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Mountain Home Magazine

The Happy Fisherman

Apr 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Pete Ryan

One of the essential fishing stories is Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. It’s ostensibly about Santiago (as many fishing stories are, though, it’s about much more than fishing), the old fisherman who left his Cuban village in his little skiff to pursue and catch a large marlin and return to his village a hero. After days at sea, he finally “hooked up” with a big marlin of his dreams, which was so big it dragged poor Santiago’s boat around the Caribbean for days. Finally, the big fish tired and Santiago tied the marlin to the side of his skiff and headed home. Before arriving home, sharks attacked the marlin and, although Santiago attempted to dissuade them, they ate his big fish. When he returned home, all that was left was the head and skeleton, and Santiago was not the hero. It is a great story that won Hemingway a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1953 and the Nobel Peace Prize for writing in 1954.

Closer to home, there are a couple of unusual stories about fish and fishing that originated in the Finger Lakes region in the late 1880s. One concerns a seven-year-old boy, Harry Morse, who was fishing with his mom in a small boat on Keuka Lake near the shore of Brandy Bay. While Mrs. Morse was carefully watching her line on her side of the boat, Harry, being a seven-year-old, was apparently bored, and hung his head over the side of the boat to look for fish. The next thing Mrs. Morse knew, Harry is covered with blood gushing from his nose while a large trout is flopping around the bottom of the boat. Yes, Harry had caught and landed a big trout with his nose! There is a photo of young Harry in a doctor’s office with a large cut on his nose and a large trout beside him! Crazy. Funny. Dangerous.

There is also the Seneca Lake Serpent legend. As the story goes, in July 1899, according to a report in the Rochester Herald, the lake was calm as the side-wheeler steamship, Oretiani, was cruising down Seneca Lake. While the passengers were enjoying themselves (wine consumption), a large object appeared in the distance. The captain ordered the boat to slow down, and, as they approached within 100 yards, the object appeared to be a capsized boat. As the Oretiani sped up to help, the object raised its head, opened its mouth, and displayed two rows of large white teeth before diving down and disappearing. Much like the Loch Ness Monster, the existence of this alleged creature has never been confirmed, despite many other sightings. But who knows?

A’ Smelting We Will Go

I, myself, have lived a life full of fish stories, and it all began in the Finger Lakes. In the summer of 1965, I was a senior in high school. The Ryan family had moved to Seneca Falls at the north end of Cayuga Lake (no reports of a Cayuga Lake monster, thankfully). The following spring, three of my high school baseball teammates asked if I wanted to join them smelt fishing. I had never heard of smelt fishing and inquired about what they used for bait. They laughed and explained smelt are small, four to six–inch fish that swim out of the lakes and up the tributaries by the thousands to spawn, and are really good to eat. “I’m in,” I said, and asked if I needed any equipment. They told me to bring hip boots, my baseball bat, and a flashlight, and they would pick me up at 8 p.m. Our destination was a tributary on the east side of Cayuga Lake. Our armamentarium consisted of two short-handled nets, two baseball bats, flashlights, and two buckets. I was told two of us with the bats would beat the water when the smelts started running, and the other guys behind us would net the fish and dump them in the buckets. After we entered the water, it was too dark to see any fish, but soon we could feel them bumping into our legs. I started beating the water with my bat, and the smelt, being stunned, would float to the surface to be netted by my teammates. This went on for two hours, and it was total mayhem! The smelt came through in surges of ten to fifteen minutes, and then nothing. We ended up soaked and freezing, but had filled the buckets with smelt.

The mom of one of the “fishermen” told him to bring the buckets home and she would have a fish fry dinner for us the next evening. We did, and she did, and they were delicious. Today, the “smelt runs” are a thing of the past, as rainbow trout have since been stocked in the Finger Lakes and enjoy eating the smelt as much as we did. Happy.

Fishing on the Fly

During my last semester at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, my wife, Debbie, myself, and our daughter Erin spent spring break at my in-laws home in Emporium. Debbie’s dad, Pat Lewis, was a fly fisherman. Pat bought me a Cortland fly-rod-reel/line combo, and we went fishing. I really enjoyed it, and Pat was very patient and a great instructor. After graduation in late May, we had four weeks before I left for officer training in the Air Force Dental Corps. I realized catching rising trout was really exciting, and purchased some Light Cahill dry flies. One evening I headed way up stream in Rich Valley with my new flies, arriving at a deep, dark hole with trout rising everywhere. I was so excited on my first cast I broke off my fly on the trout that had risen to eat it. My hands were shaking attempting to tie on another fly as the trout continued to rise. I finally got a fresh fly tied on and continued casting and catching rising trout, being careful to gently raise my rod tip as trout ate my fly. As darkness approached, the moon appeared over the mountain in front of me and shed enough light to allow me to continue fishing. I looked at my watch and it was after 10 p.m. I reeled in, cut off my fly, put my new toy in the trunk, and headed back to the Lewis home. As I walked in the back door, so happy and proud, Debbie was, to put it mildly, irate. She’d been so worried that she almost called the state police to start looking for me. Dorothy, my mother-in-law, gently put her arm around me and told her daughter, “Relax, and be quiet. Pete was fly fishing… he could have been in a bar drinking or chasing women!” I loved my in-laws then and every day until they took their last breaths many years later. Their daughter was certainly my best catch. Lucky. Lucky. Lucky.

Fido Finds a Fish

Our two years spent in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula at K.I. Sawyer AFB were great. The snow is measured in feet in the UP, and winter starts in October and ends in May. I had time there to further develop my new-found passion. I subscribed to Fly Fisherman and Field & Stream, and joined their book club. I bought fly-fishing and fly-tying books every month. I purchased fly-tying materials, hooks, and a fly-tying vise from the once-celebrated-but-now-defunct Herter’s catalog.

In the UP, the summers are short but the days are long. There was still daylight at 10:30 p.m. because we were so far north and west in the Eastern Time Zone. After having dinner and putting our daughter to bed, I was able to enjoy several hours of fishing before dark. I most often went out the back gate of the base and fished the Chocolay River that flowed twenty miles north into Lake Superior. Most often, the MP (military policeman) would wave me through the gate when I was leaving or re-entering the base. One evening after fishing, as I approached the gate, the MP was not sitting in his little shelter, but standing outside waving me to slow down and stop. There was a large German shepherd at his side. I rolled down my window and asked, “What’s the problem?” He ordered me to get out of my vehicle and unlock the trunk, this while the dog was barking and jumping all around. I told the MP I was just a dentist on base and not a B-52 or fighter jet pilot, so I had no unauthorized information hidden in my trunk. He put his hand on his holster and ordered me to step out of my vehicle and unlock my trunk. I complied as the dog barked, jumped in my trunk, sniffed around, and jumped out.

“There are rumors of anti-war supporters (Vietnam War era) trying to enter through this gate to blow up planes,” the MP said as he looked in the trunk. “My dog is trained to smell explosives. I guess he never smelled a fishing vest with a few fish in it.” We both laughed and he apologized for the inconvenience. I told him to forget it and thanked him for doing his job. During my two years at K.I. Sawyer AFB, I fished the Escanaba and Chocolay Rivers and never saw another angler. Strange.

Mea Culpa from an Author

In July of 1976, my family and I left Michigan and moved to Coudersport. I had signed a contract with Cole Memorial Hospital to join their dental staff in the new medical building. We were within an hour of Emporium, surrounded by excellent trout streams, and it seemed like a perfect place to work, raise a family, and play. Back in the ’70s, trout season in Pennsylvania began in mid-April and ended on Labor Day. I never had a chance to wet a line in that first summer, but set up a “fly-tying room” on the second floor of our house in downtown Coudersport and tied dozens of flies to prepare for the opening of trout season that next April. Hatches, authored by Al Caucci and Bob Nastasi, was my favorite book. It was termed as a “complete guide to fly fishing the hatches of North American trout streams” and concentrated on the northeast. The authors had done extensive research on mayflies, their habitats and life cycles, complete with fantastic photos. A new style of dry fly was also introduced, called a “compara dun.” Mayflies are aquatic insects that live only in high quality streams. They are a major food source for trout. Their life cycle is egg > nymph > dun > spinner. A knowledgeable fly fisherman knows what different mayfly hatches to expect each month—they come in all different sizes and colors.

My last winter at K.I. Sawyer I had tied dozens of the new compara dun dry fly pattern. Several months later an article appeared in Fly Fisherman, stating the authors of Hatches had incorrectly instructed how to tie the deer hair wings on their compara dun, resulting in flies that would not float. I decided to tie a rooster hackle around my compara dun wings, and they did float, creating a “hackled compara dun.” Opening day, 1977, I am excited and head downstream along Route 6 from Coudersport to fish the Allegheny River. I find a bridge several miles below town with only two vehicles parked nearby. I park and discover two anglers way downstream and a fly fisherman quite a distance upstream. I gear up, step in, and start fishing upstream with my hackled compara dun tied size and color to match the mayflies that are beginning to hatch. I believe the flies are Quill Gordons, known to hatch in mid-April here in this part of Potter County. I see several trout rising, tie on my fly, and make a cast near the rising fish. I have a trout rise up and eat my fly, get it in, and release it. I continue to work my way slowly upstream, catching and releasing a dozen or so trout in the next couple of hours. I sensed someone standing behind me and recognized him to be the angler I had seen fishing upstream. He was elderly and appeared to have stepped right out of an Orvis catalog.

“I have been watching you, young man, and you are having a great morning. What fly are you using?” he asked. I explained he had probably never heard of the new fly pattern, compara dun, and that I was using a Quill Gordon compara dun. He asked if he could see my fly.

“This is not a compara dun,” he said, inspecting my fly. “Your fly has hackle tied around the deer hair wing.” Explaining that I had tied dozens of compara duns as described in the book Hatches, and then read the article in Fly Fisherman telling that the wings as tied in the book was incorrect, etc, etc. He stuck out his hand and said, “I’m Al Caucci. Sorry about the mistake in the book, but I guess your hackled compara dun is a very effective fly as you ‘hammered them’ this morning.” Remembering the author was from New Jersey, I asked why he was in Coudersport fishing the Allegheny on opening day. He said he read Night Fishing for Trout, authored by Coudersport’s own Jim Bashline, which describes the great trout fishing in the Allegheny River in Potter County. He was on his way home from an outdoor show in Buffalo and decided to stop. Happy. Crazy. Serendipitous.

It’s All about the Trout

In the next two years, I organized enough fishing friends to form the God’s Country of Trout Unlimited. In doing so, I was fortunate to meet and become good fishing buddies with the Northcentral Regional vice president of PATU, Skip Gibson. During the past forty years, Skip and I have traveled and fished Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New York, Maine, the tributaries of lakes Erie and Ontario, Tennessee, Florida, Belize, Mexico, Patagonia, Canada, and eastern and western Russia. On many of these trips, we were often accompanied by other fishing buddies from God’s Country TU. What a life is mine, being able to chase my passion all over the world! Crazy. Strange. Happy.

As February rolls into March, I am sitting on my wooden bench in my backyard overlooking the Allegheny River watching the cold, clean water I love pass by. I now understand why the Senecas call my river the Ohi’yo, meaning “beautiful river.” I ponder how I landed here—a kid who grew up in the suburbs of NYC yet blessed to have lived 90 percent of my adult life in the PA Wilds. My home is in the center of the county referred to as God’s Country, and surrounded by trout streams. Was it dumb luck, prudent planning, fate, or divine guidance? I can’t say, but I’m truly thankful. Crazy. Happy.

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