Catskill Bill: A Portrait of a Fisherman

The Catskill region is a lonely place. Maybe it wasn’t in its borscht belt heyday when young Jewish New Yorkers spent their summers in the big hotels with the hope of meeting a future husband or wife. And many did. The stories are legion. But when I first came to know the area intimately, in 1985, it was a lonely place and it still is. Beyond the hotels people live rural and solitary lives. It is Appalachia although people generally don’t think of it that way. But it is. Our Blue Hill was “settled” by our closest neighbors and they lived a mile away. George Ratner and his wife Millicent moved up to “the hill” from New York City during the depression, cleared forty acres and built their own house. In winter they skied to the store for groceries.

Ricker with salmon
Ricker with salmon
Francine and I came to the Catskills from rural New Hampshire, the domain of gritty, independent Yankees who have a strong identity and connection to the land. In the Catskills the people are from everywhere and nowhere. In many cases they got there by backing up into a place of refuge. Somehow the area afforded them anonymity, privacy, and, if they were fly fishermen, some of the greatest trout water in the world. It’s where fly fishing started in America. That fact had everything to do with my being there.

Francine and I arrived on Blue Hill in early April, a time in the north country when spring is coming but not any time soon. We spent the first night in the house with no electricity, sleeping on the floor of the kitchen. We cleaned out the spring box up in back on the hill and got the water running. Once our house was operating to some extent I began to think about fishing. I knew we had some serious fishing neighbors-great fishermen like Len Wright, John Borden, George Ratner, Emory Pierson, and Catskill Bill Kelly. I heard tell about “Kelly”, that he knew everything about the Catskill Rivers and how to fish them. He had a reputation as an authority on these topics and, as a retired fish biologist for the State of New York, he had credibility. But there were other words I heard in association with his name- “eccentric,” “difficult,” ”private,” ”unusual,” and remarks which referred to “his drinking”. I headed down to the foot of our hill, to the small ranch house on the Neversink River where Catskill Bill lived.

Even fishermen who aren’t otherwise eccentric are eccentric about fishing. They protect their fishing territories, the secret knowledge, the fly patterns, the techniques, the lore. It can be hard to learn these things. And Kelly, for whom fishing was almost everything, was pretty damned eccentric anyway, even without the fishing. That first time I went to his house and met him I think he was hiding.

This guy had lived alone for a long time. His front door was through the garage, past his blue ford pickup with the fenders falling off. There was a nasty aluminum storm door with no glass in front of a grimy wood door that seemed to be lacquered in bacon grease with some hamburger thrown in. I knocked. No answer. Remember, this is a small house and in the country you know, if you have any hearing at all, when somebody drives up. So I was already a little nervous. People get shot in the country occasionally. Forging ahead and knowing that he was in there somewhere, I poked my head in and called, “ Mr. Kelly”?

“Yes,” I heard from somewhere inside. Then he appeared, a very big man with three days growth on his face and furrow like a crater between his bloodshot eyes. In my most charming and friendly way I told him who I was and that I was interested in fly-fishing, and that I had done a lot of fly-fishing for bass in New Hampshire.

“Yea, I heard”, he said. He talked a little bit, very circumspectly, about nothing mostly but with a little fishing coming into the picture. I think he showed me his fly-tying vise and a few wet flies he had tied but when I asked about the rivers and the fishing in any specific way his bushy black eyebrows dove into that crater between his eyes and those bloodshot eyes rolled back into his head. It was a short visit. Somehow I was invited to come back another time, which I took to mean ‘when he was feeling better’.

So, a few days later, with the sun high enough in the sky to melt the snow, and the water running into the creeks, and the creeks into the river, I headed down to his house again. This time he was almost radiant, with a broad smile, which seemed out of context and a bit scary coming out of that tortured face. But he had that side to him:

“Oh yes Rick, Great! Yes Art! Wesleyan College, Brown University etc. etc.” and so forth. And
“You look like a guy who would enjoy a snowshoe hike along the river, maybe cook a hot dog etc. etc.” Of course I said I was that type of guy and promptly got in the truck and drove the mile up the hill to get my snowshoes. Sure enough when I got back Kelly was ready with his snowshoes and a small pack and off we trudged into the woods behind his house along the Neversink River, some of the cleanest, prettiest water in the world.

In New Hampshire I was used to going into the woods deer hunting before it got light and come back after dark with nothing to sustain me but a candy bar and some Red Man chewing tobacco. And I gave up the Red Man. And snowshoes, well, Francine and I have been out on them for hours at twenty below zero until I, being weaker, got hypothermia.

And so, on this early spring day, I was a little perplexed when, after about a hundred yards and with my fearless leader visibly out of breath, we sort of pitched camp. We sat on a log while Kelly caught his breath and began the culinary preparations. From his pack he took out some newspaper, some lighter fluid, and a bunch of sticks. He proceeded to get a little fire going. Out of his pocket he took a couple of hot dogs, put them on a stick, and cooked them, I think for about thirty seconds. Yum! And when I say he took them out of his pocket I mean he took them out of his pocket. Kelly was the type of kid, as I was, who often had frogs and pollywog tails and things of that nature in his pocket. And I would bet that if you dug deep enough in that pocket from whence appeared the hot dogs you would still find some of those things or their remains.

Catskill Bill with Grilse salmon
Catskill Bill with Grilse Salmon

You know they say that a kid never forgets anything you do for him with caring, with sincerity. And even though I was forty and Bill was fifty-five, I was still in a lot of ways like a kid wishing his father would do something with him and that it would be fun or pleasant. And so I remember all this and lots more.

Kelly and I became great friends and fishing buddies. He got himself in better shape. He told me his secrets and we could joke together. I could disarm him and what a pleasure that was because his armaments were formidable and many people who hoped to know him were never able to which was a loss all around. I called him “Catskill” which made him shake his head and laugh. Nobody else called him that. Believe me he could be scary but never for long with me.

“What do you think about that, Catskill ?” I would say. How I enjoyed that. Kelly had other friends like Len Wright, (“Harvard, of course”), who was a famous fishing author and lived back in the woods “next door”. They got together often for a few “soda pops”. Friends, we’re talking serious booze. If Len Wright is still alive it’s because alcohol preserves. And there was Emory Pierson whom Catskill called Emory Fearsome. Fearsome was even wackier than Kelly and, for me, even harder to know.

Kelly loved fishing and tying flies, and particularly fishing the wet fly, which he knew how to do better than anyone. He loved music and art, especially the Hudson River School painters. He had a work from that period on his wall. Later he raised angelfish and made money at it and he made money with his bottles, antique bottles. He knew all about them.

But he was a loner and uncomfortable with most people. Booze helped him relate and get over whatever shyness or insecurity plagued him. But then the black moods would follow and so there was a constant roller coaster of emotions going on and one never knew what to expect.

That probably explains his kids being half estranged. His wife of many years, the mother of their children, died after a long battle with cancer, a long painful dying. Bill suffered and drank and got thrown out of most of the bars in the area and, I think, got retired out his job early and wound up in this little lonely house by the river. When his wife died everything fell apart. Then life happened again and he met or reconnected with a woman who had been a friend of his wife. They were very much in love and about to buy a house together when she was diagnosed with cancer. They had to decide not to go ahead with the house buying and instead minister to her dying. It took me a long time to find out about these things.

Catskill and I fished the rivers. We fished for the salmon he introduced into the Neversink River at the mouth of the river where it flows into the reservoir. Only a few people had access there. And for several years, several beautiful years, until it became clear that the salmon were waning and that his project was a flop, we had wonderful fishing in a place 100 miles from New York City that was as pristine and wild and beautiful as anywhere in the world. And it still is.

I caught my first shad on a fly with Catskill Bill. He pioneered the techniques of fishing for shad with flies. He could look at the Delaware River and tell if there were shad there. I would see nothing. Now I can but it took a long time and I learned it from him. He loved to fish for shad. And he was a great trout fisherman. When, reluctantly, he would tie on a dry fly, he knew how to use it. At a bend in the river he hooked a big brown trout on an 18 Adams that looked like it was going to run all the way to Delaware Bay. He landed it. I ran to the truck for the measuring board, 22inches! And then he released it.

We got involved in fishing the inlet of one of the reservoirs, a place reputed to have very big brown trout. We tried lots of different things. Kelly would learn and go home and tie things up. We caught fish and he kept at it and finally landed the biggest fish ever caught in the Catskills on a fly, a brown trout over fifteen pounds. There was a picture in all the papers. He also caught a five pound brook trout in back of his house which probably was the biggest brook trout caught in the Catskills in a long, long time.

One day I was in the river, the Beaverkill, teaching student at the Wulff School how to read the water and present the fly and Joan Wulff came down to the shore and waved me over. My father had dropped dead. I walked out of the water, up the bank, and to my mother and sisters sitting around at home in Pelham about two and a half hours away. He had just dropped dead. Not only that but he had left almost nothing except the house, not even any life insurance, a man who went from rags to riches to rags again metaphorically speaking. My father and I had nothing but unresolved issues between us and now they were to be that way in perpetuity.

It was sort of like a bomb went off. My legs felt like they weighed two hundred pounds each. After I got back to Blue Hill I stopped by Kelly’s and told him what had happened. He looked at me and said, “I know what you need, a ride in the country.” I just climbed in his old truck. It was a beautiful spring day and we drove and drove, not talking much or about fishing as we toured our favorite territory, Roscoe, Deposit, Hancock, Cannonsville, passing through the Beaverkill and Willowemock valleys over to the Delaware, scouting new possibilities and discussing access, where we would park and how we would fish. We spent most of the day like that and when we finally returned to Blue Hill I was on the road to healing, although it would be a long time before I processed the significance of my father’s dropping dead on the kitchen floor for my mother to find. Somehow Catskill Bill knew how to handle the situation, the pain of his friend.

One of the great times we experienced together was fishing the Restigouche River, which forms the border of Quebec and New Brunswick. It’s one of the great Atlantic salmon rivers and mostly private. At that time I was a fly-fishing instructor with the Joan and Lee Wulff Fly Fishing School on the Beaverkill River. Lee offered a three-day school on Atlantic salmon once a year. This is something Lee knew more about than anyone in the world.

A wealthy man with an interest in salmon rented the whole school for his family and friends. This man had recently bought one of the prime fishing lodges on the Restigouche on one of the best pools. And I was invited to spend a few days there at the end of the season and bring a couple of friends. The only one who would go, and I was sure he would, was Catskill Bill.

Catskill Bill approached this trip in the way a devout Muslim might consider his hajj, the once-in-a-lifetime trip to Mecca. It was the end of the season, late August, and a chill was in the air. As we drove north the trees were showing signs of the season to come. Bill was edgy on account of the unknown, of being stuck with me, a teetotaler, and of the pressure this opportunity put on his skill, knowledge, and reputation.
It was very important for him to do well in a situation like this because people would hear about it. And if we had access to one of the best salmon pools in the world for three days and didn’t catch any fish, well, the consequences of this to his psyche would be profound. So he was sober, serious, prickly, and uncommunicative, the kinds of qualities one hopes not to find in one’s traveling companion. But as the long drive north wove itself through the ever-simpler towns of greater beauty and peace he started to unwind and talk about the flies he had tied for this trip and his hopes for them.

Salmon don’t feed much on their spawning run if at all; they have to be coaxed into striking. It can be a very difficult enterprise with great fishermen fishing great water week after week without result. Kelly had experienced this himself up on the Mirimisahi River in New Brunswick.

For me this was the first time salmon fishing and I was just glad for the opportunity. And knowing how fishing is anyway, I had no clear expectations. But all this weighed on Catskill’s mind. The rhythm of the road helped and we began to just enjoy the hills and fields and forests of the rural north and the palpable sense of less pressure as we moved farther and farther from New York where competition is king.

After a night on the road we arrived at the lodge later the next day and were greeted by a staff of seven who were there to attend to us for our time and then close the place up for the winter. We entered a classic old lodge set above the famous river, a magnificent place dedicated to fishing for salmon in the great pool below. We got settled in our rooms, had a great dinner in the large den with moose heads all around, talked with excitement about the water and the setting, and got to bed early.

We were out in separate boats the next day with our guides. The water was very low and the guides, who were greatly experienced, fished the way they always fish but in this low water it wasn’t working. We could see the fish but being in a boat we were above them and they could see us too. I think we got a couple of reluctant strikes but no fish on and yet we knew they were there. We only had a few precious days.

That night at dinner we focused on the situation with a lot of intensity and decided that because of the low water this was more like trout water and we were going to fish it that way.

Next day we had a plan and told the guides to drop us off at different sand bars and let us fish from there, wading the edges of the pools. They were skeptical, insulted, and a little shocked since no one had ever thought to do this. It worked. We started catching fish on wet flies. And I started using big attractor dry flies with success. We waded the edges of the fast water and made our presentations from up close, the way we fished for trout in the Catskill Rivers and we caught fish after fish to the point of fatigue. It was thrilling and the guides were impressed.

Late that night Kelly’s light was on as he tied fly after fly in anticipation of the next day. Those next two days after we figured out how to fish the water were golden. It felt like solving the clues and puzzles of a map leading to treasure. We entered all our statistics into the large journal kept in the lodge. We were almost too successful. We weren’t invited back. Later, I asked Lee Wulff if he thought we would be able to go back and he said, “That was a once in a lifetime thing.”

About six years later I moved away to the Pacific Northwest to take a teaching job. When I was living out west I came back for a visit to see my dying sister and I visited the old place on Blue Hill.

I stopped at Kelly’s. The broken storm door was still there and the wooden door had a few more layers of bacon grease on it. And again, no sign of life. I stuck my head in and yelled, “Worms for sale here?” A resounding “Yes”! And there he was, trimmed down but otherwise looking the same. And I gave him a big hug and we laughed and enjoyed a too-short time together again. Not long afterwards I heard he had lung cancer and I wrote to him and not long after that he was dead. There was a picture of him in the paper- a picture of him when he was about 12 years old with his bicycle, looking rugged and handsome and shining the million-dollar smile of a kid who loved life, who loved the woods, and loved to fish.

Ricker Winsor
Bali, Indonesia

Comments

  1. says

    great article… I know the Catskill very well…grew up there. I actually worked at Beaverkill once in a while before moving to North Carolina. I was employed w/ The Dept of Environmental Conversation during the year 1976-1983. I worked in all the campsites in that area. it was a very enjoyable job. my friends and I fished in the same streams at Catskill Bill and honestly, he looks very very familiar to me.

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