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Angling in the Catskills

Written by  Denise Mattia

Spillian-4570-Gerrie-Summers--angling-in-Esopus-Creek-
Catch a prize trout on my first try? Why not, when conditions for fly fishing are ideal in the cold water that cascades down from Mt. Tremper, rushes over the blue stones of former quarries, creates world-class rapids and the jewel of the Catskill Mountains, Esopus Creek.

Earlier in the morning, seven guests drizzled their blueberry pancakes with Tree Juice (the local maple syrup), adding eggs, slices of bacon and fruit to their plates.  Over coffee, their attention turned to Mark Loete and Lenny Millen, fishing and fly-fishing instructors who talked about the art of being an angler.We’d come to Spillian, the former Fleischmann family’s Victorian guest house now lovingly owned by Leigh Melander and Mark Somerfield, to experience the 140-year old home on 33-acres in the Catskills, to follow woodland trails deep in the mountains and to try our hand at fly fishing.A polymath, Leigh’s expertise spans the world of performing arts, mythology and psychology.  She conducts workshops and events focused on inspiring imagination, is an author in addition to being a strategic planner and marketing consultant for commercial and nonprofit enterprises.  She hosts two radio shows and serves on the board of the Joseph Campbell Foundation.  At Spillian, Leigh oversees all of the visioning, marketing and outreach programs, and holds successful workshops and weddings at Spillian.(Visit spillian.com/catskills-wedding-spillian/)
Mark is a lighting and scenic designer for West Coast ballet, theatre and opera companies.  He is instrumental in interior repair, restoration and decoration, including multi-historic pieces – tapestries, federal desks, deco-style lamps, furniture, stained glass windows and the arts and crafts oeuvres throughout the house.  He manages the private events on site and provides the lead on the ongoing renovations and development of the property.  
 
Pine paneling was used commonly in the Victorian Era, and the Fleischmann family, original founders of the yeast and whiskey company, adorned the summer guest house with unique hand-painted murals.  The wood has developed a rich patina throughout time, enhancing the colors of the stunning floral designs and the charm of the house.  
Thespians, opera divas, musicians and early television and radio personalities such as Gertrude Berg, creator of the Molly Goldberg character were among the notables who stayed here during the mid 1930s. Leigh and Mark have captured the essence of the house.  Other than modernizing the kitchen and installing safety features, they have kept the house as it had been built originally. The ground floor is divided into a music, reading/sitting section and a dining room. There are eight spacious bedrooms on the second floor.  One has a private bath; the others have a shared bathroom.  Two bedrooms have bathrooms a quick-step away.  The partners are considering converting the former servants’ quarters on the third floor into a separate suite.
   
At the breakfast table Mark Loete told us about books on angling that were found dating to the end of the 15th century in Rome.  The history and development of American fly fishing was documented in 1863 with Ralph Walton’s primer, The Complete Angler.
 
We learned that Esopus Creek had been denuded during the Industrial Revolution.  It wasn’t until the 1880s that Rainbow-, Brown- and Brook trout were reintroduced into the water range.  In 1905 the New York State Legislature passed laws to acquire lands and build dams, reservoirs and aqueducts in the Catskills.  Esopus Creek, an important tributary of the Hudson River, feeds into the Ashokan Reservoir, the source of New York City’s water supply.  In addition to supporting a rich biodiversity, the Creek is a magnet for recreation. River canoeing and kayaking are popular activities on the reservoir and trekkers follow trails for miles.  Every April 1, people flock to the Creek to kick off the fly fishing season.  At the water’s edge, we sat on the ground and tugged on our rented waders – waterproof gear that entailed one-piece neoprene socks and overalls.  Laced-up waterproof boots fit snugly on top of the socks and waders. “Belts are an integral part of the outfit,” Lenny reminded us, adding that “tightly cinctured belts prevent water filling up inside the waders, which weigh down the angler should he or she fall in.” Mark proceeded to display the innumerable surface lures he’d made.  Known as “poppers and stickbaits,” they float and look like bugs on top of the water.  We were shown next how to hold the rod and reel and cast it a little beyond the direction where we thought a trout might be -- ideally behind a rock and out of the current.  He also told us that it takes a long time to learn how to use the equipment and the lures effectively.  
 
Walking into the water looked easier than it was.  New to the gear, Mark helped me over smooth rocks until I reached calf deep.  He stayed with me, teaching me the wrist-, cast- and reel-in action until I got it.  I looked like a pro.  But without a lure on the line, there was little chance of my catching anything.   
Mark and Lenny practice a catch and release policy. To them, knowing how to read water, picking the perfect fly and knowing every inch of the creek is what fly fishing is about.  It’s also about time spent on the water, and how it “does the soul good,” admit the pair.  (Visit catskillmoutainangler.com and nyc.gov/html/dep/pdf/recreation/outdoor-guide-services.pdf)