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Mary Dette Clark and family: A tradition tied to fly-fishing

Mary Dette Clark ties a fishing fly in

Mary Dette Clark ties a fishing fly in her Greenlawn home on March 26, 2015. Clark recently handed the reins of her business making and selling flies -- as fly-fishing lures are known -- to grandson Joe Fox. Credit: Jeremy Bales

Mary Dette Clark is an unassuming neighbor who keeps a low profile at her home in Greenlawn. But in the 12776 ZIP code of the Catskills, she is a hall of famer and a legend.

Clark, 84, is renowned for her fly-fishing lures in the village of Roscoe, about 150 miles northwest of Long Island in the Catskill Mountains. For nearly four decades, she relocated to the Catskills every April and stayed through September, making and selling flies, as fly-fishing lures are known, for vacationing anglers eager to try for the trout of the region's sparkling streams.

She and her late parents, Walter and Winnie Dette, were renowned for the quality of their flies and the camaraderie of the little shop in the family home on Cottage Street -- Dette Trout Flies -- alongside the Willowemoc Creek.

In the past year, Clark has retired from managing the fly-fishing tackle store her parents started in 1928. Her grandson, Joe Fox, will run the business. According to the family, it is the oldest business of its kind operated by the same family in the country.

"It was fun," Clark said recently at her Greenlawn home. "Fishermen are very nice people, especially fly-fishermen. I still get calls in the wintertime -- 'How are you doing? Are you going to make it up [to the Catskills] this year?' I still get people calling me with orders."

Fly-fishing is a method of fishing that uses very light lures, most often to catch trout that live in streams, but also for other freshwater and saltwater species. Because the lures are too light to be thrown, a fly-fisher casts a tapered vinyl line, which carries the fly -- attached to the line by a few feet of clear monofilament -- out over the water.

Mountainous regions such as the Catskills are popular for fly-fishing because the cool water in their streams is ideal habitat for trout. Long Island offers trout fishing in the Carmans, Connetquot and Nissequogue rivers, and several lakes and ponds.

The Catskills have been called by historian Austin McK. Francis "the birthplace of American fly-fishing." The area has long been a popular destination for Long Island fly-fishers, said Paul McCain, owner of River Bay Outfitters, a fly-fishing store in Oceanside.

"Seventy-five percent of my business is trout fishing, and of that, probably 70 percent of my customers fish in the Catskill region," he said.

Famous fishing family

Clark was born, as was her mother, in the River View Inn in Roscoe. She recalled a bucolic childhood of low-cost, outdoorsy fun with family and friends.

"My parents would make picnic lunches and we would take our rods and boots and walk down the railroad tracks maybe a couple miles and fish," she said. "It was Depression time. And so we did things that didn't cost anything, and we did them as a family. It was a good life, actually. And who cared? Everybody was in the same boat. It didn't matter if you didn't have any money or what. No one had money."

But despite growing up in a family that became famous enough to be the subject of a book ("The Dettes: A Catskill Legend" by Eric Leiser, published in 1992), Clark never took up the family trade until she moved to Long Island.

She met her late husband, Gene Clark, at Ithaca College. When he graduated in 1953, the couple moved to Greenlawn and Gene went to work as a corrective therapist at the Northport VA Medical Center, where he spent his entire career. Soon after the Clarks moved into the Cape Cod house on Broadway where Mary still lives, her parents came to visit with a passel of feathers and hooks for fly-tying and a tying desk her father had built.

"I didn't learn to tie until I was expecting my first child," Clark said. "I was 22."

She began making flies "because I wanted something to do, to fill in the time and make a little extra money."

Over the coming years, she would tie thousands of flies with names like the Red Quill and the Green Drake, devised to resemble the aquatic insects eaten by trout in streams.

In the late 1970s, when her four children were grown, Clark began spending her summers in the store, tying flies, tending to customers and nurturing the community of avid anglers -- locals as well as refugees from the heat and hassle of New York City. When her father died in 1994 (her mother died in 1998), Clark took over the store, filling the multi-compartment display cases with flies and telling customers where the fish were biting.

"There was just this family atmosphere that the Dettes created by their love for humanity," said Dickson Despommier of Fort Lee, N.J., a professor emeritus of microbiology at Columbia University who has fished in the Catskills since 1970. "They didn't do it to make a lot of money; they did it because they loved the company that they got when strangers came in and left their fly shop as best friends.

"We just gravitated to that house," where the Dette shop is still located, Despommier added. "It was just a family reunion every time you went up there."

Shop's traditions

Fox, 29, said he hopes to maintain that sense of community. His parents, Linda (Clark's daughter) and Frank Fox, were not very interested in fishing. Fox caught the bug as a teenager, and his grandmother taught him how to tie flies.

"Eventually I purchased a fly rod and reel and a family friend brought me fishing, and I started finding a lot of excuses to go up [to the Catskills] in the summer," he said. In 2005, he relocated from Centerport to the Cottage Street house in Roscoe and established the shop's website ( Fox studied business at Sullivan County Community College in southeast New York, but turned his full attention to the store and did not complete his degree.

Today, along with the mid-20th century flies made famous by Clark and her parents, Fox carries modern fly styles and has added fly rods and reels to the shop's inventory. Unlike his grandmother, Fox does not make most of the store's inventory, but he only stocks flies made by professional or semipro American tiers. Much of the American retail fly market is served by suppliers whose flies are made overseas.

Fox said he wants the store to be relevant to younger anglers, while preserving the traditions that made Dette Trout Flies something of a shrine.

"There are people who, when they first come into town or just before they leave, make it a point to stop by," he said. "It's one of the last old-style fly shops. In some ways I'd like to maintain that."

In 2005, Clark was among six people inducted into The Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum's Fly Fishing Hall of Fame. Yet she is hardly a celebrity on Long Island. Even Lee Weil of Westbury, a female fly-tier whose work has been featured in a national fishing magazine, didn't realize Clark was a neighbor.

Weil recalled overhearing a conversation at a fly-fishing expo where one man told another he had a box of flies from the Dette store. Asked whether he fished with them -- and whether he would sell them -- the first man said no, because "they're Dette flies."

As she settles into retirement, Clark said she is happy to do so in Greenlawn, which she has watched grow and change over the years.

"There's a lot more homes," she said. "The potato fields are gone. And there's a lot more traffic. I like Long Island. I like where I live. Everybody's friendly."

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