A thousand years ago, or more, two foot trails joined on the upper Beaverkill at Shin Creek; they were used by the Esopus Indians to reach their hunting grounds and were the earliest human penetration of the Catskills, passing through what is still today a wild and remote region.
As late as 1873, when the first fishing club appeared on the river, access to the upper Beaverkill was still primitive; a wagon road came up from Roscoe but stopped at a Shin Creek sawmill. From there to the headwaters was still only a footpath; members of the club found it quicker to come in over the top from the next valley to the east.
During the early 1900s, in the heyday of Catskill resort hotels, there were two recipes for Pink Ladies around DeBruce, on the Willowemoc. One called for pale pink floss ribbed with gold tinsel, duck wings, ginger hackle and tail, all on a No. 12 hook. It was one of George LaBranche's favorite dry flies. The other recipe called for gin, apple brandy, lemon juice, grenadine, and egg white, shaken strenuously with cracked ice and strained into a tall-stemmed glass. It was a favorite drink of the sporting clientele at Charles B. Ward's DeBruce Club Inn.
One wants very much to believe the story of a voluptuous blonde guest at Ward's back in the Roaring Twenties who, on her first attempt at angling, anointed her Pink Lady in her Pink Lady and caught a monstrous, bibulous trout. Apocryphal, no doubt.
John Burroughs quickened his pace as he and three friends climbed up the valley of the "Big Injin" and crossed over onto the West Branch of the Neversink. On this June day in 1869, after a long absence, he had returned to his native Catskill rivers "to pay my respects to them as an angler."
They struck the river quite unexpectedly in the middle of the afternoon at a point where it was a good-sized trout stream:
"It proved to be one of those black mountain brooks born of innumerable ice-cold springs, nourished in the shade, and shod, as it were, with thick-matted moss that every camper-out remembers. The fish are as black as the stream and very wild. They dart from beneath the fringed rocks, or dive with the hook into the dusky depths, an integral part of the silence and the shadows."
They crept upstream. The spell of the moss was over all, and with noiseless tread they leapt from stone to stone and from ledge to ledge along the bed of the stream:
"How cool it is!"
Burroughs looked up the dark, silent defile, heard the solitary voice of the water, and saw the decayed trunks of fallen trees bridging the stream. All he had dreamed as a boy, of the haunts of beasts of prey -- the crouching feline tribes, especially at twilight with the gloom already deepening in the woods -- came freshly to mind. They pressed on, wary and alert, speaking to each other in low tones.
Because Art Flick never tied on a commercial scale, few fishermen besides his Westkill Tavern guests could buy flies from him. "Dana Lamb could get flies out of him when nobody else could," recalled Sparse Grey Hackle. "I remember the night Dana's fishing vest was stolen down in the Antrim Lodge bar, off of a coat hook. They got his fly boxes and everything, but the only thing he wept about to me was his Flick flies."
Flick originated the Red Quill to imitate the male Ephemerella subvaria. Roy Steenrod had matched the females about twenty years earlier with his Hendrickson. The dressings of these two flies are identical except for their bodies. "I had such success with this fly," said Art, "that I decided to put my same old favorite red quill on Jenning's Blue Variant, Gold Body." The result was Flick's Dun Variant, a killer fly during the Isonychia hatch. He also modified Jennings's Grey Fox Variant body from a gold tinsel to a ginger quill, and it became the continuing favorite among the fishermen at Westkill Tavern. Flick liked quill bodies because they were quicker to tie, more durable, and easier to keep dry while fishing. Other patterns developed by Flick include the Black-Nose Dace bucktail and the Hendrickson nymph.
Early Catskill Fly Fishers
Fly fishing in America, as in England, grew out of the Industrial Revolution. And, as American industrialization trailed England's by a good half century, so did our coming of age as anglers. Before 1850, in keeping with an agricultural economy, most fishing in the United States was done not for recreation but for subsistence.
Soon after the Civil War, with the effects of industrialization accelerating in American society, big cities got dirtier, noisier, and more crowded. Significantly, they were also the source of increasing wealth and leisure to escape these harassments. Getting out of the city and back to nature became the ideal pastime for millions of urban Americans. They flocked to the country for long summer vacations, and eventually -- when transportation improved -- for weekends. They were the guests at the countless hotels and boardinghouses that sprang up in the late 1800s in the Catskills and other accessible "wilderness" regions. Their pastimes included hiking, picnicking, porch sitting, vista viewing, and -- for the more adventuresome -- hunting and fishing.
Women as "Stream Invaders"
Fred White, who began fishing at Jay Davidson's Trout Valley Farm on the upper Beaverkill in the late 1800s, witnessed the emergence of women anglers. In the Anglers' Club of New York Bulletin of 1923, he wrote:
"I remember distinctly the first woman at Beaverkill to put on boots and, even with a knee-length skirt, dare to brave the disapproval of the porch sitters at Davidson's. It simply wasn't done and she came pretty near being regarded as fast as the water that rippled about her knees. Now the river is full of 'em and they don't bother with skirts either. And they catch fish -- some of them -- and big ones, too.
"Whether you like it or not the women are here to stay in trout fishing...and when all is said and done, I believe it to be an excellent thing -- for the women. They can wear my second best waders any time."
In an accident of history, both the modern dry fly and the brown trout were brought to America at the same time, creating a double revolution. Trying to catch a brown trout with a dry fly on the rivers of the Catskills was the beginning of the art of dry-fly fishing as we know it in this country. Theodore Gordon -- with his pioneering experiments, discoveries, and reporting -- was the key figure in bringing about this new era.
Gordon was born of a well-to-do family in Pittsburgh in 1854. Fly fishing from the age of fourteen, he lived a remarkable life, almost nonexistent in our day. A man of taste and intelligence, a restrained yet warm and exciting fishing writer, Gordon fled civilization for a retreat on the Neversink River. He put one thing only into his mind -- the stream -- and sustained it there unflaggingly for a great many years. An inexplicable performance, probably never to be duplicated.
Mabel Ingalls, a granddaughter of J.P. Morgan and member of The Woman Flyfishers Club, did her first fishing around 1915 at a summer camp in the Adirondacks. She remembered catching two small fish, on dropper flies, on a backcast. "I really started fishing seriously through boyfriends," she told me. "Only 'boyfriend' didn't mean the same thing then as it does today. These were just nice boys who were friends; sex was not involved, certainly not. But all kinds of fun things were -- like camping, hunting, and fishing.
"We fished with a group of young men who had gotten out of Harvard, been in the war, and were back in New York in business. Two of them would ask two of us, or maybe there would be three boys and three girls. We took the West Shore Railroad at noon on Saturday, because they all had to work Saturday mornings, and we got off some place near Bear Mountain, fishing various places the boys had been going to alone. They knew the streams."