Worship on the Upper Delaware

I woke up two hours before my alarm was set to go off. The faint hint of dawn lay over the horizon, but slowly creeping through a crack in the window shade. The birds hadn’t even started to chirp. In the stillness before daybreak, I puzzled it out. Should I just bag it–skip the Upper Delaware and drive up to the Croton instead? Wouldn’t it be nice to just…sleep in and hit my homewater at a more reasonable hour? Wouldn’t it be easier to go get some guaranteed action instead of wandering around the East and West Branches of the Upper Delaware hoping I would stumble onto a hatch? I grunted, rolled over, scratched myself. No, no…it wouldn’t be easier. I’d lose the chance to visit the Delaware in exchange for a few measly minutes of comfort. That ain’t fly fishing, in fact, I grew angry that the immortal monster of laziness had dared raise its gnarly head in the midst of my new found religion. I pulled myself out of bed, kissed the wife goodbye and hit the road. Two days later, I found I had some familiar experiences, the frustration of poor casts and spooky trout, the feeling of ineptitude and inadequacy before Nature, but alas, I also felt the reward of courage, hard work, and penitence.

Thom McGuane writes, “the motto of every serious angler is, nearer my God to thee.” If this holds true, then my visit to the Upper Delaware was like visiting a cathedral, where one is surrounded by inordinate beauty and the sublime, but not always knowledgeable enough to decipher the signs embedded in every ritual, knave and stained glass window. Yet in the inspiring beauty, one senses great wisdom. I’ll admit, the first few hours I felt like a tourist, flogging water, missing the point. And then, as the afternoon swept into that dusky time of day’s end, I felt as if the Catskills sighed and took pity and sent along some help to this new congregant. I met Ron and Frank on the banks of the West Branch under a large lone olive tree on the Balls Eddy. Angling buddies since age 7, and frequent visitors to the river, they were happy to dole out some religion. First, they fished three times a week minimum, the wife would have to go… Second, I should have been here back in May (of course). We leaned back in the grass under the shade of the tree and talked flies, hatches, pools, and good times and bad times to fish the Upper. We shared pictures and jokes. Ron, a onetime player for the Mud Hens, gave me two beautiful Isos of his, and bade me cast to the large rising trout on the far bank. Unfortunately, the middle of the pool was deep and my cast too short. Another time then…

The next day I woke early to the sound of the Beaverkill gurling outside my window at the Roscoe Motel in said town. Too low and hot to fish, I sat in the swirl of fog at 6am and watched trout rise on the junction pool. After a quick retrieve of coffee the fog had lifted and the trout had already gone to seek cooler waters. I made my way back to the West Branch and summarily fished the junction pool of the east and west branch after a half-mile wade upstream from the public access in Hancock, but couldn’t get in place in time before thirty kayakers raced over the riffle and into the pool. I knew enough to reel up and wade back. I drove upstream and fished the Gamelands pools in perfect solitude–but lost my rod tip trekking down the path to the first pool and raised nothing with my backup rod on the second. I hiked to the bottom of the riffle of Ball Eddy and back–a real trudge upstream that wore my legs out. And somehow I climbed back onto the bank to marvel at the strength of the river at fairly low flows.

The riddle began to unfold. This river deserves time, serious time, far more than I had, I was saddened by the fact that I hadn’t given it more of mine when I had the chance, especially knowing I might not be back here for quite a while. And therein I found enlightenment from a lesson I already knew but had not heard in this particular language before. All good things come… Though I managed a few small wild browns in the end, the Upper taught me, reminded me, that I had to earn my knowledge. It could not simply be told in guidebooks, blogs and online forums, even great conversations streamside. Like attendance at any church, only through study and hours at prayer does one find revelation on the Upper Delaware, and all waters we seek to worship at.

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