September 02, 2020
By Paul Weamer
The phrase, “Land of Little Rivers,” has been used to describe New York State’s Catskill Mountain trout region for a long time. In the late 1990s, author Austin McK. Francis assembled a beautiful coffee table book titled Land of Little Rivers. Now Aaron Weisblatt and Bruce Concors have released a film by the same name.
While the Francis book is almost exclusively about the Catskills, and it shares many thematic elements with the film, the film Land of Little Rivers is about more than the Catskills. It also includes interviews with several prominent anglers who have very slim ties to the region. Bruce Concors compares his film to the Seinfeld television show: a show about nothing.
But he also provides a more thorough introduction: “This is the story about the age-old passion to chase trout with a fly rod. The people who came before me; the people I knew and know now who pursue this obsession, in this land of little rivers.”
I view this film as a 90-minute snapshot of Northeastern United States trout fly-fishing culture, centered around the Catskills and the Upper Delaware River, but also exploring fly fishing-centric people and places adjacent to the region such as the Adirondacks. It’s a culture that I understand very well after spending most of my adult life living and participating in it, and from that perspective, I found this film to be honest and accurate in its portrayals. I know most of the participants, and count many of them as friends.
Some fly fishers may not want to see any more media drawing attention to the Upper Delaware watershed, bringing even more fishermen to the rivers. But as the highly respected Delaware guide Joe Demalderis says in the film: “I used to like to not see places get known because they get crowded. But then so many places that didn’t get known, no one was there to protect them . . . I think it’s important that rivers have stewards on them.”
The Upper Delaware does have stewards. The film includes interviews with Jeff Skelding from the Friends of the Upper Delaware River (fudr.org), and guides Ben Rinker and Capt. Adrian LaSorte, who detail their work tagging wild Delaware River trout to help identify and protect their vital spawning streams.
But this movie isn’t only about conservation. It moves from the rivers and their sometimes eccentric guides and anglers to the Edison, New Jersey Fly Fishing Show, to the Catskill Fly Fishing Center & Museum, which helps preserve fly fishing’s rich culture. It includes commentary on making bamboo fly rods as well as profiles of “shop rats” who are common archetypes in fly shops throughout the country.
This movie is a Polaroid snapshot of an exact moment in an important fly-fishing culture. Like the ephemeral, short-lived mayflies that are so vital to our sport, a specific fly-fishing culture, formed and defined by its participants, is here only briefly before it begins to fade away. If you don’t record it, it can be easily forgotten. And that’s a loss for all of us.
Some of this current culture’s main characters, interviewed in the film, have already departed, highlighting the importance of remembering them. Longtime fly shop owner Dennis Skarka was interviewed before he passed away. And we also recently lost Dave Brandt, the legendary Catskill fly tier and Wulff Fly Fishing School instructor who is prominent in the film.
Everything ends, but it’s important to remember the past because it’s how we got here. Fly-fishing history and mythology are created when Dave Brandt recounts his learning to cast into the wind by positioning himself behind Lee Wulff’s running airplane. Or in 93-year-old Joan Wulff crediting Robert Redford and his movie A River Runs through It with bringing women to fly fishing and exposing them to “all the attractive men I used to have to myself.”
At the end of the film, Ben Rinker states that he isn’t helping to protect the Upper Delaware River only for today, he’s doing it for 30 years from now. And, in that way, he can be remembered too. For me, fly-fishing history and culture are formed by the men and women who practice it. The beautiful places where we enjoy our sport connect us through the ages. Land of Little Rivers helps us to remember and honor an important part of that culture.