Like most anglers I started with a worm, bobber and bluegill. As a child I would spend summers on a lake with family waiting for those red and white spheres to dip below the surface while fishing from a dock. Worms and floats simply kept me content on those family lake vacations.
That all changed one summer on a camping trip to the Catskills. The river ran along the road and through the back of our campsites; it was dark, uncomfortably chilly and much different to navigate then a lake. It moved with grace and power with rapids and pools giving me all kinds of places to explore, swim, and maybe fish. But learned quickly that fishing a river was not like fishing a lake. I tried to float a worm in pools and through rapids. I drifted worms with no float, worms with weights and then even heavier weights to stop the worm in the current. This all resulted in snagging obstructions; nothing seemed to work, until I was eventually out of weights.
On one of the last nights camping while desperately trying to toss nightcrawlers to peacefully rising trout, a man in waders slowly slipped into the river about 150 yards from me. He waded into a riffle just below some rapids and began to strip line out of his reel. He grabbed his line, adjusted it slightly and looked around. He made a few false casts and landed his fly line on the river letting it drift through the area calmly and slowly. He lifted his rod and gracefully pulled the line from the water to cast it upstream again. At the end of his second drift he lifted his rod and the line went tight. He was onto a fish – a big fish – and I was amazed.
I had seen fly fishing before on the lake while driving along the river with my dad but never had I seen it so effectively used in person. I also had been skunked for days and after watching a chunky 16-inch trout get caught on someone’s second cast I was convinced that I could only catch fish on a river if I was fly fishing.
When I was 14 I got a job at my local bagel shop stocking the fridges and cleaning the store. I only worked two days a week for a few hours each day, but I liked it and the owners liked me. The owners paid me monthly in cash for my days worked and the first month’s pay was the most money I had ever earned on my own. I took my first paycheck, walked right into Beckman’s Tackle, and bought a Berkley fly rod combo and two flies. It was a 5-weight in a deep mahogany color with a black foam grip and it was mine. I was never as proud of myself for working so hard and from that moment on fly fishing for trout consumed my spare adolescent time. I would practice my casting in the street, in my parent’s yard and in fields when I could. I also read books on fly fishing rivers for trout which I got from my local library and a family friend.
My next camping trip to the Esopus Creek was my chance to put all that practice and study to use. For two days I tried to catch a trout and failed. My “first two flies” did not receive the attention I had hoped for. Plus, my cast and mending skills needed some work and moving water was a new skill to all together. It was tough and I got a little discouraged.
We needed ice from town so my dad and I stopped by a local shop that had fly fishing gear; a man in the shop smiled as I studied the flies. “What fly works here,” I asked, not realizing how naïve a question it was. The calm demeanor in his tone was lyrical and slow rolling like the river as he explained nymphing and swinging wet flies, which in person was a much better lesson than the books from the library. He helped me pick a few local flies he thought would work and sent me on my way.
Back at the river I tied on one of my new flies, stepped in and cast across the river, where the current picked up the fly as I let it swing below me. I then gave it a slight twitch at the end of the swing just before picking it up to cast again, just like the gentleman explained. I was giddy with anticipation as I sent out my first cast. And then a second, and a third. It was a few casts later that I felt my first strike. Quick, tight, snag and then nothing. “Was that a hit?” I had to question it because I had never felt a hit on a fly before and there was no bobber. I stripped in some line and cast the fly slightly up stream to let it drift through the same area again. As I went to mend my line it came tight; I was on to a fish.
At 7 inches in length, my first rainbow felt like a Leviathan in the river current on my 5-weight rod. l never got to thank that gentleman for his help. But that day solidified my obsession with fly fishing, and it would not be my last camping trip to the Esopus Creek; now that I’m older, I still try to get back at least once a year to fish. It’s also not the last time I spent a whole paycheck on new fly fishing gear.