By Monte Burke
It was early June and I was on the main stem of the Delaware again, an annual habit that had, decades ago, lurched into an addiction. The solstice was nigh, meaning I didn’t feel insane for staying on the water and casting a fly until 9:30 PM or so. There are a multitude of hatches this time of year that reliably bring up trout—the early-morning blue-winged olives, the caddis, and, of course, the most reliable of them all, the yellow-bodied, white-winged sulphurs. But I was here on this broad, open pool on this grand river, watching the sun drop behind the ancient mountains that line its course, because of the Green Drake, the mayfly that brings up the largest and orneriest trout of the year.
But the Green Drake hatch in the Catskills occupies a strange liminal zone. It is part reality and part myth—unreliable, unseen by many, predicated on faith. Hardcores who religiously chase the hatch view it in the same way a certain faction of theologians interprets parts of the Old Testament, like the evil snake in the Garden, the Tower of Babel, and the Great Flood: Not as literal stories, but as “profoundly true.”
After mating, the Green Drakes sometimes fall from the sky to the water—their bodies morphed into the shape of a cross in an easy-to-see white—and then are eagerly snatched off the surface by big trout. Sometimes, though, they don’t fall at all. But that’s OK. Even the prospect of a Green Drake spinner fall maybe happening is enough for me to drop all appointments, drive up, and allow myself to become wholly absorbed in this land of rivers in southwestern New York state.
When I moved to New York City for a job a few decades ago, I thought I was done for, that some integral part of my very being was about to be forever interred by the concrete. I grew up in the woods and on the waters of Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia. In Gotham, that life appeared to be over and done with, sacrificed at the altar of a budding career, a steady salary, a group healthcare plan, and a 401k.
But then I discovered the Catskills, just a few hours away from the city by car, but eons away in its essence. The rivers that sluiced through the cleavage of the Catskill Mountains—the Beaverkill, Willowemoc, Neversink, Esopus, Schoharie, and the east and west branches and the main stem of the Delaware—were loaded not only with trout, but also with history, the water on which modern fly fishing techniques were pioneered by the likes of Theodore Gordon, Art Flick, and Lee and Joan Wulff.
In the Catskills, I found immediate and nearly insatiable love. The rivers are gorgeous, cold, and clear. The fish—mainly wild browns and rainbows—are enthralling, large, and very hard to fool. The best anglers on the rivers are like the best east coast skiers—sharpened by the less-than-perfect conditions, the opposite of what’s usually found in the more comfortable American West. Parts of the Catskills area, especially low on the main stem of the Delaware, remind me of the South, with lush green hills, long summer nights, lack of citified hurry, and the hint of backwoods menace, of moonshiners and the distant sound of target practice. There’s a dreaminess to the Catskills, a mood that hangs over you like early-morning riversmoke. It all felt like a piece of home.
About the Author
Monte Burke is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Saban: The Making of a Coach, a biography of Alabama head coach, Nick Saban. He is also the author of 4th And Goal: One Man’s Quest to Recapture His Dream, which won an Axiom Award for biography, and Sowbelly: The Obsessive Quest for the World Record Largemouth Bass, which was named one of the best books of the year by Sports Illustrated and Amazon, and was chosen for Barnes & Noble’s “Discover Great New Writers” program. Most recently, Burke authored Lords of the Fly: Madness, Obsession, and the Hunt for the World Record Tarpon. After a 14-year stint as a reporter, staff writer and editor at Forbes, he is now a contributing editor at the magazine. He is also a contributing editor at Garden & Gun and The Drake.
Burke graduated from Middlebury College with a B.A. in Religion. He grew up in New Hampshire, Vermont, North Carolina and Alabama. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughters.