Hank Rope knows five streams in the Catskills region of New York state intimately. He knows when hundreds of insects hatch, when they swim to the surface, and whether they make a splash when they return to the water. He knows where to find calm water and which rushing whitewater the trout prefer. And he knows what the fish eat.
He’s been fishing since he was about six years old, sneaking away from the sights and sounds and smells of Queens to a raft he navigated in Jamaica Bay, where he crabbed and fished for flounder. In 1996, retiring from his career selling insurance, and trading in his suit and tie for a fishing vest and waders, he left the city for Big Indian, a small town in the Catskills, where he began his second career: full-time fly fishing guide.
“I feel like a caged animal when I can’t fish,” Rope said, adding that he spends as much time getting ready to fish – going through his tackle, visualizing the day, and anticipating the scenic beauty – as he does fishing. “Being a guide suits me. I am on the water almost every day. Every part of the process is satisfying: handling a bamboo fly rod; using a fly that I tied; enticing a trout to take the fly; admiring a beautiful trout; watching him swim away when I release him; and helping another fisherman enjoy these same things. Fishing is pretty close to religion. You get to think about nature and where it all came from. It’s powerful.” Power, though, is not a prerequisite for successful fly fishing.
In fact, Rope likens casting to a ballet, explaining that it requires control, grace, and exact timing. To emphasize this point, Rope begins most of his guided expeditions at a secluded, grassy area where he can teach techniques and offer basic instruction without the distraction of water.
Throughout the 20- or 30-minute session, Rope shares strategies and secrets – like how to properly assemble the rod and how to outsmart trout – that build confidence and fuel enthusiasm. Reserved only for novice fly fishermen, these initial lessons are really designed to teach the art of landing the fly where it should land and doing so gently.
“I’ve only been hooked in the back of the head once,” Rope said, explaining why he ties red wool to the end of the tippet instead of a fly during the initial instruction. “The red shows up better in the grass, too, so I can see where it lands.”
Out on the water, Rope uses a colorless leader on a floating orange line. Experience, he says, suggests that the fish can’t see the leader, while the colored line makes it easier for him to correct casting techniques.
Privacy is very important to Rope. His equation for a successful trip includes equal parts solitude and knowledge, and he will pass by the most common, crowded fishing holes in favor of the less public spots where his customers can share the stream only with wildlife.
“Four hours is long enough for people to relax and really benefit from the peacefulness, calmness, and the excitement of catching a really beautiful rainbow trout on a meaningful level,” Rope said. “But trips can be as long or short as my customer wants. I’ve gone for two hours, and I’ve gone for two days.”
To make excursions with Rope’s company, Big Indian Guide Service, memorable, he uses a combination of technology, common sense, courtesy, and his experience – with fish and with people.
Technology helps him identify some of the best fishing spots on the 20 miles of streams he fishes regularly. Before every trip, he studies fishing and weather reports and monitors stream conditions (water temperature, speed, and depth). This quantitative data provides only a portion of the information necessary to make a strategic decision, though.
“You have to get on the stream and walk the creek many days to learn where the fish are,” Rope said. “And you’ll find them in similar spots on other streams.”
Creature comforts are important too. The back of his Pathfinder is stocked with a chair – so that customers can sit down while changing into their waders – and a rug, so that they can keep their socks clean and dry during the process. He carries plenty of cold drinks, and his vest is loaded with extra tied flies, just in case.
Once he’s in the water, conversation turns to grandchildren and fishing stories, with quiet suggestions for improving technique, learning new tactics, and staying safe thrown in as Rope sees fit. Proper casting requires that the line goes back as far as it goes forward. On streams lined with trees, this requires wading into the water.
“In some areas, people trim the trees,” Rope explained. “In this area, we leave them. Fish need the trees. They provide shade and shadows, keep the water cool, and are home to the insects that our fish feed on.”
He doesn’t guarantee that any of his customers will catch fish, although his intimate knowledge of the streams makes it a fairly good bet that they will. Most people catch and release the colorful beauties.
“It’s about the experience for the majority of my customers,” Rope said. “My goal, of course, is to have people catch fish. But you can’t always do this, so it’s also about introducing people to the mountains, the sky, the clouds, and the wonder of standing in water and feeling it wash past you. At the end of the day, if I’ve done my job correctly, they will be able to go fishing by themselves any day they want and feel confident that they have the skills to be effective. With a little luck, they will also learn for themselves what fishing can add to the quality of life.”
One of his clients, a bank president, flew in for a day-and-a-half fishing excursion on a private plane and needed to be back at his office for a meeting at the end of the second day. Rope recalls the last hour of the trip.
“When I told him that we would have to leave in 45 minutes, he asked to be alone for awhile. I disappeared into the woods until we had to leave. As we were walking to meet his chauffer, his parting words were, ‘I envy you; you’ll be back here tomorrow.’”
Other memorable clients have been those participating in the Casting for Recovery program, which provides fly fishing retreats for women who have or have had breast cancer. The catch-and-release experience gives them the opportunity to see life come back from the edge.
“When they catch a fish, they know that its life could be over,” said Rope. “I let them release it, and they watch it swim away, full of life. It’s symbolic.”
He tells of the doctor who wore a life jacket in knee-deep water all day. Her fear of the water had kept her away from fishing for years. She was determined, though, with Rope’s help, to conquer her fears and add some tranquility to her life. Another day, a youngster learning to fish with his father watched in awe as a bald eagle swooped from above and grabbed a trout before soaring out of sight.
When he’s not admiring nature, Rope studies fish. He understands fish behavior because he lives it. He has read almost every book in the “Angler’s Parlor” at the local public library, where people can borrow fly fishing rods just like books and study entomology displays that compare tied flies to actual insects.
He shares the mystery and marvels of a sport that takes patience, respect for the environment, and a love of the outdoors. Ironically, though, he is also a contradiction: when this fisherman wants fish for dinner, he heads to the fish market and purchases fish caught elsewhere.
“I have trouble killing fish,” Rope said. “They give me too much pleasure.”
Stephanie Specchio has worked in higher education managing communications, marketing, and public relations efforts since 1994. She is the campaign communications director for Cornell University.