With this column I begin looking back at the beginnings of my love affair with fly fishing. It all started on a snowy winter day in 1990. The office was closed due to the weather and the kids were home from school. I was still in my pajamas, settled into an overstuffed chair by the fire, leafing through some old magazines on the coffee table. An article caught my eye, about the Rockefeller restoration of the Beaverkill Valley Inn in Lew Beach, Catskills, New York. Larry Rockefeller, scion of the Rockefeller family, had undertaken to buy an entire valley leading from Route 17 to the hamlet of Lew Beach–a valley bisected by the Beaverkill River, the legendary waterway fed by hundreds of tributaries and considered to be the birthplace of American dry fly-fishing over 130 years ago. The article intrigued me, especially on this wintry day, with spring only months away. A getaway was an especially compelling idea in that moment – why? Was I looking for a break from the rigors of the law office, and from bucolic, but always bustling East Hampton? Was it the need for quiet time and independence from my surroundings? I had not read previously about fishing, in fact, I had never taken a fishing rod in hand in my 50 years. Perhaps it was something we were calling a mid-life crisis. Or more likely a need for a fresh start at something where one had no previous experience or instruction – a start from scratch.
The prospect of a new challenge combined with the promise of a quiet getaway was a seductive one. I have been a life-long cross-country runner, which has similar appeal- the solitude, as well as the constantly changing terrain that test endurance and ability. I also love a good walk in the woods. Of course, a fishing trip also meant a pleasant distance drive on the open road far away from the Long Island Expressway. I made the decision to become a fly-fisherman. Or at least try.
I had a few months to figure out all the details: the clothing, the tackle—a new word for me back then–the route upstate and the guide arrangements. Rather than going it alone the first time, I rustled up three like-minded friends: Peter, an old friend who I could convince to go anywhere, Jay an oral surgeon and gear nerd who had some fishing experience with other gear nerds, and Leon, an orthopedic surgeon with fishing experience because he had a pond in his back yard. There was a lot to arrange and talk about. All pre-internet, I went through my contact list to find someone familiar with the sport, who could provide some insight into the essentials. Jeff, my long-time accountant, sent me an old fishing vest his father had used and passed on to him. He told me about Orvis, the all-purpose fishing supplier; I was advised to buy the cheapest 5-weight, 6-foot fishing rod with reel and line for beginners. Waders came in only one size then, so I bought the least expensive pair as well. I was prepared with gear, except I was clueless as to the flies one tied onto the line. That instruction would have to wait until we were with the fishing guide. Today, after all these years, I am still clueless when it comes to which fly to use for which fish and in which conditions. I am now learning to tie flies, to gain a better grasp of these intricacies.
Finally, the June weekend reserved for the trip arrived. With trepidation I loaded up my “vintage” ‘79 Bentley on Friday night. I had the garage check the car to be certain it was ready for the trip, and it passed the informal inspection. I packed a couple of quarts of hydraulic fluid in the trunk in case the brakes needed a refill –a common issue with the Bentley of that era. This was the same car that had caught fire on the Long Island Expressway a year before. I was cautioned to use a more reliable vehicle, but the British racing green Bentley fit my fantasy of fly fishing. Early the next morning, I drove the 100 miles into New York City to pick up the guys—commonly called “sports” the old days. The photographs I took show the three amigos in their country flannel garb, all similar and smiling anxiously over the Bentley’s ability to make the trip. I carried the Triple A card with me just in case. Eventually we made our way over the George Washington Bridge for the Thruway leading to Route 17 along the Beaverkill River, to exit 96 for Livingston Manor. So far, the Bentley had only burned gasoline. The brakes worked fine. The Sports were ready for lunch before we were halfway there. My friend Peter navigated us to the Red Apple, a cafeteria-style establishment on Route 17. Today the Red Apple is a decaying roadside diner of the past. It closed permanently in 2006. But for us on our voyage, it was part of the adventure. Peter had spent many breakfasts in the Red Apple on trips upstate in his youth. The rest of us got to discover it anew. Open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, Red Apple was the roadside diner to the stars who played the Catskill circuit from the 1920s through the 1970s. By the time of our visit in 1990 it had lost its luster. The owners of the Red Apple had long passed on and it was now a Greek family that owned it –at that point it still had another 20 years of life. Not Peter’s recollection of it but more than adequate for us. We satisfied our hunger and the four of us—two doctors, a lawyer, and a real estate developer–all of us fishing novices–moved on toward the Beaver Kill exit.
My three buddies and I rambled up Route 17 in my old Bentley to Beaverkill, our fishing destination. I was beginning to regret the Catskill lunch of pastrami and eggs with home fries from our stop at the Red Apple Diner. It was bringing back memories, for all the wrong reasons. I recalled going as a youngster to the Borscht Belt a few times on family vacations. The buffets really stood out: so colorful, bountiful and to my palate, delicious. The hotels had an “all you can eat” policy and I took them at their word. I always paid the price afterward. This situation wasn’t as bad, but after driving into New York City early to pick up the guys I had already been in motion for hours, and now here I was once again suffering the consequences of an excessive, over-indulgent, Catskill meal.
After more than a few stops for gas–the Bentley doesn’t burn gas but devours it at a rate of about a gallon a mile-we arrived at the somewhat ramshackle but charming Beaverkill Valley Inn. The rooms had a subtle, mildewy aroma of many roof leaks past, while a few dead flies dotted the windowsills. We were in the country. I urged everyone to dress casually for the rest of the day–shorts and tee shirts. No fancy Orvis gear when we meet our fly-fishing guide. Downstairs in the parlor, freshly baked cookies and iced tea were offered. My buddies indulged even thought they had just come off a massive meal on the highway. It was free and there were no wives to say stop eating.
Our guide showed up and we met with him on the porch. A cigarette dangled from his lips, he had a scruffy beard and hair that shot out in every direction from under his baseball cap–not exactly the image conveyed by the Town and Country article that had inspired this trip. My friend Leon ignored my sartorial advice and appeared with waders on and his Brooks Brothers shirt with sleeves rolled up to his elbows. The guide took us over to a pond nearby and showed us how to assemble and hold a rod. It all seemed pretty simple until I tried to cast and found my line caught in a tree 30 feet behind me. The guide tied a fly onto a line and I peered over his shoulder to watch the technique. Ashes from his cigarette floated and descended on the feathery little lure. I knew the fly was meant to be a lure or bait but otherwise I was clueless. With the fly tied firmly to the line, the guide took the rod and cast effortlessly into the pond. Almost instantly a trout leaped up to grab the bait. I was astonished. How could that happen to so fast? Well, it seems we were at the “Beginners’ Pond.” It held non-native trout born and bred there for the sole purpose of teaching people like me how to fish. Apparently, they were fed regularly with irresistible food that was the fish equivalent of catnip. The fly was made with this special formula and the fish would have flown into your pocket for it if they knew it was there. “That’s fishing,” the guide said, and we all laughed. Come on I thought, there must be more to it than that. Surely the wild trout in the stream don’t fall for the specially formulated beginner pond fish food. That was true, but the lesson was clear–at least I thought so: entice the fish with what looks like their regular diet. It was a lesson that could be applied to people too, I thought. Give people what they know and like and they’ll keep coming back.
We followed the guide back up to the porch and all sat down at a table for a lesson on flies. He showed us the different fly varieties and how each acted upon the trout’s feeding instinct. He spoke of the entomology of water life that appear to the fish below and on the water. I didn’t understand a thing. My doctor friends were really into the science and asked a lot of questions which were way over my head. Peter asked if there were any more cookies. There is a picture from our visit to Beaverkill of me in my oversized waders and the old fishing vest holding a teacup filled with cookies. It appears to be after a day of fishing on the stream-ha ha. I never caught a thing but a bad stomach on the way up. My fellow “sports” and I enjoyed the drive, the food and especially the cookies. In fact, we packed away a few for the trip home. We would obviously be going back again to Beaverkill, and we did.