Esopus Ascendant: Todd Spire and the Rebirth of a River
Few waterways have a more checkered history than the Esopus Creek. In the 1650s and 1660s, its banks were the site of the grisly Esopus Wars between Dutch colonists and the Lenape/Munsee Algonquins. Battles (and retaliations) over land use left colonists dead by fire, axe and tomahawk; in their turn, Native Americans were sold into slavery and picked off by contagion and gun.
Then came the predations of industry that occurred just as the Esopus was gaining repute as a fishing mecca. The first fishing resort in the United States was founded on the Esopus; Milo Barber’s Boarding House (on the site where the Phoenicia Elementary School now stands) was already operating as a fishing destination by the 1830s. The Esopus had become renowned for its abundance of native brook trout; reportedly, anglers could pull hundreds from the creek in a single morning. However, the region was also drawing tanneries, attracted by the area’s abundance of precolonial hemlock trees whose bark they required to treat hides. During the 1820s, leather tanning was the predominant industry around the Esopus.
By the end of the Civil War, the land’s first-growth hemlock forests had been transformed into vast stands of dead trees whose bark (and vascular systems) had been stripped to process leather. With no tree roots to retain the integrity of the Esopus’s banks, the creek widened and flattened, making the waterway warmer, slower, sunbaked and less hospitable to the cool-loving brook trout. Meanwhile, the toxic effluvium of tanneries had poisoned its clear waters.
Todd Spire is a scholar of the Esopus. He runs Esopus Creel, a guided trout fishing service. Also, he’s a founding member of Catskill Trout Tales, a marketing initiative that recently won a $50,000 New York State grant to promote fly fishing in the Catskills. Spire is clear-eyed about the struggles of the Esopus. To the damage done by the tanneries, he adds the devastating floods of Hurricane Irene in 2011, which further eroded the integrity of the Esopus’s banks. More galling, Spire notes, some second-home buyers also unknowingly hurt the creek.
“We screwed it up twice. Everyone wanted these houses on the rivers, and they wanted to sit on their back porch and see the river. So, buyers came in, developed the property and cut down all the trees once again.”
Yet, Spire says, Catskill waterways will always default to good fishing. “The general topography of the Catskills—these incredibly steep mountains—are what makes Catskill fishing so great. Tumbling water, fast rates of descent, this creates lots of oxygen—and the gravel base that came out of all this glacial till works like a natural filter to keep the water clean.” He continues, “All the stupid stuff that we’ve done by interfering with the rivers, the Catskills will always find a way to stay a relatively good place for trout.
”While it is now common to disparage millennials, Spire (who is 43) does not. He credits that generation for valuing experience over disposable things. “It’s sort of obvious that the Catskills is having a boom time now, but compounding that boom is a younger generation that’s really seeking out authentic experience. When people come to the Catskills and they want to learn about fly fishing, it’s steeped in this concept of authentic experience. People are seeking experience and not crap; it’s a very generational thing.
“But what’s really interesting—and I talk about this with the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Environmental Conservation crowd—is that those entities divide anglers into two groups, either catch-and-release or meat eaters. And I keep telling them that they have to break their minds of that. The next generation is different: They embody both sides. They want to learn about streams and conservation, and they want to practice catch-and-release most of the time—but they also want to have the experience of catching their own fish, cooking it over an open fire and then eating it. It’s not that cut-and-dried anymore.
“I talk about it in terms of art: A good painting has all these ways that you can access it. Maybe it’s color, maybe it’s history, maybe it’s the style, or even the image itself.” Spire continues, “Fly fishing is like that. It’s got all these ways that you can get into it. If you just like bugs. Or the fish as food. Or the elegance of casting. Or the equipment, like tying your own flies. Or just spending days on a stream. There are so many entry paths to enjoying the sport.”