With each year that goes by, the men and women who more or less invented American fly-fishing in the Catskill Mountains in the early 20th century fade a little further into the past.
Some of the rivers they fished and wrote about have been buried by reservoirs for half a century. And they flies they invented and perfected — like the phones they used and the cars they drove — have been supplanted by sleeker, more effective models.
But for those of us who love fly-fishing and fly-tying, the stories of the Dettes and the Darbees, the Hendrickson and the Quill Gordon still resonate. We see the black-and-white photos of them at their tying benches or on the stream with their rods, and the connection between what we do and what they did is a tight, straight line. Much has changed from then to now, but the game is the same.
A new book brings the era of the Catskills fly-tiers vividly to life. “Tying Catskill-Style Dry Flies” is a fresh look at the rivers, the fishing, the personalities and the history by Mike Valla of Stony Creek, N.Y.
“I think people that don’t pay attention to this history are missing out on a lot of the enjoyment of the sport,” said Valla, who enjoyed extraordinary access to the figures at the heart of Catskill fly-tying and fishing through his close relationship with Walt and Winnie Dette. “I think it makes the sport more interesting to know the roots of it.”
In 1969, the 15-year-old Valla took a bus from his hometown of Binghamton to fish the Beaverkill. Winnie Dette, who had sold Valla flies earlier that day, sent Walt – by now already famous – to track Valla down on the river and make sure he didn’t miss the bus home.
“From that time forward,” Valla writes, “I stayed with the Dettes on many occasions, particularly during teenage and college summers. I fondly remember Winnie tucked in her fly-tying cubbie on the right side while Walt tied in his domain to her left. I usually squeezed in between them, intently watching Walt while persistently tugging at Winnie to talk about the famous Catskill fly-tiers.” Valla soaked up the banter in the Dettes’ fly shop, hanging out with luminaries like Art Flick. By the time he finished high school, he knew the Beaverkill so well he was a little sick of it.
Valla’s book includes a fine survey of the Catskills streams – the Beaverkill River, Willowemoc Creek, Esopus Creek, Neversink River and Schoharie and West Kill creeks. Naturally, there is plenty of ink on Theodore Gordon, Flick, the Dettes and Harry and Elsie Darbee, but there are also entries on less-publicized but important fly-tiers, such as “tall, lean and coppery-skinned” Ray Smith, dean of the Esopus, and Louis Rhead, with his imaginative flies, suspect entomology and bizarre death.
“Tying Catskill-Style Dry Flies” is above all a fly-tying book, and tiers will love learning the details of how the masters plied their craft. Precisely what vises they used, what surgical instruments they used as hackle pliers, what color thread they used (you might be surprised), what they discovered when they dissected Rube Cross’s flies – this stuff is priceless. There are also a number of fascinating, rarely seen photos and documents from the American Museum of Fly Fishing and the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum.
“Tying Catskill-Style Dry Flies” also includes chapters on modern Catskill fly-tiers, whose flies sometimes seem unorthodox to the old-timers – but not to Valla. He loves making the traditional flies, but when he’s out for trout, he uses what works.
“If I’m on the flats on the East Branch of the Delaware, I’m not going to stick a Quill Gordon out there in June or July on a slick, gin-clear flat,” he said. “There’s plenty of times I’ll be on the river just fishing parachutes or Comparaduns.”
“When someone hands me a fly, and I see they’re taking fish and I’m not, I’ll take it,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not stupid.”