Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
July 19, 2022

Protecting What You Love: with Author/Angler Stephen Sautner

Protecting What You Love: with Author/Angler Stephen Sautner

Stephen Sautner is a lifelong fisherman, environmental activist, and the author of several books on those topics. And while his passion for fishing has taken him to the Falkland Islands, Cuba, the Zambezi River, and even ... New Jersey, a rustic fishing cabin in Hancock, New York, is Stephen's happy place. Tune it to hear Stephen's thoughts on trout, Catskills living, and being a steward of the places we love.

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Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce
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Stephen Sautner  0:03  
My goal was to buy a fishing cabin and go fishing. That's why I bought this place. I wasn't planning on restoring a stream. I wasn't planning on being a fractivist. That was not it. I just wanted to fish. But I learned that all anglers and birders and hikers and anyone who enjoys the outdoors, if you really are passionate about it, you got to fight. You know, you have to fight for it. You can't just go fishing and go home. You just can't because it'll go away.

Brett Barry  0:34  
Stephen Sautner is a lifelong fishermen, environmental activist, and the author of several books on those topics. And while his passion for fishing has taken him to the Falkland Islands, Cuba, the Zambezi River, and even New Jersey, a rustic fishing cabin in Hancock, New York is Stephen's. Happy Place. Stay with us as we talk trout, Catskills living and being a steward of the places we love. Kaatscast is the winner of this year's Chronogrammy for Best Regional podcast. We're honored by that recognition and if you voted for us, thank you. We hope you'll tell your friends and family about us as we continue to roll out new Catskill stories every two weeks. This episode of Kaatscast is sponsored by the Hanford Mills Museum. Explore the power of the past as you watched the waterwheel bring a working sawmill to life. Bring a picnic to enjoy by the millpond. For more information about scheduling a tour or about the museum's new exploration days, visit Hanfordmills.org or call 607-278-5744. Kaatscast is sponsored by the central Catskills Chamber of Commerce, providing services to businesses, community organizations and local governments in the central Catskills region. Follow the central Catskills Chamber of Commerce on Facebook, you can sign up as a business member, and subscribe to a weekly email of local events at Centralcatskills.org. Before we met, Stephen Sautner sent me two of his books, a cast in the woods, a story of fly fishing, fracking, and floods in the heart of trout country. And fish on fish off the misadventures and odd encounters of the self taught angler. Then he sent GPS coordinates for his well hidden fishing cabin on 14 acres of hemlock forest in Hancock, New York.

Stephen Sautner  2:39  
So I've been fishing the Delaware and the Catskills for over 30 years. And in the early 2000s, my wife and I just decided we were sort of tired of camping on the river, or like, I go up on a solo trip and sleep in the back of my car and that sort of thing. And so we sort of hatched this plan, hey, let's try to find a cabin. It took us several years to find the right place. We weren't in a rush. You know, it's one of those things when you know, you know, and we saw this place in the middle of winter, and hadn't been lived in hadn't been occupied for a couple of years. It was kind of tired looking. And we sort of trudged through the snow and looked and saw the stream and we both looked at each other and we're like, oh my god, this is the place we bought it in 2003. And it's been like the center of the universe ever since at least in the springtime when the fishing is really good.

Brett Barry  3:36  
Stepping into the Sautner fishing cabinet in 2022 is what you might imagine stepping into Catskills fishing cabinet in the 1940s would have been like set on the edge of a narrow Creek. It's dark and rustic with comfortable cabin furnishings and Vintage Decor, old fishing lures and reels, a small woodstove stacks of field guides and the smell of freshly brewed coffee.

Stephen Sautner  4:01  
That's this kind of 1940s guy with a fedora smoking a pipe and a red and black check woolrich shirt feel you know the kind of thing like you go fishing during the day and then at night you kick back with with some rye. That's the field we wanted for the cabin and we try to emulate that in every way including the run

Brett Barry  4:22  
and a few yards from the cabin. And equally rustic and well appointed bunkhouse,

Stephen Sautner  4:27  
a lot of my friends who come up here and stay you know, reserve. Hey, I got the bunkhouse. Right. Okay, bunkhouse has this kind of like little rascals clubhouse field. And there's a bunch of these old fishing themed calendars that came from like a plumbing supply store from you know, 1957 and they, they have those like Kodachrome images of, again, the guy with the fedora holding the arched rod about to scoop it up in his net and that's the vibe that we like here.

Brett Barry  4:55  
And while there is a small bathroom in the main cabin, Steven has a preference for His handbuilt outhouse just up the hill

Stephen Sautner  5:03  
nestled in the woods, this sign indicating it, it's sort of a tin sign with this little metal outline of a Gent running to an outhouse with an error. And there it is. It has a little wooden chair here in case there's, you know, a weight. Sometimes when I have a group of guys, there is a weight. Now, the thing that's cool about this outhouse it's not a traditional outhouse in the sense that there's a pit and you go in the pit and it just sits. This is something called a moldering privy, which is an outhouse that uses cold composting, to break down human waste. So it sits on a cribbing you walk up steps, and the outhouse itself is about three and a half feet off the ground. The cribbing is screened in as basically a composting bin in here. And every year I stock it with red wiggler composting worms, and they do the dirty work. So you use the outhouse, and then when you're done, you throw in a handful of forest stuff which is like partially composted leaves on top of your own deposit. And between the natural composters that live in the duff that you don't see, and the red wigglers this stuff gets broken down quickly. And I just had five guys here using this and there's really not much of a smell at all. And so we have a policy when we use the outhouse we open the door and we look out over the woods. And we listen for the Ovenbird that always is nesting here. You can hear read Iberia way off in the distance and we have a magazine rack in here with the Farmers Almanac from 2020. I see we have a book of fishing quotes we have pair of binoculars and even the moon cut out your door which you have to have have to have. It's not an outhouse without the moon cutout. 

Brett Barry  6:58  
After touring Stephens cabin bunkhouse and privy. We walked down to the real jewel of this anglers paradise. The trout stream itself,

Stephen Sautner  7:08  
I call it the six foot wide stream. And that's sort of the name I stick with because I just want to keep it private, even though the stream is all on private land. But that's just the way it is. So the six foot wide stream begins about two miles from where we're standing. There's a pond up there and then it flows out of a wetland from that pond and gathers up a couple of more little reels and tributes really small tributaries, and then it becomes this. And then it flows down into the East Branch maybe two miles from where we're standing,

Brett Barry  7:38  
which is on its own a very famous trout River.

Stephen Sautner  7:41  
Yeah. The East Branch of the Delaware and the West Branch of the Delaware are renowned trout rivers, particularly the West Branch. Because the tailwater fishery comes out of the dam, it's very cold trout like cold water. The East Branch to to a lesser degree is also very good fishing. And then it forms the main stem, which is also an amazing trout river. You know, climate change is a thing up here, everywhere all around the world, obviously. And I'm noticing the season on the East Branch is shorter, where I fish, which is the Lower East Branch used to run through the end of June, it was cold enough to fish for trout. And now we find that by the middle of June and even early June is too warm. It's done as a trout fishery for the season. And that's happening more and more frequently. Climate change is affecting us in all sorts of different ways. And if it's cutting into our fishing time, that's that's a bad thing. And it is and it is so

Brett Barry  8:39  
Stephen's engagement with the environment runs deep. His day job is with the World Conservation Society. And if you've never heard of it, well, you've heard of it

Stephen Sautner  8:50  
is based in New York. It runs the Bronx Zoo and the four other city zoos in New York City to the Prospect Park Zoo, Central Park Zoo, the Queen zoo and the New York Aquarium along with sort of the flagship Bronx Zoo, and it has fieldwork in 60 countries around the world. So it's 127 year old organization that works to save tigers in the Russian Far East, which recently has been very challenging as you might imagine. Gorillas in the Congo whales off New York City, jaguars in Latin America and everything in between. We have 4000 staff stationed all around the world, cutting edge conservation science really cool stuff. So I communicate that stuff. I'm in their comms office as we call it, and I help publicize this amazing work that we do. That's my day job and it's given me an absolute appreciation. I mean, I've always been sort of an outdoors person. I've always loved fishing. That's kind of my driving passion. But through fishing, you know, it gives me a lens to see all sorts have things that are connected to, you know, what does it take to have a functioning trout stream. And it's more than just water and trout, you know, you need all the aquatic insects that live in the stream, you need good shade from all these trees, a lot of which I've planted, you need birds to keep pests in check. If one goes away, you start pulling on that string and it will all collapse. So my sort of personal conservation lens is wild trout. But I know to protect wild trout, it's a lot more than just protecting fish. It's protecting the whole ecosystem. And this is one of them. And it's so cool that this is literally, you know, I own as long as I'm on this planet, I guess. I mean, what what do we really own in terms of land and streams, but I own this quarter mile stretch of this trout stream, and I am a steward of it. And I've done my best to be a steward and play that role and protect it as best I can.

Brett Barry  10:57  
Aside from climate change, which is a big one, what are some of the challenges, that the Catskills face?

Stephen Sautner  11:03  
Invasive species is a huge thing. I mean, these forests are going to transform, you know, in our lifetimes, all the ash trees are going to die, then you don't realize how many ash trees are around until you see all the dead ones. It's one of the major tree species here. So that's all going. And emerald ash borer kills, I think almost 100% of the trees. The woolly adelgid, which kills hemlocks kills most of the trees, so the most of the hemlocks are gonna die in our lifetimes, too. It's a slower process. And then there's an all invasives like Japanese knotweed, which is all along every river. I even have a little stand here, tiny little stand that I selectively very selectively spray. It's like three plants. But Japanese knotweed is the kind of plant like only three plants and then like, you have lunch and come back, and there's like, 50, you know, it's a it's, it is a nasty, super aggressive plant, and all the other invasives that we see now we have garlic mustard everywhere, deep in the woods, where I never saw it before. Japanese still grasses coming I mean, invasive species can drive you crazy. So that's absolutely an issue. Of course, we had the threat of fracking for a while. And, you know, we bought our place. And next thing, you know, a lot of people around here signed gas leases. And I did my research. And I said, this is not compatible with this landscape and all the wildlife here. And so I fought against fracking. And I was very sensitive to people who live here year round, because I know, you know, this is a depressed area, people were looking to make money, but I just didn't think it was sustainable. I think they would have been, you know, trashing their own landscape. And so I fought against it and became a fractivist where we want to call it got involved with the Catskill mountain keeper fought it for years, until finally, you know, it was defeated in 2014. That was amazing. But, you know, the lesson you learn from fracking is there's always some scheme around the corner to exploit this area in a way that's not compatible with the long term health of the ecosystem, and you know, the wildlife and the whole food chain. So you always have to stay on guard and wait to see what the next one is, and get ready to rally again and fight. But defeating fracking was a huge deal. And hopefully, it'll never rear its ugly head here. We'll see.

Brett Barry  13:29  
And the latest book that you wrote, delves into that issue, doesn't it? Fracking?

Stephen Sautner  13:34  
Yeah, a cast in the woods is basically the story of this cabin. You know, how I bought it sort of fell in love with the place fell in love with the stream, everything was cool. And then then the flood hits, I gotta, like, rebuild the stream, literally, and the fish come back, and everything's looking good. And then all of a sudden, when it seems like oh, we started to restore, the whole issue of fracking comes up, and I get into the whole battle of fracking and how it was defeated. And so I mean, again, my, my goal was to buy a fishing cabin, and go fishing. That's why I bought this place. I wasn't planning on restoring a stream. I wasn't planning on being a fractivist. That was not it. I just wanted to fish. But I learned that if you really are passionate about it, you got to fight. I have a place here. So I'm, you know, my roots are a little bit stronger. But even for a visiting angler, or burger hiker, you gotta stay up on issues. You got to be willing to fight and write letters and do whatever it takes to preserve these places, or they will go away.

Brett Barry  14:41  
And then you wrote another book preceding this one, which is a more lighthearted approach to all kinds of fishing adventures worldwide. And that one's called fish on fish off. Tell me about that adventure.

Stephen Sautner  14:51  
So I'm a self taught angler, no one in my family fishes. I did not have you know, the uncle who is I'm going to show you how to fish I taught myself and through trial and error, and lots and lots of error. So they're basically stories and I've been lucky enough to fish all around the world. I think at last count I fished in 13 or 14 countries, I fished in Cuba and I fished in the Congo and the Falkland Islands, which are also called Las Malvinas off the southern coast of Argentina. And I've had some really strange things happen to me. While fishing for example, when I was first learning to fish, there was a local tackle shop that directed me to a place along the Jersey shore where they assured me I would catch very large weak fish, which is this very desirable game fish that I'd never caught before. The port they left out was that it was a nude beach. And I found that out after I walked onto the beach and started fishing, I noticed some beachgoers kind of off to the side. I wasn't really I'm so focused on the fishing. I made a couple of casts and then I turned around, I was like something and they were all naked. And I was like this 18 year old kid like oh my God, and they thought that was just hysterical at the tackle shot. And then when I was in Zambia, I was fishing for fish called Tiger fish. And I got chased by an elephant. I fished in the Falkland Islands next to an active minefield. In New Jersey, my home state I've dealt with the opening day of trout season, which is like it's a violent scrum of poorly mannered fishermen, tangling lines and yelling at each other and occasionally falling in. And people who like drink beer at 6:30 in the morning kind of thing. And I I wrote a long chapter about my evolution of opening day as a little kid and then kind of taking my own son and that sort of thing. So yeah, fish on fish off. It's about 60 stories of all sorts of strange things that have happened while fishing,

Brett Barry  16:50  
having fished all over the world. What makes this little stretch of creek or any of the other fisheries in the Catskills special,

Stephen Sautner  16:59  
everyone has home water. And you know, it's like comfort food or like a favorite movie that you watch over and over and you go back to it. And the Catskills is that place for me, whether it's the Delaware where again, I was just I was camping for four days with some friends for an annual trip that I've done for 31 years. And we caught some huge trout and it was just amazing fishing dry fly fishing, which is like, you know, the quintessential fly fishing that everyone wants, and big selective fish that are hard to figure out. And then you know this tiny stream where you know a six inch trout is a good sized fish and I don't know there's just something it's part of my soul. It makes my soul happy to fish here.

Brett Barry  17:45  
Now dry fly fishing is kind of the holy grail or what I guess you're really supposed to do as a real trout fisherman or woman. Do you look down on people who drop a worm in the creek?

Stephen Sautner  17:57  
I don't look down on bait fishers. However, I do look down on people who leave litter behind streams. I look down on people who devalue wild trout and to them a wild trout to stop trout and doesn't matter. The difference between a stock trout and a wild trout is the stock trout is grown in a hatchery. The truck comes up to the stream throws them in they're not born and bred in the stream. They have not had to dodge otters and kingfishers and spawn on pea gravel and cold clean water. And you know a wild trout is something that should be respected. I'm not saying you should never eat a wild trout but they should be conserved. Most should be released if not all I release all wild trout that's my own personal ethic. But you can follow along you know if the law says you can keep a trout you can keep a trout but knowing how hard it is to be a wild trout in the Catskills. I think the way to respect that fish is to release it. That's my opinion, stock trout. keep as many as you want as long as you're within your legal limit. keep as many as you want. Fill your chain stringer. I do it. I smoke them. stocked trout are delicious. You can tell the difference between a wild trout and a stock trout usually in their fins and colors. The pectoral fins which are the fins on the side just behind the gill plate on a stock trout are usually very small and even sort of crinkled up because they were so crowded. They never fully formed. A wild trout has these big beautiful healthy pectoral fins. A wild trout the colors are spectacularly vibrant. Every fin is intact. A stock trout sometimes the colors are are pretty good. A lot of times they're sort of washed out looking not to be I'm not a snob about it. I fish for stock trout. I know people that do it's fun. It's great to bring kids that's great way to introduce them to fishing, but you can't look at a wild trout stream the same way you look at a stock stream. It's different if you do, there'll be no more wild trout. I mean, the Catskills have a long history of being fished out. I mean, they were fished out 150 years ago by people who would come up from New York City. You know, there's all these accounts of like, you know, Thaddaeus caught 150 trout in one day, and then like three years later, there were no no more trout ha had that happen. Well done. You fished them all out. And so wild trout need to be preserved, cherished, respected, worshipped, in my case. And, you know, wild trout are an indicator species of a healthy ecosystem here in the Catskills. If you have wild trout, you've got cold, clean water, you probably have a really vibrant aquatic insect population, you probably have a healthy crop of migratory birds, you probably have a lot of good vegetation, all that good stuff.

Brett Barry  20:58  
And with catch and release fishing, are there ways to ensure that the fish will survive that little adventure?

Stephen Sautner  21:07  
Yeah, so catch and release. It's an ethic right, and there's, there's a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. I would say most importantly, you don't catch and release fish. If the rivers get warm, and the rivers here in the summer will start to get warm. If the water gets above 65 degrees, you should start thinking maybe I shouldn't be fishing if I'm going to catch release fish. It's 66 is okay, 67. You're really getting there if it hits 70 No way. And the reason why is in the fight if you hook a big fish and you have to fight it a while will not get the oxygen it needs out of the water to survive that ordeal. So you'll be essentially killing the fish. Now, if you're keeping a fish, fish, when it's 70, that's fine, but know that the fish you catch has a good chance they're gonna die. The other thing is I crimped the barbs down on all my hooks, or I buy barbless hooks, I tie my own flies. Barb's do damage to fish. So if you flatten the barb, releasing the fish is much easier. I use a landing net with a rubber mesh, and you scoop the fish up. And so you don't have to handle the fish. Oftentimes, with a barbless hook. You scoop the fish, don't even take it out of the water, the fish shakes his head, the hook falls out, I lowered the net back in the fish swims away, the whole release might have taken under 10 seconds. I always like to think in terms of keeping fish out of the water. Imagine if it was me and I had to hold my breath and someone was holding me under the water. Keep that in mind. And you'll minimize the damage to the fish. I do see fishermen who are maybe less experienced or you know, they gotta get that picture, they want to get a measurement, they want to do this. So I already take another angle the whole time the fish is out of the water. And then finally after this long ordeal, they let the fish go. That fish is so stressed during that point. I don't know if they survived. So generally the idea is release the fish as fast as you can bring it in as fast as you can. Don't take it out of the water, get the hook out, let it go. You want to take a quick picture. That's cool. I do it by hold my hands under the fish. Everything is underwater, click the picture and it's gone.

Brett Barry  23:19  
If you're catching fish, glancing at them briefly and putting them right back. What is the joy or pleasure of going out and catching them in the first place?

Stephen Sautner  23:31  
That is an interesting question. I mean, some people are like, Why are you torturing those fish? The only thing I can think of is at heart. We are hunters and gatherers. We have an instinct in us to want to hunt stuff and really kill stuff we do. That's an instinct. And some of us still have that instinct more stronger than others. Plenty of hunters out there. There is some innate caveman itch that gets scratched when you hook and play a fish to me. There's something about it. I don't know what it is. It's like cats, your house cats. They're well fed. If they love playing with, you know, you take a mouse in their fake mouse and or live mouse. They play with it, they don't eat it. And you know, that kind of thing. But there's some innate caveman thing that goes on at least with me when I fish. I love immersing myself in the ecosystem. I love playing preditor, I guess. And I love releasing the trout. And someday maybe there'll be a time where I sit along a river and I just watch trout rise and I just go that's good enough for me. And I kind of do that on the stream here where I raise fish on my fly and I don't set the hook. I just let them take a swat at it. And I have no I don't hook them and I just want to see the fish come up and miss the fly. That's cool enough. I don't do that all over the screen. There's one cool and pretty Take a look where I do and I'll show it to you. It is so hard not to set the hook. But I do it and I feel good about it like I didn't have to.

Brett Barry  25:08  
And so with a two weight rod and Stephens hand tied flies, we set out on the six foot wide stream to entice some native brook trout.

Stephen Sautner  25:19  
So I'm going to stay low, so as not to spook and I'm going to try to get that fly right up along that rock without snagging that Willow that I just hit. It's like an obstacle course here which is part of the fun. Oh, you see you came for the rose for it. But he missed it. He came up in swirl but he didn't you know, sometimes they'll rise up for it and they get spooked. There I go who's that and they get scared. And he kind of had that. He came up and he swam away really? Oh, I missed him, which happens a lot on this stream. Because the fish are small. Alright, he's done. We're gonna move. This little spot right here might have a fish

Brett Barry  26:03  
when you when you say we're gonna move. It's like two feet sometimes. And it's another little micro pool.

Stephen Sautner  26:09  
Yep. This is mini golf. That's what it is. My favorite time to fish the stream is after a thunderstorm. streams come up a little bit a little bit stains. Fish are aggressively feeding and they're not as spooky. You can get you can approach them without putting them down.

Here you go. Oh, God, ah crap. As brook trout.

It's so fun that I can walk literally 20 feet from my porch and do this as a fisherman. It is really nice. I see that. Another fish came I missed him. Subtle rise. One more cast in here. So this pool has a really nice fish. But it's a really hard cast. I got to kind of get it in that tunnel. So I'll probably just mess it up. But we'll try. But I wrote him a couple of times and missed him. And spot I know he's here. Oh spooked another one. So what you do is like you you become a great blue heron. You're hunched over, you walk really slowly. I've definitely become a better angler. Because I fish the stream spots that I normally would pass up on a big river. I'm like, Oh, wait, this looks like my stream. And I put a cast in and there's a trap there. And the thing that's so cool about this kind of fishing is like how precise you need to be with your cast. It's not like a foot off that right now. It's like three inches off that rock is where you need to be. And it's fun. Half the time I miss it. I just pick up the fly and try it again. And then when it lands in the rain, and oftentimes you're rewarded. So this is fine. I mean, in terms of my fishing satisfaction, I'm raising trout, I don't need to hook them land and play them every season. This is wild trout here. Cool. Have a good day.

Brett Barry  28:05  
But it would still be nice to catch one, especially with me and my microphone tagging along. And so on the last little stretch of stream, Stephen swapped out his fly in a last ditch effort to hook a curious fish 

Stephen Sautner  28:20  
like that big spider. This fly on my camping trip, caught some really large trout and it's just a clump of deer hair kind of mangled on a hook. It's one of those impressionistic flies that no fly shop would ever sell you but it is deadly. And then a bite. Oh, yeah, about that. And then interesting. I mean, I put that gray fly over that spot a dozen times that this big thing he's like, Oh, now the fact is not big enough to wrap his little mouth around it. But interesting. He came up for it. You know they're stone flies are starting to hatch and like

they're a meal. Oh, oh my god, I catch bread. This is a really big fish for the stream. I mean really big. Don't don't come off. It's a big Brookie Holy crap. Oh, whoa.

This in the fly came out perfect. Remember I was saying when you net the fish. This is a really big rookie. This is the biggest rookie I've caught in this stream in years. So keeping them in the net, he's in the water. Okay, so you see the red and the blue halos. And the ivory tipped fins and the worm track on the top which blends in for predators. And it's just a beautiful this is your native char for the Catskills. This is it almost 10 inches every bit and nine which is a really nice fish for the stream. Okay, we're gonna we're gonna let them go and I'm going to do is going to dip the neck down and you swim right out there is that magic spider fly. It is a really ugly fly. But man, that was so interesting that he wouldn't take the more exact imitations but he was all over that. I'm so glad. That's it makes it fun.

Brett Barry  30:20  
Thanks to Stephen Sautner for spending some time with us in the western most Catskills and to our sponsors, Hanford Mills Museum, the central Catskills, Chamber of Commerce, and the mountain Eagle. Please subscribe on the podcast app of your choice. And tell your friends about us. Every episode is archived at kaatscast.com. I'm Brett Berry. Thanks for listening. And we'll see you again in two weeks.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai / AA