, swift waters, and I looked forward to making a sandwich on the tailgate of Paul's truck before driving back to Binghamton, where Paul lived. A fog hung over the riffles, creating a dreamlike effect. But not a fish was rising.

A man sat on the side of the stream below the bridge. It was, of all people, the Canadian holding a fine bamboo rod and a worn Bogdan reel, bedecked in well-worn waders, vest, and long-brimmed cap. I didn't recognize him at first, but then he turned and smiled his near-toothless smile and reported what we already knew--that nothing much was happening. He and Paul talked a few more minutes before we climbed the rocky slope where I'd fallen and bruised my elbows on the way down, and made our way across the bridge where the sandwich meat awaited us. As we stood, eating and talking about the day, the voice of the Canadian rose out of the twilight fog. 

"Hey Binghamton! Will I see you on the river tomorrow? Will I see you soon?" Paul shouted back, "I will see you soon." But I knew that the three of us were thinking the same thing and treasuring the moment.

I'll be back on the Laguna Madre this coming weekend, and will let you know how the fishing is. -- scott

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