With hatches tapering down instead of ramping up, autumn fishing in the Catskills isn’t the celebration of life that it is in, let’s say, May. Rather, it’s a celebration of another season in the books and preparation for a long winter of either chipping ice off your steelhead rod or warming up behind the vice. It’s about sharing the water with friends and family while soaking up every bit of waning, post-autumn equinox sunlight. Don’t expect big numbers, but there’s always a chance for the elusive 25-inch brown. But hey, if you’re a real angler you know, it’s never about the fish.
The East Branch of the Delaware
Mike meets me at my house in Shohola, Pennsylvania after work. We pack an SUV with all the essential gear (and a cooler full of ice) and head north for the East Branch, making a much anticipated pit stop at Callicoon Brewing Company. After sampling their tap catalogue we settle on the 'No Bull IPA' to enjoy with the ribeye steaks Ryan has waiting for us at his place in the charming Hamlet of Lordville, which lines the banks of the famed Delaware.
Callicoon’s 'No Bull IPA' is bold and strong at 7.5 abv, yet easy to drink thanks to subtle grapefruit and peeled orange rind bittering and lightly pined citric hops over pale malts, it's the perfect Friday afternoon beer to take the edge off the work week and help you transition into the Zen rhythms of the Catskills and its rivers. We finish the night on a reclaimed barn wood table atop a 200-year-old pine floor which overlooks the Delaware from a bay window, spinning flies, organizing fly boxes and cleaning fly lines in preparation and excitement for the weekend ahead, calling it a night when the growlers from Callicoon go empty.
The following morning we rise early and follow Route 191 along the mainstem of the Delaware River to visit friend and manager of Whitetail Country Fly Shop Frank Rosata—who’s letting us crash at his place. We pick up a few odds and ends, drink some of Frank’s coffee and play with Marley, the shop dog, before heading out to explore the upper reaches of the East Branch.
We fish the morning, breaking at the cooler midday for lunch: venison meatloaf with pepper mayo, aged white cheddar on a hard roll alongside some spicy dill Pearce’s Pickles and the real treat—smoked American Eel that Ryan had picked up from Ray Turner’s Delaware Delicacies Smoke House. It’s not cheap at thirty dollars a pound but damn, it’s worth it. Had we been flush with summer daylight, we might have taken a longer lunch and have headed to Raimondo’s in Roscoe for pizza or cheese steaks, though the real treat at Raimondo’s is the homemade pasta for dinner where the Chicken Frances reigns supreme at just $9.99.
Mike and Ryan net some quality fish on streamers and are kind enough to give me the dry fly-eaters which are after Isonychias. There’s something special about late season dry fly takes, especially on those big bugs. But when the sun creeps below the mountains and the sun fades on an Indian summer day, your window shrinks quickly. Sometimes, though, being off the river early has its perks and so we take our time and head to the Rockland House to spoil ourselves with a nice sit-down meal. Walking into any other restaurant with Rockland’s menu in trout bum garb might make one somewhat self-conscious, but we’re immediately put at ease when the hostess asks about the fishing. Our steaks are done to medium-rare perfection, we never wait long for refills on the beers and, if that weren’t enough, the waitress drops a check that turns out to be quite a bit smaller than what we were expecting.
Up early again, we guzzle coffee en route to the Roscoe Diner for some grub before the days fishing. This is a favorite stop when in town for a few reasons: first, diners do the best breakfast. Second, they stock Prohibition spirits and serve bloody Mary’s and Irish coffees at 6:00 am. The waitress has a good sense of humor and tolerates our hangovers well, serving us hair-of-the-dog before taking our food order. I settle on a bloody Mary served with extra horseradish and Prohibition Distillery’s Bootlegger Vodka. Ryan and Mike both enjoy Irish coffees with Bailey’s Irish Cream and Prohibition Distilleries Bootlegger Bourbon. As we take our first sips, we’re reminded why we’re all looking so to a personal tasting with owner and master distiller Brian Facquet later that afternoon.
We polish off our meals, washing them down with a red beer made with Roscoe Brewing Company’s Amber Ale—a staple beer for our coolers, easy to drink with nice toasted notes and a nice mild citrus-hop finish. It drinks fine alone or balances well with V8. “I’ve never heard of red beer, but the Amber Ale is a local favorite,” the waitress notes. “But, most people don’t start enjoying them until after 8:00 am.”
“The tomato juice helps with the guilt,” Mike tells her.
We stop at Catskill Flies to visit with Catskills fly tying fixture Dennis Skarka. The shop has a nice selection of everything you’d need but truthfully we’re just there to watch Dennis at the vice, which is a particularly special treat for avid tiers. Dennis wastes no material or time, churning out efficiently and perfectly tied trout morsels and there’s something more meaningful about the dry fly he hands me as opposed to the ones in the bin, even though Dennis has tied both.
Our next stop is dry fly hackle heaven—also known as The Beaverkill Angler—to chat with friends Evan Lavery (shop owner), Matt Nelson (shop manager) and noted guide Rich Hudgens. The Beaverkill Angler sports one of the greatest selections of premium Whiting Hackle in the nation and Matt hooks me up with a unique neck for Isonychias that’s just perfect for our local bugs. The shop has always had a great selection of tackle, flies and tying materials but after the recent addition and literal doubling of the store, it’s entered landmark territory.
We’re itching to get on the water, but Frank likes the Eagle IPA and so we make our way to the Roscoe Brewing Company. Between the three of us we’ve sampled most of the tap list and so we ask brewer Rich Rogers for a suggestion of something special to enjoy on the river and he points us to Darwin’s Theory, a beer Rich is particularly fond thanks to its constantly evolving recipe. Rich fills us a few growlers that we take with us to the Beaverkill where we discover sporadic small Blue Winged Olives and a smattering of Isonychias. There isn’t much surface action though, and so Ryan and Mike Rig up three weight nymph rods. I kick back on the bank and enjoy watching my friends on this storied river. The fellas land a couple of nice brown trout, nothing breaking 13 inches but we gather to enjoy each other’s small trophies before getting ‘back into it’ and fill up tin FUDR cups with the Rich’s contemplative brew noting its’ obvious tangerine hop character; very juicy with strong citrus notes but enough hops to balance it out.
We take a break around lunch time and visit Prohibition Distillery in the old Roscoe fire house where we meet Brian for a personal tasting and tour I won’t soon forget. It’s clear the man takes great pride in the process, his business, community and country. Prohibition is most noted for its vodka, which is filtered through 800 pounds of charcoal and utilizes no glycerol. Brian begins rattling off all of the medals this spirit has won and after noticing we can’t keep up, just says, “It has more awards than Meryl Streep.” Ryan comments that it’s the cleanest vodka he’s ever tasted and Mike mentions the gin has blown his mind as Brian walks our palates through its subtle yet distinguished notes of juniper, coriander seed, orris root, lemon verbena and bitter orange peels.
“This is something special,” Brian said as he reaches under the bar, unveiling a limited edition of Prohibition Beaverkill Bourbon—a blend of straight whiskeys aged in three different five gallon white oak barrels. Brian explains that, considering the barrel surface to alcohol volume, this gives a year-aged bourbon the same properties as a 15-year-old aged in the traditional “small” cask that is 55 gallons. We sample it before and after opening it up with 3 drops of water. The limited-edition batch, as expected, demands a higher price and so I purchase a bottle for a special occasion (which Brian signs) and another of their standard bourbon for testing on the water that afternoon. Unsurprisingly, Mike walks out with Prohibition’s gin and Ryan with the vodka.
We venture over to the Willowemoc but not before we consulting Dette Fly Shop’s Mike Konecni for hints on what water to hit. Mike’s not only knowledgeable about the latest conditions, he’s particularly generous with specific directions and fly recommendations. Since we’re not far from the Catskills Brewery we figure it’s best if we stop to pick up a few cans to rest in the cold waters of the Willowemoc. Walking through the door and meeting managing partner Kirt Gunn, I ask him to advise a couple of anglers for the best beer to drink on Willowemoc and he points us to the Ball Lightning a Czech style pilsner based from Saaz hops. A clean beer with a refreshing back end bite we all agree, it’s a new favorite day drinking/angling beer. We thank Kirt and head down a discrete, steep mountainside access on the Willowemoc, careful not to shake up beers or break rods. Down at the river Ryan and Mike catch small brown trout in all of the obvious turns, drop-offs and seams.
Nobody I know has ever complained about catching trout, but sometimes it’s nice just to be on the river, so I break just to take it all in. Other than the rushing river, it’s quiet, and easy to imagine that you’ve traveled 100 years back in time.
As the sideways light of the setting sun ignites the freshly turning hardwood trees of the Catskills, we speed along slithering route 17 to an unnamed bar that has Devil’s Path on tap and which just happens to sit along a section of river where we expect a good spinner fall of Isos—because hell, it just seemed fitting. And we weren’t ready yet.
You have to wonder, what is it about drinking beer, sipping whiskey and catching trout with good company that go so well together? And I guess, other than making love, watching the Yankees beat the Red Sox or hitting a grouse on the wing alongside my shorthair June, there’s not all that much that makes me happier. As long as the trout are there and the beer and water are cold, what more can you ask for?