The water was higher than usual. There was a leak in the dam on the Toronto Reservoir, and so they had to drain the lake. This meant tons of water was rushing into Black Lake Creek, where Joe Heusinger and I were trying to fish. The sound the water made as it burbled over the rock was the only noise we could hear, aside from a few chirping birds and the sound of our own voices. Although this creek was one of the best native Brook trout fishing spots in the Catskills, no one else was around.
We hadn’t seen anyone since we left the main part of the Chatwal Lodge, the exclusive luxury hotel set on more than 100 acres in the Catskill Mountains’ Sullivan County where I was staying for the weekend. Actually, we were still on land owned by Chatwal Lodge, which is why no one else was allowed to be here, aside from the small number of hotel guests—there are only 11 cabins—and the handful of residents who live here, in mansions nestled in the woods or on the shores of the reservoir. I had left my cushy cabin—really more of a house, complete with Adirondack-style carved branch décor, fireplaces, a deep soaking tub, and a wide balcony overlooking the reservoir—in pursuit of true relaxation. We had driven about 15 minutes into the untouched forested section of the vast property, which is part of the 18,000-acre Chapin Estate, a private wildlife reserve in White Lake, New York.
I focused on the babbling water sounds, clearing my mind as best as I could, and tuned into Joe’s voice. While Montana and Wyoming often top the list of best places to fly fish, the Catskills, and specifically Sullivan County, is actually the birthplace of fly fishing in America, Joe told me. In the late 1800s, Theodore Gordon invented dry fly fishing and developed new fly patterns to attract the local trout in nearby Livingston Manor, and he is credited for popularizing the sport in the U.S. Today, the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum and the Wulff School of Fly Fishing are in Livingston Manor, and the beloved Willowemoc and Beaverkill rivers are both teeming with trout.
Until recently, though, fly-fishing in the Catskills was rougher than some (i.e. me) would like. In comparison to Montana and Wyoming, where I had first tried the sport, luxe outfitters and lodges were almost nonexistent. That changed last year when the ultra-luxurious Chatwal Lodge (sister to the posh The Chatwal in Manhattan) opened and began offering guided fly fishing with Joe, the owner of Covert Creek Outfitting, a local fly fishing and hunting company.
Joe handed me the fishing rod that he had carefully placed a fuzzy fly at the end of. Before we left the lodge, we practiced fly casting on the lawn. Like many sporting movements, it was all in the wrist, and the secret was to find the happy medium of a cast that was not too hard and not too gentle. On the lodge’s lawn, I had flung the rod with relative ease, watching the line whip back and then forward, with the bobbing fly fluttering on the end of it, glinting in the sun.
But now that we were at the water, it was a whole new ballgame. We were wearing waterproof waders and boots supplied by the lodge, and after tramping through the woods, we reached a spot where the water looked slightly calmer, with fewer rocks.
Joe motioned for me to get in the water, and as I gingerly stepped from the bank into the gushing creek, I was momentarily knocked off balance. The water was strong, and it was up to my thighs. But I was stronger. I regained my footing, finding the rock Joe pointed to underwater that was sturdiest. I flung the rod, casting the fly into the air, before it plopped onto the water. Would any trout be fooled into thinking it was an actual fly?
I focused hard on the fly as it bobbed downstream and got to the end of my line. Nothing happened, and Joe motioned for me to cast again. And again. I thought about my balance, the water, my wrist, the line, the fly, and if there was a pull. And nothing else.
That’s the thing about fly fishing. You have to focus, or you’ll miss a nibble. You have to concentrate on each cast, lest your line be flung to the wrong part of the river, or caught on surrounding tree branches. Each cast then leads to a few moments of attention—always ready for that telltale pull—until you reach the end of the line, your fly stops floating, and then you cast again.
It’s repetitive and it requires total concentration. And I find it utterly soothing. If you let your mind drift to, say, what’s for dinner that night, the email you forgot to send, or what you’ll do with your kids this summer, your line will probably get tangled, you’ll lose sight of your fly in the water, or you’ll miss your chance to pull in a catch if you get a tug. There’s no room for distraction.
I love massages. I love yoga. I love walking in the woods. All of these are relaxing endeavors, yet when I do any of them in an effort to relax myself, I inevitably notice my mind beginning to wander at some point. Sometimes it’s just for a moment, but more often it’s for several minutes at a time, until I force myself to stop thinking and try again to turn off my buzzing brain. On the other hand, fly fishing takes up all of my brain space—there’s no room for anything else. It’s simple and cyclic, yet never boring. And there’s nothing to stress about—either you catch something or you don’t. Nature doesn’t care, and neither do I.
I first discovered my love of fly fishing in 2019, after trying it on a lark with my husband while on vacation in Wyoming. It was one of those activities we knew nothing about, but we saw it on the list of activities at the ranch we were staying at, and thought we might as well give it a go—at the very least, we could enjoy the gorgeous scenery and do our best A River Runs Through It reenactment. We both loved it, and it was the first time I had felt truly stress- and anxiety-free since we had our son a few years before. I was hooked (pun intended).
Yes, fly fishing is the most relaxing sport in the world. Until that moment when you feel a nibble at the end of your line and the adrenaline kicks in. This happened after about 40 minutes of blissfully uneventful fishing on the Black Lake Creek with Joe. We had fallen into a rhythm. I could tell he felt bad I hadn’t caught anything yet, even though I assured him I didn’t care. But then I felt the pull and yelped. Joe shouted, “Set!” the fly fishing term for raising the fly rod upwards in response to hooking a fish on your fly. I yanked the rod up toward the sky as he grabbed his net. As the trout thrashed at the end of my line and Joe jumped into the creek with me, I felt a smile spread across my face.
It was joy, yes, but also serenity and a carefree attitude that had become increasingly rare the older I got. It was fleeting, as fleeting as the fish who soon jumped out of my slippery hands and back into the gurgling water, but I had it for a moment. And that was enough.