A gray-haired angler stood beside the Beaverkill one April morning, assembling his tackle. His hands were shaking.
"After 25 years on the river I still tremble with excitement when I first see it on Opening Day," he confessed to his companion. "The fishing is never good so early, but I always come anyway; I love this beautiful stream. I'd rather fish it and get nothing than take a limit on any other stream."
But he will not come to the Beaverkill this year to open the season. There is carrion on the banks.
This Beaverkill and its tributary Willowemoc are the American Test and Itchen, the classic waters in which the American angler first met the transplanted, peerless brown trout and on which George LaBranche adapted the dry fly to fast water and started an angling revolution. It is the most demanding, sophisticated dry-fly river in America and a lifetime is too short to solve all of its subtleties; yet it offers even the newcomer a sporting chance. Its name is known everywhere in this country and is the only one familiar to most of the visiting fishermen who come here from abroad.
For half a century the Beaverkill has been the shrine of American dry fly angling. Now there is garbage in the shrine.
Considering that they are less than 150 miles from the largest city in the world, the Beaverkill and Willowemoc are surprisingly wild. Deer are everywhere, and the upper valleys still see an occasional beaver or the fleeting glimpse of a black bear. Successive relocations of the highway, Route 17, put most of the lower river within sight of the road, but there were still wild reaches where the blue heron waded and the only sound was the voice of the rapids.
The wild, beautiful reaches of the Beaverkill are wild no longer; old clothes and waste paper and worn-out tires scar the banks. The carcasses of deer killed by cars on the highway lie decaying on the ice waiting for the spring floods to distribute them along the river. Rats replace the heron, and by summer the buzzing of blowflies will surely drown the voice of the rapids.
Some rivers smile treacherously to lure the angler, hoping to drown or maim him; some glower so balefully that the air above them is heavy with menace; some are dead skeletons, ripped to their parent boulders by scouring floods; some are no more than deceptive mud pits and some are so mossy or slimy that they can scarcely be waded, no matter how one's shoes are armed.
The Beaverkill and Willowemoc are none of these; their special glory is their kindness and frankness. Here are no hidden holes, or quickening currents against which one cannot return. And here the bottom is of flattish stones, green, gray, garnet, brown and some almost white, all through the rapids, with sparkling, clean-washed gravel in the slower pools, making them so easy to wade that they can be fished in darkness almost as easily as in daylight. On the upper rivers this is still true.
But in numerous places along the lower rivers, contractors have power-shoveled road material out of the stream bed, breaking its protective shingled "roof" so that the disturbance may extend for half a mile or more downstream. And ton after ton of dirt and rubble from contractors' excavations or landslides onto the highway have been dumped down the river banks to shallow the pools, coat the stones with mud and smother the stream insects—the trout's principal food—which live among them.