American Fly Fishing

By Mike Valla

Mary Dette told me recently, “We found some things in our basement, after the flood. They’re pretty caked in mud, but they will surely bring a smile.”
   Nearby Willowemoc Creek had jumped its bank a couple of years prior, sending water rushing into Mary’s basement. Mary, now in her 80s and still tying trout flies, is the daughter of Walt and Winnie Dette, members of the famous Catskill school of fly tiers in New York.
   The “school” began in the late 1800s with Theodore Gordon, considered by many to be the father of dry-fly fishing in America, and continued into the next century with luminaries such as Rube Cross, Roy Steenrod, Herm Christian, the Dettes, Harry and Elsie Darbee, Art Flick, and Ray Smith. These tiers practiced their craft on the trout streams flowing through the Catskill Mountains region in New York. The Dettes began tying trout flies in the late 1920s, having learned the craft by untying Rube Cross’s sparsely tied dry flies after he refused to offer instructions to Walt.
   Trout-filled Catskill streams such as the Beaver Kill, Willowemoc Creek, Neversink River, Schoharie Creek, and Esopus Creek attracted fly anglers from near and far. Their productive waters produced prolific hatches that inspired fly tiers to develop trout flies that would successfully bring fish to the net. Fly fishers needed patterns that would imitate Catskill aquatic insects and baitfish; until the birth of the Catskill school of fly design, American anglers largely adhered to concepts and patterns from the British Isles. 
   Dry flies that imitated the various local mayflies filled Catskill fly shop bins by the hundreds. The patterns typically took their names from the insects, such as the Quill Gordon, Hendrickson and Red Quill, March Brown, Light Cahill, Cream Variant, and Dun Variant. These effective patterns, among others, were found in every Catskill angler’s fly box. They were soon found to be useful around the entire Northeast and eventually
coast to coast.
   In his now classic May 1972 Outdoor Life magazine article titled “The Catskill Flytyers,” Cecil Heacox listed the most popular dry flies fished on Catskill waters. In the mix were the Quill Gordon, Red Quill, Hendrickson, Conover, and Light Cahill. Walt Dette was quoted as saying, “If a Catskill fisherman doesn’t have a supply of these flies, he feels he’s
fishing naked.”
   Yet Catskill region fly tiers did not limit themselves to floating flies imitating mayflies. They also created nymphs, wet flies, and streamers to pursue subsurface fishing strategies. The sheer variety and abundance of Catskill streams’ fish food sources kept the Catskill school fly tiers very busy.
   In a quest to design effective fly patterns, Catskill fly tiers and fly fishers took on dual roles as both anglers and entomologists. Which brings me back to the “things” Mary Dette found caked in mud after Willowemoc Creek spilled water into the Dette house basement in Roscoe, New York. When Mary handed me the small glass collection vials, each still half-filled with alcohol, I immediately smiled. Inside each vial was a mayfly or stonefly nymph and identification tag noting the species, water body, and date collected:
March 22–28, 1975.
   There were 100 of the insect-filled vials I gave to Walt Dette all those years ago, a collection made to satisfy the requirements of the Bionomics of Fresh-Water Invertebrates course I was enrolled in at Cornell University. I spent my entire spring college break that year as a houseguest of the Dettes, devoting my efforts to completing the task at hand. I knew exactly the best place to head to get the job done: the fish-food-rich Catskill streams.
   One collection vial contained an Epeorus pleuralis nymph. The Quill Gordon dry fly (see In the Vise/Quill Gordon this issue) is Theodore Gordon’s signature pattern, imitating the dun stage of this important mayfly. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Theodore Gordon’s death, in 1915; it’s fitting to say a few words about this dark-gray mayfly that emerges on Catskill streams in April.
   Trout readily rise to Epeorus duns during this early-season hatch, and a regular Quill Gordon dry fly will catch fish. But fishing the nymph is also effective, either as a match for the insect itself or as a general attractor pattern.
   Another important early-season Catskill mayfly is Ephemerella subvaria, the male imitated by Art Flick’s Red Quill and the female by Roy Steenrod’s or Flick’s Hendrickson. Flick practiced his craft on Schoharie Creek in the northern Catskills, where he devoted three seasons to collecting bugs; the result was the emergence tables that appear in his Streamside Guide to Naturals and Their Imitations (1947). His Red Quill is still an effective pattern that has never let me down. Other patterns in the guide are also effective, especially large-hackle variants such as Flick’s Cream Variant and Dun Variant. Flick insisted, in a 1958 discussion with New York Times outdoor writer John W. Randolph, that he could fish all summer with only six patterns—the Variants.
   Flick’s Dun Variant is a great pattern for fishing Isonychia bicolor emergences. However, Walt Dette’s Isonychia nymph is one of the very best patterns to use for this slate-colored mayfly. One of those collection vials that Mary Dette found in her basement contains the minnow-like nymph, and it did bring a smile from me. I have fond memories of Walt showing me how to tie his pattern.
   Isonychia bicolor nymphs swim to rocks, where they crawl out of the water and emerge. Walt used ostrich herls wrapped along the fly’s abdomen to simulate the nymph’s gills. However, the swimming behavior of the insect can be best imitated by using a simple Lead Wing Coachman wet fly, something Flick’s Catskill mentor, Preston Jennings, suggested in his A Book of Trout Flies (1935).
   Catskill fish food isn’t limited to mayflies. Caddisfly and stonefly patterns were developed to imitate or suggest those insects. As far back as the 1930s, the Dettes tied a pattern called the Conover for Scotty Conover, a member of the Brooklyn Fly Fishing Club, for use on the Beaver Kill. My first good brown trout, a 17-inch beauty, was taken on a Conover in Barnhart’s Pool on the Beaver Kill in 1972. The Dette fly shop still ties
the pattern.
   The Dette shop also still produces its yellow Stonefly Nymph, a pattern first developed in 1964 to imitate Acroneuria abnormis or Agnetina capitata stoneflies. Those are the big, juicy Golden Stoneflies. Harry Darbee’s Darbee Stonefly is also an effective A. abnormis or A. capitata nymph imitation, not only on Catskill streams but nearly everywhere trout swim.
   Nymphs, wet flies, and dry flies aside, I would be remiss not to mention Art Flick’s Blacknose Dace bucktail, which he designed to imitate the common blacknose dace minnow, Rhinichthys atratulus. By examining the stomach contents of trout, Flick discovered that the minnow was an important fish food.
   Indeed, Catskill stream trout have lots of foods to choose from. Catskill patterns that many now call classics were developed to represent all of the food types that inhabit Catskill waters. Those patterns satisfied the needs of fly fishers for many years, and—critically—they were the foundation of the purely American trout flies, many of which gained popularity in far-off Rocky Mountain waters and the distant trout streams of California and the Northwest. To this day, a Quill Gordon or Hendrickson or Variant is as deadly on trout as ever. The fish themselves are not so capricious as to have developed tastes exclusively for more modern patterns; rather, the Catskill classics catch fewer fish these days only because fewer anglers fish them.


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