The Great Fly-Fishing Competition of 1911
by Randy Kadish
Ray wasn’t at the Forks when I got there. I set up my Leonard rod
and cast over the swirling eddies. The eddies, however, weren’t as
strong as they were the day before; and neither were the armies
flowing into the pool. Unlike the stone faces of mansions,
the faces of the river had faded closer to anonymity, but I still
Twenty minutes later, Ray still hadn’t arrived.
Had he deserted me? If so, why? Had I said the wrong thing?
Or had he just assumed that I was a rich kid from New York.
A fly line unrolled upstream. Was it Ray’s?
I walked upstream. Mr. La Branche stood in the river.
Tucking his rod in his armpit, he wrote something in a small book.
I yelled out, “I think you’re right!”
“Dry flies and fast water.”
“Dry flies and fast water. I like the ring of that.”
I told him about the rises I saw on Ferdon’s Eddy.
“Right now,” he said, “I’m trying to create my own hatch of flies
by casting to the same spot over and over again.”
Though I didn’t know if he wanted me to, I walked to him.
“Watch,” he said.
He cast. Again the loop curved downstream. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Did you tell me your name yesterday?”
“My name is Ian.”
“Ian, you see, according to my theory, closely matching
artificial flies to hatched ones isn’t crucial. I’ve cut open trout
and found little sticks and different insects in their stomachs; so
I think what’s crucial to catching trout is landing the fly gently
on the right spot, and then drifting the fly without drag.” Mr. La
Branche’s voice sounded calm but passionate. I was impressed at how
well he fit the opposite tones together.
“To get the fly to land gently,” he continued, “I aim about 5
feet over the target, and slightly downward. You see, Ian, the trick
is to get the line to land first and to therefore slow the leader
and fly as they float down. Right now I’m landing my fly three feet
upstream of that long seam. To get a longer drift, I’m curving my
casts so the fly lands downstream of the line.”
“I didn’t know a person can curve his casts.”
“To make a downstream curve, I cast with the rod 45 degrees to
the ground. Then I let go of the line before I stop my cast, and
gently pull back the rod. To make an upstream curve, I don’t let go
of the line until I stop my cast. The more horizontally I hold the
rod, the more my cast will curve. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Curving my casts has taken me months and months of experiments.”
I thought of my own casting experiments. Suddenly I admired Mr.
La Branche, in spite of his two middle initials and his dressing
like a dandy.
He took out his gold pocket watch. “It’s almost ten. I have to
meet Mr. Theodore Gordon at the Covered Bridge Pool.”
“So you heard of him?”
“He’s also a great fly tyer. We’re having a running debate on how
to fish dry flies. Ian, why don’t you come with me, and I’ll tell
you more on the way.”
Ray, I assumed, wasn’t coming; so why should I miss a golden
opportunity to learn about dry-fly fishing and to see another pool?
Besides, Mr. Gordon was a writer. I had never met a real writer.
I said, “Sure.”
I got in the car. Mr. La Branche drove back toward town, then
turned left and drove past a long row of quaint homes with porches;
and I realized I was beginning to like the look of a small town. Mr.
La Branche turned onto a narrow road that ran alongside a river. The
river had a lot of riffles and runs. The bank was lined with trees,
posted with small signs that read: Fishing And Hunting Prohibited.
I asked. “Is that the upper Beaverkill?”
On both sides of the river were cornfields and farmhouses.
“You see,” Mr. La Branche said, “to get trout to see dries on
fast water, we have to tie them differently than they’re tied in
England. Our dries have to float higher on the water. ...”
Mr. La Branche told me how his experiments led him to
believe some of the best places to fish dry flies were the mouths
and tails of pools. Without stopping for a breath, he explained
how to fish those parts.
I was lost in his explanations. Was Mr. La Branche a mad scientist? If so, did I want to be his mad pupil?
Thinking I didn’t, I looked forward to reaching the Covered
“Ian, to summarize, I think the order of importance to
fishing dry flies is, action, position, size, form and, last,
color. Mr. Gordon does not agree with me. He thinks the order is:
size, form and color.”
“What made you come to these conclusions?”
“You mean theories. My gut, at first. We’re here.”
Mr. La Branche drove down a hill then through a one-lane,
covered wooden bridge. I felt as if we drove through a rattling
barn. I imagined miniature Brooklyn Bridges connecting the banks
of Beaverkill, but I didn’t like the images, especially when Mr.
La Branche parked on a clearing and I saw how beautifully the
wooden bridge matched the pool. Besides, I didn’t like the ring
of the name: Suspension Bridge Pool.
“That’s Mr. Gordon’s car.” Mr. La Branche pointed to anolder-model Ford.
The pool was about half the size of the Forks. Its
turquoise-colored water looked as if it flowed in from the
Mediterranean. The far bank of the pool was a high cliff, divided
in half by a narrow waterfall, and covered with small trees and
bushes. Suddenly I felt I was in the Hanging Garden of Babylon.
But the garden, I remembered, was ancient and man-made. Wanting
to be closer to modern times and to natural beauty, I imagined I
was on the Tahitian island Fletcher Christian and his mutineers
The tail of the pool narrowed, sped up and rushed down what
seemed be a long, long sliding pond that dropped into an unseen
How high up was I? I wondered. On the top of the world? If
so, wasn’t it because an upside-down reflection seem to put me
there, but because the Covered Bridge Pool, like the Forks, was
one of the most beautiful places on earth--so beautiful that only
a God could have created it? God didn’t create Penn Station. So
man and God--if there was a God--created beautiful things, and
horrible things like wars and earthquakes.
Would an earthquake ever rip the Beaverkill apart so, like
Humpty Dumpty, it couldn’t be put back together again? Would dead
soldiers lie on the banks, the way dead soldiers once lay on the
banks of Antietam, Manassas, Chickamauga? What was it about
rivers that made them sites of so many bloody battles? Was it
because armies tried, often in vain, to use them as barriers?
Would armies one day climb down the steep bank of this pool and
attack and be picked off by snipers? The survivors, at least,
would then be protected by the walls of the covered bridge. The
Union soldiers who crossed the Antietam stone bridge weren’t so
lucky, even if, as my father said, they fought on a battlefield
of great ideas.
Thankfully, no great ideas were on the Covered Bridge Pool.
Armies therefore wouldn’t march up the narrow mountain road and
kill and die just to capture a small piece of beauty. The pool’s
only strategic importance was to anglers, not to generals. And if
a general was also an angler, he wouldn’t want his soldiers to
bleed and bloody the turquoise water.
Maybe Gus was right: war and fishing stories weren’t meant
to go together. If I wrote a fishing story about the pool, I
would leave out all hint of war and put in long descriptions of
But could I?
Using the pen and paper of my mind, I tried to describe the
pool. My mind, however, whitened into a blank sheet. Feeling like
a failure, I wondered, if great descriptive writing, like
Cooper’s, is more beautiful than nature, maybe writing and nature
can’t be judged against each other because they are, in the end,
different things, linked by an invisible bridge. What does this
bridge look like? Is it covered? Is it stone or suspension? Or is
it lacking shape or form? If so, how does it connect things?
Certainly not by charging tolls. But regardless of how they’re
connected, if writing is created by man, while nature is created
by a power I can’t understand, which is more important? Nature?
After all, it came first. But nature is plentiful. Great writing
isn’t, maybe because it has to be revised four, five, or even ten
times. Does nature have to be revised?
“Let’s walk to the mouth,” Mr. La Branche said.
The pool semi-circled to the right. Upstream of the pool was
a long, narrow run. Standing in the end of the run was a small
man wearing a plaid jacket and a gray cap. His hair and mustache
were streaked with gray. He looked about ten years older than my
“Theodore!” Mr. La Branche called.
“George, who’s your friend?”
“Ian. He has the curiosity to become a great angler.”
I was proud.
“Nice to meet you,” Mr. Gordon said.
We shook hands. His grip was weak, like a girl’s. He looked
suddenly ten years younger than my father, maybe because of his
diminutive size or because of the way the sunlight brightened his
smooth, baby-white face.
“George, here are the flies I tied for you.” Mr. Gordon
handed Mr. La Branche a small matchbox.
“Thank you. The hatch should start soon.”
“Yes. I already tied on my fly.” Mr. Gordon held up a tiny,
dark-brown fly. “Here’s the one I tied for you.” Mr. Gordon spoke
softly, as if his voice were a fly he was scared of splashing on
the water. He opened his silver fly box, took out a fly and gave
it to Mr. La Branche.
Mr. La Branche studied the fly, then tied it on.
“Theodore, I see two good seams: the vertical one at the
mouth and the horizontal one up there.”
“Fine. Ten minutes at each seam. Ian, we’re having a sort of
contest. My fly is a little bigger and darker than those that are
going to soon hatch. Let’s get ready. Ian why don’t you stand in
the middle. Let us know when ten minutes have passed.”
“George, how are things at the club?” Mr. Gordon asked.
“We had a knockdown, drag-out debate last night over your
last article. Some members just don’t want to see that there
might be a new truth to fishing dry flies. Instead, they prefer
to sit in judgment and look down at us.”
“George, they’re just people, like me and, and--look, the
Mr. La Branche walked upstream.
Mr. Gordon, I soon saw, was a good caster, but not as good
as Mr. La Branche. Several times his fly missed the seam or
splashed on the water.
Ten minutes later the anglers switched positions. As I
watched the contest, I wondered if I witnessed history being
made. If so, how important was the history in the scope of the
history of the wide world? It certainly didn’t compare to
Gettysburg, or perhaps even to the Hudson River celebration. But
at least at the Covered Bridge Pool, I was the only witness.
Besides, was there any way to tell how big small histories would
one day become?
Three more times Mr. La Branche and Mr. Gordon switched
positions. When the contest was over, Mr. La Branche had hooked
four trout but lost one. Mr. Gordon had hooked and landed two
trout. Both anglers released their catch.
“George, if you had a softer rod, that trout wouldn’t have
“If I had a softer rod I wouldn’t have been able to hit the
target so many times.”
“The fish that count are the ones an angler lands.”
“Not to me.”
Mr. Gordon smiled. “Stubborn as ever.”
“Maybe, but remember: I believed in you when almost no one
“Let’s fish for the love of it,” Mr. Gordon said. “Ian, take
my favorite spot, the tail.”
I walked downstream and studied the tail. It had many seams.
I decided, therefore, to fan cast the tail with Doc’s backwards
streamer. And so I cast about 20 feet straight across, let my fly
swing directly downstream, then waited, gently moving the rod tip
up and down. Finally, I retrieved my fly, cast 5 feet farther and
let my fly swing downstream in a wider arc.
I continued the fishing cycle until my cast almost reached
the bank, then I waded five feet downstream and restarted another
An hour or so later, I didn’t have a single take even though
Mr. La Branche and Mr. Gordon each had several. Embarrassed, I
was angry at myself for choosing the wrong strategy. Wanting to
prove to the men I was a real angler, I decided to change
strategies and cast directly to some of the seams. I retrieved my
line. It felt heavy, as if my fly were caught on something. I
pointed the rod up. The line seemed to pull back. A massive brown
trout jumped. Quickly, I lowered the rod and reeled in slack
line. Knowing I had to keep the brown out of the fast tail water,
I baby-stepped backwards toward the bank, then jogged downstream,
reeling in more and more line. The brown broke upstream for
slower water. The first tactical advantage went to me. Pointing
the rod up, feeling it throb, I slowed my whirling reel with my
palm and kept steady pressure on the brown. He broke for the far
bank. I lowered the rod, waited, and turned him. The throbbing
weakened into a pulse. Reeling in line, I quickly waded to the
middle of the pool. The brown swam in a small oval. I waded right
up to him. He swam right into my hand, as if he knew I was going
to let him go and wanted to say hello. He was as big as Clay’s
monster trout. I held him up.
Mr. La Branche and Mr. Gordon applauded. I held the trout
underwater and let him go. Like Mr. Rainbow, he didn’t seem to
want to leave, as if liked being with me. Still, I splashed water
and chased him away.
A few minutes later Mr. La Branche yelled, “Ian, I have to
I reeled in my line and walked upstream.
“Ian, what did you catch the brown on?” Mr. Gordon asked.
I showed him Doc’s streamer. “Mr. Gordon, could you tie the
fly for me?”
Mr. Gordon studied the fly. His brow wrinkled. He looked
older again. “Backwards? Interesting. I’ve never seen anything
like it? Who tied it for you?”
“A drunk who fought in the Civil War, then became an angler
and a doctor.”
“Give me your address, Ian, and I’ll tie and send some to
you. In the meantime, here’s some dry flies for you to practice
“Thanks, Mr. Gordon.”
Mr. La Branche and I rode back through the covered bridge.
“Ian, what does your father do?”
“He’s a lawyer.”
“I’m in investment banking. Is that what you want to be, a
I decided to tell Mr. La Branche I wanted to be a writer.
“I envy Mr. Gordon for being a writer,” Mr. La Branche said.
“So you don’t think I’m crazy for also wanting to be one?”
“In the end, we all have to do what we believe in. Mr.
Gordon could have been successful in business, but he chose not
to. True, I don’t understand how he can live with just a dog on
the Neversink River. It must be lonely as hell, especially during
the winter. He used to fish with a woman. I think she broke his
heart and that’s why he shuts people out. But who knows? Maybe
his heart was broken for a reason, because he needs the time
alone to write. One day he’ll be remembered for revolutionizing
fly fishing in America.”
Will wanting to be an angler and a writer, I wondered, lead
me to living alone, like Mr. Gordon?
We passed another farm.
“What will I be remembered for,” Mr. La Branche muttered.
“But aren’t you writing something?”
“Just taking notes. I’m not a writer, even though Mr. Gordon
wants me to write an article.”
“Why don’t you?”
“Ian, supposing at the end of my long, long day, it’s proven
that on fast water, wet flies take more fish than dries? Or
supposing it’s proven the size, form and color of the fly are
more important than the presentation? What a fool I’ll look like.
I wouldn’t want to publish anything unless I know I’m right; and
sometimes, sometimes, I get so tired of all my experiments.
Sometimes I wonder just what the hell I’m doing. When I fish I
don’t even see the beauty of the rivers anymore. I don’t,
A silence. For me, an uncomfortable one. I tried to think of
the right words to say. Finally they came to me. “But you do see
the beauty of your experiments.”
He smiled. “I guess that’s one way to look at it.”
Another silence. This one wasn’t uncomfortable. I looked at
the Beaverkill River and wished I could turn into a bird and see
the whole river in a few hours.
“Ian, where can I drop you off?”
I still hoped to see Ray. “At the Forks. I have a few hours
before my train.”
“Next season would you like to fish at my club?”
“Sure, Mr. La Branche.”
He reached into his pocket and took out a business card.
“Next spring telephone me and we’ll arrange something.”
We reached the Forks and said good-bye. His firm handshake,
his warm eyes, his gentle nod told me his invitation was sincere.
A few hours later I sat in the train, looked out the window,
and saw a green clearing that stretched across two mountains. The
clearing looked like a beautiful lake. A few minutes later, the
mountains disappeared. Had I left the Catskills too soon? Did I
to have to wait eight long months, an eternity, to see them
I saw two distant mountains, one behind the other. Their
slopes seemed to crisscross like swords. I was proud of my
simile, until a minute or so later when I realized it wasn’t
right for me to compare the peaceful Catskill mountains to
weapons, and to compare the Beaverkill to a long battlefield. To
apologize, I told myself I would see the mountains and the river
differently, the way they really were: soothing, comforting--yes,
motherly--images of a wider, more mysterious, often unseen world.
I closed my eyes and leaned my head back. I was proud I
hadn’t given in to my fear and stayed home, and therefore had
come to believe that, in spite of the death of my mother and the
death of so many young soldiers, maybe the world, or at least
some of its smaller worlds, were beautiful. But could I be a part
of the Beaverkill world and, at the same time, a part of the New
York City world?
I hoped so, then I wouldn’t have to leave my father and
sister. You see, already I knew the Beaverkill was going to be a
part of my life, or should I say, I was going to be a part of
I wondered how big a part.
By Randy Kadish 2006©
This was a Novel Excerpt from
Randy’s historical novel,
The Fly Caster Who Tried To Make
Peace With The World, is available on