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Good fishing, and the Catskill School

Judy Van Put
Posted 9/13/22

After receiving a summer’s worth of rain in just a couple of days, trout fishers are out on the rivers again. Many old-timers looked forward to a rising river to try their luck, knowing that …

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Good fishing, and the Catskill School


After receiving a summer’s worth of rain in just a couple of days, trout fishers are out on the rivers again. Many old-timers looked forward to a rising river to try their luck, knowing that fishing would improve thanks to cooler temperatures, more water and additional food for the trout. High flows after heavy rains will dislodge many insects and larvae from the bottom substrate, as well as worms, freshwater shrimp and other crustaceans, many of which will be suspended in the high water. Fishing below the surface with nymphs, wet flies or streamers that are visible in discolored water should be productive. As the waters clear, watch for rises or a hatch and then move to dry flies. During this time of year, there should be small Blue Winged Olives during the day and Isonychias in the afternoons. 

Bringing us up to date with the development of dry flies and the Catskill School of Fly-Tying:

Among the first in the line of Catskill fly tiers who continued to tie in the sparse style of Theodore Gordon were Herman Christian (1880-1973), Roy Steenrod (1882-1977) and Rube Cross (1896-1958). Christian and Steenrod were friends and neighbors of Theodore Gordon, and both claimed to have learned to tie flies directly from him. All were professional fly tiers who tied under Gordon’s influence, then added and advanced the development of this method of tying with their own patterns in the Catskill style. 

Roy Steenrod created the Hendrickson in 1916, probably the most famous dry fly to be developed on the Beaverkill and one of the most popular and productive flies of all time. He began working at the Liberty post office at the age of 22, where he met Theodore Gordon; the two became good friends until Gordon’s death in 1915. Probably influenced by Gordon, Roy went on to become active in conservation, lobbying for public fishing rights, and in 1926 became a NYS Conservation Department Game Protector. He instructed youngsters at Boy Scout reservations and at the DeBruce Conservation Camp, where he taught woodcraft, fly casting and fly-tying.

As time passed, other great tiers were included in the Catskill School: 

Art Flick (1904-1985) moved from Kingston to Westkill in 1941 to manage his parents’ hotel, the Westkill Tavern, located near Schoharie Creek. An ardent conservationist, he helped secure legislation to create the first Catch and Release (“No Kill”) water in New York State on Schoharie Creek, and was a founding member of Catskill Waters, the organization that succeeded in establishing coldwater releases from the Catskill reservoirs into the rivers below, creating the wonderful tailwater fisheries we enjoy today. A passionate fly-fisher and fly-tier, Art collected and studied the insects that hatched along the Schoharie and wrote Streamside Guide to Naturals and Their Imitations which became a widely popular book that simplified the art of fly selection.

Harry (1906-1983) and Elsie Darbee (1912-1980), and Walt (1907-1994) and Winnie Dette (1909-1998) were two much-beloved couples who tied flies professionally in the Livingston Manor and Roscoe area and were known to many area residents. Harry was born in Roscoe to a family whose ancestors settled along the “Great Beaverkill” in the 1790s and were the first to cater to early fishing tourists. Harry loved nature and the out of doors and was an avid fly-fisher and fly-tier, as well as a passionate advocate for our rivers and streams. He became best friends with Walt Dette, who moved from New Jersey to Roscoe at the age of 13; the two began fishing local streams, eventually learning to fly-fish. In 1927 Harry and Walt rented a room over the movie theater in Roscoe and decided to start a fly-tying business. 

They were joined by Winifred Ferdon, who was also born in Roscoe to a family that owned the River View Inn and catered to fishermen. In order to learn the art of fly-tying, they used flies tied by Rube Cross - Walt carefully untied the flies, while Harry and Winnie took notes on how they were made. Although they sold some flies, they wound up seeking full-time employment elsewhere.

Walt and Winnie married, then operated the River View Inn during the Great Depression and began tying flies again. They were joined by Harry, as well as Elsie Bivins, who was hired to sort hackle, and who became proficient at tying flies. Harry and Elsie married, and the two couples formed their own fly-tying businesses. 

Today Harry and Elsie’s daughter, Judie Darbee Smith, still lives along the Beaverkill in Roscoe with her husband, Dick Smith. And the grandson of Walt and Winnie Dette’s daughter Mary, Joe Fox, operates Dette Flies along the Willowemoc in Livingston Manor.

It was Elsie Darbee’s dream to have a museum commemorating fly-fishing in the Catskills. This dream came to fruition in 1983 when the Catskill Fly Fishing Museum was opened as a storefront museum in Roscoe. Present at the opening ceremony were Harry Darbee, Walt and Winnie Dette, Art Flick, Lee and Joan Wulff among others. Today the Catskill Fly Fishing Center & Museum is located on 35 acres along the Willowemoc and operates its museum, gift shop, education center and environmental research center at 1031 Old Route 17, Livingston Manor. 


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