Gentlemen Afield

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Gordon hastened home to anoint the dry fly in American waters at Junction Pool, where the Willowemoc joins the Beaverkill near Roscoe in Sullivan County. To a large extent, it was a baptism for the region as well as the fly. Without benefit of a best-selling book or even a mocking press, Gordon and his floating flies opened the Catskills to a rush of anglers as surely as Murray had piped them into the Adirondacks a generation before. Up the long grade from the Hudson they came in the parlor cars of the New York, Ontario & Western, to Frank Keener’s Antrim Lodge and other inns catering to the fly-fishing trade; and later, as the pressure mounted in numbers of anglers and streamside space, to the private clubs and preserves at Balsam Lake and Debruce. Already the experience of the North Woods was repeating itself in the Catskills. But time at last was running short for the gentle sportsmen of the Eastern seaboard.

The breed itself was not without blame. It had preached a rigid code of conduct—that the hunter or angler should never take more than his table might need. But the sporting class was not unlike any other: there were always a few who would rub against the grain. One early visitor to the Adirondacks boasted in a hotel register that in only a few weeks time he had taken 350 brook trout, 39 partridge and woodcocks, and 2 deer. And just six years after publication of his controversial book, Preacher Murray was moved to lament that “stupid greed” had already diminished the trout and deer of the Adirondacks. He did not explain that a certain amount of pragmatic greed was needed then just to feed the camps and inns his book had inspired; or that in one summer month he had slaughtered five deer with his own rifle. Despite tighter game laws over the years, similar excesses continued into the twentieth century.

The gilded age of the field sports had begun at a time when the population of the United States stood at 30,000,000. By 1900 it had grown to 76,000,000; by 1920 to 106,000,000. By 1920, too, the old plank roads into the mountains had been paved with hardtop, and the wealthy (and even some of the not-so-wealthy) were out upon them in their Model T Fords. The length of the work week had dwindled. Factories and offices were beginning to buzz with the prospect of paid vacations. The number of licensed hunters had doubled in ten years, and mass-production techniques were turning out rifles and shotguns at half the prewar cost. On opening day of the trout season, anglers stood elbow to elbow at Junction Pool. Campers thought twice before drinking from forest pools; in time they’d have halazone tablets.

To be sure, the good life in the deep woods has not vanished altogether. Even today there are still a few elegant camps in Maine, clubs in the Poconos and Catskills, preserves in the Adirondacks where the wealthy may yet pursue the pleasures of forest and stream—when they are not otherwise engaged on the golf course, the tennis court, or the ski slope. New words and phrases are being bandied about on the summer porches of the lingering woodland retreats. The word “sportsman” is not often among them.