CHESTERFIELD, MASS.--It is not stretching the point to suggest that there are actually TWO treasures for the fly fisherman in Western Massachusetts--The East Branch of the Westfield River and Walt Geryk.
Of all the premiere trout streams in Southern New England, the Deerfield and the Farmington get most of the praise. But in recent years, the changing--and dangerous--shifts in water levels on the Deerfield, and the crowds on the Farmington, have allowed the East Branch to emerge as a superior river as much for its wilderness beauty as for its trophy trout.
And few people know the East Branch as well as Walt Geryk.
Geryk, 50, of Hatfield, gave up a prosperous plumbing-kitchen building business a couple of years ago to become a fishing guide. This is not to say that Walt is a drop-out; far from it, he is just as intent on profitability as he is on casting a fly. His new adventure--"Northeast Fly Fishing Guide Service--www.neffguide.com" is growing nicely, thank you, although it's starting to consume his time in the same way his contracting business did. It's just a lot more fun.
"Inland fishing guides aren't exactly a popular occupation in Massachusetts," he admits." Maine has lots, and there are plenty in Montana and Alaska, but not much in a state like Massachusetts. But that is changing. More and more fishermen are willing to have someone show them where and when and how so that the time they spend on the river is as qualitative as it can get. And when you don't have a lot of time to go fishing in the first place, making the most of it is the payoff."
He acknowledges that there are plenty of fishing guides on the coast for stripers and blues, and even cod and flounder, but not many for the state's inland waters. He saw a need and stepped in to fill it.
Of the many locations he takes his customer to, the Westfield is his spring time favorite. "The Deerfield is a more famous river is where he guides during the early summer and into fall. And rightly so: it's got bigger fish. And the Farmington has more fish and some really nice one's as well. But it is very crowded. The Westfield can be crowded, too, but it's such a beautiful river and provides a greater challenge to catch fish. I think my customers appreciate that, too."
The East Branch is a classic trout stream, a big, rushing river of water, from winter run off and spring rains, so clear it seems invisible at times, making depths deceiving.
It requires skill among its fishermen, not just in the techniques of delivering the fly, but in fly selection itself--nymphs, streamers, puffy floaters, small drys. Hendricksons, brown stoneflys, stimulators, muddlers. And a wading staff.
As we wade into the rush of the river, he stays close so that I don't fall. And so we enter the cold, swirling waters of the East Branch on a bright spring day, hobbling carefully over mossy rocks to find some degree of purchase in order to lay out our lines amid the rocks, slicks, and riffles that are the essential character of the Westfield.
All told, the Westfield system constitutes some 47 miles of wild and scenic river in west-central Massachusetts. We are fishing the catch-and-release area downstream from the Chesterfield Gorge toward the Knightsville Dam at Huntington.
Geryk is a wiry man of average height and obvious physical strength. His blond hair sports a fresh crew-cut and his fair-skinned face is already tanned and red from his days this spring on the rivers. There is a kindliness to his personality. He doesn't shout as he instructs.
He scans the water through sleek Polarized sunglasses and then gestures softly toward a long run on the far side of the river--maybe 50 feet away. We are dead-drifting large stonefly nymphs, guiding them without motion into bottom-tumbling pathways across the submerged ledges into pools where the trout--fat rainbows--lie waiting.
"Cast there," he says, pointing to a spot, "and then let the fly drift a bit before it swings around and into the feeding zone. The fish are there. I know it!"
I make a quartering cast and as the line comes around there is a sharp strike and a fish is on. A few minutes later, we release a 13-inch fish that is fat and feisty. We both laugh and slap a high five! In the next two hours, following Walt's choreography, I hook a release another six fish, the largest a 19-incher of nearly three pounds. I miss a few, too.
I shake my head in amazement. Clearly, this is a man who knows and enjoys what he is doing.
Right now, he is one of three professional guides who work the western part of the state. There may be others, but they are unknown. Massachusetts has neither a licensing nor a monitoring program for guides on inland waters. Other New England states, most notably Maine, have taken to qualifying guides by requiring them pass skills tests. The "Registered Maine Guide" is a reasonable signal that the person you hire can deliver the goods and keep you out of trouble in the woods.
Geryk is licensed by the State of New York so he can guide for steelhead and salmon in and around Lake Ontario so he has some sensitivities for the benefits of licensing.. "It would probably be a good thing, " says Geryk of the licensing suggestions. "A fisherman spends good money to have a great time on the river and like any other business there are those who claim to be something that they are not."
Make no mistake, however, this seems to be a highly competitive business. Each guide has a personality that differs as the level of professionalism. "I guess it goes with the territory," he shrugs.
"I am very busy and that's because I work hard to give my clients the best possible experience. Some clients are great, enjoying the fishing for what it is. Others don't think a trip is very good if they don't get 10 or 15 fish a day. Well, I can't guarantee that and if a guide does that he's deceiving his clients. And there's no guide in Maine, Montana, or Alaska who can guarantee fish every time out. Here I know the tackle, the techniques, the flies, the fish, and the places to catch them. And taken together that provides a reasonable assurance that we'll get hooked up."
"I have taken this business every bit as seriously as my contracting business," he explains. "I provide the rods, the reels, and the knowledge of the places that I fish--the rivers of Western Mass., the Cape, or Lake Ontario tributaries--and while I can guarantee a nice time, in the end, the fishing is the responsibility of the fisherman, never mind the weather, or the reluctance of a trout to take whatever you throw at them."
To offset the lack of a licensing program, Geryk hooked up with Orvis as one of their Endorsed Fly Fishing Guides. "It has been a valuable relationship," he says. Some notice when they see the Orvis guide decal on his pick-up. "I'm flattered," he says, " so long as they donít crowd my clients or me."
Later, over an outstanding, over stuffed, deli sandwich at the Chesterfield General Store, which is Waltís regular stop while fishing the Westfield, he reveals that his son, Blake, 21, is a senior at Bentley College, is majoring in finance-economics and his daughter, Tamara, 24, who was an outstanding prep school and collegiate field hockey player and a graduate of the University of Massachusetts in sport marketing, now works for tennis legend Chris Evert in Boca Raton, Fla. His wife of 29 years, Diane, works for the Commonwealth.
"I worked very hard as a tradesman," says Geryk. "And I had success. But I didn't see a whole lot of my family during the days. I didn't turn to guiding in the middle of some mid-life crisis. It was something that I wanted to do, that I knew I could do with just as much success. So, like a lot of people today, I opted for quality of life, for a chance--for however long--to be a fishing guide in Massachusetts and New York. I'm busy and itís a fun busy, but it is a business that I can more easily control."
Although he's only been full time for a few years, he has built a solid reputation with the fishing community of Western Massachusetts and Upstate New York. He currently is booking between 60-100 trips a season with as many as 220 clients. He gets between $150 and $400 a day depending on a lot factors.
"It was the right decision," he says of his career change. "Things are pretty good just now. For me, my family and my fishermen."
Outdoor Writer: Spence Conley
24 Clark Mountain Road
Sunderland, MA 01375
© 2002 by Spence Conley