Remembering fly-fishing master Art Lee

Editor’s note: Writer, guide and consummate tactical fly fisherman, Art Lee influenced the way generations of anglers fish for trout and salmon. The New York Times called him a “fly-fishing virtuoso.” A devoted conservationist, Lee lived for years in a home overlooking Junction Pool at the confluence of the Beaverkill River and Willowemoc Creek in the Catskills. Galen Mercer recalls his longtime friend, who died in July 2018 at age 76 near his home in Roscoe, New York.

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

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

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.

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

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

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.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Anglers Journal magazine.

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