Wading in a top-secret Catskills trout stream, David Coggins explains why using a Woolly Bugger on your line is like bringing a keg to a freshman dorm.
May 3, 2021
- David Coggins, whose book on fly-fishing, “The Optimist,” comes out from Scribner this week, has fished all over. For bass in Wisconsin, bonefish in the Bahamas, salmon in Canada, trout in Montana and Patagonia. But one of his favorite places to fish is a four-mile stretch of water in upstate New York belonging to a hundred-and-twenty-year-old club that maintains a Skull and Bones level of publicity paranoia. So let’s just say it’s somewhere in the Catskills, and that the property includes two waterfalls, a gorge, some lively rapids, a couple of deep pools, and what could be mistaken for the moss-lined walls of an ancient grotto. Indoors, the accommodations are flagrantly unassuming.
Coggins spent a few days there last month, and had both good luck and bad. Fishing for trout in the spring can be trying. The water is high and cold, the fish grumpy and disinclined to rise. Some, newly arrived from the hatchery, seem stunned to find themselves in the wild, dining on bugs instead of pellets. They sometimes clump together, as if for companionship, and, seen from above, barely moving, all facing in the same direction, they resemble, in miniature, a wolf pack from a Second World War submarine movie.
On his second day, Coggins began by casting toward a man-made dam, built to create a nice feeding spot for trout. “There’s a sort of ‘Blade Runner’ aspect to this kind of fishing,” he said. “You know—what’s real, what’s artificial? What about stocking fish? Where do you draw the line?” He threw out a cast and added, “I just think of it all as part of the beauty and the absurdity of the sport.” A few minutes later, he was rewarded with a nice rainbow—a fish that in his book he calls the golden retriever of fish: beautiful, beloved, but maybe not the brightest of its kind.
Bearded, with longish wavy hair and a high forehead, Coggins looks like a character in a Chekhov play, and his fishing attire is old school. He favors waxed-cotton jackets, even though they’re less waterproof than Gore-Tex. His felt-bottomed Simms wading boots are practically antiques. On the other hand, he doesn’t tie his own flies but buys them, instead, from Discountflies.com, and his rods are not the classic bamboo but fashioned of some substance so light, strong, and flexible that it must be mined on the planet Krypton. “In fly-fishing, there’s always a tension between purity and practicality,” he said. “Between artfulness and the desire to just catch a fish.”
Like a lot of fly fishermen, Coggins believes in a sort of hierarchy of difficulty or purity. Ideally, you want a trout to rise up and snatch a dry fly drifting on top of the water. If that doesn’t work, you can add a nymph to the line—a fly meant to look like an immature insect and weighted so that it sinks below the surface. Finally, worst case, you can use a streamer, resembling not a fly but a larger insect or a small fish. The streamer drops to the bottom and the angler keeps yanking on the line to make it look alive. In “The Optimist,” Coggins writes that pulling a streamer through a pool of fish is like “bringing a keg and a stack of red Solo cups to a freshman dorm.” It’s just one step above using real bait, and that, of course, is unthinkable. There’s a notorious streamer, called a Woolly Bugger, thought to be so unsporting that some fly shops are embarrassed to carry it. Coggins has a couple in his kit, but mostly for emergencies.
After lunch, Coggins caught a brown trout with a nymph, and then optimistically switched back to dry flies. He dropped them right where he wanted, into pools and back eddies, zinging the line out with the gravity-defying straightness that is the sign of an accomplished caster. “It’s not just about catching fish,” he said. “A good cast, a good drift in a good place—that to me is it.” After a while, though, he went back to nymphs, and then, after a few hours more, out came the streamers. It was late afternoon by then, and he was standing in a deep pool below a covered bridge. It was getting colder and, not long before, a drowned bear cub had drifted by. Maybe not the best of omens.
“I’m just going to make one more cast,” he said. “I’m not one of those people who can’t stop trying to catch one last fish.” He cast one last time and then a few more last times, until the sun was going down. On his final try, he caught a beautiful brown trout—not the monster size that browns sometimes grow to, but fourteen inches, with handsome black and red spots. In his book, Coggins compares trout to English aristocrats, and, if that’s the case, you would have to say that this one was a bit of a dandy. Coggins admired it for about a second and then let it go. ♦