When I was considerably younger and living roughly 2,000 miles east of my current address in Montana, I had an experience that helped shape my ongoing fly fishing journey in ways I could not appreciate really at that moment.
I used to fish the east branch of the Croton regularly. The East Branch rushed out of the New York East Branch Reservoir and flowed below I-684/Rte. Junction 22 before entering the woods under Sodom Lane Bridge. (Or maybe it was Gomorrah Lane Bridge. It’s been over 30 years, and those two names seem inextricably linked in my head…)
In any case, the bridge provided excellent access to the cold, clear waters of the East Branch, and it was not unusual to find half a dozen or more cars parked on either side of the road when the fish were biting. Most of the cars had New York license plates, although I occasionally noticed a vehicle from Connecticut or even New Jersey.
As an aside, I’ve always been amazed at the sheer number of people who came all the way from New York City to fish the Croton. Who knew there were so many fly fishermen in the Big Apple?
The bridge where Sodom Lane crossed the East Branch served as a natural dividing line. I preferred the water downstream as it flowed through relatively thick forest and featured a handful of interesting runs and pools.
For reasons I never understood, however, the vast majority of anglers fished upstream from the bridge. Upriver it was wider, straighter and much more urban. Water often spilled over the raised lip of the East Branch Reservoir and down a concrete runway before sliding under the high bridges where I-684 merged with Rte 22.
It was urban fishing , or as close to urban fishing as I could tolerate, and the only saving grace was that there were usually trout eating on the surface if the bugs were out.
If you can imagine a trout stream running straight down New York City’s 6th Avenue, the infamous “Avenue of the Americas,” you’ll have a good idea of how I saw the east branch upstream of the bridge.
I can’t remember why I chose to fish upstream on a foggy afternoon in April, it wasn’t my normal day, but I do remember that there were fish coming up over the bridge and not many other fly anglers in the area. Which made my choice seem perfectly acceptable.
Until it wasn’t.
I’m not quite sure how it happened, but suddenly, as the bugs were hatching and the trout were rising, a horde of anglers appeared out of nowhere. A crowd materialized from the mist upstream, and another materialized downstream, and finally, it felt as if the bowels of New York City had magically been transported an hour or so north to the exact location on the east branch.
A fellow actually got close enough to hit him in the head with my 8′ Orvis Superfine fly rod. Without, I should add, moving an inch. He was an older man in a khaki fly-fishing vest and a floppy old fisherman’s hat, and when I pointed out that I was too close, he told me in his unmistakable New York accent that he needed to take a hike . He was going to fish wherever he wanted, and there was nothing he could do about it.
I’ll admit, I thought a little about holding my head underwater for a minute or two in hopes that he might see the error of his ways. I dismissed the idea, however, as it was unlikely to achieve the desired result. New Yorkers, as you may have heard, pride themselves on being big heads…
Besides, he didn’t want to spend the night in jail.
A couple of minutes later, after it became clear that the situation was unlikely to improve, I walked over, walked over to the bank, and returned to my platform. Fly fishing had stopped being fun, and once it isn’t, it’s time to call it a day. Which is exactly what I did.
So how, you might ask, did this experience color my fly fishing for the next thirty years?
It may sound strange to you, but after that bad experience on the East Branch I started to realize that fly fishing with a handful of other anglers around didn’t really bother me. I guess you could say I was desensitized. And since the crowds here in the West hardly ever come close to that long-ago day in New York, a busy day in Henry’s Fork or the Missouri doesn’t seem so bad.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love solitude, along with peace and quiet, as much as the next guy, in fact, probably more than the next, and I really enjoy fishing where towering mountains and primeval forest are my only companions. Nature in the raw is a balm for the soul and contributes to my sanity more than you will ever know. But it is not a prerequisite for my fishing.
That’s probably why I discovered a little-known secret about crowded water a while back. Unless they’re wading red or destroying the local environment, most fly fishermen have no discernible impact on the water around them. And this is especially true on our busiest rivers.
Tortillas must be eaten. This is a fact of life. They must eat whether there are ospreys flying overhead, or otters rolling in their general vicinity, or larger, predatory fish waiting in ambush, or fishermen wading and casting. You can’t constantly skip dinner; not if they want to survive.
What the fish have learned, and what I eventually learned as well, is that they are no more at risk from most fly fishermen than they are from a cow wandering the river.
Trout in busy stretches of popular rivers don’t care if there are anglers wading here and there. In fact, many of them don’t even care if you splash a little while wading.
I’ll give you an example. Ten years ago we were shooting a video on the Missouri River in Montana. Instead of catching the plentiful local trout, however, we focused on doing everything wrong. And for the video’s climax, I turned around, pretended to stub my toe on an underwater rock, and put a corkscrew into the river in a reasonably accurate imitation of a toddler doing a belly-flop in the pool of backyard
Maybe I could have made a bigger splash in the still, shallow waters of the Missouri River…but maybe not.
Now I knew long before this particular event that trout, especially trout that are pressured regularly, are remarkably forgiving in certain situations. But when I saw the images of me floundering in that cold, clear water, I saw something I never expected. As I waddled like a drunken grizzly bear in water barely up to my thighs, two fish rose up beside me, one upstream and one downstream. And the farthest it could have been was 15 feet from where a storm was splashing.
So what is the lesson? Unless you’ve somehow inserted yourself into a literal crowd of anglers, don’t worry too much about the number of people around you. Most anglers don’t hit the river any more than a deer or a cow.
This isn’t to say you won’t encounter ghostly fish, or that you can do without wading like a stalking heron. You will and you shouldn’t. But rolling down to the river and seeing a handful of fishermen isn’t always the worst thing in the world. As long as you have some room to roam, and assuming no one decides to fish within a rod’s distance, you should be fine.