A Trout to Remember

Column by Hal Walter

Fishing – April 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHEN I WAS a young lad, maybe 8, I watched my mom, single and struggling to make ends meet, take a ballpeen hammer to a glass pig.

Then from this, her actual life savings, she doled out some coins and sent me off on my bike to the store for milk. I left the grocery with the half gallon of milk in a paper sack, rolled the top of the brown bag around the right grip of my handlebars

On the first curve, the G forces swung the bag to the right and the bottom of the paper bag blew open. The carton hit the curb with a cardboardish splash. I got off my bike and sat there on the curb with my head in my hands, and watched the milk freeze in the gutter. You’re not supposed to cry over spilled milk.

I tell this story not because I wish people to pity my somewhat austere childhood, but rather because it helps to explain some of the psychological dynamics behind the murderous fishing spree that commenced shortly thereafter, and certainly some of my attitude towards fishing to this day.

I am not sure exactly how it came about, but when I realized that I had a knack for catching fish, and that putting them on the table helped my mom with the grocery bill, no fish was safe. Soon our freezer was filled with literally dozens of trout from the river, and hundreds of crappie and bluegills from the city park ponds. We ate fish until we were good and tired of it. Then my mom began giving fish away to neighbors and friends.

But I kept on fishing just the same. I enjoyed fishing, but in the back of my mind there was always a sense of work ethic associated with it. I became so proficient with rod, reel and bait, that I took up what I called “flyfishing” when I was 9. I had only a few flies, and a cheap K-Mart flyreel loaded with 8-pound test monofilament mounted on a short spincasting rod. One of my flies was a large brown woolly worm with a red tail. One morning I drifted the woolly worm under a bridge in the river and a trout rose up from the depths and took it.

This trout was a little larger than what I normally caught and I struggled to get him to the bank. Finally I lifted the fish out of the water and saw that it was a German brown trout rather than a rainbow as I was accustomed to catching. Suddenly the fly pulled free. The fish flopped on the rocks, then rolled over and back into the river. I nearly fell in trying to grab the fish as it splashed and then swam away. What had become a routine had suddenly changed forever. I came back the next day and drifted the woolly worm under the bridge, and once again the trout took the fly and a fight ensued. This time the fish, surely the same German brown from the previous day, did not get away. And hundreds of trout since that one haven’t escaped either.

MY CHILDHOOD ADVENTURES notwithstanding, flyfishing has, over time, taken a backseat to many other activities. I consider myself a flyfisherman, yet I don’t do it all that often, and certainly not with the passion of my youth. When the moment strikes, usually only a handful of times a year, I still like to go catch a fish on a flyrod, just to know that I can still do it, to feel that same thrill I felt the day the German brown took that first woolly worm.

Here in Central Colorado, I sometimes fish for brown trout in the Arkansas River in the late winter and early spring before runoff muddies the water. Reliably, the streams that drain the high country lakes hold cutthroats, and the beaver ponds are jumping with brook trout in the summer. I once saw two trout that reminded me of small submarines swimming in North Crestone Lake in the Sangre de Cristos, but generally speaking, the fish in this region are fairly plentiful and not very large in size.

Recently a friend invited me on a flyfishing trip to the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico. The San Juan is considered by many to be the premier flyfishing water in the United States. It’s a tailwater stream below Navajo Dam, just south of Ignacio, Colorado. The river is managed for high numbers of large fish which average between 13 and 20 inches in length, with many even larger. The first quarter mile below the dam is trophy trout water and no trout may be kept. For about three miles below that, fishermen may keep one fish over 20 inches, but I am told that rarely does a fisherman take advantage of this rule. Almost every fish caught is returned to the water. Some say there are more than 80,000 trout in the 3.75-mile stretch of the river below the dam.

And I believe it. During my time fishing there, I saw hundreds of fish, many of them following me around as I waded the freestone river. So many people fish the San Juan that the fish have learned to not be afraid of anglers, their waving rods or, in the case of lousy casters, their splashing lines. Instead, the fish follow wading anglers around in the river, eating minuscule underwater critters kicked up by their wanderings. It’s both crude and illegal to fish in the eddy created by your own feet and legs, and locals refer to this matter of etiquette and law as the “San Juan Shuffle.”

Most of the fish have been caught many times. Some have scars in their lips to prove it, and it is not uncommon to catch a fish with a fly and leader trailing from its mouth. Other fish have learned to suck in a tiny fly, detect a steel hook, and blow it back out before a fisherman even knows his offering has been sampled.

SO, WHILE THE FISH are numerous and highly visible, they are not stupid, and they are discerning. And thus anglers use flies on the San Juan that are virtually unknown in other locales. Forget popular patterns like the “Adams,” or “Elk Hair Caddis.” On the San Juan, the “Disco Midge,” “AK,” “WD-40,” and “UFO” are some popular patterns that most flyfishers aren’t likely to have in their flyboxes. And though the fish are large, the flies they are caught with are small — almost-microscopic sizes 20 and 22 are common, and a size 32 midge was rumored, though it occurred to me that an improved clinch knot used to attach it could be larger than the fly itself.

It was late February when I fished the San Juan, and the weekend was cold and snowy. I counted 50 cars parked at one access point along the river. It wasn’t elbow-to-elbow on the river, but it certainly was something less than a solo experience and more crowded than your average golf course. I talked to two fishermen who parked their rental car alongside my truck. The buddies had flown in to Albuquerque from Kansas City and Indianapolis, rented the car and headed for the San Juan for several days on the river. The first day they had hired a guide and caught several fish. Now they were going to try fishing on their own.

If you figure that the cars in the parking lot probably averaged two people each, there were probably about 100 people casting for trout in a one-mile stretch of the river. What boggled my mind even more was the expensive gear. Figuring in waders, wading boots, vests, flyrods, reels, lines and other ancillary gear, there was probably more money tied up in fishing equipment on that stretch of the river than residents had in housing in the nearby village of Navajo Dam. Probably not very many of these fishermen had watched their mom break open a glass pig for milk money, or caught fish out of a perceived necessity to provide food.

THINKING IT ALL OVER, I remembered my first flyfishing experiences. How did I get from a cheap pot-metal reel on a spincasting rod to standing in the water in waders with a graphite rod and machined aluminum reel on the highest-rated trout stream in the country? As the day drew to an end, it seemed bizarre to me. I felt out of place.

When evening fell on the San Juan most of the fishermen quit well before dark and slowly waded back to the shore, traipsing off through the willows towards the parking lot and their vehicles. I watched this phenomenon in wonder. It was as if everybody had just decided it was time to call a truce with the fish. I kept on fishing. It was quiet and I had the river to myself during that time just before dark when the light lingers as if the day doesn’t know whether to stay or go.

Finally I decided to start working my way back. I was casting in the riffles as I waded, and in the last riffle a fish took my fly and rocketed off into the stream, peeling line from my reel. I could tell this fish was fair-sized. Every time I would get him anywhere close, he’d shoot back into the strong current and my rod would double over. I couldn’t really turn him with my 2-pound-test tippet and I suddenly realized why people carried nets. I wished that I had one and realized that it was likely this fish would break off before I landed him.

The fight went on as the light dwindled even more. At one point I laughed out loud, thinking the fish was going to keep me out there in the cold all night. I envisioned the other fishermen finding me when they returned the next morning, frozen like a statue, standing there in the water with my rod bent toward the current, and several trout feeding in my wake.

BUT FINALLY THE BIG FISH tired and I levered him into some calmer water. Still, he kept struggling and would make another run whenever I managed to draw him near. Then I got the idea of herding him toward the bank in the calmer water. In this way I was able to bring him alongside, bend over and lift him up with my left hand while holding my rod tip high and pinching the line with my right hand. I cradled the fish against my leg. Then I shifted my rod under my right elbow so that I could look him over.

The ruler I always keep handy is one between my outstretched thumb and pinkie; it’s about 9 inches from tip to tip. This fish was more than twice that and I was just getting a good estimate when he flopped out of my grasp. Now I knew this was the biggest fish I had ever caught on a flyrod, probably 21 or 22 inches. But the battle was on again. This time when I wrestled him back to my leg, and lifted him with my left hand again, the fly popped free and he flopped over into the water.

The fish hung in the slow current for a while, resting beside me. I thought of my first fly-caught brown and of all the hundreds of other fish I have caught since. I knew then that I would not forget this fish either. I reached into the water beneath him, tickled the fish’s belly, and watched him dart off into the darkness of the river.

Hal Walter would like to fish more near his home in the Wet Mountains of Custer County, or anywhere else for that matter.