An informal search for native brookies leads the author to something more
A few years ago, I was sitting on the porch of a house I no longer live in, venting to a friend about “too much work, not enough fishing.” I told him I wanted to fish again, and said I knew just the guy to get me back on the water. The porch had great sunset views of a national park, but I didn’t get to enjoy them very often; I was traveling for business nearly every day of the month. On the occasions I was there, I spent most of my time on that porch, in the evening as the sun went down, drinking an IPA named for a local mountain range where Cochise, the Chiricahua Apache Chief, is buried. Usually I was reading, and often the book was a narrative on flyfishing.
Sometimes, as the light faded, I’d pick up my phone and thumb through pictures of fish on Instagram. I didn’t know much about Instagram, but I earn my living as a commercial photographer, and my business manager told me that I needed to work on my social media skills. Looking at pictures of fish is probably not what he meant, but it did lead to a stunning realization: I hadn’t fished seriously since I was a kid, yet here I was, mid-40s, obsessing about a sport—a lifestyle really—that I hardly ever took part in. This wasn’t right.
One of the people I’d been following on Instagram was a custom rod builder based in the Adirondacks named JP Ross. I told my friend that I wanted to visit this guy—that he would be the guy who would get me back on the water. Sure, I also wanted one of those beautiful rods, but something about this guy and his attitude toward trout, and toward life, told me I could learn something from him. And that’s what I really wanted: a lesson.
ROUGHING IT AT SAGAMORE.
What I knew about flyfishing had come from two occurrences: One that took place during childhood, and one more recently. As a kid, I’d found an old bamboo rod in the basement of our house. My dad, a busy judge who never fished, never even liked to fish, said he had no idea where that rod had come from and insisted it was worthless. Dad was busy being a provider and an example of what men should do in life. Picture every Sean Connery character rolled into one. That’s my now 88-year-old dad.
I took that rod on a trip with my uncle who was a bait fisherman (but still a really good guy, an honest-to-god war hero). And while my uncle slept away the mid-day sun in camp, I went to the water with that rod and tried to figure it out. A man walking by stopped, noticed what I was trying to do, and offered a short lesson. And there it was, my first impression of a flyfisherman: A guy willing to show some random kid how to do it.
As a photographer, I’m lucky to shoot a lot of interesting, sometimes fascinating, people and places. Years back, before the porch, I traveled to Montana to shoot a woman for a magazine story that had nothing to do with fishing. But her husband fished. And when he saw me eying the bugs in his hat, he knew my story.
He was the kind of guy who couldn’t drive by a lake or stream without a long study of the water. The kind of guy who could hitch up his drift boat and be on the road in about six minutes. His name was Chris Corbin and he was the first guy to get me fishing again.
Shortly after meeting Chris, I was in Mammoth Lakes, California, on another assignment. I brought my boy Ryan along, hired a guide, and we went to a place called Hot Creek. Ryan didn’t catch any fish, but the guide tried hard and showed him, and me, plenty about the sport and its culture. And at the same time, my boy learned a little more about the way a guy should carry himself in the world.
MARK USYK AND A FATTY.
So I like this sport for its culture. Of course, there are lots of other reasons. The fish are beautiful. They tend to live in scenic places and, in most cases, the best fish are found deep in the backcountry. Not long after the day on Hot Creek, my boy and I hiked to an Eastern Sierra valley at 11,000 feet, camping and fishing for three days. I’ll never forget it.
But Ryan lost interest, so there I was on that porch. I decided to contact the rod builder I’d seen on Instagram and ask him if we could get together so I could take some pictures of him and his operation. His response was enthusiastic, but it still took a long time for us to get together. After months of failed connections, I got a text from JP and he mentioned something about a place called Great Camp Sagamore in the Adirondacks. I Googled it, and couldn’t believe my eyes. I bought a flight on the spot.
I would fly to Syracuse, New York, where JP would pick me up. He was organizing a creel study at the “camp.” Something about the genetics of a heritage strain of brook trout that may still live in the more remote lakes and streams surrounding this place. Were they still there? Or are today’s brook trout only the descendants of stocked fish, like those described in the 19th-Century journals of Arpad Geyza Gerster. In an effort to answer this question, attendees of this creel survey getaway would be collecting genetic samples through a carefully designed catch-andrelease protocol.
But first: On the two-hour drive to the Great Camp, we stopped at the little cabin where JP builds his rods. He had something there for me. The cabin was compact and efficient, out behind his 19th-Century Mohawk Valley home. In the yard between the house and the cabin, numerous Adirondack chairs and a well-used fire pit spoke of JP’s social nature.
He had made me a beauty of a 5-piece, 7-foot 3-weight that he calls “The Muir.” Aptly named, it’s well suited for backcountry forays and—particularly nice in my case—fits in a carryon. It was a stunning piece of craftsmanship.
Just as I was getting acquainted with what I knew would become a treasure, I noticed that JP had disappeared. He was down the drive, talking to a big guy who seemed an odd fit next to his idling Subaru.
As I approached, JP introduced me to Dale Travis. In conversation, Dale sounded like James Earl Jones. He was something of an imposing figure. Big guy. Big voice. Like me, Dale travels a lot. A highly sought-after bass-baritone, he’s on the road nine-months solid every year, a frequent guest at some of the most prestigious opera companies in the world. But today he was fishing. And while he didn’t know JP, he thought he’d stop in and get some advice on the local water. JP was happy to oblige.
After the cabin, we had one more stop—a camp that JP’s dad keeps on the banks of a small lake. JP has a newborn; his wife, mother-in-law, and baby boy would stay here at his dad’s camp while we continued to Great Camp Sagamore.
It was about this time that I began to grasp the idiomatic use of the word “camp.” JP’s father’s place wasn’t exactly what I would call a camp. It was a small lakeside compound that included a couple of pretty nice houses.
During the 19th and early 20th Centuries, Adirondack camps became the first places in America to make wilderness a home for recreation. The great camps were examples of an architectural style that was at once lavish and environmentally sensitive. And they became an early expression of local culture.
CHARACTERS OF THE NORTH COUNTRY:
ROY WIRES, LEFT, AND SIDNEY S. WHELAN, JR., RIGHT.
So later, when I stood on the porch of one of Great Camp Sagamore’s many structures, and a guy I’ll call Letherbee (for the gin he was drinking) started talking about his own camp, I knew he wasn’t talking about a lean-to in the woods.
Great Camp Sagamore is a lakeside property that today includes nearly 30 structures. A designer of numerous Adirondack great camps, William West Durant built Sagamore between 1895 and 1897. It was meant to be his year-round residence, but soon after it was finished, he was forced to sell. Alfred Vanderbilt bought the camp in 1901 and through two marriages grew it significantly, adding such features as an outdoor bowling alley and his own hydroelectric facility.
PUTTING THE “TROUT POWER” MOVEMENT INTO ACTION.
Vanderbilt died with the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, but his second wife continued to host Hollywood luminaries and various socialites for some 40 years before gifting Sagamore to Syracuse University. In the 1970s it was nearly razed, but today it’s the ward of the Sagamore Institute of the Adirondacks, a non-profit whose mission is to keep the place true to its origins, while also educating visitors about its history and importance. It’s not a hotel. It’s not really a resort. But if you’re participating in one of its many annual programs, you can stay there. And with his creel study, JP was hosting one of those programs.
A dozen or so signed up for the weekend. Some were old friends of JP. Others were just members of the public who’d heard about the weekend and wanted to participate. All were flyfishers. From my perspective, the weekend, the place, and the people—JP in particular—all came together to get me off the porch and back on the water.
CUSTOM ROD-BUILDER, JP ROSS.
JP loves brook trout, native ones especially, and he loves Adirondack culture and ecology. His weekend here was called Trout Power. JP’s been tossing that name around for a while now. It’s a movement, but it’s not yet formally organized. And while he’s had some conservation success with local New York watersheds, it wasn’t until the Trout Power weekend at Sagamore that things really seemed to galvanize. Today he and his confidant John Montefusco are organizing Trout Power as a formal 501(c) non-profit.
Twenty years ago, the water at Sagamore was dead. Acid rain did that. Now it’s alive again and the brook trout are thriving. The efforts of these people to collect the data largely amounted to a great excuse to fish. And drink. And talk about fishing while they were drinking.
Lucas Smith wasn’t drinking. The high schooler was there with his parents and his older brother Doug Smith. Neither of these kids looked like flyfishermen. They looked like a Netflix original. Or a Coen brother’s picture of what can go wrong. And I think they were proud of that. JP’s known these kids for years. He got Lucas into the sport and he tells stories about how these guys will drop to the ground in an all out, bareknuckled settlement of their most recent argument. But you can tell these brothers love each other. And they love to fish. And I loved meeting them.
Mitch Marsden is a close friend of JP. The two share a lot of history. A couple things about Mitch: He used to be Barry White’s personal nurse, and he didn’t make fun of me when he saw me cast. That last bit was huge. Mitch had a truck full of bugs and tying materials and was never far from a really bad beer.
Tim Bonaparte and Jimi Radesi were the Lost Boys, named that weekend for their heroic efforts to go deepest in the Adirondack backcountry in search of the heritage DNA. (Questions about the heritage of these fish remain unanswered: The lab hasn’t finished their analysis yet.) One night, a couple old-timers came to camp to tell their stories. One of them, Sidney S. Whelan, Jr., spent years editing those old journals of Gerster. Published by the Adirondack Museum, the two volumes of Notes Collected in the Adirondack document, among other adventures, Gerster’s experience with the native brook trout in the late 19th Century. The other old man, Roy Wires, had found the remains of Gerster’s camp years later. Tim and Jimi were on a mission to fish the waters near that old camp. One of them had a drone. When Sidney and Roy saw the beauty revealed in the overhead footage, they were visibly shaken, astonished even. Sidney cried.
Keith Tidball, a faculty member at Cornell University’s Department of Natural Resources, also came for the weekend. Keith was working in foreign services, and living near the Pentagon in 2001, when he heard the plane crash. That plane. Soon after, he and his wife bought a farm near the Ivy League institution where he now works. A lot of what goes on his family’s table at mealtime comes from this farm.
Essentially, Keith is a sociologist, interested in how people, particularly war- and disaster-affected people, interact with their environment. I think he’s in the Department of Natural Resources because some of these people are fishermen and hunters.
Keith’s room at the camp was in the main lodge across the hall from my room. He had a nice balcony overlooking the lake, and a nice bottle of bourbon, and he invited me over. There was a loon on the lake that night. The sound of a loon can get you thinking. And, you know, bourbon can get you thinking out loud. I told Keith I was here to fish again. I wondered why for so many years I hadn’t fished.
And there I was, sitting on Alfred Vanderbilt’s old porch, pondering these questions with an Ivy League professor who’s kind of an expert on the topic. I’m not sure we answered those questions specifically; Keith wasn’t my therapist, after all. But we sure did have a nice time on that porch, listening to the loon and looking at the moonlit lake.
So it was the professor, Barry White’s nurse, the opera singer, JP, and those crazy kids. Letherbee and the Lost Boys. Sid and Roy. A fantastic spirit of a guy named Mark Usyk, who I’ll write about another time. Chris in Montana, and that guy who offered to help me when I was a kid. These people are all flyfishermen. I’m hoping that now I am too. Again. Finally.
I left the Adirondacks and flew directly to Seattle. I was shooting a gig that would have me all over Washington State. The crew was dispersed among various vehicles and, at one point, I found myself driving alone through a spectacular place in the Cascades called Washington Pass. It was four hours to the next shoot location. I had about an hour to spare. And I had my rod. Thanks, JP.