October 26, 2021

Fishing on the Fly

Photo provided Michael Lenetsky

Michael Lenetsky can’t remember if he’s the vice president — or maybe president — of the Leon Chandler Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

“No one ever wants to be vice president or president,” he said, laughing. “I have been alternating both with my friend, Josh Filter, for years.”

He thinks he’s vice president this year. The chapter covers both Tompkins and Cortland counties and works to conserve North American cold water fisheries.

Lenetsky, of Ithaca, has been fishing since age 3. He used to be a fly fishing “dabbler,” until he moved to Ithaca 20 years ago and got hooked. He’s been a member of the chapter since then. “I am all in.”

“There’s a lot of history,” said Lenetsky, who works in the chemistry department at Cornell University. “There’s a lot of tradition. You can go very deep in the rabbit hole in a lot of different ways, etymology, casting, tying.”

Lanetsky has been fly-fishing for 20 years and still feels new. “I teach other people but don’t feel like an expert. I do it a lot. I’m still learning to tie,” he said.

Fly fishermen use an artificial fly for bait, attached to a weighted line. There is no casting of a weighted hook, lure or bait out into the water with a rod with a simple back and forward motion.

“Your line is weighted,” Lenetsky said. “You can’t just give it a flick of the wrist and shoot out. You have to do a lot of things to make the line cast.”

Control the rod, he said. “It’s all about fulcrums, arcs, speed, acceleration and stops. It’s a beautiful art form that takes a lot of time to learn and even more to master.”

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Fisherman Michael Lenetsky of Ithaca gave props to Cortland for being home to Cortland Line Co., still making fly and braided fishing line after 100 years, and its fly fishing heritage in the person of Leon Chandler.

The flies are hand-tied to resemble invertebrates, bait fish or organisms that fish like, he said.

He showed a small collection of flies modeled after flies created by Fran Betters in the Adirondacks, called “the usuals.”

“We use them everywhere. … I use them here in the Tioughnioga,” Lenetsky said.

People would ask Betters what he used to catch the fish. He’d say, “the usual.”

Flies have a core pattern that attract a fish. They often imitate the various stages of life for bugs.

Lenetsky showed a soft tackle fly he uses to access different levels of a water column in a lake or stream.

Ninety percent of aquatic bugs are under the water, he said, living atop it and in the air only at adulthood.

The goal is to cast that fly to a spot in the water where the fish are, Lenetsky said.

Mike Drake, the operation manager of the J.M. McDonald Sports Complex, says he’s a novice fly fisherman, only at it a handful of years. He goes into streams, lifts up rocks and takes photos of the bugs he finds. He will try to mimic their shape in his flies.

“There are books and books and books on fly fishing,” Lenetsky said. “You kind of look at patterns.”

“When you go out to a stream, I will look and see what’s going on in there, around the water and make a decision. The cooler it is the less they want to move,” he added. “You need to present something to entice them with, something they think is nutritious.”

He might go with an olive woolly bugger, a basic fly he uses 80 percent of the time.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Michael Lenetsky of Ithaca shows off a finished fly used for catching trout.

“I like moving water,” said Lenetsky, who regularly fishes streams in Cortland, Tompkins and Tioga counties.

“I am almost always wading. I don’t own a boat,” he said. “I fish all year long. I don’t stop fishing.”

Lenetsky said his essential tools are a pair of waders and wading boots, rod, reel, line, flies and assortment of leaders and tippets, special lines that connect the fly to the weighted line.

James Everard, aquatic biologist at the Department of Environmental Conservation in Cortland, has been fishing for 50 years, since he was 2.

“I just love doing it and always have,” he said. “I go a lot of times throughout the year, but can’t wait to go again.”

But he doesn’t consider himself an expert, despite 50 years with a rod, being steeped in it at work, and always reading and watching TV about it.

“Which is one of the awesome things about the sport,” Everard said. “Every type of method, every type of fish, each body of water has all these little things you need to learn and figure out … You never (or shouldn’t) ever stop learning.”

“Plus every year there is some new lure or method that comes out that is fun to try and figure out. There are just so many species and places to go,” he said.

Everard fly fishes for trout a few times each year and fly fishes for Chinook salmon a few weeks every fall.

“Casting is different than other types of fishing, you’re casting the line and the fly goes along for the ride,” he said. “Like any trout fishing you need to be able to read the water to figure out the best places to cast to, where you think the fish are lying. Pick the right size and style of fly for the conditions etc., just like other types of fishing. You have to put the puzzle pieces together.”

Lenetsky said his organization will sponsor Ithaca Fishing and Conservation Day March 21 at Boynton Middle School in Ithaca.

People can learn about fly fishing, cold water conservation and about the Trout in the Classroom Program, which Trout Unlimited sponsors with Discover Cayuga Lake.

There are 22 tanks in 17 schools in about nine school districts in Tompkins County, he said. Kids monitor the growth of trout from eggs to small fish and release them in the wild in the spring.

Lenetsky became guarded when asked about favorite fishing spots.

“One of my favorite places to fish is the Tioughnioga, running through a strip mall,” he said. He wouldn’t say more.

An ideal fishing day:

“It’s grayish. Because in bright sun light, most fish are scared their predators will see them and eat them. Temperatures are in the mid 60s, not too hot. Not too cold. The stream is moving along. Not low. Not high. And the fish are eating stuff all over the place. I am catching fish.”

How many?

“If I was regularly seeing action, it doesn’t matter,” said the fisherman who catches and releases fish 95 percent of the time.

“Ten is good,” Lenetsky said. “More is also not bad.”

Cortland Standard file photo

Leon Chandler was vice president of Cortland Line and was known as Cortland’s fly fishing ambassador to the world, teaching fly fishing clinics to people in Germany, Japan, Poland and Canada.
Chandler was also president of the national Trout Unlimited for two years and spent 22 years on its board. He was inducted as a “Legendary Angler” into the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin.

Quick, easy, tasty

Jim Everard, a biologist at the state Department of Environmental Conservation, has a super simple recipe for the fish he catches:

Fillet them, dip in egg and milk, roll in Italian bread crumbs and deep fry in 350 degrees oil for about three minutes.
— Katie Keyser

Fishing resources

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has information on a variety of topics, from places to fish, to requirements of fishing, fishing clinics and free fishing days in New York.

Check out these sites: