“When the German brown trout made its first Catskill debut, needless to say it was scorned for its shyness, stubborn demeanor and inability to “fill basket creels to the brim”. The thinking theoretical angler was ready to make its debut in the new world across the pond. Thus the time was ripe with the throngs of anglers who were ready for a sermon and solution to catch these wily Salmo trutta. Hence Theodore Gordon steeped into the limelight ; whether he liked the attention or not. Or more so was he rightfully deemed to be that thinking angler’s savior to figure out the selectivity riddle and become the first American founding father of the hallowed Catskill brown trout legacy ” ( The Brown Trout-Atlantic Salmon Nexus- Matthew Supinski-Skyhorse Publishing)
Each year I am so blessed to spend several weeks in late summer at my wife Laurie’s family’s summer home on one of the spectacular brown trout waters in a portfolio of legendary Catskill rivers. Being an upstate New Yorker and having fished these hallowed rivers since a boy, each time I visit and fish them I see them in a different level of appreciation. Though my Michigan where I have resided and still guide in for 35 years is a trout, salmon and steelhead Mecca, each year and season I relish returning to these ground-zero fly fishing waters with such massive beauty and historical significance. And each year they are different. It all revolves around flows, releases, amount of rainfall and how well the ground-zero wild browns, the majestic and historical rainbows and what’s left and on rare occasion; the indigenous and beloved brook trout, have faired the winter, floods, droughts and pressure. Each season I see climate change playing a major role in how the fishing will be, what hatches or terrestrials I will imitate and where I shall go and explore. Last year’s floods and hurricanes were repleaded by this year’s very hot and super dry tough conditions.
Late summer in the Catskills is a truly a special time of year. The farms and fields are filled with lush produce of tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, green peppers and kale. The woods and glens come alive after rainfalls with red chanterelles and other wild mushrooms if you know where to find them. If you want to hike-up tiny brooks and headwaters, which nobody wants to do and is practically unheard of these days in the age of SUV’s roadside and drift boat taxi’s, which frankly is all the better for the trout, you can still find remote sustainable populations of indigenous brook trout to reward your hard work and exploring. Here harvesting one or two for the table, one treat a year, is not being invasive and ecologically disrespectful. Or better yet go to one of the Catskill trout farms, and make a baked and then lightly Applewood smoked brook trout- almodine style; wrapped in Pancetta Bacon and stuffed with coastal crab meat to enjoy with the produce and plethora of mushrooms.
But besides the wonderful bounty to be had, most importantly is my relentless love and thirst for its wild brown trout that have made their legacy and home in these ultra hallowed waters. The spiritual draw and passion they create can never be quenched. At this time of year they are now at their most selective and snooty demeanor. They cruise and garbage feed the meniscus in these ultra clear and icy cold tailwaters that fish like giant spring creeks. Here the watercress, elodea, duckwort entrenched banks in the boulder and gravel laden benthos is the prefect habitat for the delightful Sulphur, Steno, Heptagenia hebe, all sizes of BWO and Isonychia mayflies- the apples in the eye of every brown trout.
Terrestrials are super significant at this time of year and really very few fish them. The iconic stigma and legacy of the Catskill hatches and its bibliography make many skip-over fishing the manna from the sky. My last days there saw some of the heaviest flying ant hatches I’ve witnessed as the trout went on the hunt for them.
The snobby and snooty attitude of the browns at this time of year sometimes perfectly imitates the aloof, secretive demeanor of many seasoned Catskill anglers, who probably are the finest selective trout anglers to walk the planet. To fish these waters and tolerate the pressure they receive demands the highest angling aptitude and toughness, observations, concentration, paying your dues and ultra prefect fly imitations- not to mention having a fishy sense for this demanding angling destination like no other on the planet. It is the aptitude and demeanor of the seasoned Catskill angler and its snooty wild brown trout I admire so much. And thus caused me to write my Selectivity opus and countless pieces on the heady subject matter, which pushes me to elevate my tactical game and fly patterns to the highest level.
The home waters I fish and have come to slowly understand over the decades forever echoes the legends of Gordon, Hewitt, LaBranche, Jennings, Wright and so many icons of what was and still is firmly entrenched in my dreams and surreal visons that haunt me on these waters. They follow me on every cast, every fly I tie and recreate, and every trout encounter and code cracking hatch matching riddle I try to solve. Knowing that those icons experienced the same angling enigmas that I did and had much less angling history, tactical technology in hooks, materials and equipment of this heady pursuit gives them eternal homage. The finely honed presentations demanded on these clear and gentle waters is a total game changer with the luxuries modern fly anglers are blessed with. We Catskill fly anglers today are spoiled with this tactical perfection that was laid down and bestowed upon us as a result of their legacies.
But one thing these founding fathers did not have was the pressure. Pressure is a general term which is cloaked in so many layers of complexity. Pressure to wild creatures does not always have a good outcome. Pressure might be a simple as water eating away at geological rock. It is slow and constant. But eventually has a cause and finality. You go to the wilds to escape pressure, not experience more of it. The biggest pressure/disruptiveness comes in the form of angling pressure, which has never been more insane in all the decades I have fished these hallows of little rivers. Drift boats, floatables, ever growing in numbers the increasing guides, wading anglers, kayakers, tubers- the rivers are saturated and don’t get a break! And that is even in the “off major hatch season” when I will only and can fish these waters. As the summers get hotter and many eastern trout rivers become unfishable due to rising water temperatures, these icy cold trout Meccas come under all this maddening pressure.
The pressure creates a disruptive harmony to the natural order of things-especially wild trout. The crazy flow regimes by the NYC water people is also pressure of the worst kind. The age of the “turn of the century Catskill angler and the beloved wild brook trout” ended in a tragedy because of greed and the slaughtering of thousands of brook trout in a week. The bloodshed of the past has now transcended into the pressure of today. Though not the same kill/harvest pressure, since we are now catch-and-release anglers, yet in hindsight can our angling pressure; where we punish and pulverize these poor wild trout to death daily be a problem for their future? Can they survive both human and environmental stress? Granted they live an hour an half from the most populated city on the planet, the fact that they still survive like they do is a testimonial to a Salmo trutta’s resilience and life survival strategy they have honed for millions of years.
On my this visit I was intrigued by the obsession of my very talented fishing partner friend from NYC when I fooled a 21 incher on a #20 BWO. ” Look at its mouth” Joe said. “Bet its a virgin!- mouth is clean and lips never been pricked before”- he was right! The fish fought like an Atlantic salmon grilse with amazing leaps and runs in the icy cold waters. And it’s mouth was clean and virgin- made sense! Joe said the fish on one branch get hooked so many times their mouths look like dental braces and they learn early after being hooked so often not to fight since they will be released. You can’t prove that theory but it made sense!
But everything in nature has limits and diminishing returns. We have seen it with the hatches of mayflies and their steady decline in these waters. They are more directly correlated to climate change, crazy flow management and all the crap: pesticides, herbicides and junk we are putting into the environment. Even the Isonychias are hammered instantly by swallows as they hatch above the waters. But the poor trout suffer most from human pressure and its insatiable relentlessness. Now with the massive obsseeion for “moussing ’em” all night, where in the past a large alpha brown had free range and security dominance to capture large prey in the darkness of a summer night. Their nocturnal hunting domain has now been invaded with infrared lights, highly effective mouse patterns and glow lines by super savvy night anglers. Yet what I fear the most, and what will be the ultimate demise and downfall of the Catskill wild brown legacy, is the absurd new NYDEC year-round season that mark my word will be the death knell for the wild browns. There is a supreme need to protect them form angling during spawning seasons. Thus with the new regulations these fish won’t get a break-sad!
Pressure today is everywhere. The social media pressure to be in the news feed, the societal pressure to prove you are good at what you do to friends and families, is the same OCD/ADD pressure that drives humans to do crazy shit in the world for a post and video news feed. Unfortunately, this has now entered into the poor trout’s world. But even nature is turning on itself. On a section of river that I fish I have never seen more avian raptor predators’ in my lifetime. Bald Eagles, Osprey’s, Mergansers are in massive supply these days as climate change tips the balance. They pulverize every trout they can get their hands on- big and small. The trout in those sections have become so scared to feed on top that they feed tight to banks and under tree cover so they can’t get picked off by a F-22 flying raptors at high speeds. The pressure to the trout never ends!
Finally, what I’m getting to here in my blog is that the wonderful world of trout and their Catskill legacy is all about the people- good, kind people! “All about the trout” type people that care about all the issues trout face. Outstanding organizations like FUDR and TU can only do so much. It’s up to each individual to apply the “good pressure” that the cause to save and protect must start. These are the few souls, and getting fewer, that will give you the proverbial “shirt off their backs” in the spirit of the trout. They share, they give, they have wonderful banter and fish talk; they say hello-“how you doing today” on the stream to others. This is often rare in the Catskills as it is rare in the heat of traffic in Midtown Manhattan. Every year when I come back to these waters that I love, I have to take an assimilation couple of days to embrace the culture of these waters. A culture that is driven by the pressure of a big city living and brings out the worst in anglers. Lack of friendliness, suspicion, guarded secrets, lack of trust, paranoia and just a basic argumentative, unfriendly demeanor sometimes transcends to the banks of the stream. Guides and wading angler battles, crowding too close battles etc. , “don’t tell that person about this spot- or fly!” all enter in a combative pressured mix at times. Now that I’m a Podunk Midwesterner: where the pace is slower and more relaxed, this stands out so starkly and is eye opening. Doesn’t have to be if we all chilled-out and focused on the fish and our passion for them that can be shared and respected.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Often the most accomplished and highly seasoned elderly anglers tend to be the most intolerant of others, especially newbies and those outside their fraternity of accomplished anglers. Thus the elder Catskill seasoned anglers are only getting older and passing, the younger anglers yet to establish their wisdom and mark, and all forever live in the shadows of the living and past long legacy of historic and modern icons like Lee Wulff, Art Lee and Caucci mentioned. I recall a night sipping Macallan Scotch on the Bard-Parker pool of the Big D waiting for Isonychias’ to hatch while talking with Art Lee about the Salmo salar and brown trout fusion and our love for both. As we always reminisce on “how it used to be in the past”, sadly its often the older we get the more grumpier we get and intolerant of modern pressure. A pressure that only gets worse and won’t go away. I have had the pleasure of meeting several of the living Catskill icons of today and it is so refreshing to see them sharing their knowledge, sharing a fly in their new ” Take a Fly-Leave a Fly” boxes they installed on the Willowemoc and Beaverkill in memory of the iconic Dave Brandt. It’s this kind of kindness that will transcend the human pressure we all try to avoid in our secret world of fly fishing for trout. This trout legacy is about the people. You are invited into the trout’s world as an honor and privilege. A privilege that must be a appreciated as a graceful and humble one.
But what truly separates all this pressured craziness is again a culture of good and passionate people willing to share. The Catskills has them like anywhere, but needs more and can never have enough of them. In a hustle and bustle NYC suburb the Catskills have become, the city mentality is though to shake. I am so truly blessed to have some incredibly talented NYC friends-good people, along with local “Catskillites” who are descended good souls and spirits of those historic Catskill icons of the Gordon era. They are the master angling minds and icons of today, and not the ones you always see cluttering the pages of magazines with their vanity shots. On these wonderful Catskill rivers, just like the inobtrusive Gordon and Hewitt and their bromance buddies before, are fanatical trout bums that have no need or desire for fame. Their fanatical addiction has no boundaries and their quest for their relentless thirst of a big brown taking a dry fly they tied or invented has no limits. They are obsessed as I, and some-I dare to admit, more relentless and maniacal than moi, which is a tough one to beat. One friend is a class act writer and fly fishing historian, fly tying genius and world traveling connoisseur of trout, steelhead, salmon and spey, and is probably the most universal fly angler I have met. He knows these waters so intimately that it’s scary that he can amass so much knowledge in one lifetime. The other friend is a young and aggressive solicitor dueling it out in the legal world only to put food on the table and afford to fish everywhere there are big trout, steelhead and Atlantic salmon. He is one of the finest and fishiest dry fly/hatch matching prodigy anglers that ever cast a line, plus a tremendous spey caster. His blogs and writings are truly inspirational and of the finest Sawyeresque/Skues mentalities. Another is a bartender and awesome YouTube videographer that has amazing troutbum angling talents that has no boundaries. Others are Facebook friends I have met at shows over the years. My true Catskillite is a bug doctor/ guide maestro that has seen it all, done it all, and has pricked every big brown in the Catskills: or has the ones he and his clients missed dialed in. Finally there are two limestone gurus from PA that are fishy dudes beyond comparison. One is an environmentalist guide that loves trout and has devoted all of his passion to his beloved Letort and its surrounding spring creeks. He has come to know the Catskills with a passion that is seldom seen. The other PA fanatic went local, and is a blogger, has a curmudgeonly personality like our late great Vince, and is the finest classic bamboo/CFO Reel dry fly purist that one can find. He makes me be labeled as having “Catholic tastes” in the true Skues sense since I fish graphite. He has combined his super selective limestoner skills with the next frontier of his Catskill waters and fishes 5 days a week. He perhaps has caught more 20 inch browns on the surface in one year than a dozen skilled anglers might do in a lifetime. The spirit of Herman Christian lives in this chap.
Last week I spent a couple of great days with an old friend and icon; Tom Rosenbauer. So many have been influenced by his countless books and contributions to the passion. What many dont know is what a kind , talented and humble man he is. We fished some beautiful Catskill waters, mostly off the beaten path since we both value solitude, even if we don’t catch as many fish. We acted like two little school boys on an adventure fishing and sharing stories of our upstate NY youth, sharing fly design and patterns, talking food and wild mushroom foraging and catching a few nice fish as blessing. We fished at a slow pace, watching the water for that head poking-up and enjoying some good streamside eats I mustered up in the kitchen. There was no hurray or no agenda- it was total chill and homage to the wonderful world of the trout.
At the end of the day, no matter what happens to the hallowed Catskills waters: whether the wild trout fishery excels or fails, and whatever pressure befalls these magnificent waters, it will always be about the people that came before, are now living, or will soon be in the future. That amazing fraternity is what bonds us, not the bickering and distrust we often greedily wield towards each other in a secretive passion and place that needs not be. It is sometimes odd that very few anglers return a wave or a nod at times on these hallowed waters-maybe its time to do more of it here! The pressure will not go away. But how we deal with it will be the Catskill’s saving grace.
Be kind to other anglers, and the trout will also be so to your flies. Your good spirit transcends the mind, and provides the tonic for it to be more lethal as a master big brown trout hunter we all aspire to! The Catskill’s are hallowed waters and a shrine- it’s up to us to keep them that way forever!
“In fishing for brown trout, the mind is often as important as the rod. line and lure…what a wonderfully complicated and fascinating creature the brown trout is'” ( The Complete Brown Trout-Cecil E. Heacox)
Cheers – Na Zdrowie- Sto Lat!
Matthew Supinski -September 2022
( Author’s Note: We can not learn and love this passion without forever advancing our knowledge and understanding of it. Read books , listen to podcasts and forever look for knowledge- it is all around you begging for you to discover it. Tom Rosenbauer’s Orvis podcast is a great quick way to enhance your skills on all things trout. Here is one I did on Selectivity-Link: https://orvisffguide.libsyn.com/selectivity-in-fish-feeding-habits-with-matt-supinski My Hallowed Waters Podcast gets very deep into some heady subject matter on Trout/Atlantic Salmon and Steelhead. Here is one I did with the iconic Paul Weamer of Catskill tenure ship, and one I recently did with Rosenbauer on “The Wonderful World of Trout”- Links: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/02-dry-fly-selectivity-feat-the-dry-fly-mastery-of/id1606667042?i=1000548771950
Also, all the wonderful Catskill books by Austin Francis, and the magnificent “Land of Little Rivers” video by the modern legends: Trailer Link: https://vimeo.com/326882382
Finally, my Brown Trout Nexus book tells the Catskill brown trout story, along with Hallowed Waters Journal, which features the Catskills’ in each issue, which I am proud to publish with amazing contributors.