Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Memorable Moment at “Labranche’s Junction” by Eric Peper

Today we have an outstanding treat -- a wonderful article penned by the great Eric Peper about fishing with one of my fishing heroes, A.J. McClane. The founding editor and manager of the Field & Stream Book Club, Eric has penned a number of influential books and articles, including Fishing Moments of Truth and Hunting Moments of Truth, as well as Fly Fishing the Beaverkill with Gary LaFontaine, which you can get by Clicking Here. We are grateful to him for allowing us to repost it here.

A Memorable Moment at “Labranche’s Junction”

By Eric Peper

(Originally published in the Catskill Fly Tiers Guild newsletter – Reprinted with kind permission)

It was early September, 1974, and through a set of remarkably fortuitous circumstances I was scheduled to spend a weekend fishing in the Catskills with Al McClane. I was working for Field & Stream at the time, managing a book club, so while meeting Al was inevitable, catching the globetrotting fishing editor for a fishing weekend was nothing short of a miracle.

At the time I was a member of the Debruce Flyfishing Club, so our accommodations for the weekend were very “Catskill traditional,” if not luxurious. We planned to cover the Debruce water as well as the lower Beaverkill and possibly the Delaware. I knew the Catskill area pretty well, but Al knew it better than I, so there was every expectation that we’d run into plenty of fish.

We spent Friday night at my home in Rockland County, and Al, a gourmet and a highly respected chef and cookbook author, captured my wife’s affection forever by praising her steak tartare appetizer as “hands down, the best I’ve ever eaten.” No affront to my wife’s culinary talent, but I suspect the fact we had consumed several adult beverages in company with the appetizer no doubt added to its appeal. Saturday morning we were off at dawn for the 90 minute drive to Debruce.

We lucked into a perfect early September day, warm with sparklingly clear skies and the merest hint of autumn in the air. After stowing our gear in the clubhouse, Al broke out a couple of rods that he said he wanted to show me. They were among the first commercial graphite fly rods to be seen in the US. Both were Shakespeare rods and by today’s standards, pretty crude looking. One was an eight-footer for a five line, the other an eight-and-a-half foot for an eight. We went to the ponds adjacent to the clubhouse and Al strung them up.

As an aside, I must mention that at this particular point in my angling evolution I was a “bamboo snob,” believing that if God had meant for man to fish with graphite, he would have grown graphite trees. I said as much to Al, and his only comment was “Watch and try them. Then pass judgment.”

Now I knew that Al could cast an entire flyline using nothing but his arm, but to watch him cast was to experience perfection. The line sang from the rod with tight loops carrying to surreal distances. There was no perceptible difference in the smoothness and delicacy of the cast between the eight and the five. At Al’s request, I tried the five-weight and had to admit that it made casting awfully easy.

But then Al did something that I still have trouble comprehending to this day. He mentioned that graphite made for a very “forgiving” rod that would adapt itself to casting motions that were not necessarily smooth or consistent. To demonstrate, he held both rods in one hand and began casting them in perfect harmony, throwing perfect loops of perhaps 50 feet of line from each rod, the leaders landing with gossamer lightness as he completed each cast. “Do you think I could do this with bamboo?” he asked. My response was, “Yes, I’m pretty sure you could, but I know damned well I couldn’t do it with bamboo or glass or graphite or a magic wand!”

We laughed, had a beer and went fishin’.

It is interesting to note that when we decided to “go fishin’”, Al’s weapon of choice was a Paul Young Martha Marie with a Hardy LRH snugged into its reel seat. Needless to say, I had to make mention of this apparent anomaly, and Al’s response was, “Could I fish anything else in the Catskills? This is still my favorite trout rod no matter where I go.” And, as he said that, I noted much to my amazement that this world renowned angler, this man who had fished anywhere gamefish were to be found, this man who had written about every technique of fishing for every fish imaginable, was as excited about the prospects of fishing for trout in a little Catskill stream as a kid with a new toy.

We elected to fish the stretch of the upper Willowemoc from what is know as “Big Rock” up to the junction of the Willowemoc with the Mongaup, where it is said George M.L. Labranche first fished the dry fly in the United States. In a gracious gesture that I came to know was typical of Al, he said, “I’m going to take a while getting set up. You go on ahead and I’ll follow you upstream in a few minutes.”

Based on prior experience, I tied on an 18 dun variant and began picking up a fish here and there as I worked up the stream. Arriving at “The Rhododendron Run,” I landed a nice 16 inch fish and broke off another good fish at the head of the pool. I continued up around the bend to the Junction Pool and sat down on the right bank to wait for Al. I’d landed and released about eight fish in the course of my walk.

About 20 minutes later I heard Al wading the bank opposite me, then watched as he picked a nice fish from a pocket I’d bypassed. After he’d landed and released the fish. I asked how he’d done, and was nonplussed when he answered, “Oh a couple dozen, I guess.”

Now I thought of myself as being a fairly proficient angler, particularly on the Debruce Club water, which I fished quite regularly. To think that anyone could fish directly behind me and take even a few fish after I’d covered the water was, I thought, unimaginable. For someone to have taken two dozen was, shall we say, an introduction to a level of expertise, which I would understand and appreciate more fully by the end of the weekend.

My amazement was compounded when I asked Al what fly he’d been using. “A number 12 Adams.” he said, “I’ve always found they like something big at this time of year.” Now, it’s likely a number 12 Adams would have been my choice for that water at that time of year about as quickly as a number four Jock Scott . . . but then I realized I was learning.

Al walked up to the bank on the Mongaup side of the Junction and sat down, while I was still “prospecting” on the opposite side. As I glanced upstream, I saw a good sized head bulge the water just above where the Mongaup bubbles into the Willowemoc. I told Al to watch the spot, and soon the head appeared again.

I told Al to give the fish a try, and he remarked, “No. I want to see you catch it.” Now this was kinda like Vladimir Horowitz asking you to take his turn playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto for a packed house at Carnegie Hall. I felt a tad numb.

Nonetheless, I shook out some line and measured the distance with false casts well away from the fish’s hidey hole, which was tucked under a branch hard against the opposite bank from where I stood. The distance was comfortable, but the location in which the fly had to be placed was about the size of a dinner plate.

The ghost of George Labranche had to have been perched on my shoulder because the first cast was dead on the mark, and the fish responded, sucking in the -- guess what? a number 12 Adams -- as if it had been wired.

“Nice job!” Al cheered, “Bring it over here, and let’s see if it’s a boy or a girl.” I played the fish down into the deeper water of the Junction and crossed in the shallow water of the tail as the fish slugged it out in the center of the pool. I walked up to where Al was sitting and led the fish in to the bank. He slid a hand under the fish and lifted it. “Great! It’s a girl.”

Now this is where the whole scene gets a little weird. Al extracted a small, elegant knife from a sheath clipped to his vest and slapped the brown smartly on the top of its head, killing it instantly. In one motion, the razor sharp knife slit the trout’s belly from vent to gills, while with his other hand, Al dipped two fingers into the trout’s innards and scooped out about a teaspoon of fresh roe, which he popped directly into his mouth.

I think he may have noticed my jaw hanging open. “Haven’t you ever tried this?” I recall nodding in the negative. “Fresh brown trout roe goes for about $75. an ounce in Tokyo, and they can’t get enough of it. Wanna try some?” he said offering the fish to me.

My only thoughts at that point were that Al’s not a sleight-of-hand magician, and he doesn’t appear suicidal. “Sure, uh, I guess so” I stammered, whereupon I had the good fortune to taste what I still recall as one the finest delicacies I ever hope to experience. I was absolutely amazed, as I would continue to be amazed for the rest of our weekend together by this Renaissance man of angling. I learned more about trout and trout fishing and the Catskills in those three days than I had learned in the previous 20 years of bumbling about on my own. I was also quite certain that Al and I were the first anglers ever to have eaten fresh brown trout roe on the banks of the Junction Pool, and I am equally certain that even if George Labranche were not impressed by that, Edward Hewitt surely would have been.

-- Dr. Todd

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