Monthly Archives: September 2009

A Must-Read: ‘Tying Catskill-Style Dry Flies’

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.”

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Remembering Fran Betters, Sage of the Ausable

Fran Betters, champion of the West Branch of the Ausable in the Adirondack Mountains and inventor of some of the most popular and effective fishing flies, died Sunday.

Betters had been in poor health, and had acknowledged on his Web site that he hoped to “hang on a bit longer in hopes of finding the right person to buy my shop.”

It was Betters who in the 1950s came up with the idea of using one propped-up clump of deer hair as both the wings and legs of a dry fly – a simple, sturdy pattern known as the Haystack that suggested an Isonychia mayfly bobbing on the Ausable’s brawling currents. The same construction using snowshoe hare’s foot fur instead of deer hair became the Usual, a generalist emerger/dun that has caught trout from coast to coast, while the basic structure of the Haystack was tidied up to become the Comparadun and Sparkle Dun – slim, flush-floating flies that catch trout where traditional hackled dry flies won’t.

Betters pretty much considered the West Branch of the Ausable the best trout stream in the world. Advancing age and old injuries from a car accident kept him off the water in recent years, but he could still be found from morning until night cranking out Picket Fins, Ausable Wulffs and other signature patterns at a messy tying station in the middle of his shop.

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Fran Betters and Bob Mead at Betters' shop, the Evening Hatch, in 2007.

“No self-respecting fly rodder, on a pilgrimage to the West Branch of the Ausable River, would even think of putting a wadered foot in its storied waters without first stopping in at the Evening Hatch to pay homage to the High Peaks gatekeeper,” said longtime friend and renowned tier of ultra-realistic flies Bob Mead.

When In Rome (N.Y.), the Palmered Caddis

I’ve never seen this fly used or mentioned by anyone who wasn’t from central New York State. It’s meant to be a fluttering-style caddis dry fly, with a beefy peacock herl body, brown and grizzly hackles palmered in neat, open spirals and no wing at all. People have been catching big browns on West Canada Creek, the Black River and other rivers near Utica, N.Y. on this fly since the 1960s.

Del Mazza, the Catskill dry-fly expert from Utica, credits one Dick Malarzzo of Rome, N.Y. with inventing the pattern. John Bianco of nearby Westmoreland, another local expert, hears it may actually have been someone other than Malarzzo. Everyone agrees the fly originated in Rome, N.Y. in the mid-20th century. And everyone agrees it’s a great dancing dry when caddis are about and a good attractor pattern just about anytime.palmered caddis

Tenkara!

East Branch of the Delaware River in Margaretville, N.Y., just upstream of Pepacton Reservoir. At long last, I fished my very own tenkara outfit — 12-foot collapsible rod, 13-foot braided line fixed to the tip. The day was great but the fishing was slow. I caught two average trout, the kind I would have been happy to catch on my 5-weight, and hooked a smallmouth that went at least two pounds. The limber rod handled the bass just fine. The fish broke the tippet only because I gave up too soon and tried to grab the line. Had I been patient enough to lead the bass to my net, I am certain I would have landed it — on 6X tippet.

In the tenkara spirit, I shed my vest. With no D-ring on my shirt, I hung my net from my wading belt. My net is the kind with a strip of fine, white mesh that acts as a seine you can use to see what critters are in the water. When I landed my second trout, there was an olive shrimp in the net, very similar to the Green Rockworm Czech nymph I was fishing. Interesting.

tenkara butttenkara netjoan wulffNo camera with us on this trip, so the photos here are from last spring — fishing a wild-trout stream in the lower Hudson Valley, and Joan Wulff — former distance casting champion Joan Wulff — trying out a tenkara on the Willowemoc Creek in front of the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum.

Here’s a video of my friend Chris Stewart hooking up, and here’s one of Joan with the tenkara rod. You can see her pretend to double haul.