The passing of a generous man
The final time I saw Bill Lesko was last fall. He and a couple of friends were separating honey from the combs on a rickety looking contraption.
Bill was supervising the work, holding court and having a grand time. I had popped in after having spent a typical hour or two on the Battenkill. Having never seen the process by which one makes honey I must say it was pretty fascinating.
But what I really remember most about that chance meeting was the glimmer in Bill's eyes. Though in his 80s and having struggled through a couple tough years Bill always had the twinkle of a 12-year-old kid ready to take on whatever adventure presented itself.
My relationship with Bill Lesko goes back to when I was just a kid out of college, getting to know the Battenkill. There is a particular pool where I had encountered my first serious Hendrickson hatch and from that time forward I always wanted to be there the first day I would fish the hatch. The problem was that there was this guy from New Jersey that always seemed to be there one step ahead of me! Just as I was getting familiar with the river this fellow from New Jersey had also just purchased what has come to be known as the Twin Rivers Farm. And, as it would turn out, this fellow would become a friendly acquaintance and eventually a friend over the years as we shared our experiences on and love for the Battenkill.
I found out very quickly that this Lesko fellow, far from being a competitor for "my" water was instead a magnanimous brother of the angle who more often than not ceded the water to me with a smile, saying that he had the water all week while on vacation. Occasionally we would fish the pool together but more often than not Bill would quietly head on up river while I tossed my flies in my favored lair.
And so this relationship went for a good number of years. Often I would see Bill and his lovely wife Joan driving along River Road. His license plate gave away his passion and a little bit of his background as well: DRYFLYMD.
As it turns out Bill was a very accomplished eye doctor down in New Jersey who happened to love fishing the dry fly.
For passionate anglers, one never really worries too much about what their friends do for a living. In our eyes we see each other as fisherman. But to Bill's circle of friends back home he was proudly referred to as "Doc."
I am sure he was proud of that but he never wore the air of self-importance.
Over the years our relationship grew from one of acquaintance to that of friends and as friends we often discussed the state of the Battenkill. When the river experienced a precipitous decline back in the 1990s Bill decided that it was time to do something other than complain, point fingers at the state authorities and take some positive action. When it was announced that a study of the Battenkill would be done Bill reached out to Ken Cox, the biologist at the time, and asked how he could be of help.
Being a man of science, Bill certainly respected the thoughtful way that Cox led a number of studies and when the data pointed to a chronic lack of in stream habitat Bill didn't hesitate to offer his stretch of river as a place to test that theory out and thus was born the Twin Rivers project; a bold application of the learnings from the study that had been conducted on the river. What transpired over the next couple of years was an impressive project to add habitat to the river and to monitor the trout population from year to year (which continues to this day). Think for a moment what the reaction to opening up one's land to heavy equipment, material in the form of large rocks and boulders, trees with root wads in place and a small army of technicians moving about ones property for several weeks on the hope that this might work. I believe a lot of land owners would have declined out of hand. Not Bill. To this day there are folks that poke around his property on an annual basis.
While the story of this project is not yet complete the after effects of these initial successes had another outcome. Lots of anglers have visited "Lesko's Pool" knowing full well that there are a lot of trout in there to be caught. That meant and still means folks tramping along the river banks to get from one spot to another. Never once did Bill complain. In fact he had a long list of what I called "Friends of Bill" whom he told could drive right down to the river anytime. No questions asked. The only time he said no was when a local guide indicated that this would be a great classroom for his sports. Bill kindly said that the water was there for the pleasure of anglers and not a commercial enterprise to be horded for profit.
Since the initial project took place in the mid 2000s there have been numerous other land owners who have said yes to having work done on the river proximate to their property. This is a wonderful act of selflessness as well as community spirit and pride. As an angler and conservationist I smile every time I pass by one of these sites. Which leads me to a sad day this past March, the second to be specific, when Bill passed on with his wife and his loving children there to comfort him. For most of his friends he was a fine husband, father, doctor and member of his community in New Jersey. But for those who love Arlington, love the Battenkill, love conservation Bill was a warm and generous man who quietly and without fanfare offered up the opportunity to do right by the river. And with that simple act of generosity Bill Lesko has left behind a proud legacy that he would simply acknowledge by saying that fish are biting. With the sparkle of a kid in his eyes. Thanks Bill.
Doug Lyons is a long-time angler who splits his time between greater Boston and fishing, hiking and relaxing in Southwestern Vermont. Doug maintains a camp in Shushan, N.Y., along with his wife, Deanna and dog Maya.
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