David A. Van Wie
The Beaverkill earned its well-deserved fame during the railroad era, when the fabled Ontario & Western (O&W) Railway ran from New York City through Roscoe, New York. Easy access to this (then) remote and wild river drew pioneers like Theodore Gordon, who introduced the dry fly to American fishing. Gordon wrote articles that further popularized the area, thereby creating disciples who established the tradition of Catskill flies.
One fine fisherman who loved the Beaverkill was Corey Ford, one of my favorite outdoor writers. Ford also happened to be the godfather of Dartmouth Rugby, for reasons I will not go into now, which is how I first heard of him many years ago.
Corey Ford wrote for The New Yorker (imparting on that fine magazine his snarky wit), Vanity Fair, Collier’s, and Life, among many others from the 1920s until the 1950s. He wrote screenplays and several books before becoming a regular contributor to Field and Stream where he created the beloved characters of the Lower Forty Shooting, Angling and Inside Straight Club.
The O&W Railroad brought Ford to Roscoe to fish the famous Junction Pool and the forbidding deep run at Craigie Clair. In his essay, “Profile of a Trout Stream” (reproduced in Trout Tales & Other Angling Stories, 1995), he recounts the history of the Beaverkill, as well as his own history falling in love with the river.
Ford loved to swap stories in smoke-filled rooms with other fly casters at Ferndon’s boarding house. Even back in the day, he lamented that “the fishing isn’t what it used to be,” joking that the Native Americans probably told Henry Hudson the same thing when he sailed up the river in 1609.
The rail station is no longer in downtown Roscoe, although the O&W Museum has a few cars parked just off the main drag. The “Old & Wobbly” was liquidated in 1957, and the abandoned tracks run right in front of the Catskill Fly Fishing Center & Museum (CFFCM) in Livingston Manor, home of the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame. Check out this lovely video about the area and the museum.
I visited the CFFCM on a sweltering May afternoon, and was guided on a personal tour by director Glenn Pontier. The main museum contains many fascinating artifacts, including the fly tying desks of founder Elsie Darbee and a similar desk from Winnie and Walt Dette, original owners of the Dette Fly Shop, reportedly the oldest family run fly shop in the world.
A second building houses the Wulff Gallery upstairs, with exhibits on Lee Wulff and Joan Wulff, and a workshop downstairs where students learn to make bamboo rods on vintage equipment owned by the great Everett Garrison.
The Wulffs brought fly fishing into American living rooms in magazines, TV and movies. Lee died in a plane crash nearby in 1991, but Joan, at age 90, still operates the Wulff School of Fly Fishing in Lew Beach on the upper Beaverkill.
I happened to stop in on a day when the Fly Fishing Center was hosting a group from Back in the Maine Stream, a program that encourages disabled veterans to get involved in fly fishing. As these things go, the trip leader, Marc Bilodeau, lives about 10 miles from me in Maine.
Front and center in the main museum are flies tied by Theodore Gordon himself, along with some letters and other personal papers. The late Alfred W. Miller, known to most as Sparse Grey Hackle, wrote a reverent treatise in 1954 called “The Quest for Theodore Gordon” (republished in 1971 in Fishless Days, Angling Nights) which recounts his life.
Despite all we know about Gordon, there is one notable Mystery at the Museum.
The photo above (in frame) of Gordon fishing with a woman standing in the stream, dressed to the nines, has baffled experts for years. Nobody has been able to identify the woman in the famous photo, which coincidentally reminded me of several photos from my grandfather’s collection that I wrote about in my earlier post, Untold Stories.
After wrapping up my visit at the CFFCM, I headed to the river to try my luck.
I started at Junction Pool, where the Willowemoc River flows into the Beaverkill just below Roscoe village (first photo at top). There I met a gentleman sitting on a rock looking very discouraged and disappointed. I introduced myself and learned that Ed Andrejko was from Burnt Hills, NY, not far from where I grew up.
It was very hot (over 90 degrees) and very sunny, and Ed said he was frustrated that there were so many tree droppings (catkins) in the water, so he couldn’t drift a dry fly or nymph without fouling his hook.
I seemed to cheer him up by telling him about my quest, and asking him about his favorite fishing stories. He said he likes John Gierach. Turns out, though, that his favorite stories are his own. He told me one about a horse that came down to the bank of the Big Horn River in Montana, wanting to share the sandwich Ed had just finished eating. The horse almost pushed Ed into the river, insisting that he produce something more from his pocket. Finally his partner came by and shooed the horse away.
A second story he called “Fishing to Music.” He was fishing the Big Hole River, also in Montana, when he came upon a wedding party in a big field under a tent. As Ed fished 100 yards away, the band struck up a tune and the bride and groom danced while Ed cast his line to the music playing into the evening.
Junction Pool was crowded, and I was disappointed to see that Route 17, now a four lane divided superhighway, crosses above the pool. The roar of the trucks detracts mightily from the historic ambiance of the setting.
I decided to drive to the upper Beaverkill to find the Covered Bridge above Theodore Gordon’s favorite pool. As I followed the scenic river through the much quieter country side, it was hard not to be disappointed that this entire stretch of river is posted by private trout clubs. I am sure they do the river and the trout therein a great service by keeping fishing pressure down, and preserving the undeveloped shoreline, and thus the water quality. But the menacing posted signs again detract from the historic charm.
Shortly after passing the Beaverkill Community Church (where I suppose everyone prays to the fishing gods), I came upon the famous covered bridge, which has been completely rebuilt, although it was not yet open to traffic. I made a few casts in bright sunshine into Gordon’s pool, but saw no signs of fish, except for the trout caught by a fellow on a worm and bobber just above the bridge.
It was good to know there are fish there, but I decided to move on.
Finally, as the sun began to dip toward the treetops, I made my way down to Hendrickson’s Pool, which according to the sign was the favorite pool of Alfred Hendrickson, for whom the famous dry fly pattern, originally tied by Roy Steenrod in 1916, is named.
The pool is also beautifully captured in a painting, Hendrickson’s Pool, Beaverkill, by Ogden Pleissner published by the Orvis Company. Fortunately, the pool is far enough from Route 17 that the traffic noise was well muted by the riffle by the pool.
Another fisherman arrived as I was getting settled, and kindly gave me some pointers on where the fish tend to lie. I looked upstream and the pool above was crowded with a half dozen anglers who I would guess were casting to rising fish. Or waiting for them to start rising.
Sadly, I had to leave before the prime hatch time at dusk. I was not fortunate enough to get a strike or even see a rise on that warm (85 to 90 degrees) and sunny day. But I am sure the fish are in there.
The Beaverkill is a mecca for fly fisherman. The railroad helped to “create” the Beaverkill as a destination. Sadly, the highway (specifically Route 17 which criss-crosses Willowemoc and Beaverkill rivers for miles) has dulled, perhaps destroyed, the charm of the place, for me at least.
Maybe if I had caught a couple big fish, I wouldn’t be singing the Beaverkill Blues. I am sure that some anglers don’t mind the highway noise, or choose to tune it out as they focus on the fish and the history, but I suspect others find it a buzz kill.
Regardless, the Beaverkill is a remarkable place. It was an honor to wade her waters and soak in her history.
But, as Corey Ford, said, “the fishing isn’t what it used to be.”