Loving an Underdog

Trout Fishing on Willowemoc Creek in New York's Catskills
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Big  Rock Pool
Big Rock Pool on the Upper Willowemoc. (Photo by Robert A. Cunningham)

If rivers could emote, the Willowemoc would surely envy the Beaverkill. Where they join, the Willowemoc gives up its name to its nobler twin. But why should it be the tributary when, before they were settled, the Willowemoc was every mile as good a trout river? Look at the evidence.

Above their celebrated junction Pool, the Willowemoc is only 4 percent shorter than the Beaverkill. Its tributaries, almost equal in number, are more extensively developed and definitely superior as trout spawning grounds. Its headwaters produce more wild brook trout than any other Catskill river. And, where they join, it continues flowing in the same direction while the Beaverkill almost doubles back on itself to accommodate the"lesser" river. And, based on calculations by Ed Van Put, it puts more water into junction Pool: the Willowemoc drainage area measures approximately 130 square miles while the upper Beaverkill drains 100 square miles.

From its source to its mouth, Willowemoc Creek is 26.7 miles long. It rises on the south flank of Beaverkill Range at an elevation of 2,900 feet, turns and flows almost due west, falling over 200 feet per mile in its first few miles. It levels out quickly to one of the gentler headwater grades to be found in the Catskills. In fact, Fir Brook, the first major tributary, is like an Adirondack bog stream. Silent and slow, ten to 15 feet wide, it meanders among grassy hummocks, grown up on the silt from centuries of beaver dams. For nearly five miles it flows through a hemlock-lined meadow, its series of still pools like little ponds, with sandy silted bottoms up to four and five feet deep. Deep for a small stream. And productive.

You walk along the bank, throw a nymph in, let it sit for a while, twitch it a couple of times, and catch a brook trout. Then go to the next pool. It's almost like worm fishing; you don't have to do much casting. It's better one-man fishing. You can't fish side-by-side, as on the lower river; you've got to cover the water, jump from pool to pool, maybe leapfrogging with one other fisherman.

On the Willowemoc itself, north of and parallel to Fir Brook, the same approach works very well."You could easily have a fifty-fish day up here catching little eight- to ten-inch brook trout," says Ed Van Put.

The entire upper Willowemoc basin is perfectly suited for raising brook trout. Plenty of springs seep in from all sides, keeping the streams full and cool most of the year. A rich broth of plant decay, microorganisms, an stream insects is there to support an abundance of wild fish. And there is excellent bank cover with more than the usual number of hemlock and spruce lining the banks.

Public fishing rights were bought by the state along much of Fir Brook in the 1950s. Since then, other sections on the main stream have been acquired, either outright or for fishing only, so that the upper Willowemoc is open in many places to public fishing. The middle section of the river, from the village of Willowemoc down to Livingston Manor is largely unposted or open via public fishing rights, posting is intermittent on about six of the 20-1/2 miles. Below Livingston Manor, the remainder of the Willowemoc down to Roscoe is open to the public.

Brown trout appear in greater numbers below the mouth of Fir Brook. The state stocks only browns in the Willowemoc. Brook trout thrive without help in the upper reaches and rainbows have never done well in this river except when they're getting handouts, as did the fish that used to live at Hazel Bridge below Harry Darbee's.

A woman living in a trailer next to the bridge stopped Ed Van Put one day and said, "You want to see something?" She took him out onto the bridge and threw bread off the bridge. A huge rainbow, about twenty-one inches, zoomed up from beneath an old railroad abutment almost two hundred feet below the bridge. He ate every piece she threw out there, wolfing them down.

"I was down there one day standing on the abutment," said Ed, "and saw her walk out on the bridge, and saw that fish leave just as she came onto the bridge. It was amazing! Elsie Darbee and I later identified him with binoculars as a big rainbow. He must have come from one of the clubs."

The middle Willowemoc actually steepens a little after its flat, boggy headwaters, falling about forty feet per mile until it reaches Livingston Manor. Throughout this fifteen or so miles, it ranges from twenty to fifty feet wide, with pools from two to four feet deep. The bottom consists of medium to smaller boulders and gravel. There is a good balance between fast water and silted eddies, the result being a nice accommodation of both burrowing and nonburrowing nymphs. Hatches, especially caddis, are frequent, varied, and heavy.

Fishing the middle Willowemoc usually produces about an equal number of brook and brown trout. These are smallish fish, running six to eight inches for brooks and nine to ten inches for browns. A twelve-inch fish is a good fish. Bill Kelly, state fisheries biologist, is puzzled as to why this section of the Willowemoc doesn't produce more and bigger fish. "It has all the right characteristics," he says. "Hemlock-lined banks, good bottom, plenty of insects. It's too bad it doesn't fish as good as it looks."

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 4 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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