Past Exhibitions > Dickson Despommier

Dickson Despommier, Dette Trout Flies
Dickson Despommier, Dette Trout Flies

Dickson Despommier
Dickson Despommier Photographs
The Living River: Stream Ecology for Trout Anglers
Waist Deep In Water: Memoirs of a Passionate Angler (PDF download)
Organized by Stephan Apicella-Hitchcock

The salmon and trout flies shown here are superb examples of the craftsmanship of fly tying produced by two of the most highly praised and internationally recognized masters of the art form, Warren Duncan of St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, and Walt Dette of Roscoe, New York.

The images were produced by imaging each fly with a high-resolution scanner (Epson Perfection V750 PRO), then spending many hours on the computer “cleaning them up” and applying the names of each in script using Adobe Photoshop.

My passion for nature began when I was a kid, like so many others who also have developed a deep attachment to the natural world. At around the age of seven or eight, I began exploring my surroundings. I would wander through the tall grass fields near my house in northern California, collecting things that nature provided just for me (or so I thought) – bird’s nests, sometimes with the eggs still inside them, spiders of all sizes, tadpoles, and frogs, caterpillars, cocoons and butterflies, and a million other creepy crawlies, many of which were strictly prohibited from coming inside the house. Reluctantly, back into the fields they went. When I was 11, my family moved to New Jersey. My father and his two brothers were ardent fishers, casting their lines into the salty and brackish waters around their hometown of New Orleans (where I was born). In New Jersey, my dad joined the Oradell reservoir fishing fraternity. Nearly every Sunday morning in the summer, he enjoyed the solitude of sitting along that lakeshore, firmly ensconced on his folding chair next to several solid fiberglass bait-casting rods propped up by forked sticks that were embedded in the muddy bank. He was a worm dunker most of his life but made the switch to lures when we bought a summer cottage in upper New York State. Meanwhile, back at the reservoir, he often did not catch anything, but occasionally would come home with a mixed stringer of perch, crappie, sunnies, and the occasional largemouth bass. Good eats! I was always impressed with his stick-to-itiveness and dedication to the sport, despite his low frequency of successes. When I became his fishing partner, I learned that it was not only about the catching that mattered. We shared many quiet days and some all-nighters on nearby lakes, again with mixed results. Nonetheless, when it was time to go home, we always expressed to each other how good it was to be off by ourselves surrounded by the beauty of the natural world. Few words were ever spoken, but I could feel that we both deeply appreciated the time we spent together.

In the meantime, my trusty bicycle allowed me the freedom to wander in ever-increasingly wider circles away from my apartment complex in Dumont. Eventually, I had my first encounter with a genuine trout stream, the Tenekill Brook in Demarest, New Jersey (see: Waist Deep In Water). It was love at first sight. As I matured, it was inevitable that I would take up some form of recreation that involved being outside for long periods of time. Trout fishing was my first and only choice, and it still is. I went off to college and gravitated towards the natural sciences, becoming a research parasitologist after graduating from the University of Notre Dame with a PhD degree in microbiology. When I finished my post-doctoral years at The Rockefeller University in the late 1960s, I was fortunate to be asked to join the faculty at Columbia University’s medical school. I have been there ever since. The years flew by (where the hell did they go?), and I am now emeritus professor of microbiology and public health.

My interest in stream ecology arose early on during my undergraduate days. I joined Trout Unlimited after returning to the East Coast and became friends with a small group of dedicated fly fishers. Four of us formed an education group and developed a 13-week survey course on stream ecology for adult learners. We called the course “We All Live Downstream”. We offered it in multiple places over a six-year period during the 1970s. I never lost interest in the subject and began to take pictures each time I went out on the stream. Many of them are part of this website. I also began collecting published scientific studies on subjects related to various aspects of trout stream ecology. I have distilled this literature into the summaries for each section, serving as the foundation for The Living River: Stream Ecology for Trout Anglers. An earlier version was posted on the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum. It is my hope that the information contained within the body of The Living River website will inspire others to become involved in the stewardship of their home waters.
Warren Duncan biography (Remembrance, February 10, 2007) link
"Dunc" as his friends called him, left us on February 10, 2007 while tying a fly in his Saint John NB fly shop. He tied thousands of salmon flies each year, once showing me an order from L.L. Bean of Freeport, Maine for 15,000 salmon flies. Like most artists, he took pride in his work, knowing that his customers were assured of highest quality, appearance, and durability. His fly "Picture Province", lower right in the above photo, was proclaimed the official fly of New Brunswick.

Dunc was probably the fastest fly tier that ever lived, once tying a perfect Rusty Rat in 1 minute, 13 seconds to win a speed fly tying match. His knack for entertaining people came through in his popular fly tying demonstrations and classes, such as his session at the ASF 1992 Conclave hosted by the St. Mary's River Association in Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia. But it was his generosity that I will always remember him for - his willingness to help fly tiers like myself improve their skills at the vice. His positive attitude toward life was so upbeat that I found it startling, a great inspiration.

Ralph Billingsley was a family friend in Cambellton, New Brunswick, where Dunc grew up. Ralph was a guide, angler, and prolific fly tyer. Ralph helped Dunc learn to tie flies and they fished together. Other fly tying mentors include Bill Hunter and the late Poul Jorgensen, both of whom tied classic salmon flies. Their influence is seen in Dunc's hairwing salmon flies, which have a unique style and character. His flies combine new materials with traditional style, the result being a superior fly.

His wife Anne, son John and daughters Catherine and Christine, sister Joan and grandson Duncan survive Dunc. He was an exceptional man, a family man, a true artist, genius at the vice, and a "real good guy".
—Bill Carpan
Walt Dette biography (Obituary, New York Times, April 3, 1994) portrait of Walt Dette
Walt Dette, the Catskill Mountains fly tier who passed on his complicated art to future generations, died at his home in Roscoe, N.Y., on Thursday, one day before the trout season opened. He was 86.

The cause of death was a heart attack, his family said.
Mr. Dette was an exceptionally gifted fly tier. And for almost three-quarters of a century, he, along with his wife, Winnie, and their daughter, Mary, have been part of the tradition of Roscoe, a center of fly-fishing, and are the last of the renowned school of the Catskill fly tiers.

Mr. Dette, along with Rube Cross, is a major link in a chain that reaches back to Theodore Gordon, long considered by many as the father of dry-fly fishing in this country. In 1928, when Mr. Cross was one of the acclaimed professional fly tiers in the East, Mr. Dette approached him with an offer of $50 if Mr. Cross would reveal the technical processes involved in the construction of his flies.
"He told me to go to hell," Mr. Dette said, "even though I'd promised him I'd not tie commercially and thus compete with him, nor would I divulge his techniques to anyone else."

Dressing flies was a jealously guarded secret during that era. This did not discourage the young Dette. He began purchasing flies tied by Mr. Cross and others. While his soon bride-to-be, Winnie, took notes, young Dette meticulously untied the Cross flies, one turn of thread at a time, in order to learn their construction. Unlike Mr. Cross, however, Mr. Dette shared the procedures with any and all who asked. Thus, not only was a wealth of technical knowledge preserved but in his willing students it was also eventually spread throughout much of the country. There is no doubt that Mr. Dette has directly, or indirectly, affected all who fish with the fly today.

The flies tied by Mr. Dette and his family were considered to be of the best not only in beauty and precision but also in posture and durability when fished. Anglers and collectors have been buying the Dette flies for more than 60 years. The only frustration most collectors encountered was that no one in the family would say who tied what.

Although many of his innovations would fill a book on pioneering fly tying, the Dette name does not, with one exception, appear on any of the patterns he has designed. Of those which have achieved popularity over the years, the Delaware Adams and the Coffin Fly (the spinner of the Green Drake) are perhaps the best known.

There are few, if any, awards or accolades in Walt Dette's name alone. Those who sought to honor him knew that to be able to do so, Winnie and Mary must also be included. In 1990, for example, the Eastern Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers presented their prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award to "Walt, Winnie and Mary Dette, the First Family of Catskill Fly Tying, for their untiring dedication to the sport of fly-fishing and their efforts to preserve the Catskill fly tying tradition."

Mr. Dette is survived by his wife Winnie, his son, Clayton, and his daughter, Mary.

I became an ardent flyfisher in 1971 and was a regular visitor to the Dette’s fly shop from that time on. I spent many happy hours looking over the shoulders of all three of them as they exchanged stories, comments, and jokes among those who browsed their shop. The book below is a mere sketch of who they were and what they did. Their great grandson, Joe Fox, continues the tradition at Dette’s Flies, in Livingston Manor, New York.

The Dettes: A Catskill Legend link
Eric Leiser
Williowkill Press, 1992
Dickson Despommier Biography
From 1971-2009 he was Professor of Public Health and Microbiology at Columbia University (now Emeritus Professor), where he taught and conducted laboratory-based research on food-borne parasitic infections. He continued his interest in photomicrography, collaborating with the internationally recognized microscopist, Eric Gravé, to produce many of the 417 figures for the textbook, Parasitic Diseases. When that book went to full color format, Despommier produced the majority of the photomicrographs for editions 3-5.

Throughout his research career, he was fortunate enough to travel extensively, presenting at national and international scientific meetings on various aspects of his research. He always carried a camera, and over the years collected a large number of images. In the late 1980s, his attention turned to the artistic side of photography, and he began studying the subject on his own. He joined the International Center for Photography. In 2005, he was encouraged to enter the September edition of the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit in New York City. His photograph, Portals, a non-digital image, was awarded first place for photography. The WSOAE is juried by the Salmagundi Art Club of New York, and that same year the SACNY invited him to become a member.

Since joining SACNY, he has participated in numerous group exhibits and one man shows (SACNY, New York Art Club, Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, New Jersey, Catskill Flyfishing Center and Museum, Pfizer, Inc., Coogan’s Restaurant, Columbia University Faculty Club, Annual Community Art Exhibit hosted by Columbia University), and has sold a number of works of art: watercolors and photographs. In 2007, he won the The Joseph Hartley SACNY Award for his digital image, Mocca Latte Water Buffalo link. He has also been awarded numerous second and third places, and honorable mentions, mostly for his photography. His artwork hangs in commercial establishments, and has sold images to private collectors.

Since retiring from academic life in 2009, he and his wife, Marlene Bloom, an accomplished artist in her own right, have traveled and photographed their way throughout The United States, Canada, Europe, South Asia, South East Asia, and South America. His enduring passion for trout fishing continues to take him to beautiful rivers and streams.

Many themes occur throughout his work, but most deal with landscapes, the urban environment, plants, local markets, and portraits. He has recently discovered the art of high resolution digital scanning, concentrating on objects such as salmon and trout flies, flowers, and fallen leaves.