If you ever find yourself driving up the stunning Beaverkill Valley, the historic heart of fly fishing in the Catskills, you’ll pass a seemingly endless array of jaw-dropping homes, set amongst trees and meadows, on hillsides with views across mountains, or on the banks of the winding Beaverkill River. Over the years, this unassuming valley in Upstate New York has been the home of legendary fly fishermen such as Theodore Gordon, Lee Wulff, and his surviving wife Joan, who at the age of 91 still fishes these parts nearly every day.
The houses that you pass are beautiful, well kept, austere, quiet to the point of seeming unused. And some are the famous old fly fishing clubs of the Beaverkill Valley—Balsam Lake Club (est. 1883), The Fly Fishers Club of Brooklyn (est. 1895), The Beaverkill Trout Club (est. 1910). These clubs have served a significant purpose throughout their history of protecting this environmentally vibrant valley, but the knock-on effect was to privatize the river to the point where it has become almost entirely inaccessible to the public in it’s upper reaches. On top of this, the clubs largely maintain a cool indifference to outsiders; a closed group of insiders with the keys to river.
The Livingston Manor Fly Fishing Club (est. 2017) is anything but a traditional fly fishing club. Started by three friends with a shared affinity for fly fishing—one admittedly more rooted in enthusiasm than expertise—and born from a long simmering idea of starting a sort of rural retreat, LMFFC evolves the century-old exclusivist approach in favor of something a bit more modern, and community oriented.
Founders Tom, Mikael, and Anna found the right property to bring the concept to life in the small mountain town of Livingston Manor. Set just a few miles from the Beaverkill Valley, the location covers nearly five acres of forested land that buts up against the Willowemoc River—another of the area’s storied fishing rivers.
They came at the project with a simple philosophy: when you peel back the gore-tex waders, the tweed, and the occasional elitism, fly fishing at it’s core is about finding your own pace and rhythm while truly connecting with nature. As a fly fisherman learns their craft, they also learn about the characteristics of the river, how climate and seasons affect its behavior, how insects, animals, and most importantly the fish, react to varying conditions. If you can learn to read a river, you have achieved something that many people strive for, and few find—a harmony with the natural world.
But while fly fishing is one way of connecting with nature, LMFFC management is keen to stress an awareness that it might not be everyone’s way. Along with the two gut-renovated “clubhouses” at the front of the property—lovingly designed by the architect mother of one of the owners—they’ve turned their forest into a magical dwelling place with pathways, fire pits, a tipi, a weird white elephant statue, hammocks, and a communal dinner table. A large group of friends even recently helped build a sauna at the back of the forest, near the river’s edge—an experiment in communal building that, like the rest of the space, was based on a mix of vision, enthusiasm, and local craft beer.
While the owners have no particular background in design or architecture, the design aesthetic—perhaps because the group is part-Scandinavian—blends in seamlessly with the surroundings. When you step over the wooden bridge and disappear into the forest, all you can hear is the sound of the river flowing by, and the gentle rustling of leaves in the trees above. It feels different, otherworldly, a true retreat. And as a photographer, the light back there beneath the canopy is pure magic.
I’d been based full time near Livingston Manor for almost a year when I met Tom, Mikael and, Anna, and one of the things I liked most about them was their intrepid, action-oriented approach, their capacity to fit into our burgeoning community up here, and their vision for the property, which many potential buyers had overlooked. By taking a step back, understanding their surroundings, involving their community, and managing to intrinsically understand what the Catskills is today—an eclectic, raw, beautiful land that we’re all lucky to call home—they’ve tapped into the key to making a go of it up here.
For those of us spoiled from years in the city, we are forced to confront different elements of our character up here. We are no longer part of a crowd, but individuals figuring out a new terrain, one that belongs ostensibly to others. And in order to fit in, we need to truly look around, and make an extra effort to understand our new roles within this old environment.
At the core, this is what Livingston Manor Fly Fishing Club is all about. It’s a place not only for the founders themselves to have that experience, but increasingly it’s a place for others to come and enjoy. Currently the trio is testing ways to host weekend experiences on their fortunate friends and family, with a plan to soon open LMFFC up to membership, hosted weekends, communal dinners by the river, tipi talks, photoshoots, builder weekends (Want to physically contribute to the remaining plans, such as a potential treehouse? Here's your chance), and of course, some fly fishing. Above all, they want to create a space for everyone, where people can come to slow down, regroup, and connect with nature and each other in more meaningful ways. Waders or not.