Monday, September 8, 2008

REK, Levon & The Esopus

By the time I was on the highway with no more preparations to be made, it was 5:45. I had a cooler of food and beverages, a trunk full of camping gear, two tickets and a manila folder filled with printed directions, maps and fishing reports. Google rated the drive at 5 and a half hours, but I was anticipating a potential 6 hour drive, putting me at the Kenneth Wilson State Park Campground at midnight. I knew weather was coming, but knew not when it would arrive nor what form it would take.

The drive south into New Hampshire was fairly uneventful and as I neared the Mass Pike to head west, I wondered if I would run into traffic. It was well into evening when I got to I-90 and was pleasantly surprised to find the travel smooth and fast. I've had a couple experiences on the Mass Pike that were testing to say the least and I've heard of a few more, so it was a relief that I could keep the cruise control at 72 for the 120 miles of turnpike across Massachusetts. Once into New York State, I would head south on I-87 and then exit and turn west again towards Woodstock, Mt. Tremper and Phoenicia.

A few bar hoppers were out and about when I rolled through Woodstock, now within 15 minutes of my final destination. I had spoken to a ranger of the park when I left Freeport and they informed me that site #10 awaited my arrival. A High Life welcomed me to the site just before midnight. By headlamp my tent was set up, my gear unloaded, my new camp chair tested, another beer was found and all was well. It was a fairly humid night and I fell asleep easily underneath my unzipped sleeping bag. I had escaped the weather for the night and would tomorrow take to Esopus Creek in Phoenicia.

I awoke at several times in the night to hard rainfall. Loud rain that reminded me of Aziscohos Pond. However this time, my tent was big and shed the rain well and I was right in the middle of it, comfortable and dry. I had read several accounts online the week before about how the Creek gets muddy after rainfall but I knew not what the Creek looked like when clear nor muddy. For all I was concerned, I was fishing tomorrow, clear or muddy, rain or shine.

I was out of my tent by 7 and on the road towards Phoenicia by 8. After a few wrong turns and a few right ones, I managed to get a fishing license in town and find one of many turnouts alongside the Creek. I rigged up and went down the bank into the river. It was just after 9 and the sun was trying desperately to break up some low, dense cloud cover. I had not seen the Creek the night before, but it did look a little off-color when I got my first good look at it. I tied on a black and olive bugger and began swinging and stripped through small runs here and there, while working my way down to a nice looking pool I could see ahead.

I reached the pool and started working the bugger. I switched to a white bugger. I switched to a nymphing rig, saw one tiny rise then switched nymphs. I saw another small rise and swung my nymphs over it but still nothing. I tied on an Adams as an attempt to imitate whatever it was that the fish had taken but the fish did not rise again. I looked in my fly box again with no particular fly in mind. I had exactly one black Wulff dry fly in all my boxes and I tied it on with the thought that it looked like a mayfly and perhaps it would be more visible to a fish from below, in the dirty water.

First cast and within a second of drifting, a brown trout leaped clear out of the water onto the fly. I felt the solid hookup and could not help but laugh just because of how ridiculously well the fly I had just tied on worked. The fish reached my net and I was satisfied to have caught a fish from the foreign water.
Just as quickly as the black Wulff had got me into a fish, it did exactly nothing for me. I couldn't produce another rise. I was slightly baffled. I changed flies again and fished the pool for a little longer then moved on.

En route to the next run, I spied hundreds of stonefly casings covering the rocks.
My next fly was determined before I got to an appropriate place to tie it on. I put on a black and brown stonefly nymph with a pheasant tail behind that and got into position for what looked to be a great hole. I nymphed the hell out of that hole for a while before seeing a few bugs in the air and also noticing a smaller but attractive looking run on the other side of the river. I tied the black Wulff back on and went to work in the smaller run. In three casts I had a small rainbow.
Another few casts and another small brown came to the net.
I returned to the larger run with the black Wulff as the rain began. As the rain drops came down upon the creek, the fish began to come up for my lone black Wulff. In the next half hour I think I landed another 6 brown trout all between 10 and 14". My black Wulff was on fire, but was also not floating more than it was floating, which is not what a dry fly is exactly supposed to do, but I wasn't complaining (too much). I looked in my fly box for any other black dry fly and the only thing I could find was a cricket pattern. I tied it on and fished it for 10 minutes without a hit before I tied the black Wulff back on and promptly caught a fish.
The rain was coming down nicely when I decided to move to the next run. After crossing to river-right and heading downstream maybe a quarter of a mile, I came upon an amazing looking run where a small set of rapids turned gradually turned into a slow, steady flow over the course of a couple hundred yards. The black Wulff was blown off and sent into the seam. I could see fairly large (size 10 or 12ish) grey mayflies buzzing around and I could now see why the black dry fly was working so well. Not only did it match the hatch as they say, but it was dark so that a hungry fish could spot it through the muddy water and the rain drop dimpled water surface.

It was not long before the black Wulff started rising fish again and these fish were bigger. I had to bring the fly in every fifth cast or so to blow it off so it would not sink, but it seemed like every good drift that the fly floated would produce a strike. Fish rose sporatically while I sent the black Wulff into the run over and over again. A larger fish took the Wulff and was brought to the net...

It was raining at a good clip when my efforts to keep the black Wulff afloat neared useless. Again I opened my fly boxes and rummaged for a new fly. Any decently sized mayfly imitation, dark in color would do the trick. All my dry flies were considerably smaller than the bugs flying around. I had had such great luck I considered calling it a day when I spotted a fly I had never used before. This is a fly you can find in odd gas stations, older fly shops and in unused fly boxes. It was a very large, size 6 or 8, grey mayfly imitation, with a huge extended tail made from dyed mallard. It looks like this but was much bigger with more hackle and a longer tail.

I had never tied this fly onto a leader of mine and I'm not entirely sure where I purchased it, although I have a feeling it may be that general store off of Rt. 3 in that advertises ammo and wedding dresses. Like I said, I was already quite pleased with how the day was turning out, so I decided to give the gawdy dry fly a go. The first cast it floated high right down the middle of the run and a hungry trout took it down. I missed the strike and a couple others after that. I wondered if the fish were able to get the monstrous fly in their mouths when I finally hooked and landed one. A few minutes later and a large brown came out of the water onto the fly but I missed that one too. By this time the fly was getting pretty beat up and also have difficulty floating. One one drift where I watched the fly float for a few seconds then slowly start to sink, I had a big hit and a solid hookup. I could instantly tell this was the biggest fish I had had on all day. He fought well but the barbless hook held strong and when I got him to the net I set my eyes upon a bright silver brown trout, the largest I have ever landed. The picture below does not do justice to this fish's beauty or size, but I'll use its distortion to my benefit.

One or two more fish were landed that afternoon and around 5, after fishing in the rain for about 6 hours, I called it a day for REK & Levon awaited.

In the woods of Woodstock, NY, Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble takes place in his barn/recording studio. The barn itself is quite a piece of work, with post and beam construction and no nails - only pegs. Upstairs in the studio is the stage, the recording equipment, and a balcony. Chairs are in front of the stage and around the balcony and there's a fair amount of standing room. It's a very informal atmosphere and everyone is in high spirits.

Sara Watkins, of Nickel Creek, opened the night's show. She sang solo and played the ukulele and fiddle and was quite mesmorizing in doing so. She finished her set with a cover of John Hartford's 'Long Hot Summer Day' and by that time I had fallen in love with her. Watching her rock out to Levon later in the night only confirmed our compatibility.

Robert Earl Keen and his band took the stage next and were obviously humbled by the scene as well. They played a fairly short set, and did a number of their more well known songs, save for the Townes cover and then the encore, which I hear almost never happens at the barn. Their set:

-Mr. Wolf & Mamabear

-Feelin' Good Again

-Gringo Honeymoon


-Merry Christmas From the Family

-Flying Shoes

-For Love

-The Road Goes On Forever

-Encore: So I Can Take My Rest

Levon Helm & his band, all 11 of them, took the small stage next. The energy was high already and was bumped up another notch when they opened with 'Ophelia'. Being in Levon's presence and watching him play, it was not hard to tell that you were in the realm of greatness. In the most calm, nicest mood as he could be, he and his band put forth an amazing set, close to 2 1/2 hours long. Soon after they started, Sara and REK and his band were in the crowd mingling and enjoying the music. It was great to see the musicians I love, loving the music they were hearing. Watching them groove and sing the lyrics just as I was really helped put the whole thing in perspective and I came a little closer to understanding the immensity of the occasion. If anyone has a chance to see Levon in his barn in Woodstock, do so, you won't be disappointed. The show ended around midnight, just as the rain did. After a long day of fishing and music, my sleeping bag called. Levon's set.

I slept in a bit the next morning and woke up to a beautiful day with blue skies and few clouds. I took my time around the campsite, started a fire and finally got my hands on a hot breakfast sandwich.

I went to the Esopus again, but the rain had left the river higher and dirtier than the day before, so I decided to start the journey home after a few hours in the hot sun. Next stop: Northampton, Mass for another Robert Earl Keen show. The Calvin Theatre is located right in downtown Northampton and is a great venue for a medium-sized show. I happen to get my ticket not long after they were available and got a pretty good one, but it turned out that the theatre only filled up about a 1/4 of the seats, so it looked like everyone had a great view of the show, which turned out to be a pretty special one.

Acknowledging the small crowd and the Sunday evening, the bank turned out the most varied set list I've seen them play. REK himself did two songs alone in the middle of the show, the second a sensational 'Front Porch Song' rendition, filled with stories and jokes in the middle. He started a third song alone, then the band came out mid-way through to finish 'Rollin' By'. Sara Watkins again opened beautifully - musically and otherwise. She joined the band for 'Snowin' on Raton' and then came back out with the band for their encore, which they all did acoustically, in chairs at the front of the stage. A truly amazing show, one I will not soon forget. Their set list:

-I'll Go On Downtown

-Billy Gray

-What I Really Mean

-Feelin' Good Again

-Gringo Honeymoon

-Snowin' on Raton

-The Raven & The Coyote

-Mr. Wolf & Mamabear

-Wild Wind


-Solo: The Village Inn Motel in Chalice, Idaho

-The Front Porch Song

-Band rejoins: Rollin' By

-Jesse With The Long Hair

-Whenever Kindness Fails

-Shades of Grey

-Amarillo Highway

-Acoustic Encore: Comin' Home

-Farm Fresh Onions

-Live Forever (BJS cover)


Andrew Wilkie said...

Hey man, stellar story! Loved the band/concert details, and that was one hell of a day of fishing. Well done.

Keith said...

Awesome Jesse. Sounds like a heroic weekend. Nice work with the dry flies.

ALittleGuitar said...

i dont do much fishing but enjoyed your report, which i learned of on the rek board.

Morrell said...

I'd love to see REK in concert sometime. Sounds like a blast. Sounds like it was worth it just for the fishing too. Well done

I started reading the post and was eager to see if you decided to stop off in the Berkshires to explore a bit. Next time

pete said...

nice nice. that delightful and mesmerizing creature from nickel creek was long ago claimed by none other than myself. so, just for the record, i was camped out by that pool long before you came trudging by. HA. great little story. you tried tossing any flatwings around in those streams?