A Conversation With the Author
Q. You are considered to be the leading authority on the Catskill fly-fishing tradition, having written three books on the subject, including Land of Little Rivers. What is fly fishing?
A. Essentially, it is a way of fooling trout with an imitation of its favorite food, a stream-born insect. The fake fly is “tied” by winding feathers and fur onto a steel hook, some so small that they are virtually weightless. Very large trout two feet and longer can be caught on these tiny flies with flyrods weighing just a few ounces. It is a sport requiring the mastery of several disciplines including the fluidly rhythmic art of fly casting and is practiced in the world's most beautiful settings.
Q. How does it differ from other kinds of sport fishing?
A. All sport fishing involves a hook disguised with bait, a spinning lure, or an artificial fly. The act of casting or presenting the disguised hook is what sets fly fishing apart. With bait and spinners, the angler makes one forward motion in the direction of the target; with a fly, the angler usually makes several strokes both backward and forward (also known as “false casting”) to work out enough line beyond the rod tip such that when the final, forward cast is made, the fly will arrive and float down so gently to its target that it will be mistaken by the fish for a real insect.
Q. Your latest book, Land of Little Rivers, is all about the history and the art of fly fishing. Tell us more.
A. I like to think of it as a story in photos of Catskill fly fishing — its rivers, its pioneering anglers, its techniques, and artifacts — in other words the setting and mix, beginning 150 years ago, that inspired and coalesced into a unique style of American fly fishing.
Q. You say American fly fishing. Where did fly fishing originate?
A. The act of disguising a hook with a feather doubtless goes back thousands of years, but the earliest written account of fly fishing is the 1450 Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle, by the legendary English nun and sportswoman, Dame Juliana Berners. The Treatyse described fly fishing as a quiet, harmless sport in contrast to hunting, and one that everyone could enjoy. Gradually though, it evolved into a pastime for English nobility and wealthy aristocrats. Only hundreds of years after that did it become, once again, a sport enjoyed by all levels of society.
Q. When did it become such a popular sport in the United States?
A. Modern angling, in England and America, grew out of the leisure time created by their respective Industrial Revolutions, which occurred in England about 50 years earlier than in America. Americans began fly fishing in earnest around 1850 and over the following 65 years, using English tackle and tactics, adapted and refined them into a distinctive American style of fly fishing.
Q. Why do you think American fly fishing came of age in the Catskills, as opposed to other places in the U.S.?
A. Because of the Catskills' proximity to New York, their pristine beauty, and first-rate trout environment. These little mountains and rivers attracted a group of dedicated fishers and innovators who in the 1800s were America's leading pioneers in adapting the British model to our own way of pursuing the “gentle art” of fly fishing. Catskill rivers today are as vital and beautiful as they ever were. Yet they are constantly threatened by the so-called forces of progress and simultaneously defended with tenacity by thousands of anglers and friends who come from all over to fish in or just visit one of the world's great trouting destinations.
Q. Can you be more specific about the fly-fishing innovations that took place in the Catskills?
A. Nearly every innovation in the making of an American style of fly fishing, distinct from the established British model, took place in the Catskills: the first comprehensive book on American fly fishing; the adaptation of the dry fly to American rivers; the creation of a dry-fly style of casting to accommodate fast-moving American streams; the development of a split-bamboo fly rod with a dry-fly action; the first reliable entomology to link America's unique stream insects to artificial imitations; the discovery of artificial propagation of trout and the establishment of the world's first trout hatchery; the invention of ways to protect and improve trout stream habitats; the world's first female fly-fishing club. All these events and feats took place in the Catskills — a region of rivers that is known widely today as the “Birthplace of American Fly Fishing.”
Q. What is the single most important ingredient in the Catskill fly fishing tradition?
A. That would be the Catskill-style fly, adapted from English dry flies by Theodore Gordon to imitate our American trout stream insects and to float on our rough-and-tumble Catskill streams. The Catskill-style fly was the catalyst that led to a revolution in fly-rod design, fly-casting technique, and stream presentation, pursuing the recently imported European brown trout which, more readily than our native brook trout, rose to the dry fly.
Q. If you could name three people who had the greatest impact on early American fly fishing, who would they be?
A. SETH GREEN: he discovered the artificial propagation of brook trout in the 1830s, established the worlds first trout hatchery, and restocked Catskill streams that had been devastated by tanneries, saw mills, and overfishing. Green also took the first European brown trout eggs to arrive in this country, hatched them, and stocked the first brown trout in the Catskills.
“UNCLE THAD” NORRIS: the best-known American angler of the nineteenth century (who centered his fishing and writing on the Beaverkill River), Norris wrote the first comprehensive work on American fly fishing. Wrote John McDonald, "he knew about everything there was to know in his time, put it all down in 1864, and thereby established the school of early American fly fishing with a rounded theory and practice.”
THEODORE GORDON: he forsook a career of stockbroking, moved permanently to the Neversink River, and spent the rest of his life experimenting with flies and fishing methods, corresponded constantly with anglers and through fishing periodicals, and was the principal link with England in importing and adapting their dry-fly expertise. Gordon effectively joined the American wet-fly and English dry-fly traditions, thus becoming “the father of modern American fly fishing.”
Q. But men weren't the only people to make an impact on the sport, were they? In your book, you devote a chapter to The Woman Flyfishers Club and the increase in the popularity of women fly fishing in the Catskills. Do you think women are natural anglers — perhaps even better than men?
A. Women anglers are one of the two fastest-growing segments in fly fishing, the other being saltwater fly fishing. It was my mentor Sparse Grey Hackle who observed that the coming of the dry fly into popularity 100 years ago coincided with the coming of the female angler. As he said, “dry-fly fishing is more a woman's than a man's game; women are often better than men in dexterity, coordination, reflexes, sensitive touch, keen eyesight, and close concentration — all attributes of the accomplished dry-fly fisher.”
Q. Fly fishing continues to grow in popularity 150 years after its start in the Catskills. Who are some of the more notable male and female anglers out there today, in addition to you?
A. Fly fishing is a very solitary, private sport, pursued by many well-known people because it lets them escape from the hectic pace of their daily lives. That's why it appealed to so many presidents including Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover, Eisenhower, Carter, and to celebrities like Robert Redford, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and a host of other individuals, many of whom call it “my secret life.”