WEST BRANCH DELAWARE RIVER, NY
A TESTAMENT TO TRADITION IN THE CATSKILLS
I woke up to Siri telling us to take our next exit off the highway. Sitting in the passenger seat, I looked at the map. We were a few minutes away from our destination, a fabled fishing lodge tucked into the Catskills of southern New York. River birch lined the bumpy road and I rolled down the window to take in the air. It was cool and clean, and I could smell the spring rain that was looming overhead… a welcome relief from the already above-average temps. We found our friends waiting for us on the front porch of the cabin, waders on and lines rigged up. We had arrived at the West Branch of the Upper Delaware River, and it was time to fish.
My fiancé and I were joining two friends up there who had fished these waters for the last few years. Enamored with the river after their first trip, they find themselves returning whenever they can. The West Branch holds high regard here on the east coast. It’s big-river fishing for elusive, smart, and large brown and rainbow trout. The highly technical dry-fly fishing attracts anglers from around the country, and the waters tend to humble even the most seasoned fly fisher. I was told by many to keep my expectations low but my spirits high.
We hit the water as soon as we arrived, leaving the car largely unloaded. The weather was ideal for fishing dries: cloudy with the occasional rain that rolled in and out of the mountains with about as much predictability as the fishing here. We watched intently and waited patiently for rising heads and bug activity. A couple of hours passed. Then another. A bald eagle soared overhead, riding thermals and undoubtedly looking for the same trout we were. Fishing the West Branch involves a lot of waiting. You can usually find the more seasoned anglers sitting in camp chairs on the side of the river, puffing on cigars and waiting for the next big hatch. I don’t place myself in that category quite yet… maybe next year.
Then—a swirl in the otherwise glassy water, 15 meters in front of where we stood. Our first riser of the day. Then a splash—this time 30 meters upriver. And another. And another. The fishing turned on. We picked our fish and quietly moved into position upriver, carefully choosing our movements. I delicately threw a sulfur into its feeding lane, taking good care to ensure a clean, downstream drift … nothing. A second attempt, this time with better presentation. Nothing. On the third drift, I hear, “SET!!” just as the sulfur was gulped down from the surface… I didn’t connect. As luck would have it, that strike would be my only action of the afternoon. The fishing turned off just as quickly as it had turned on. All was still, and then the rain began to pour—thank God for Gore-Tex.
Humbled, we returned to our cabin at the West Branch Angler Resort. The impeccably maintained 300-acre property has two miles of private waters and is located just down the road from Hancock, New York. They have more than 25 cabins available for rent, ranging from cozy, one-bedroom crash pads to large, executive-style cabins with 30ft fireplaces. Our group of four and a dog opted for the crash-pad and found it to be the perfect fit. In the afternoons before the evening spinner fall, you’ll find most folks are gathered on front porches, having beers and sharing stories about missed fish. Conversations tend to spill from one cabin to the next, and we had plenty to talk about.
Our friends regaled us with stories of float trips, blanket hatches, monstrous brown trout, and even a musky that they landed on the fly last year. They spoke of the West Branch with the same longing that a child might recall a summer sleepaway camp, filled with a sense of nostalgia that is lost all too frequently these days. It wouldn’t be long before I was sharing similar stories to anyone who would listen.
If you’re unfamiliar with the West Branch, this place is a mecca. One of the top dry-fly fisheries on the east coast. Lots of bugs, wild trout, and cold water make for top-notch fishing. It’s also home to some of the best guides in the business. If you find yourself up there, I’d recommend booking a trip with Kevin Corser or Adam Franceschini (a Sage ambassador) though the West Branch Angler Resort. If they’re fully booked, don’t sweat, you really can’t go wrong with any of the guides up there. We wanted to take the traditional, dry-fly only approach to our trip, so we brought along a couple of 5-weight TROUT LL rods—Sage’s flagship trout rod that’s made for these exact circumstances. The quality of the rod is apparent after just a few casts, and it’s perfect for precise and delicate presentations.
We spent a total of four days on the water and found plenty of fish. Getting them to eat, however, was another challenge entirely. I’m the more novice fisherman of the bunch, so I had the pleasure of taking the back seat to watch my good friends fish their favorite river. They put on an absolute clinic, demonstrating their knowledge of both fish and river. Throwing march browns and sulfurs, they managed to connect with a few browns and rainbows. Drift boats frequently pass through, and our friends seemed to recognize half the guides who stopped to have a quick conversation.
Evening, however, was a favorite time of day on the West branch. The spinner fall gets the fish moving and you’ll find most anglers losing track of their flies—not to mention the rising fish—as light fades. But the fun doesn’t end when the sun goes down. When the stars come out, the river comes back to life. We decided to try our hand at a new craze on the West Branch, mousing. We fished the SONIC 691-4 with a SPECTRUM MAX reel, spooled with RIO’s Predator fly line. You won’t find a better setup for throwing a mouse. While we came up empty on our midnight missions, it was a good excuse to gather around the fire, crack a few cold ones, and talk about the day ahead.
It’s clear why West Branch holds a special place for so many. It’s peaceful, exciting, and tucked away from the hustle of nearby cities. Even when the fishing was slow, the river managed to keep you there with a promise of “the next one” just a moment away. There are a few elements that make the West Branch so alluring: the fish are smart and spooky, it can turn on at the blink of an eye, and your skill and experience are put to the test.
On our final morning, we cleared out the cabin and packed the truck… waders still wet from a night of mousing. With plenty of highway ahead and the buzz of a city in our future, we begrudgingly hit the road. I think we even managed to plan our return trip before we’d made it out of the state. It won’t be long ‘til I’m back, on the hunt for a fish of a lifetime. Hope to see you out there.
DELAWARE DRY FLY PERFECT SETUP
Upper Delaware Technical Dry Fly
Technical dry fly fishing at it's finest, the Upper Delaware system challenges even the most accomplished of trout anglers. Fish are spooky and highly educated; downstream, accurate, and delicate presentations are a must. Enter the TROUT LL 590-4 - soft enough to land a size 16 sulfur like a butterfly with sore feet and protect 6x tippet, yet stout enough to land the large wild trout that inhabit the Delaware. Paired with a SPECTRUM 5/6 reel and Elite RIO Gold WF5F fly line, this setup is perfect for hunting heads in the Catskills.
— ,Rod: TROUT LL 590-4 Reel: SPECTRUM 5/6 Line: Elite RIO Gold WF5F
Stephen Catalano is an adventure and lifestyle photographer based out of northern Virginia. He tells visual stories through his photography, focusing his work on the interaction of people and nature. His fascination with fly fishing started in 2015 and he’s been trying to untangle his line ever since.
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