Fly Fishing: Roger Menard’s Tale of the Esopus

© J.N. Urbanski

This week I interviewed Roger and Lisa Menard on the subject of fly fishing and Roger read the remarks that he gave to the Angler’s Club of NY in New York City in November 2009 on fishing the River Esopus. Here’s the full transcript:

The Esopus The Way It Was by Roger Menard

It has been nearly fifty years since Keith Fulsher and I were invited to the Angler’s Club to show a film I had taken of Keith tying streamer flies. On that evening I had the pleasure of meeting Guy Jenkins, a correspondent and friend of Theodore Gordon, the father of the dry fly in America. Since I had previously met both Roy Steenrod and Herman Christian, for me this completed meeting Gordon’s circle of friends.

I’ve been asked to speak about sixty years of fishing the Esopus, my home river. Well…this is no easy task. I could talk of the 25 small fish days or the 15-20-inch rainbows taken on a dry fly but you’ve all had splendid days on your own favorite waters. Instead, I have chosen to pay tribute to a river whose 60 years are much the same as a man’s life; a friend whose moments of joy, whose trials, tribulations, and secrets have been shared with me and have become imprinted in my memory forever.

For those of you who are not familiar with the river, allow me to explain. The Esopus is born high in the Catskills not far from her sister rivers the Beaverkill and the Neversink. Rising from cold mountain springs the river quickens below the Winisook tumbling over hemlock-covered pools and flat cobblestone riffles. Small tributaries filter into the main stream as it passes through Oliverea and Big Indian. These headwaters are the nurseries of young fingerling trout: wild browns, parr-marked rainbows, and the occasional brook trout.

At Allaben, the river widens considerably due to a cold water release through the portal, the end of an 18-mile tunnel connected to the Schoharie Reservoir. The Esopus below the portal is a big, brawling river with rapids, large boulders, and deep pools and, like the rest of the river, is given to fits of flooding. This causes erosion due to the endowment of clay banks. After heavy rains the river can cloud for days or even weeks at a time. It can wreak havoc with the fly hatches and it is the reluctantly accepted bane of the Esopus angler.

Below Boiceville the river empties into the Ashokan Reservoir. Built in the early 1900s, this big lake is “Mother Sea” to adult rainbows that spawn in the spring and brown trout that spawn later in the fall. Incidentally, the rainbows, which the Esopus is famous for, are descendants of the McCloud River located near Shasta, California. They were transplanted in the early 1880s.

Historically, this was a Preston Jennings river, an Art Flick river (along with his beloved Schoharie), an Arnold Gingrich river, a Paul O’Neill river, and the river of the well-known local fly tier, Ray Smith.

It is a river filled with the spirits of my dear departed friends: Frank Mele, Harry Schadt, Martin Warnes, and Dr. Morthland to name but a few, who shared many a pool and evening rise with me.

This was a river of opening days with cold water running high and off-color, of white exhaust fumes seeping from automobiles in pre-dawn hours, of shivering anglers donning their waders, assembling their tackle and circling the pools in search of spawning rainbows. They were an eclectic bunch, fishing with everything from flies in Wheatley boxes, salmon eggs not in Wheatley boxes, minnows, nightcrawlers, and (if you want to believe it) orange-dyed tapioca tied up in little sacks.

It was a river of Dick Kahill’s Rainbow Lodge in Mount Tremper, the Phoenicia Hotel, and boarding houses with waders hanging from porches; of Elmer’s Diner, with its smell of coffee, bacon, and pipe smoke. It’s still there, boarded up and covered with overgrown bushes, of Hoffman’s Diner, known for freshly baked strawberry rhubarb pies.

It was a river of old fly rods with permanent sets that wintered over on garage walls. It was a river of Payne, Leonard, Orvis, and F.E. Thomas rods, Hardy and Vom Hofe reels, custom tied flies, leather brogues, willow creels, and British waders.

It was a river of the Folkert brothers’ store in Phoenica, the “Abercrombie and Fitch” of the Eastern Catskills. With Germanic perfection, Herman and Dick stocked the shelves with an array of imported goods. For the angler, there were Hardy, Pezon Michel, and Orvis fly rods, the finest reels, Ashaway fly lines, and bins and bins of Ray Smith’s flies. In the rear of the store they had a refrigerator filled with cups of tiny red wigglers, selling these with the same smooth spiel as if they were the finest fully-dressed feather-wing salmon flies. The brothers were that good!

It was a river of old bridges, of railroad tracks and trains, of standing on a small platform on the side of the trestle below the Bend pool waiting for an oncoming train to pass, and moving only when you heard the final clickety-clack of the wheels and saw a fading red caboose.

It was the seasonal cycle of fishing, searching the tributaries with a Black Ghost or a Phoenicia Bucktail for early spring rainbows. Later, it was Quill Gordons, Hendricksons, March Browns, Gray Foxes, and Dun Variants. It was fishing wet flies: Leadwing Coachmans, Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ears, and Ray Smith’s three wet fly rig in fast water. In the fall, it was casting large streamers for big browns.

It was a river of the big one that got away, of being snubbed by small rainbows that refused the dry fly put over them time and time again, and of successes, every once-in-a-while sharing a trout for breakfast.

It was a river of Phlox, Indian Pipe, fall Asters, and of Roses for my wife picked next to an abandoned farmhouse.

Today, Folkerts is gone. The diners are gone. All the names mentioned are no more and the trains no longer cross the trestle. Silence rests where there was once sound. But though change is inevitable – certainly with more people today and more activities on the river – what remains are the fond memories and the rainbow trout that continue to make their migration every spring, the browns in the fall. Perhaps in another 50 springs, someone will speak here of his angling memories. I certainly hope so, and wish him well.

Roger Menard is author of My Side of the River: Reflections of a Catskill Fly Fisherman.

2 thoughts on “Fly Fishing: Roger Menard’s Tale of the Esopus

  1. Todd Spire

    I heard Roger read this at the 1st Trout Tales event at Spillian three years ago. Thank you so much for publishing it. “Primary source,” history of the Catskills.

    Reply

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