I could tell by Friday, June 12th, that my days were numbered, that the fishing I’d been enjoying in my favorite “fishing hole” for the last few weeks was about to run out. It wasn’t the weather – it was a gorgeous day. But the weed growth had already been steady, and the weather report was promising temperatures in the 90’s. May is pretty much always a great month for fishing. June, sometimes, first part anyway. July, almost never, unless you’re in Alaska, maybe, or Montana. But I am in none of those.
I am in New York, back to my original “home stream,” the entirely manmade and artificially maintained cascade of Central Park’s northern water features. It begins with “The Pool,” just off Central Park West in the low 100’s. One of the Park’s more natural look View more...I could tell by Friday, June 12th, that my days were numbered, that the fishing I’d been enjoying in my favorite “fishing hole” for the last few weeks was about to run out. It wasn’t the weather – it was a gorgeous day. But the weed growth had already been steady, and the weather report was promising temperatures in the 90’s. May is pretty much always a great month for fishing. June, sometimes, first part anyway. July, almost never, unless you’re in Alaska, maybe, or Montana. But I am in none of those.
I am in New York, back to my original “home stream,” the entirely manmade and artificially maintained cascade of Central Park’s northern water features. It begins with “The Pool,” just off Central Park West in the low 100’s. One of the Park’s more natural looking, relatively unornamented water bodies, it’s quite small and shallow, fed from a hidden pipe mimicking a mountain stream. Because most of its water enters straight from New York City’s unparalleled fresh water supply system, it’s quite clear, in April and May, before the aquatic plants have a chance to multiply as the water warms up. But once the weeds take over, I can’t fish any fly unless it floats – a dry fly or a foam beetle imitation – because any drift at all would catch weeds or algae – “salad,” my long time guide Rob calls it – “and fish don’t like salad.” So I cast to specific fish I can see through openings in the weed growth, and if I don’t get any reaction, hoist it up and cast again.
I like to get here in the morning, but late enough to avoid the dog owners who often let their dogs go into the water where they scare the fish and stir up sediment. This morning, just as I arrived and set up to survey the water, I was treated to the sight of a pair of Black Crested Night Herons arriving in a sort of formation -- almost showing off -- before swooping off to roost in a tree on the far side. I cast to pockets for a half hour or so, couldn’t raise a single fish. So I reeled in my line and headed on to see what might be going on elsewhere. At the eastern end of the Pool there’s a rustic wooden bridge over a stream that drops over a waterfall and becomes the beginning of the Loch, a meandering stream that continues east across the Park until reaches the Meer, mid-Park.
After walking past the end of the Pool, down a path and through the spectacular, medieval-looking Glen Span Arch, I saw a small pod of fish feeding in a narrow slot surrounded by weeds; maneuvered my way past them, cast back, taking great care not to snag my line in any of the trees or brush that lurked all around me; hooked, landed and released two small bluegill and one tiny, tiny largemouth bass. Once, a mother came along just as I hoisted up one of the bluegill. I showed it to her toddler, who was thrilled, touching it and squealing with delight. Then I walked on through the length of the Ravine with its steep banks and spectacular, mature trees on both sides – including several majestic, 100-year old elms -- toward the Meer.
As I got to the Meer, I was treated to another lovely bird display. First, a Great Blue Heron, flapping awkwardly as they do on takeoff, flew from the little island to the far eastern bank, to hunt for its breakfast amongst the cattails and bulrush there. Then I saw three egrets soaring in formation off to my right. Surveyed the water. Couldn’t see much below the surface, but 40-50 feet off the ramp I could see swirls where something was going on. So I cast a small (#24) dry fly to them and caught a series of small bluegill, all game and athletic and with that big orange bulge on their chests that serve as a badge of full mating season.
A Hispanic family approached, I assume, parents, a grandparent, a teenager and a young boy, 4, curious about the fish. I showed them one and asked in Spanish where they were from. “Mexico,” came the response. “Me gusto mucho Mexico,” I told them. “Mi esposa y yo hamos visitado alli muchas vezes. (I love Mexico. My wife and I have been there many times.”) “Donde?,” they asked. (Where?) I listed Mexico City, Oaxaca, Izcalak and San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas. I gave the boy a sticker of a fish. He beamed. “Hasta luego.”
Moved along the shore to my right, I talked to a fisherman sitting on a fold up canvas chair he’d brought with him tossing baited hooks toward the island. “Any luck?” I asked him. “A few.” Kept moving, past what I think of as “the three coves,” each one lined on one side by tall bulrushes, with very little area behind for a back cast. A week before, I’d seen an enormous carp here, at least 30” long. Cast to it, knowing it wouldn’t take any notice. Couldn’t help myself. Kept walking, around past the Conservatory Garden, up the park path paralleling Fifth Avenue.
In the northeastern corner of the Meer, just off 110th & Fifth, by the stairs down to the water was a man sitting on a bench, wearing a black T-shirt with “Ibiza” across the chest. I asked if he’d been there. “Oh, yeah. I love it there,” he said before going back to his phone. I stopped and cast several times back to my left, and when I caught my first “decent” bluegill, he came over and showed me on his phone a picture he’d taken a few days before of about a 16” largemouth bass that a guy had caught right there. “Gorgeous fish.”
I moved on, and as I passed the Dana Discovery Center, I saw a perfect fly casting loop emerge from behind it, reverse itself, twice, before disappearing again toward the water. As I came around the building, I said aloud, “Gotta be one of the Gallos.” It was. It was Gail, casting into the Meer while her husband, Paul, was changing his fly. I’d met them a couple of weeks earlier and he and I had exchanged business cards, should we want to talk again. When I got home, I showed his card to my wife. She googled them both.
He was a clarinet player, retired from the New York Metropolitan Opera; she, an attorney with the New York City Law Department, also retired. Both are champion fly casters and serious fly fishers, both fresh and salt water. I asked if they’d tried the Pool yet, as I’d suggested another time that they do. “Went there the other day,” Paul responded. “But we didn’t fish. Lots of weeds.” I agreed, and with that, I bid them goodbye and walked back across the Park to the Pool, thinking I’d try a couple more casts before going home to make lunch for me and my wife.
Back at the Pool, I surveyed the water. Nothing. No fish to be seen. But there were two very attractive young women in bicycling outfits taking pictures of the Pool, and of each other. One asked me what I was fishing for. “Bluegills, crappies and bass,” I said, turning to gesture toward the water. Just then, as if on cue, a red-winged blackbird darted down low as it flew across the pool. One patch of duck weed splashed, revealing a pod of fish beneath, startled by the bird passing overhead. I cast immediately to the spot and hooked what turned out to be a very nice 7-8” largemouth bass, which I landed, posed with so the two young women could see it. One took my picture; I took theirs; and we agreed to exchange them by email later that day.
Why am I telling you all this? Because I’m an old man now, with a few stories to tell, and this one is how I’m coping with the covid-19 pandemic here in New York City, by returning to my original “home stream” to fly fish.
After having fished regularly only few times as a small boy spending summers with my family on Cape Cod, I took it up again as an adult one weekend in the late ‘80’s when my son, Henry was 5 or 6. He and I and my wife, Kate, had been invited up to the home of a long time friend of hers in eastern Connecticut and her husband gave Henry one of those “Mickey Mouse” casting rods with a little white button that you clicked with your thumb to release your cast, switched to your left hand and began rewinding immediately with your right to get it ready to set the hook. Henry loved doing it, so when we returned to New York I bought my own similar rod and we would go together to Central Park to fish together. Sometimes we’d put a blue gill or two in a bucket, bring them home and put them in Henry’s aquarium to keep as pets.
That February, 1989, my wife and I bought a little house in Millbrook, NY, 75 miles north of NYC. There was a pond at the bottom of the hill, so later that spring Henry and I took our rods with us, got permission from the pond owner and began fishing again. Fast forward to 1992, A River Runs Through It had piqued my interest in fly fishing. When I saw a fiberglass rod and a reel at a garage sale, I bought them both for – I think – under $9, and set off to teach myself to fly fish. Made friends with a counterman at a general store in the next town that stocked fly fishing lines, leaders, etc. Bought a couple of instructional videos and practiced in my yard, on the pond down the hill and even in a couple of nearby streams.
Shortly after I’d mastered at least how to get a fly onto the water, someone Kate worked with got me rights to fish at a nature preserve right in Millbrook, and off I went. Two years later, I caught my first trout. I wept. I cried again on Monday when both of my eyes swelled shut from black fly bites.
In short, I was hooked.
For nearly 20 years, I was able to exercise this new passion almost entirely locally on the 2000 acre nature preserve seven or eight minutes from our house. Typically, I would only fish during the best times of day, on the best days of the week, during the best months of the year. I could plan a day: I could also be completely spontaneous, decide on a whim I would rather be fishing, grab my stuff off the back porch – my rod already rigged – toss it in the back of our station wagon and be standing in the stream 15 minutes later, counting the time it took to don my waders and boots and hike in from the road.
To have a “home stream” like that was an enormous gift. The East Branch of Wappinger Creek winds for four miles cutting its own path through the base of limestone rock in a mature forest and wandering down through a meadow, chock full of wild brown trout, offering a fisherman both fast and slowly moving water, deep pools and – in the meadows below – undercut banks hiding large, wild brown trout. Early on, I didn’t know to appreciate the learning opportunity, but as time went on I grew to relish it. For the first several years I never fished anywhere but Millbrook, and never fished with anyone. And I was always alone.
By 2010, both my wife and I had retired, two of our three children had moved to the Bay Area of northern California and we could no longer as easily justify both our travel budgets and the expense of maintaining a weekend home. So we sold the Millbrook house and threw ourselves into “home exchanging,” advertising our 3-bedroom apartment in Manhattan a block from Central Park for equal exchanges in cities we wanted to visit, including San Francisco, Berkeley & Oakland, where the grandchildren were, but also Venice, Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, Copenhagen, Dublin, Stockholm and London.
Adapting from being able to fish almost any time I wanted to traveling the world out of JFK has meant swapping access for intensity. For the last 10 years, with few exceptions, I’ve never fished fewer than 8 hours a day, or four days in a row – like a work schedule, plus travel time. I reserve it all in advance and pay for it; take a day to get there and a day to get back; arrive and get home exhausted; and fish eight hour days when I’m away. Glorious, but much as I enjoyed the trips, and learning from the experiences, I still missed the patterns of my home stream – impulsive, timely, routine, depth of experience vs. variety.
The last three years I’ve only gone fishing six times: twice for 5 day trips to southwestern Montana on the Bitterroot with my longtime guide/outfitter Jenny West; once for a week to Xcalak, on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico with Fly Fish America magazine; once for four days to Yamsi Ranch, in southwestern Oregon; and twice in Connecticut with Rob Nicholas, guide/outfitter/friend, once with my friend Thad, walking and wading, a second time just with Rob on one of his drift boats.
In February of 2020, Kate and I spent the month in Buenos Aires on a home exchange with an Argentine family contemplating emigrating to New York to escape their home country’s mercurial economic swings. Within two weeks of our return to New York it was pretty clear that there we would not be going anywhere, any time soon. We were going to be homebound, “socially distancing” ourselves to “flatten the curve.”
What was I going to do? Thought about it. Central Park? “Maybe once it warms up?” Here’s how the US National Weather Service described the Spring weather in the New York area:
“The month of April 2020 at Central Park was the first April since 1940, 80 years ago, where the temperature did not reach or exceed 70°. The highest temperature was 68° on April 7, 2020. 70° was reached or exceeded 3 times in March, with the highest of 77° on March 20, 2020.”
Finally, later in April, it warmed up a little. So I wrestled the big plastic box down from its shelf in the closet in the den and put together a fishing ensemble, complete with a small array of “pond” flies, nippers, hook disgorgers &, tippet; a chestpack to carry them all in; and an assortment of outer clothing to handle cold or rain. And masks, of course, since I’d have to observe rules of social distancing.
At first, I ventured no farther than The Pool. The water was still pretty cold, and the fish weren’t feeding much early in the day. The City was on lock down, but people hadn’t yet begun to turn to the parks in the numbers that came later. Most who did come were intrigued by the sight casting to specific fish and landing them, particularly those with children – they’d stop, far enough from me and off to one side to avoid my back casts. A few sounded alarm, worried about the hook, but usually calmed down if they let me show them how tiny were the flies I was using, with their even smaller hooks, whose barbs I routinely crushed with forceps before casting them.
As the warming weather drew larger and larger crowds, the fishing on the Pool warmed up, too, and as the male bluegill settled into their nest building rituals, more and more children flocked to see them, particularly along the edges. I never cast to any fish that were on nests, only to those out further, preferably in small groups. I’d use very small flies and thin, pretty much invisible tippet, but enough fish would see it, and startle, startling others, that many would scatter, but my experience was that some would still be curious enough about what just dropped into their midst, that they would turn around and come back, and suck the fly into their mouths to at least see what it was.
If I was quick, that would give me enough time to lift the line and hook them, 9 times out of 10 just on the outer rim of their “lips,” where I could unhook them easily. The 10th time it might be further into their mouth where I’d need to reach in with a pair of forceps, grasp the fly above the bend in the hook, back it out and pull it free. Then I’d look around to see if any of the kids looked likely to want to come closer, maybe even release it for me. And finally, I’d offer them a sticker. Once I’d given one a sticker or two, our bond was sealed.
So, bottom line, how’s the fishing back on my original “home stream”? It’s only “OK,” but the experience has been wonderful. Please excuse me now. I’m going back out.