Come along as one family gets hooked (wink!) on fly-fishing during a long weekend in New York’s Catskill Mountains.
I’ll be honest: My sons are whiners. Come weekends, they don’t want to do anything except stare at a screen. My wife, Emily, and I try our best to cook up family plans that will get our 10-year old twins, Nate and Theo, excited about venturing beyond our apartment door. We live in New York City, so it’s not like it’s hard to find tons of activities that most kids would jump at.
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“Guys! Let’s go to the American Museum of Natural History!” we exclaim (it’s only one of the best museums in the world, after all). “Oh God,” they respond, “not again.”
“We’re going ice-skating! In Central Park!” “Uggggh,” they both groan. “Who will protect my Clash of Clans base?” Theo wants to know. “We’re going to walk around Chinatown and eat dim sum!” They ask to order pizza instead.
It’s maddening! But there is one thing we can usually count on, with Nate anyway: fishing. A few times every summer, he and Emily wake up early to catch a boat and fish for fluke in the Atlantic off the coast of Long Island. Nate rarely catches a “keeper” but—miraculously—never complains. So on beach vacations, too, we always reserve a day for a fishing excursion. At least one kid will be happy, we think.
And that was our reasoning for heading to Roscoe, NY, a tiny town in the Catskills that happens to be a huge fly-fishing destination. Roscoe sits at the intersection of two trout-rich bodies of water, Beaverkill River and Willowemoc Creek, and was one of the first places in the country where fly-fishing—a British import—flourished.
Fly-fishing is like fishing-plus. You don’t sit in the comfort of a boat or a dock. You don’t eat a sandwich while waiting for a bite. You’re in the water, continually casting and reeling. And you get to wear waders—waders!—and a little vest with lots of pockets. It is official stuff.
I thought the boys would be as excited about waders as I was, but apparently they didn’t see A River Runs Through It when they were in high school nor have they developed a decades long fantasy of tying flies with Brad Pitt. Still, there was no whining. Nate, as expected, was psyched, and Theo was surprisingly game.
Just a two-hour drive from New York City, this part of the western Catskills is gorgeous. It’s easy to see why the Hudson River School painters were so transfixed by the light on the lush, undulating landscape here. Just driving around the maple-and-birch forests was a meditative treat. We spent whole minutes (trust me, this is a long time for our family) quietly looking out the car windows on our way to Roscoe Campsite Park, where we’d be staying and fishing.
After we settled into our adorable knotty pine cabin (though you can pitch a tent or hook up your RV at the site too), we set out to explore. The campgrounds are right on the banks of the Beaverkill River, and there were clearly lots of fishing folk staying here—we saw long rods attached to the top of cars, wet waders drying in truck beds, and fishing nets hooked over tentpoles. But the place was as silent as a yoga retreat; the only sounds were the rush of water and the bleating of alpacas. (Alpacas are the pet of choice in the Catskills, primarily for their fleece, and the campsite has three.) We learned that the noontime quiet was because the excitement of the day had already happened much earlier. Fly-fishing is a crack-of-dawn sport; the warmer the day gets, the less active the fish are.
And so we found ourselves the next morning shivering alongside the alpacas, envying their furry halos. Though the temperature was in the 80s back in the city, it was a good 35 degrees cooler this early in the foothills, and we were wishing we had brought warmer clothes. Our fly-fishing guides for the day, Phil and David Eggleton—the father-and-son owners of Trout Town Adventures and Guide Services—wrapped Nate and Theo in some old tartan blankets to warm them up before our lesson.
Phil, a ringer for Harrison Ford, grew up in Roscoe right by the Willowemoc Creek. He and his wife raised their own family in a home that overlooks Roscoe’s famous “Junction Pool,” where the two rivers merge and where trout, confused about where to go, congregate. It was there that Phil taught his son Dave to fish.
The pair handed us rods that were strung with bright-orange yarn instead of fly line so that we could see how our casts landed and get a feel for just how finicky the line would be in the water. Fly-fishing uses “dry” lures that are designed to sit lightly on the surface of the water and mimic the flies that trout typically nibble on. Getting 9 feet of that near-weightless line-and-lure to land straight out in front of you is harder than it looks.
We practiced for an hour, trying to land our flies in small hoops that Phil and Dave had set out. I don’t think I ever got one in (“Try not to overthink your form so much,” Phil advised me). But Nate and Theo were naturals, and they ate up the attention and praise of our super-patient and incredibly knowledgeable teachers. (We weren’t surprised to learn that Dave also happens to teach physical education and health at the same school he attended as a child.) Age 10 is a great time to learn to fly-fish, Dave said, because kids this age have the hand-eye coordination needed to cast and pull line at the same time; plenty of younger kids fly-fish, but the learning curve is steeper.
Did we have any questions before we headed to the river? Yes, I said. Impressed by their dynamic, I was dying to know how Phil and Dave forged such a great relationship (they both wanted to spend the rest of their lives working together, after all). Phil and Dave just chuckled at my curiosity and said we had better get our gear on.
Unfortunately, the waders that I had so enthusiastically promised Nate and Theo didn’t come in their sizes and they had to wear their own Keen sandals and shorts. Though sunnier now, it was still chilly, and the water was chillier still. Both of the Roscoe rivers originate from cold springs high in the Catskill Mountains, and even on the hottest days, the water is what locals call “refreshing” and my sons called “freaking freezing.” Meanwhile, Emily and I were fully outfitted in lined waders and comfy waterproof boots. Sorry, kiddos! Nevertheless, we made our way into the river—the stones underfoot are slippery—until Emily and I were in up to our knees and the boys were up to their waists.
The four of us had to stand a good distance apart from one another so as not to tangle our lines or—more likely—whip each other in the face with our casts. In the water, the loop-and-cast stroke felt more natural. And there is plenty of opportunity to adjust your form: Once the fly lands on the water, you let it drift downstream a few feet before reeling it back and recasting. You’re in constant motion.
Too far apart to chat, we fell into a silent rhythm. Release, pause, reel. Release, pause, reel. The focused repetition was absorbing and relaxing. The water sparkled, herons flew overhead, and riverside trees rustled in the breeze. All four of us were in the “flow”—separately and together—and, honestly, it all felt… beautiful. “I get this fishing thing,” I thought. And I’m pretty sure Nate and Theo got it too. Phil occasionally called out to the boys, “Ready for a break?” and they answered no every time. “I mean, I can’t feel my toes,” Theo clarified, “but I don’t want to stop.” It was the day’s most ringing endorsement.
But all good things must come to an end, particularly when the “good thing” is a calm and unifying moment with kids. Theo slipped on a rock and fell into the water. The communal reverie was broken. Soaked and freezing, he started to whine (not that I blame him). Nate began to complain, too, about not catching anything. You may see the photo of us beaming around a brown trout, but we should come clean: Phil’s brother, who stopped by to say hello, caught it and let us take some vanity shots before releasing it back into the water.
It didn’t matter in the end, though. I suspect that catching fish is not the sole motivation for a lot of the seasoned fly-fishers around here. Many areas of the Beaverkill and Willowemoc are catch-and-release anyway, so it’s not as if they’re relying on the sport for their dinner.
That flow, that rhythm that we fell into on the water, was addictive. Like the time together in the car, staring out the window, the fishing inspired a shared awe of our surroundings. Maybe this was the secret to Phil and Dave’s bond? Less talking, more fishing.
We spent the rest of the long weekend hiking, paddling down the Delaware River, horseback riding, and alpaca-admiring. And while the boys sometimes say that those long necked camel cousins were their favorite part of the Catskills, it was our time on the river that set the tone for the whole trip. Was there whining?
Heck, yeah. Would we do it again? You bet.