From Issue Three of the Gear Patrol Magazine. Free domestic shipping + 15% off in the GP store for new subscribers.
Ray Ottulich was walking downhill toward the water, practically feeling the first cast shivering through his fly rod, when the man in the tank top bawled him out. “The water’s too hot to fish!” the man bellowed in a New York accent. “You’ll hurt the trout!”
He was right. Catching trout in the summer heat of the Catskills, when the water temperature is high and oxygen levels are low, can be deadly for the fish, which are unable to recover after the stress of being caught and released.
Ottulich stopped and turned, his dark round sunglasses glinting in the sun. “We’re fishing for smallmouth bass here,” he deadpanned. “They like the warm water. They’ll be just fine.”
“Oh,” said the man, deflating like a balloon. “I didn’t know there were other fish here. Well…good luck then!” Ottulich didn’t respond. He had already walked away, heading to the water.
Ray Ottulich is a fly-fishing guide. And like most guides, on his day off he goes fishing. Practically every guide is obsessed with fishing, yet they hardly get to wet a line while leading clients; there is water, water, everywhere, and not a moment to cast. This is especially true in the Catskills, just a few miles’ drive west of the Hudson Valley. This “Land of Little Rivers” is the heart and soul of fly-fishing in the East. Here, everyone fishes, or knows someone who fishes, or sells food or gear or a night’s rest to someone who fishes. Guides work themselves to the bone during a particularly long fishing season.
So, when they do finally get a day off, guides tend to find the choicest spots, miles away from civilization and other fishermen, or just hidden in plain sight. Which is exactly where we wanted to be. So we asked three seasoned vets to let us tag along to their favorite personal spots, gave them some gear to test and followed them to the water to watch them “work.”
Neversink Gorge, Rock Hill, New York
Rist led us on a mile-long hike to the bottom of the Neversink Gorge, where the water, which the Algonquins named the “Mad River,” sluiced through bouldery banks. There wasn’t another soul in sight. “You look on the maps and you see all these unique areas,” he said. “You explore them, because as a guide you need to have some advantages and know these little out-of-the-way places where people can’t easily get to to fish.”
Rist was in the Navy for four years, then worked 32 years for the post office. He retired to become a full-time guide. “Everybody has an ‘out’ in life,” he said. “Some people get lost in music. Some people get lost in art. For me, when I’m out on the water, everything that can bother me, I forget about.”
Rondout Creek, High Falls, New York
Ottulich chucked his heavy white streamer, which mimics a baitfish, with brutal efficiency. When the cast landed, he crouched into a ready stance, stripping line, his body taut like a spring. He was ready when the fish struck.
“The smallies here are like the trout out West,” Ray Ottulich said. “They’re aggressive and opportunistic.” Ottulich grew up in the Hudson Valley area, moved to Montana to guide, then returned to take care of his mother. Smallmouth bass are prime game fish, but they’re often overlooked by anglers obsessed with the region’s trout.
“You don’t ever have to worry about changing flies when you fish here,” he said. “They’re always hungry.”
“The Flats,” Upper Willowemoc Creek, New York
This section of the Willowemoc is a dream — shallow and clear, its runs and pools in places nearly enclosed by wildflowers and pine trees on either bank. We had it to ourselves. “This stretch is a really good, mostly brown trout section,” said James Caroll, the young, bearded owner of Old Souls, an outdoors shop that he co-owns with his wife. “My wife and I were together for a long time before anyone even mentioned this piece of land. So maybe they were vetting me,” Caroll said. “She grew up as a kid swimming around in one big bend in the river, a natural swimming pool. So when we came up to visit from Brooklyn and she mentioned visiting ‘The Flats,’ ‘some river’ on her cousin’s land, I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ This private water here is my playground now.”
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“I was just in Russia chucking giant lines and huge bugs at fish with no fear of what I was doing, and having a hundred fish in a day. You come up here, it’s a challenge. It isn’t a shooting gallery like those destination fisheries are. This takes finesse and it takes skill and it takes patience and it’s not easy. It’s fantastic fishing, but you’ve got to crack the code every time.”