The East Branch of the Croton River holds for me fond memories. It is where I first wet my waders, tangled my line and caught my very first trout. It is also the place where I had my first glimpse of real wildlife, and I’m not talking about squirrels and sparrows. I fished its banks alongside the almost primordial great blue heron, shared its waters with the whitetail, saw my son, then just a child, compete with the Waxwings that where trying to grab the fly at the end of his line. That first year I began my education of the East Branch learning each pool and bend. Ultimately, I learned to love it.
I’ve been back over and over through the years, in the heat and intense greens of the summer months, in the quiet days of the colorful autumn foliage, in the budding rediscoveries of early spring, even in the icy waters of winter days even if only to admire and photograph it. The East Branch of the Croton never rests. It challenges you at every turn, sometimes making it so very difficult to remember why you love this sport so much, others showing its generous nature.
The size of its trout can be impressive. You can find the monsters you’re looking for in its deep pools, like Phoebe Hole, not an easy task, mind you, but certainly possible. I’ve seen them occasionally rising; I’ve even seen some getting caught by triumphant fly fishers. What I enjoy best, however, is the challenge of discovering those trout resting behind the rocks, along the shady banks, under fallen logs. If I’m lucky enough to get to one spot after it has been rested for a while, then I may entice a trout to grab my fly. Most likely it will be a beautiful brown, but rainbows are not uncommon.
A few years back, my husband and I had the wonderful pleasure to spend a day fishing the East Branch with Keith Fulsher. Keith is an inexhaustible font of information about the rivers of the Croton Watershed System having fished them all for the past 25 years. Of course you know who Keith is if you’re serious about fly fishing. If you don’t know him, you know of him. Keith has written countless articles and books on fly fishing and is the creator of the Thunder Creek series. He’s also a wonderful human being.
The East Branch is one of Keith’s favorite rivers. He’s passionate about it and knows the ins and outs of it. He’s been fishing it for many, many years but his enthusiasm for it has never abated. And yes, he is one of those people able to entice those monsters to grab his fly, if you but wonder… I was there when he did, in fact.
Close to New York City
Keith considers the East Branch of the Croton River to be a “classic suburban trout fishing experience.” True in a way, since it is perhaps one of the best known of the trout streams in the Croton Watershed system, and close enough to New York City and its suburbs to make it accessible. An easy ride of about one hour from Manhattan, barring Westchester traffic jams, contributes to its popularity with the urban fly fisher.
And that’s also its downside, since, especially on weekends, the river can get crowded. There are five major and easy accesses to the river and the well-worn paths along its banks make even the fear of Lyme tick bites somewhat less daunting. Interstate 684 feeds into Route 22 in Brewster. The first intersection with old Route 22 will soon bring you to the most popular site, Bathtub Pool, visible even from the bridge. “You’ll fall in love with this spot and must try your luck fishing there. Oh yes, there are trout and plenty of them, but the fishing pressure is a major factor, just because is so close to the road.” – says Keith.
Off I-684, you’ve just passed the huge reservoir. It is there, behind the dam that the stream first originates. A tremendous geyser best known as “The Bubble” feeds and cools the East Branch waters, allowing them to remain cold even in the sweltering hot summer days. Insects and fishes just thrive in it. It is here that begins the 2.25 miles of the “special regulation only” stretch, where artificial bait rules! “Catch and Release” is widely practiced even though you’re allowed to keep one trout of at least 14 inches. The river is stocked annually with browns and rainbows but signs of a natural reproductive cycle are easily evident from the sizes of the fish caught.
From Bathtub Pool, you can walk on the banks and stop along the way to find the spot that best suites your fishing needs. I recommend however that you follow Keith’s advice: “When you reach Phoebe Hole, make sure that you give this spot a good try. It’s from this hole, in fact, that the brown trout weighting 10.13 lbs. took Al Case’s fly, a No.8 Gray Ghost, allowing him to become the IGFA world record holder on a four-pound test tippet. And I can assure you that that monster has friends and relatives just as impressive.”
Flies to Use
If the walk becomes too strenuous at this point, just drive to the other sites and visit Brady’s Bend and Trestle Pool. You will not be disappointed. Even though the East Branch of the Croton is sometimes considered a wet fly stream, I love to fish dry flies.
More typically, early in the season, you can try your luck on the surface with Blue-winged Olives or Blue Duns in sizes 16-18.
If that doesn’t produce the hoped for results, it may be necessary to resort to weighted wet flies, streamers, or nymphs. Some of my favorite are the Muddler Minnows, the black stonefly and, of course, Keith’s Thunder Creek Golden Shiner.
As summer progresses, the hatches become more plentiful and varied. From the end of May to well into June it’s the time to experiment with your Pale Evening and Sulphur Dunns, along with the Adams. In July the caddis and the terrestrial are more productive.
My favorite time to fish this river however is from mid-August to September during the “Trico” hatch. Of course, you need to be on the river by daybreak, but believe me, it’s an absolutely fantastic experience!
Rods to Use
When I first began exploring this river, I often used my old time favorite rod, an RPL Graphite III 8’6″ Sage 5wt. As I’ve learned its secrets over the years, however, I found myself switching to a Sage 4 or 3 weight with an 8x and even a 9x tippet, especially when the smaller insects are on the water. The action of the SP 4wt. Graphite IV Sage rod or the Graphite III 389-3 LL for #3 line, is smooth and even, and makes my quest almost effortless.
Today, late in the fishing season, I brought with me my 3 wt. rod to which I mounted my ultra light reel. Thanks to the combined performance of rod and reel I’m able to let my line gently drop along the shadows of the opposite bank. I immediately spot the trout following the progress of my tiny fly until it’s right over her head. With a quick movement the fish jumps out of the water and grabs it. I let the trout carry my line a little down stream and when she tires I begin to retrieve it ever so gently while keeping the tension. Removing the fly with the bended barb takes just one fast move and my brown is off and swimming again.
I’m somewhere between The Bathtub and Phoebe Hole, and I’m fishing the shallow riffles I prefer. I let my husband Adriano and Keith challenge the monsters in Phoebe Hole. I know they’ll give it a good try, but they may have to resort in the end to a Muddler Minnow or, even better, to the Thunder Creek Golden Shiner. I’ll know if they’ll succeed when I’ll hear their triumphant shouts.
For now however, I retrieve my line and give a family of Mallards the right-of-way and the chance to paddle away down stream undisturbed. After all, I’m only a guest here…