Stories Tenkara Trip Reports

Angling With Ghosts

Essay by Christopher Seep

The Catskills of New York State. If you are a fly fisherman with a sense of history, the Catskills resonate as the birthplace of American dry fly angling. It was here, on the Neversink river, that circa 1890 Theodore Gordon adapted dry fly techniques described by the Englishman Frederic Halford to the particular insect hatches of the Catskills, developing the Quill Gordon, the basis for a brand new class of dries, the Catskill dries. In my humble opinion, this group of flies remains THE iconic dry fly.

Angling with Ghosts - Christopher Seep - Theodore Gordon

Although now a dedicated tenkara angler, I remain an incorrigible dry fly fisher and feel a strong connection to the tradition of early dry fly anglers. Recreational angling in that era, as opposed to sustenance fishing, was rooted in the same impulses we feel today on the stream:  serenity, appreciation of nature, the challenge of fooling fish, and river song.

So, when my daughter invited my wife and me to spend a week with her family at the Frost Valley Camp in the Catskills, I was immediately on board. This would be a wonderful opportunity to spend time with two of my grandchildren who live a thousand miles away, doing a host of outdoor activities. When I viewed the online brochure for the camp and added bonus was the three miles of private access to the Neversink which runs through the property. The Neversink! Theodore Gordon’s river! The brochure depicted a fly angler waist-deep in the river. I couldn’t wait.

A moderate-gradient freestone stream, the Neversink begins as two parallel creeks, the East Branch and the West, flowing from the heights of Slide Mountain, the Catskills’ highest peak at four thousand and some change feet elevation. At the hamlet of Claryville, the two branches merge to form the mainstem Neversink, and eventually the river is impounded in the Neversink reservoir, where it becomes a tailwater, finally flowing into the Delaware.

Arriving at the camp, I spied the West Branch Neversink for the first time, and I’ll admit to a bit of disappointment. Instead of that wide river of languid flow shown in the brochure, here was a shallow creek, perhaps fifteen feet wide, one to four feet deep. Unless you are a garden gnome, there is no waist-deep angling in this water. I could have left the waders at home. Perhaps the stream was at a seasonal low, but it did not look like the kind of water that would inspire the development of a new fly fishing paradigm.

Angling with Ghosts - Christopher Seep - Shadow

The following day, after having discharged some very enjoyable grandfather duties, my wife and I got on the stream for the first time. Surveying the water, I realigned my expectations for the size of fish I could expect on a stream this size. Crouching, I put my hand in the water; pleasantly cold and as clear as new glass. Parsing the water from an angler’s perspective, I realized that all the requisite elements of a trout stream were present, albeit in miniature: riffle water, slow water, plunge pools, and quiet pools. Smooth round cobble, from hen’s egg to boulder size comprised the stream bed and banks, requiring a bit of careful walking. Opposite from where I entered the water was a natural stone wall, water dripping from faults in the rock, sustaining the most attractive hanging garden of fern and monkey flower.

Closing my eyes, I allowed the surroundings to work their magic, the sound of water flowing over stone as calming as Mother’s lullaby. Although late August and yet summer according to Pope Gregory, Mother Nature was beginning to whisper of the coming Autumn: a cool freshening breeze and sparse flecks of crimson and yellow on the hillsides of birch, maple, oak, and evergreens. My wife’s graceful casting of her five-weight completed the angling mise en scene. Now I was ready to fish.

I extended my rod, attached a #16 Elk Hair Caddis, and began casting to all the promising spots. Moments later, I was attached to my first fish, a four-inch brookie, wild and native to these waters, with colorful spots like gemstones scattered on dark, wet velvet. And so it went for the next few days. Eager brookies ambushing almost any fly presented. Parachute Adams, black deer-hair beetle, parachute ant, elk hair caddis, it didn’t matter.

Finally, in what would prove to be my last hour of angling, I approached the river from behind the horse barn and corral, a dark and attractive wooded stretch, a handsome chestnut whinnying her advice as I fished, the earthy, somehow pleasant odor of manure in my nostrils. Soon I came upon a plunge pool, large for this water. If I were going to catch a large trout on this trip, it would be here. Before long, the Parachute Adams I had earlier tied on became waterlogged and refused to float. Then I remembered the single Quill Gordon I had tied for the trip, attached it to the tippet, cast to the head of the pool, and was almost immediately connected to what would be my largest fish of the trip, a seven-inch brook trout.

Caught on Theodore Gordon’s river, on Theodore Gordon’s fly. Symmetry

Christopher Seep began fishing while still in diapers and hopes to finish that way. Since adopting tenkara ten or so years ago, he has never looked back.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016-17 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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