I loaded up the Anchovy-mobile at the crack of dawn Tuesday and headed toward the Queenston-Lewiston bridge. My destination was an area of New York state defined by two towns and a river. I was off to chase trout.
There was a time when I traveled around chasing trout quite a lot. Roadtrips to the mountain west – in Canada and America – were common, along with drives to other trout haunts such as the Upper and Lower Michigan peninsulas, and parts of Pennsylvania. I’m very fortunate to enjoy a generous ration of vacation time, and most years I like to take a few days and disappear on my own for a while. Last year, I took our Newfs, Memphis and Ellie Mae and we went chasing mushrooms up in Muskoka. Since we brought the dogs into the extended family, I’ve been doing less fishing and more mushroom hunting. It’s hard to take the dogs fly fishing with me because we all appreciate the best pools and two Newfs splashing around in a trout stream slows the fishing right down.
At the border:
Where were you born?
What’s the purpose of your visit?
Fly fishing the Upper Delaware River?
How long will you be gone?
Where will you be staying?
In a motel in Hancock or Deposit NY.
Have you made a reservation?
When was the last time you visited America?
Um, I don’t remember, maybe last year?
So you don’t visit often?
Sometimes once or twice each year.
Why are you driving all that way to fish?
The Upper Delaware is one of the premiere trout rivers in Eastern North America.
Are you meeting somebody?
Have a nice trip.
Four days later, on the way back:
Is this your car?
Where do you live?
How long have you been in the United States?
What was the purpose of your trip?
The Upper Delaware River.
How was fishing?
Fishing’s always good. The catching was better some days than others.
What kind of fish did you catch?
Brown trout and rainbow trout.
What’s the value of goods you’re bringing back into Canada?
Um, I bought a roadmap. It was maybe $3.
No alcohol or tobacco?
Have a good day.
The first thing I do on a roadtrip to America is find NPR – public radio. NPR is excellent radio. I dispense with the rest of American roadtrip radio right away and seek out NPR from station to station as I travel. I heard The Car Guys. I had forgotten that show. I love it because it doesn’t matter that I have little interest in cars. The two hosts, their wacky conversation and interaction with callers, are delightful. I heard shows about science, and medicine, and 1920s music. Radio to drive by. It takes 6 or 7 hours to get to Deposit and Hancock from Toronto. I think I listened to NPR on three stations.
Deposit got it’s name because that was the place logs were piled before being driven down the river. Log driving looked a little like this. Here’s Kate and Anna McGarrigle performing Wade Hemsworth’s beautiful Log Driver’s Waltz (one of my favourite tunes by the way!):
If Deposit was a logging town, then Hancock was a railroad town. It was once a division point on the Erie Railroad. Freight trains still run along the West Branch of the Delaware. When you’re out fly fishing the stream, you can periodically hear and see them chugging by. In the town, Front Street seems more like Back Street, as it runs along the tracks and there’s not much development on the other side.
Hancock and Deposit are about 10 miles apart, joined by the West Branch of the Delaware. The West Branch, even though it is one branch, is considered to be like two different rivers, but for that to make sense, you have to understand a little bit about the river. You see, the West Branch is a different river than it was back in the early days of the two towns. What changed it was a reservoir called Cannonsville, which was put into service in 1964. There was once a town there called Cannonsville, which was destroyed and displaced by the dam. Here’s the thing about the reservoir that changed everything. Water is released at the dam from the bottom of the reservoir. That means that the water released to feed the river is very cold, cold enough in fact to be a haven for trout.
Freestone streams tend to warm quite a bit in summer, sometimes to the extent that trout can’t live there.
Even in freestone streams where water temperatures sustain trout all year, in the summer, temperatures become marginal and sometimes there are trout kills due to warm temperatures. Tailwaters are different and as long as a good flow from the bottom of the dam is maintained, the water temperatures can stay cool all summer. The challenge is that the reservoirs were not created or maintained to benefit a trout fishery. Instead, they’re all about drinking water, and sometimes managing drinking water reserves and managing flow to benefit the fishery are at cross-purposes.
I understand there is a recent agreement to maintain flows from the dam at minimums to keep the trout population healthy, but this has not always been the case. So, how does this explain the idea of the West Branch being like two rivers? As the water flows away from the dam, it gradually warms and at the point about half-way between Deposit and Hancock, the warming of the water changes insect demographics on the river. I should say that up at Deposit the water is very cold, and for a wading fly fisherman, it was necessary to occasionaly head for shore to warm up. As you follow the river downstream, the river becomes more powerful and more rugged and sometimes more difficult to wade. Simply, the nature of the river up around Deposit is different than the nature of the river closer to Hancock. There isn’t an exact dividing line where the Upper West changes to the lower West, but convention has it that the change occurs at a pool halfway between the two villages, known as Hale Eddy. Below Hancock, the East and West Branches meet, forming a main stem which has characteristics of its own. This trip, I ignored both the East Branch (which has its own dam and so is also a tailwater) and the main stem, in favour of the West Branch. After all, I only had 4 days to mess with.
When I’m off chasing trout, the first stop at my destination is the local fly shop. This is because fly shop guys know everything you need to know, from where to stay to where to eat, and if you’re lucky (and you buy a bunch of stuff at their store) maybe they’ll even give you a little intelligence about the fishing. The fellow in the shop had lots of answers. He sent me to the Colonial Motel, a couple miles out of town. I was only able to get a room there for three nights as they were booked for Friday and Saturday, but the nice lady there, called up her competition at the Capra, and booked a room there for me for Friday. I have only good things to say about both places. The Colonial has been updated more than the Capra and is a bit more expensive, but both places were very clean, and the folks who run them were very helpful and pleasant.
The Capra is right in town, and strangely enough, they also operate the Capra theatre in the parking lot of the motel. During the day, this looks tired and odd and empty, but it comes alive on a Friday night, that’s for sure.
I had most of my meals at the Circle E Diner (since 1964) in Hancock. I did have a burger at the diner in Deposit one day, and a sub from the Subway in the local gas station as well. Each of the towns has a fast
food joint too – Hancock has a McDonalds and Deposit has a Wendy’s but they aren’t nearly as interesting as eating in a local diner.
I really enjoyed the Circle E. It wasn’t fancy. The seats in the booths and in fact the whole place could use a face lift. But it was full of local characters, most of whom knew one another for years. During the week, breakfast time was quiet. I like to fish early in the morning, but on a couple mornings, I was driven off the river by thunderstorms (I don’t fish in thunderstorms – standing in the water waving a 9 foot lightning rod is a dangerous idea). I felt as if I were stepping back in time when I sat down in the Circle E. Most of the men wore some kind of industrial baseball cap, and had their keys
hanging outside their pockets. I thought I would fit in if I showed up in my Finning cap. The waitress saw through my shallow ruse immediately. “How’s fishin’ buddy?” I gave the standard answer. “Fishin’s always good. The catchin’ on the other hand….”
By Friday afternoon, I was tired and sore and the trout had been ignoring the parades of sulphur duns floating down the stream (along with my imitations). I was fishing below the 17 bridge and when I heard sirens galore go off, I looked up and could see fire trucks and police and ambulance roaring out of town. I decided I had enough fishing and packed up and headed back to Hancock for dinner.
At around the halfway point of the 10 mile drive, there had been a big accident. A tractor trailer had turned on its side. It looked as if it had a flatbed that had been carrying hay because hay was spilled across the median over to the other side of the road. It wasn’t clear if other vehicles were involved. Cars were slowly being directed to the right around the accident. I sure hope nobody was badly hurt. Just past the accident, a doe was standing on the road. As I approached, she hopped the median and crossed the road, a few yards ahead of oncoming traffic.
The Circle E was a going concern for Friday night dinner. Their entire back room was filled with girls from a local camp. Most of the other tables were full too, with locals or tourists. My waitress brought me a remarkable menu. “There’s plenty of choices,” she said. She pointed to a white-board, containing the dinner specials (macaroni and cheese with apple sauce; fish sandwich with macaroni and cheese; chicken parmasan; spaghetti and meat balls). Then there was the standard diner menu. Then the waitress pointed out several pages of additional typed menu she called the chef’s specials. It was overwhelming. Some of these entrees were more expensive than what I would consider to be diner fare. How could a diner support such a substantial menu? I went with the spaghetti and meat balls, good old American food. It was hearty and tasty and just about right after a day casting to finicky trout in gusty winds.
Over the 4 days, I got rained on several times, chased off the river by thunder and lightning twice. I experienced some very good fishing during a sulphur emergence, and some very slow fishing when it seemed there were neither bugs nor trout in the system. I watched a bait plonker pull three beautiful big trout from the stream across the river from me and kill them for dinner. “These are pretty good,” he told me, “but there are some really big ones in here. I seen one 9 pounds come out of here.”
It was good to get away for a few days. Casting for trout is like a meditation, focusing on the insects and the river’s surface, watching the interplay between bugs and birds and bugs and trout, watching and waiting. Sometimes the river is generous; other times less so. I liked the Delaware. It’s quite a river, bigger and more powerful than streams I’m used to around here, a little more like a big western stream. Like western streams, guides take their
johns sports down the river in drift boats. I think it would take a lot of experience on that river to really get to know it, but still it has a lot to offer a guy like me, rolling in from out of town.
And now I’m home. The lawn needs cutting. Back to work tomorrow.