David A. Van Wie
My Homerian Odyssey
My Storied Waters journey has only been four weeks so far, not ten years. Still, like Homer's Odysseus, I have seen some fantastic places, matched wits with great piscine beasts, and encountered fabulous people in exotic locations.
As I began exploring the Adirondacks, the Homer in question was not the ancient poet, however, but the artist from a later era: Winslow Homer, who began visiting the Keene Valley near the Ausable River in 1870. He typically visited the North Woods Club (originally called the Adirondack Preserve Association) on the east side of the Hudson River near the present village of Indian Lake and painted prolifically across the Adirondack region.
Homer’s watercolors depict not only the rugged landscape and scenery, but also friends in fancy clothes hiking in the mountains and grizzled Adirondack guides fishing on ponds and rivers. An avid fly fisherman, he loved painting trout leaping from the water to catch mayflies in the air or rising to take a fisherman’s fly. Homer captured the native brook trout's stunning colors (“like tropical birds” said one reviewer) with breathtaking accuracy.
Homer painted in the Adirondacks from 1870 until his death in 1910, with just an eleven year hiatus starting in 1878 during which he produced some of his most famous paintings in Maine, England, Cuba and Nassau. His own Homerian odyssey, you might say.
He returned to the Adirondacks in 1889, then as a member of the North Woods Club, with his technique and reputation at their zenith. His watercolors from that period are my favorites: Casting A Rise (1889), Casting In The Falls (1889), Netting the Fish (1889) and Casting The Fly (1894) are classic scenes of fishing before the turn of the new century. I was hoping to re-enact some of those famous scenes as part of my #StoriedWaters tour.
[It is worth noting that the Adirondack Park was created at right about this time, in 1894. The 6.5 million acre park is over three times the size of Yellowstone National Park, with just over half the area in private land (under strict regulation) and 45% publicly owned "forest preserve" protected as "forever wild" by the state constitution, one of only two constitutionally-protected landscapes in the world, according to the Adirondack Council. Over a million acres is designated as wilderness.]
When I entered the Adirondack Park on Saturday (June 3), my first stop was the impressive Adirondack Experience museum in Blue Mountain Lake to see their exhibit on fly fishing. I also picked up a copy of David Tatham’s informative book, Winslow Homer in the Adirondacks (Syracuse Univ. Press, 1996) to guide me on this part of my odyssey.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, ‘Stories Untold’ (April 27, 2017), my paternal grandfather was a member of the Gooley Club in the early 1900s, a private hunting and fishing club just across the Hudson River from the North Woods Club. Checking my map, I realized that the museum was just a few miles from the Gooley Club Road, so I ventured to see if I could find my grandfather's old stomping grounds. The rough road ended where the Indian River enters the Hudson River, just upstream of Mink Brook where Winslow Homer often painted.
There I found the old “lower” Gooley Club house, looking down across a clearing to the Hudson. Homer’s painting Rapids – Hudson River, Adirondacks (1894) was likely painted on this rough and tumble stretch of river between the two clubs.
Vacant and boarded up, the old house will be removed soon, so I understand, as the land there is now state-owned and open to the public. I'm quite sure my grandfather sat on that porch, and I'd bet he fished those waters during the later years of Homer’s time in the Adirondacks. My grandfather had photos that appear to be from the 1890 to 1910 time frame, so the two men very well could have waved to one another across the river.
Both the Hudson and the Indian River were running fast, but I found a few quieter spots to put a fly. I had no luck, unfortunately, although there were a few mayflies and plenty of deer flies in the air. After an hour, I had to move on to get to my sister’s farm in Westport. It was quite a thrill, nonetheless, casting a line where my grandfather had fished, hunted and photographed, and where Winslow Homer had fished, hunted and painted.
I tipped my hat to my grandfather and Mr. Homer, and headed north.
Down On The Farm
Nancy and her husband, Eddie, operate Crane Mountain Valley Horse Rescue, a non-profit educational and humanitarian organization, where they rehabilitate abused or injured horses. They currently have about 16 horses (with several ready for adoption!) plus a full complement of pigs, chickens, gardens, dogs, and other farm animals that keep them busy and fed. Eddie works at the farm full time. In her day job, Nancy works hard to protect this spectacular region as Director of Philanthropy for the Adirondack Land Trust. In a twist of family fate, Nancy had a hand in the State of New York’s acquisition of the land where our grandfather’s beloved Gooley Club was located, preserving the land, ponds and streams as "forever wild" for public enjoyment.
There is a lovely pond feeding into the Black River out behind the horse corrals. The resident trout are kept wary by the ospreys, herons, bitterns, otters and other predators that abound in the woods and fields. Nancy paddled me around the pond one lovely evening while the trout were rising, but I wasn't able to entice a big brown trout to take a fly.
Their farm was my home base for the four days as I explored the Adirondacks, starting with the Schroon River on Sunday morning.
There I met my brother, Doug, who had driven up from Troy to join me. He and I had fished this river together maybe 15 years ago or so.
The Schroon was running very high, but with the advice of Paul "Boze" Cummings, a local fisherman who we met in the parking area, we found some fishable water upstream at a big eddy below a roaring drop in the river.
I managed to fool a 10” brown trout with a dry fly, and Doug had one on a nymph before losing it from too much slack in his line. After I headed back north on my own to explore more water, Doug was very happy to report that he landed a nice rainbow from the gravel bar below the bridge where we had parked.
Big Bad Wulff
My next stop was the famed Ausable River (pronounced aw-SAY-bull here), which was written about by local legends Ray Bergman (Trout, 1938) and Fran Betters (“Fish are Smarter in the Adirondacks” 1983).
After grabbing a tasty sandwich in Keene Valley, I pulled over near the library in Upper Jay to throw a line into the East Branch of the Ausable. I saw no rises (and no grackles) on a sunny afternoon, so I didn’t spend too much time here, having in mind a specific destination for the evening on the West Branch recommended by Nancy’s friend Dirk Bryant.
On Dirk’s advice, I made a short stop at the Hungry Trout fly shop to stock up on Ausable Bombers and Ausable Wulffs (a mahogany-bodied version of a big fluffy Wulff-style mayfly, invented by Fran Betters). There I had a nice chat with Jack Yanchitis- aka caddyshackjack on Instagram – an effusive college student and certified guide who grew up near Saranac Lake. Jack gave me some good pointers, and got me excited to get onto the river.
I had promised Dirk I wouldn’t divulge his special spot, but I will say it was a long but lovely afternoon walk to the river through towering jack pines and white pines. Dirk had told me to “pick your water carefully” so I worked my way downstream until I found a nice long deep run with good cover. I saw plenty of mayflies and caddis over the water, but oddly no rises on some lovely stretches.
I first tried the Ausable Bomber in several pools with no luck, and a big Stimulator as suggested by caddyshackjack. Finally, I decided to put a nymph dropper on a high-floating #10 Ausable Wulff.
First cast: SLAM! A big brown hit the big bad Wulff like a sledgehammer, and I had a howling joy ride on my hands with a 3-weight rod and the heavy current. I worked to keep the fish from diving down into the rocks and moved him into the slower current along the shore for netting.
My first Ausable brown turned out to be “only” fourteen inches, but it was as fat as a Central Park dachshund. I caught two more equally rotund twelve-inch browns in short order out of that same run before I worked my way back upstream to hike out in the oncoming dusk.
A Beautiful Boquet
On Monday, Nancy had arranged for me to meet her friend, philanthropist and conservationist Peter Paine, another avid fly fisherman, for a lovely lunch in Willsboro. Peter showed me where his family had once owned a paper mill on the lower Boquet River, proudly taking me to where the dam had been recently removed to allow passage of landlocked salmon and other fish from Lake Champlain to spawn in the upper Boquet. It's a lovely spot with a big pool at the bottom of the 30-foot cascading falls.
With success on the Ausable, I wanted to try some other water later that evening so Eddie took me to one of his favorite spots on the upper Boquet near Elizabethtown.
The water there was crystal clear, wadeable and lovely. Again, I noticed no fish rising in the long glides, but I admired an osprey flying upriver carrying a hefty fish in its talons, so I knew that someone was having some luck.
I tried a variety of dries, streamers and nymphs but with no success. Back at the truck, Eddie reported that he had caught three ten to twelve inch browns upstream on his spinning rig, set up with wormy-looking lures that were effective in the foamy plunge pools. Clearly, he had the technique of the day. My ego couldn't wait to get back home for a beer.
After a rainy Tuesday spent writing at the beautiful Westport Library overlooking Lake Champlain, my final Adirondack outing on Wednesday morning was to another secret location – I’ll call it Lucy Pond. Eddie wanted me to experience a remote, undeveloped pond with big wild trout, much like the ponds that Homer captured in his paintings.
I had hoped to get into Follensby Pond where the famous Philosopher's Camp brought together the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louis Agassiz and Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar in 1858. Unfortunately, access to Follensby is tightly restricted at this time.
The pond where Eddie took me required serious 4WD in his truck to cross a beaver-flooded road. The pond was gorgeous, with mist rising in the early morning sunshine.
A rowboat was conveniently stashed at the pond, so Eddie played the part of Winslow Homer's grizzled Adirondack Guide, rowing while I cast toward shore.
On our first lap around the perimeter, I caught a small chub and a tiny but beautiful bluegill on my nymph dropper. On the second pass, trolling a bit deeper, Eddie caught the first brook trout – 14.5 hefty inches – on his spinning rig. I then started trolling my sinking line and streamer fly and soon hooked a small horse – a two-fisted brookie about 18 inches long (we didn’t measure before releasing it) on a Mickey Finn.
After Eddie caught one more native trout, we had to call it a day, so I could move on to Vermont in time to meet my darling wife for a romantic dinner, our first reunion after my four weeks on the road.
An Epic Reunion
I opted not to disguise myself as a beggar, nor did I have to slay any suitors upon our reunion. Cheryl and I met in Hanover, NH and had a delicious dinner at The Canoe Club restaurant on Main Street, then stayed at the historic Lake Mitchell Trout Club in Sharon, Vermont as a guest of my good friend Bob Chamberlin. Cheryl headed home on Thursday, while I stayed to write and fish for two more days.
My Storied Waters odyssey continues for another fortnight, so we’ll see what further adventures unfold between now and my final homecoming.
I hope our dog, April, will recognize me, as Argos did Odysseus, when I return.
All photos are by the author unless otherwise noted.
#StoriedWaters #Adirondacks #AusableRiver #ADK #WinslowHomer