THE VA­GARIES OF CUR­RENT

RE­MEM­BER­ING FLY-FISHING MAS­TER ART LEE

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - By GALEN MERCER

Art Lee is re­mem­bered as a mas­ter fly fish­er­man who stood on the bank be­fore wad­ing or cast­ing, sur­vey­ing the wa­ter for the clues that would make him a “trout’s neme­sis, not its but­ler.”

The first thing I learned from him was not to wade. The se­cond and most en­dur­ing thing was not to cast. An­glers up­stream and down­stream might be wad­ing, and oth­ers would cer­tainly be cast­ing, but Ar­tie never be­gan that way. Al­ways, al­ways, he be­gan by stand­ing on the bank, smok­ing cease­lessly, wait­ing and watch­ing.

On a bank, never in the stream, he would sur­vey the wa­ter, some­times for half an hour, some­times longer, look­ing for things that made no sense to oth­ers but made com­plete sense to him. Quick­sil­ver signs and minute in­di­ca­tions, nu­ances of cur­rent, fleet­ing aquatic move­ments, clues that pro­vided what he needed to be­come: a “trout’s neme­sis, not its but­ler,” as he of­ten put it.

In the early days, I was un­able to fathom what these var­i­ous tells were, nor or­der them in pri­or­ity, but I would come to do so dur­ing the many years I spent ac­com­pa­ny­ing Art to the wa­ter, pick­ing his brain and fol­low­ing his cues, wait­ing and watch­ing. Only when sat­is­fied with the lay of a river, as­sured he had his fish prop­erly lined up, would Art com­mit to move­ment.

An­other of his fa­vorite say­ings: “The quick­est way not to catch big fish is to catch small fish.”

It was funny to ob­serve friends, par­tic­u­larly those who’d just bat­tled city traf­fic and were vi­brat­ing with a need to fish, join us stream­side and at­tempt to adopt his ap­proach. Fif­teen, 25 min­utes might pass, with trout ris­ing steadily, abun­dantly. Art wouldn’t stir. For these an­glers, it was per­plex­ing, mad­den­ing. This must be a joke, right? You’d catch them sneak­ing side­ways glances, try­ing to de­ter­mine if they were be­ing had. This would con­tinue un­til the ten­sion be­came nearly un­bear­able. In­evitably, it would prove too much for some, and they’d launch them­selves into the river. Finally, Art would rise and gen­tly ease into the wa­ter, make a few casts and, likely as not, hook the best fish to be taken in an even­ing, usu­ally one no­body else had seen. Then ev­ery­one would get re­li­gion. This hap­pened many times.

Art’s wife and photographer, Kris, reg­u­larly at­tended the river then, shoul­der­ing a heavy, un­wieldy and weather-stained cam­era bag she sel­dom re­lin­quished. Of the count­less times I of­fered to as­sist, I re­call only a few in­stances when she re­lented. Self-re­liance was a fierce dis­ci­pline with her, an­other mea­sure of her con­sid­er­able grit.

Fol­low­ing at an am­bling pace, Kris would stop to pick flow­ers or fid­dle­heads or shaggy mane mush­rooms for the even­ing’s din­ner, even­tu­ally ar­riv­ing at Art’s side. Mag­a­zines typ­i­cally paid bet­ter for pho­to­graphs than words, and her pres­ence in the field was vi­tal to their pre­car­i­ous liveli­hood. She bore this ne­ces­sity, and many other pres­sures, with ex­cep­tional re­solve.

An­other of Art’s max­ims: “Stick with your wa­ter and learn it.”

In those years, this meant Barn­hart’s Pool, the Beaverkill’s most chal­leng­ing reach. We’d of­ten spend full days fishing less than a half mile of this mile-long stretch. An antsy teen, I found this ap­proach mur­der­ous — it felt like be­ing teth­ered — yet once more, Art was right. Thou­sands of days spent scan­ning that de­mand­ing pool’s sur­face, eas­ing qui­etly through its shal­lows, shiv­er­ing belt-deep in its depths built the eyes and aware­ness I now re­gard as se­cond na­ture.

Most of my trout fishing to­day takes place within a few hun­dred yards of just a few rivers. Over and over. It must be al­lowed that part of the rea­son Art fished this way was that he could be lazy. This was un­de­ni­able. The shore snooze was a reg­u­lar el­e­ment of his rou­tine, as were kib­itz­ing and pro­tracted bank­side con­ver­sa­tion. De­spite my pleas to try the Delaware’s West Branch (a re­mote 30 min­utes away), we typ­i­cally fished within 10 min­utes of the house. The greater part, how­ever, was learn­ing his sport at the hands of ex­act­ing Penn­syl­va­nia lime­stone an­glers such as Char­lie Fox and Vince Mari­naro, while fishing reg­u­larly with such mod­ern greats as Ed Van Put and Mike Kim­ball (whom Art called the finest light-tackle fly fish­er­man he’d ever known). Their sus­tained fo­cus be­came what he first ex­pe­ri­enced, then adopted and, finally, pre­ferred.

A mys­tery of my long­est and most mean­ing­ful friend­ship is why such a re­mark­able ex­is­tence went stale, as it did a decade be­fore Art’s death of a heart at­tack this past July, near

his home, which was a hun­dred paces from Wil­lowe­moc Creek. To a de­gree, the change was con­di­tioned by the sick­ness and loss of Kris. Yet for rea­sons I’ll never know, Art’s ex­pe­ri­ence of things shifted from the in­tensely vis­ceral and im­me­di­ate to some­thing in­ter­nal and dif­fuse. His life­long in­fat­u­a­tion with rivers and fishing drifted away; he grew restive.

The last time we met as­tream, Art was wait­ing by my car as I emerged in dark­ness from Barn­hart’s Pool. He seemed to want to tell me some­thing, but our con­ver­sa­tion oc­curred over a gulf and ended in­con­clu­sively. We talked about fishing again but never would. Taken to­gether, the dis­tance and his death broke my heart and shades my feel­ings about a re­gion — and a river — where I also came of sport­ing age.

The greater mys­tery, per­haps, was my luck in meet­ing and be­com­ing friends with Art and Kris Lee in the first place.

Art Lee was a mas­ter at read­ing the sub­tle clues and tells of a river and its fish.

Lee en­joyed be­ing a “trout’s neme­sis, not its but­ler.”

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