My life was murder in the late 1980s.
I was a tabloid crime reporter, working in the pressroom at One Police Plaza in Manhattan as police bureau chief for the New York Daily News.
I had arrived in the city from my native Nebraska in 1984, at about the same time as the death-dealing scourge of crack cocaine.
About 10,000 men and women were murdered in New York during my five years covering crime for the Daily News. That’s about five bodies every single day—cops, kids, grandmas, mobsters, mugs, the innocent, and the guilty.
I didn’t cover every murder, but sometimes it felt like it.
In 1990, I escaped the crime beat and took a job teaching journalism at Columbia University. But as I settled in to that more civilized life, I came to realize that working in second-hand proximity to all those murders had taken a toll. While writing about those daily atrocities, I had lost my belief in the basic goodness of human beings.
I still can’t explain why, but I had visited the Catskills in upstate New York a few times and was convinced I could reclaim my sense of trust there.
So I joined the throng of flatlanders tooling up the Thruway or Route 17 and bought a weekend place in Delaware County, an ugly-duckling fixer-upper at Lake Delaware, a hamlet on Route 28 near the Bovina-Delhi town line.
Coincidentally, the Little Delaware River–one of the headwater streams of the mighty Delaware–passed 25 yards from my property line.
I asked my gruff but genial neighbor, Don Drumm, whether there were fish in the river.
”Well, duh, professor,” he said. ”Every river has fish. This one’s got trout.”
I walked upstream one evening a few weeks later, casting a lure with a lightweight spinning rod and reel I had brought along when I left Nebraska. Amid a gentle riffle just above a bend in the swift little river, I tossed a Mepps spinner at an undercut in the bank. A bronze-bellied brook trout came out of his hiding place and attacked that lure like he hadn’t eaten in a month.
It was my first Catskills trout—all of 10 inches, but with the fight and fury of a trophy fish. I released him, then stopped in at Drumm’s house to brag.
He took a long draw on his Pabst Blue Ribbon and looked me square in the eye.
”If you really want to trout-fish the right way,” he growled, ”you’ll need to get a fly rod.”
He told me I ought to go buy one at The Little Store in Roscoe.
I grew up hunting and fishing but had never cast a fly. On the other hand, Nebraskans follow orders pretty well. The next day, I drove the 30 miles to Roscoe, self-proclaimed “Trout Town USA.”I first pushed through the door of a name-brand fishing store, where a young khaki-clad clerk offered to gear me up for roughly the cost of my monthly mortgage payment. I thanked him and slipped across the street to The Little Store, where the counterman guided me toward an all-in-one kit entombed in a plastic clamshell: a seven-foot Shakespeare rod, a no-frills reel, green floating line, a tapered leader, and a dozen cheap flies.
Yes, it was the fly-fishing equivalent of a Zebco 77. But I was out the door and on the
water for under 50 bucks.Over several seasons, I nearly wore out the line guides on that Shakespeare while teaching myself to cast, to present a fly and to set a hook on the sometimes dim-witted stocker browns on the West Branch of the Delaware from Bloomville, N.Y., 10 miles south to Delancey. I dabbled a few times in the East Branch of the Delaware near Margaretville, and I wet a line once or twice in the more-famous Willowemoc and the Beaver Kill.But the Little Delaware was my home. I could pull on knee-high boots, grab my rod, whistle for my two Labradors, Jane and Sharka, and be standing at the water’s edge in three minutes.
I discovered that fly-fishing requires a focus that clears the mind of extraneous thoughts—such as murder.As the Little Delaware flows under Route 28 near my home, it traces along the edge of the historic former estate of Elbridge Gerry, a signator of the Declaration of Independence. The river passes not far from the family’s former manor church, St. James Episcopal. A quarter-mile along, it took a steep dive to the west and spilled into a hip-deep, slow-moving pool that stretched for maybe 25 yards.
I spent many evenings at that little hole in the 1990s. Behind me was a fern-filled flat of several acres, marked here and there with a moldering fallen tree amid a dusky shade cast by tall maples and evergreens. In front of me, across the river, was the Gerrys’ sunlit horse pastures and hayfields.
I caught my share of trout there—feisty little natives and fat browns tricked by a wet fly (usually a Royal Coachman, Caddis or Hare’s Ear) before sunset and a dry Light Cahill or White Wulff after.
The fish and I had an agreement.
I love to eat trout and sometimes kept one or two for the grill or frying pan. But I always released the first one I caught, for the sake of karma.
A few times each year, I delivered a couple of just-caught fish to my neighbor Lloyd Hinrichs, who loved trout but whose bum knees kept him off the water. The next morning, he would deposit in my mailbox a bottle or two of his dry, crisp homemade wine—blueberry, dandelion, raspberry.
It is rare to cross rods with another fly-fisher above the reservoirs in the Delaware headwaters. But I was lucky to become part of a small clique of experienced brook fishermen happy to share trenchant advice with a beginner.
A Delaware County native, Jack Robson of Bovina, taught me to place a fly in the bubble line of the current, where trout lie waiting to rise to succulent bugs—or a well-presented artificial fly—that drift by.
I learned diligence and patience from Ron Cook, a friend of Don Drumm from the Philadelphia area. He drove up several times a summer for long weekends and often fished from sunrise to sunset.
Bill Perkins, the jovial and impish Delhi taxidermist, was mainly a spinning-reel fisherman, but he schooled me on how to lure big fish from hiding places. I cast a variety of streamers one snowy April day to an undercut where a big fish was lying. When I gave up, Perkins stepped into my spot and in one cast lured a majestic 18-inch brookie to his hook.
Another Delhi friend, Don Terry, shared sage advice from his grandfather.
”Granddad would stop 20 feet from the water and just stand there and look—upstream, downstream, back and forth,” Terry told me. ”Of course, I was always in a hurry to get my worm wet, but he’d hold me back. I’d say, ’What’re you doin’, granddad?’ He’d say, ‘I’m reading the water.’”
I learned water-reading skills from Dan Plummer, frontman of the Hancock, N.Y.-based environmental group Friends of the Upper Delaware River.
Plummer introduced me to the big trout in the cold, wide Delaware branches below the reservoir dams. He and I have netted hump-backed monster browns during the summertime green drake hatch while wading the East Branch at his cabin near Harvard, N.Y. On float trips, I have marveled at Plummer’s ability to find the trout-attracting seams in the slick water rushing past boulders or outcroppings. He has put me on many giant Upper Delaware fish.
It’s been 25 years since I invested $45 in that Shakespeare setup. Long ago, Plummer shamed me into upgrading my gear. And I have moved a couple miles downstream, where I now have a quarter-mile of Little Delaware River frontage.
The little hole on the Hewitt property is gone now; rivers change.
But that spot often comes to mind, and not for the fish caught. The metaphysical moments there were far more important to me.
Both of my Labradors—long gone now, sadly—flushed their first grouse amid the ferns there. And it is the spot where I stood casting with my dad, who was visiting from Nebraska, one summer afternoon just a few weeks before his sudden death from a heart attack.
The religious faithful have their shrines to miracles—Fatima, Palmyra, Zamzam. I’m not a religious person, but that spot on the Little Delaware is where my restoration of faith in mankind began—my trout epiphany.
I trekked to these mountains to cleanse my soul. That purge sprang from the guidance, gifts and graces I received from friends like Drumm, the Hewitts and Plummer.
A simple truth came to me as I stood with a fly rod in hand, looking inside myself by reading that little river: Life is good, and people aren’t all bad.
When he’s not off fishing, David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek) is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. He writes frequently about crime and justice for TCR, the New York Daily News, Alternet and others. He welcomes readers’ comments.