I’d like to talk for a moment about the famous fly fisherman Dave Brandt. Some of you know him or knew of him, his history and his accolades. Of course, many do not. For those who do not, trust the world was a better place with him in it and it is less without. I got an email early this morning from my friend Susan Thrasher at Southern Brookies Trout Fishing in Tennessee. She’s also an instructor at the Wulff School of flyfishing on the Beaverkill River. She said Dave Brandt is dead. It will be one of the regrets of my life that the last time I saw Dave, maybe ten years ago, we had agreed to meet soon to go catch some small Catskill Brookies together. We just never made it. He was a friend of mine. Some years ago, I photographed a story for a magazine. In it, I did some portraits of truly famous Catskill fly fishermen, and Dave Brandt was one of them.
I photographed Dave on the Beaverkill at the tail out of Cairn’s Pool using a pool cue instead of a wading staff. I photographed him in his house at his pool table and his fly-tying bench, with a snapshot of he and Joan Wulff close at hand. I photographed him at the historic Roscoe Diner tying flies while eating a cheeseburger and sitting at the booth where the famous salmon fly-tier Poul Jorgensen had breakfast every morning until he died.
I also wrote a story for a magazine about Dave as well. I leave that story and those images here as a small part of my memory of Dave Brandt, a professor emeritus at the “Old School” of life.
Joan Wulff once said Dave Brandt is a trout wearing pants. That ought to do it. There’s not much else to say.
Brandt joined the Wulff School of Fly Fishing in 1987 and is now a senior casting instructor. Personally, he’s a cross between Buddy Holly and Theodore Roosevelt. His dog is named Peggy Sue. Based on that, I think he’d prefer Buddy Holly to Roosevelt, but that’s just a dog’s guess.
An engineer by trade, he’s a fly fisherman by heart, and a pool player by distraction and inclination. “I wish I didn’t love pool so much because I’ve wasted a hell of a lot of time trying to figure it out,” he said. He played at the now-defunct Ames Billiard Academy where “The Hustler” was filmed. He walks a trout stream like Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats walked around a table full of stripes and solids. Everything is perfect. Thought out. Fluid grace. Save energy for when you need it. In the early morning hours when Paul Newman’s character, Eddie Felson, was all worn out, washed up, drunk and exhausted from hours at the table, Fats would wash his hands, put on some cologne and a suit coat and say, “Fast Eddie, let's play some pool.” That was Dave on a trout stream. They didn’t stand a chance. He ran the table.
“I taught myself to fish,” Brandt said. “Little brook trout on Evans Creek in the Catskills. I still love them. More fly fishermen should start with worms. It teaches you about drift and drag and tells you where the fish are.” He thinks like fish. He knows them because, at one point in his life, he was a worm.
It’s more about the fishing than the fish,” he said. “The most important thing for a young fly fisherman to learn is how to be patient—how not to do something. The old-timers had patience. They did more with less. If you learn to look and listen before you act, you will succeed.” At anything.
He tied flies commercially for years and, he does custom jobs for customers all over the world. His business card reads: Flies Tied While You Wait. You might wait six months, but you’ll get them, and that there will be the real deal.
Brandt learned to tie Catskill flies from Art Flick and Elsie and Harry Darbee, and those lessons transcended fly fishing. “Catskill flies are all about symmetry,” he said. Dave Brandt’s life is symmetrical, classic, unchanging, old school. This guy fishes brook trout at Minipi Camps in Labrador and coats his dry flies with a mixture of kerosene and paraffin. That’s old school and then some - something his old friend Lee Wulff used to do.
“I met Lee in ’78 at the Darbee house,” he said. “A dinner I’ll never forget. Lee taught me that this fishing thing is just a big wonderful game that never ends.” Fly fishing or pool, Dave Brandt came to play, and for him, the game never ends.