Robert Salesman has driven here all the way from Dunwoody, Ga., and the joy he feels at this moment is almost unbearable. Hastily, he and his grown son Robert II struggle into their chest-high waterproof waders; fumble-fingered with excitement, they don their fishing vests. Most men experience this level of passion only when taking off their clothes.
But their ardor is understandable. For Robert I and Robert II are both fly-fishers. And here they are on the banks of the sacred Beaverkill River in New York’s Catskill Mountains. “God, I’ve always wanted to fish here,” says Robert I, busily stringing up his reedy, wandlike fly rod. Robert II pokes through his tackle and selects a fly—a delicate imitation insect made of feathers and fur tied to a hook. “This,” he says, with awe, “is the premier trout stream in America.”
The Beaverkill runs through the town of Roscoe, which has taken to calling itself Trout Town U.S.A. On their way to the river, anglers from all across the country stop to visit Trout Town, and sometimes there’s big trouble on these otherwise sleepy streets. Scene on a recent Saturday: An Ohio fisherman in a Mercedes beats an indigenous fisherman in a pickup truck to a prime parking spot on Main Street. The miffed local rolls down his window. “Go back to racquetball!” he shouts.
This, the Beaverkill Valley, is the cradle of U.S. fly-fishing. The sport was spawned here in the early 1900s by author and flytier Theodore Gordon. The man called the father of American fly-fishing spent the last 10 years of his life in the Beaverkill area. Countless other writers and outdoorsmen—including A.J. McClane, Sparse Grey Hackle and Red Smith—have found themselves hooked by the lure of this river. Indeed, in the literature of fishing, it has become something like Proust’s madeleines—a source of reverie and revelation.
Right now is peak season, and the Beaverkill is bursting with life. Succulent mayflies, the bugs the trout love most, are coming off the water in vast squadrons. The fish, normally wary, are giddy from gorging on them. And the anglers seem both as numerous as the mayflies and as giddy as the trout.
Things you’ll find in Trout Town you won’t find anywhere else: a cash-only express line at the fly-fishing shop and an idiosyncratic dress code. “You see people strolling around town in their waders,” says Lee Wulff, the renowned author and angler who runs a fly-fishing school a few miles up the Beaverkill. “There’s no place else like it. It’s a fishing town.” So much so that in the spring, 81-year-old flytier Walt Dette tapes a daily message about conditions on the river. Anglers across the country call his answering machine to hear if the trout are being sulky or cooperative that day. “A lot of people call who aren’t even coming,” Walt says. They just want to hear the old man, the voice of the river.
No one knows for sure why yuppies have suddenly embraced the sport of fly-fishing. They just have.
The place: Cairn’s Pool, one of the most popular spots on the Beaverkill. The time: early morning. Mist is rising off the water. A dozen anglers reverently cast to rising trout. Suddenly on the far bank appears a family of three in matching designer safari outfits. The preteenage boy hooks a fish. His dad whips out a tiny video camera to record the event. “What would Theodore Gordon say,” mutters one angler. The others are too shocked to say anything. The worst part is that the strangely garbed aliens proceed to outfish everyone by two to one.
One of America’s most celebrated flytiers, Walt Dette has perhaps the starkest of all fly shops in existence. His shelves arc nearly bare. “Our display cases are empty,” says Dette, who has lived in Trout Town since he was 12. “It’s been that way for years. Our business has just gone bananas.” The Dettes—wife Winnie and daughter Mary are also fine tiers—simply can’t keep up with the demand for their work. At $22 a dozen, fishermen eat up their graceful little objets even more eagerly than the trout do. It can take Dette up to a year to fill certain orders.
At 20, Dette was working as a soda jerk in Sipple’s drugstore. Though he was determined to break into fly-tying, the local tiers jealously guarded their secrets. Dette approached the best, one Rube Cross. “I offered him $50 to teach me—a mint in those days—and he just told me to go to hell,” Dette says, laughing. So, having bought 10 dozen of Cross’s flies, he proceeded in a Promethean effort to unravel each one, thread by thread. “I learned by untying,” he says.
“The sport has changed a lot,” says Dette, who ties while he talks. “It’s become more of a study than a sport.” He places a thumbnail-size hook into his vise and winds it with brown-gray thread. Then he ties on a tail of blue-gray feathers. “Now you hear a lot of fishermen identify the bugs by their Latin names—an affectation,” he says. He ties a peacock quill to the hook and wraps it around so that it forms a segmented, insectlike body. He adds wings of wood duck and a hackle of blue-dun rooster feathers for the fly to float on. Although his hands seem the size of first-basemen’s mitts, they are as deft as a surgeon’s. “I’ve seen all kinds of foolish things lately,” he goes on. “One man I’ve seen often speaks into a tape recorder as he fishes. I guess so he can replay it at night and consider his errors.” Dette pops the fly out of his vise. He has tied a perfectly proportioned Quill Gordon in five minutes. That’s Iron fraudator in Latin.
“The Dettes are legendary,” says Poul Jorgensen, who lives a few houses away. “As for me, they call me the Victor Borge of fly-fishing.” One other thing the cognoscenti call the puckish 63-year-old Dane: Lord of the Flies.
While Dette creates classic flies, models of grace and perfection, Jorgensen creates art. “You don’t fish with my flies,” he says, “you collect them.” Starting at $75 ($125 framed), his concoctions are either stunningly realistic or utterly otherworldly. “It’s like having a Picasso on your desk,” according to one devotee.
While Dette learned to tie flies by taking them apart, Jorgensen put himself back together through tying. Twenty years ago Jorgensen was a successful engineer with a wife, three kids and a drinking problem. When his wife left and took the kids, he hit bottom. Trout fishing and fly-tying had been his passions. Now they—and AA—became his salvation. Ten years ago he moved up to Roscoe. “Because it’s paradise,” he explains, “because it’s the birthplace of trout fishing. Take Hendrickson’s Pool. When you’re standing on that big flat rock out there, you’re standing on the same rock that Theodore Gordon did. It’s like you’re surrounded by ghosts….”
On this sunny late afternoon the live and the quick seem to dominate Hendrickson’s pool. The knee-deep, boulder-strewn runs are filled with fishermen and, of course, with brown trout. More trout and bigger trout, in fact, than when Gordon was here. The most fertile sections of the Beaverkill are “no kill”—all fish must be returned to the water. So the trout have a chance to grow both large and educated.
Suddenly there are shouts from the vicinity of the big flat rock and the splashing of a fish. An angler comes wading breathlessly across the algae-slick stones that line the river bottom. His cheeks are as flushed as the flanks of a rainbow trout. “Lord,” says Dave Took, a fisherman from Buffalo, “I just took two big, gorgeous fish—16 inches each. Big fish, smart fish, it feels great.” He opens his fly box and picks out the fly pattern that worked for him. He offers it to a visiting fly-fisher from New Jersey. Then he presses another fly on the stranger. The guy is ecstatic. “Well.” says Took, “I’d better be getting out now. Better get home….”
An hour later night is falling. Dave Took is still there, as are countless others, and the fish, and the shade of Theodore Gordon.