On a warm early summer evening, Joe Fox stands in the middle of the Willowemoc Creek dry fly casting in his daily quest to hook a trout. He wears waders and Korker boots, and has a chest pack that he opens every so often to select a new fly.
“Something triggers the trout to come to your fly, whether it’s the size, the color, the way it’s floating,” he says. “They get keyed in on one particular characteristic and that’s what they eat.” But he adds that angling only depends 10-20 percent on the fly: “The bigger part is presentation — whether it’s a dry fly, a nymph, a wet, or even a streamer — that’s the main skill. To compare it to golf — the clubs, the ball, and the golfer — it’s pretty much all in the golfer. And it’s the same thing with fishing. It’s the angler’s ability to present the fly.”
Fox grew up on Long Island but gained exposure to angling during extended visits to his grandparents’ house, where he learned fly-fishing and tying and eventually went into the family business, Dette Trout Flies, a renowned fly-tying shop founded in 1928 in Roscoe.
Dette Trout Flies and the Baxter House River Outfitters, an inn that offers guided fly-fishing adventures, are just two of the many businesses dedicated to fly-fishing in Roscoe — aka Trout Town, USA. The sport has flourished in the Catskills for more than 100 years due to the multiplicity of waterways in the area and widespread open fishing rights for licensed fishermen — although seasonal regulations, catch-and-release policies, and daily limits apply throughout the region.
Judd Weisberg, a well-known fly-fishing guide, notes that the only time he considers killing trout now is when the fish gets badly injured during the hunt. “A good game fish is just worth too much alive to kill it,” says Weisberg, a proponent of voluntary catch-and-release or limited kill. “So, unfortunately, my wife and I don’t eat trout much anymore.”
Jim Krul of the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum describes the reverence with which many from around the world fish the Willowemoc. “The Japanese will do this whole cultural thing. Before they get into the water, they’ll wet their hands. When they fish, it’s dead silence. And when they catch one, they’re so ritualistic. They’ll cradle it, and then hold it in the river until the fish is strong enough to swim away.”
Although many gravitate to Roscoe and nearby streams for their fly-fishing adventures, most waterways in the Catskills possess the same conditions for angling. Dave Winters, a stream ecologist who grew up in the northern Catskills, says he never felt the need to venture south for trout fishing. Now a Colorado resident, Winters fondly recalls those days. “I would go up to Spruceton quite a bit. I would find one pool where I knew there would be a nice fish, and I’d wait there until I saw him start feeding on the mayflies. I might catch one fish all evening. I’d watch him and wait for the right opportunity. It wasn’t about how many I could catch. I was hunting for a particular trout. It was always a big one.”
Winters talks about the life of a stream and how it can mature to the perfection that has made the Catskills famous for fly-fishing, but he also highlights the delicate ecological balance necessary to maintain that maturity. “Streams change like forests change. They get older, and they get younger. Unlike people, streams can get younger again when there is either a large natural event, like a flood, or many human events.”
He notes that fly-fishing breeds an interest in conservation because anglers rely so heavily on environmental conditions: “When you focus on nature as closely as you do in fly-fishing, you see the changes that occur. You start seeing the effect of different things that happen to the stream — things as simple as the insects you’re trying to match.”
He acknowledges that people fish for a variety of reasons, but feels that “it can be an art form. I think there is a spirituality to it. It’s more important for me to be inside of the whole natural environment when I’m fishing. I probably get as much enjoyment out of being surprised by something — seeing a mink on the stream bank, or a trout chasing minnows around the shallows — as I do catching a fish.”