Each spring and summer, hordes of flyfishers descend on
New York's Catskills region to fish the rivers made
famous by Gordon, Wulff, Hewitt and other luminaries of
the sport. The ensuing pilgrimage can leave name-brand
pools on the more fabled waters so full that some
stretches look like casting tournaments.
But there is relief.
When the Beaverkill's legendary runs are sewn up tight by
a spiderweb of fly lines, or when drift boat hatches blanket
the Delaware River's east and west branches, Catskills
flyfishers can find solitude, tumbling water and wild
browns and brookies by leaving the valleys and heading
for the hills.
Mountain tributaries offer a cool elixir for anglers
who want to escape the crowds.
Even during hot summer spells, many mountain tribs run
cold and clear. And the jeweled little trout contained
therein rise to dry flies throughout the day. What's more,
warm and thin summer water on the lower stretches of the
Beaverkill or Willowemoc can drive larger fish into spring-fed,
hemlock-shaded little headwater streams. The sight of a
hook-jawed brown rocketing from the tail of a bathtub-sized
plunge pool to blast your Royal Wulff will put your heart in
your throat and may lead to small-stream addiction.
That very scene unfolded before my eyes a couple summers ago
while I worked my way up the rushing headwaters of a Catskills
river. I was picking up a few small, bright brook trout on a
rainy August afternoon when I came upon a chest-deep pool walled
by a high bluestone ledge.
My elk hair caddis refused to float in the downpour, so I tied
on a muddler minnow without taking time to cut back the worn 5X
tippet. On the first cast into the middle of the pool, the streamer
had just begun to sink when a shadow wheeled out of the dark water
along the ledge. It transformed into the golden spotted flank of
an immense brown trout, likely drawn into the headwaters when rains
began to send the water levels up earlier in the week.
I'd like to say I played the big brown expertly, gently brought
it to hand, admired it for a moment then released it back to
the stream. But the fish slammed the muddler, drove to the bottom
and snapped me off in about three seconds, leaving me shivering
in the rain as my tippet pigtailed in the current.
The imprint of that fish on my memory has kept me coming back to
the little tribs again and again. So has the sound of cold water
purling over rocky staircases, the earthy smell of the woods after
a summer shower, the sight of a newborn fawn standing on shaky
legs on the bank and the tug of pan-sized brook trout on the line
without another soul in sight.
One of the most challenging and rewarding parts of flyfishing
Catskills rills is the actual process of prospecting for them.
Like bird hunters who protect their prized coverts, small
stream flyfishers are pretty cagey about giving out the
locations of their favorite haunts for fear of having them
overrun. After all, solitude is one of the rewards of
So you will have to do much of the searching on your own.
It will require some topo maps, meandering drives through
the hills, a few long hikes through mountain laurel thickets,
some bruises, scrapes, mosquito bites, poison ivy and
protracted hunts that dead-end in dry holes.
But once you discover a couple decent streams, you might find
that the journey is the goal. The trouble may be worth the
effort when you hook that first wild brookie in a plunge pool
far from the nearest road, where your fishing companion is a
mink or kingfisher.
For maps, start with a New York State Gazeteer. It has enough
detail to show some of the smaller streams as well as trails,
dirt roads and state forest boundaries. For even more details,
go to USGS topographic maps in the 7.5 minute series (1:25,000).
In addition, the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference puts out
a set of five Catskills hiking maps that delineate trials,
topography, streams and other landmarks.
Look to high ground for likely streams. The state of New York
owns quite a bit of land around the Catskills peaks, to the
tune of nearly 300,000 acres. Much of this lies within
watersheds surrounding the big reservoirs that supply
Manhattan's drinking water. State land is delineated by
blue, yellow and white signs on trees. That land is open
to hiking, hunting, camping and fishing. In addition, the
state has purchased fishing easements along many Catskills
waterways. Easements are marked with yellow signs.
If you find a blue squiggle on the map that starts on a
hillside and is surrounded by state land, there's a good
chance it's a trib that may contain some fish if it's fed
by a couple good springs and seeps and holds water
By the way, map-studying is best done before a woodstove on
wintry January nights...maybe when you're taking a break from
your fly vise.
Once you pore over some maps and mark down a few likely
streams, the next step might be some actual driving and
hiking, if you happen to live within striking distance
of the mountains. This may be best done in the spring,
since snow in the higher elevations often shuts roads
and trails up until April. Of course, combining
back-country skiing or snowshoeing and stream prospecting
is also a winter option.
Get out of your truck and hike in. Sometimes long hikes are
fruitless. But sometimes an isolated stream will hold a good
head of trout.
Don't immediately dismiss a trickle that you can jump across
in summer. Bring a stream thermometer: If the water's cold,
65 degrees or so, and it's on public land, follow it into
the woods a ways. You might find deeper pools or beaver dams
that can hold nice fish. Blowdowns and log jams, while full
of tippet-tangling snags, often become trout havens.
Conversely, if the water is above 68 degrees or so, keep
moving. Fish hooked and played in warm water may be too
exhausted to revive. Likewise, anglers should avoid the
tribs during extended dry periods. Some little trickles
tend to turn into rock gardens unless they're charged
with summer rains.
For gear and tackle, think light. A pair of hip boots should
be all you need in the tribs. The water is rarely knee-deep.
Besides, you'll want to stay out of the water as much as
possible, since small stream fish are easily spooked. In
summer, consider wet wading, but be careful where you tread.
Copperheads also find Catskills tribs appealing.
Matching hatches is not terribly important on headwaters
streams. First off, many of these fast waters are somewhat
infertile and only contain a few mayfly and caddis species.
Second, the fish tend to be hungry from dawn to dusk. They
will strike many dry fly patterns size 12-16 when the fly
is presented properly.
Classic Catskills dries such as Hendricksons work fine. For
a fly that floats high in the fast water of small streams,
on of my go-to patterns is a size 12 elk hair caddis with a
brown body and palmered hackle and bleached or tan wing. Not
only is it easy to see, but it can catch fish either on a dead
drift or skittered at the tail of a pool. Other good patterns
include size 12 royal humpys, size 12-14 humpys and size 12-14
Royal Wulff. Terrestrials are important on small streams in
summer, so bring some size 10-12 Dave's Hoppers and size 12-14
black deer-hair crickets. For streamers, size 10 muddlers work
well, as do Mickey Finns in similar sizes. Keep it light and
A 7-foot, 3-4 weight rod should be all you need on the tribs.
Some people favor overlining by using one line weight heavier
than the rod is rated for so it loads more quickly, making
short casts easier. I just usually go with the normal rod/line
setup. A 7 or 8-foot leader with a stiff butt and 12-18-inch
4X or 5X tippet should work well. A leader any longer or lighter
will be tough to control in the close quarters of small streams.
Delicate tippets aren't necessary; the fish don't seem to mind
a 4X tippet, which won't snap when you have to retrieve your
fly from overhanging boughs that inevitably snag backcasts.
Small stream flyfishing often means blind casting; you may not
see too many rising fish. Brookies tend to ambush their food
in the tribs, often holding in a quiet lie and darting out to
nail bugs that wash down the main current. Cast in the eddies
behind boulders and in the slicks beside undercut banks. It
doesn't take much water for a decent fish to hide.
Practice roll casts and even bow-and-arrow casts for use on
mountain tribs. Hemlock and rhododendron branches and all
sorts of other obstructions play havoc with long backcasts.
Learn to make a decent presentation with just one backcast;
false casts often get hung up on the surrounding trees.
Stealth is key. Wear drab clothes. Crouch while approaching
a pool. Walk softly. Wild fish in close quarters are
ultra-spooky, especially in clear summer water. Movement,
splashing and heavy footfalls will send fish skittering for
Make a couple casts to the tail of a pool first. Sometimes
larger fish sit in the riffles at the end of a pool. Throw
slack in your leader when casting to the head of a pool.
Even uneducated mountain trout will refuse some dry flies
if they're dragging.
Expect to catch quite a few little fingerlings for every meaty
fish you hook. Remember, you're fishing in nursery waters. Use
barbless hooks so you can just flip out the fly with forceps
quickly without handling the trout. Wet your hands if you have
to pick a fish up. Use larger flies so the fingerlings can't
hook up as readily.
Bring a fanny pack or daypack with water, something to eat,
bug repellent, a rain jacket, a map and compass and other
Here are a few streams for starters:
1. The upper Willowemoc and Fir Brook: There are state
fishing easements along the upper Willow around the village
of Willowemoc proper. Also, way up in the headwaters the stream
is within the Catskills Forest Preserve and is open to the public.
Fir Brook, a major tributary to the Willow, winds through woods
and meadows and contains beaver dam pools. There are state easements
along the brook.
Bring a sense of humor and a sense of wonder. The humor helps
when you're wearily slogging back from a deep-woods trib that
looked good on the map but turned out to be a chub-filled ditch.
The sense of wonder helps when you marvel at the colors of an
11-inch wild brookie hooked in a mountain pool that will remain
one of your best secret spots for years to come. ~ Rob
2. The upper East Branch of the Delaware River: The river
above Pepacton Reservoir is small to medium water. Try the stretch
between Margaretville and the reservoir for solitude.
3. The Beaverkill Covered Bridge Campsite: About a mile of the
upper Beaverkill flows through this state campground, which is open
to the public from May through September. Surrounded by privately
held river sections, the stream within the campground contains
wild and stocked browns and native brookies. It's several miles
north of Livingston Manor off Beaverkill Road.
4. The Esopus Creek headwaters above Olivera: It's small
water here, but some of it is open to the public through easements
and some intersects with state land. Wild brookies dominate.
Rob currently works for the Associated Press as News Editor for the Press
Multimedia Services in NYC. Responsible for rewriting and posting
breaking news, business and sports stories for AP online customers
including Yahoo! news, ABC.com, and hundreds of Web sites operated
by daily newspapers throughout the country. He has a wide background
as a editor and writer, including a stint as Photojournalist for
Pacific Stars and Stripes. We are delighted to welcome his voice here.
You can reach Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org