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Fish on the Rocks

DESPITE DAD’S BEST EFFORTS, somewhere along the way, I lost the fishing gene. I enjoy fishing; for Dad, though, fishing was serious business.

Family vacations meant camping at Horsetooth Reservoir, west of Fort Collins. Like clockwork every morning, long before sunrise, Dad would wake my older brother and me. We’d dress in the dark, gather our gear and head off on an hour-long hike to the other side of the cove. Why we couldn’t just walk to the shore a hundred yards from the tent I never understood. 

The hike involved climbing and descending a steep bluff; and already at 9 years old, I had a serious fear of heights (something to do with a trip to the Empire State Building when I was 5). Dad lifted me up on his shoulders and leaned out against the railing so I could see the Statue of Liberty. That was years before a 10-foot-high fence was installed to prevent fathers from doing just that. I lied to my Dad that day. I never saw the Statue of Liberty. But Dad didn’t believe in phobias, and I did survive. Still, the hike never excited me much.

Fishing started promptly at 6 a.m. and ended at 8 a.m. as the sun began beating down mercilessly on the shore. With no place to sit — because sitting was sitting, not fishing — and no place to escape the sun, these outings distorted my attitudes about fishing. Still, we (mostly Dad) almost always caught fish — sunfish, perch, bass and, of course, trout — and we hauled them back to camp where Mom fried them up for breakfast.

I do have two fond memories of fishing excursions with Dad, though. When I was 12, Dad invited me on a fishing trip with a friend of his. They planned an outing to some beaver ponds south of Frisco. I remember little about fishing except that casting from beaver dams allowed us to get much closer to deep water. But for me, watching the beavers swim and dive and disappear under the dam was much more exciting. Whatever else happened that day, the most important thing to me was that even though I was only 12 years old, Dad had included me on the trip.

Three years later, Dad and I went on another fishing trip, this time to Carter Lake, just north of Longmont. We didn’t get in any fishing that day because it rained non-stop. The rain varied in intensity between heavy and torrential. So, we sat in the car and talked for hours, hoping the rain might abate. Shortly after 12:00, Dad braved the rain to go to the back of the car and get lunch fixings. Once we finished lunch, and the rain did not show signs of stopping, we headed home. While details of our conversation are long forgotten, I don’t recall any other time that Dad and I spent that much uninterrupted time together.

As I grew up, moved away, started a family and career, fishing was not high on my list of priorities. I taught my kids to fish and, every once in a while, I’d throw in a line, but not with any enthusiasm or expectations. Mostly I found myself frustrated because I felt I was wasting time I could have spent more productively.

When I moved back to Colorado in my mid-30s, I decided to give fly-fishing a try. I discovered I enjoyed stalking fish, hiding in the bushes alongside a stream, trying to convince the fish that I was a bug. However, my successes were limited, mostly small trout just learning the ropes. I’ve often considered myself the Dr. Kevorkian of the fishing set. I don’t actively seek fish to kill; but if a fish is contemplating suicide, I’ll provide the means. And I justified the time I spent fishing because I was out backpacking. I spent as much time admiring the scenery, watching birds, marmots and pika, as I did fishing. Until the day I first visited Jefferson Lake, a beautiful high mountain lake 90 minutes southwest of Denver.

Tall mountains, still holding snow in rocky crags, with inviting green meadows down lower, provided an inspirational backdrop. Several years of drought had exposed a rocky shoreline nearly all the way around the lake. Two families with small children occupied the choice spots on the east side of the lake, so I opted for the west side. The jagged, soccer-ball sized rocks were a challenge to walk on. But a 30-minute hike got me to the far side of the lake. I had my choice of sites, so I selected one with a nice flat rock to sit on, should I choose, and set up shop.

A warm breeze and cloudless, deep blue sky gave the promise of a perfect day. And the lake was freshly stocked, so the odds were certainly in my favor. A couple of test casts later and I was fishing.

Ten minutes, 15 minutes went by and nothing. Then I felt a slight tug on my pole. A nibble! I remembered I was supposed to wait until the fish actually took the bait before trying to hook it. Even so, once the fish bit and started to run, I was caught totally off guard. My euphoria was exceeded only by my ineptitude. Like a fully undisciplined 11-year-old, I yanked my rod up and flung the fish out of the water and watched as it sailed overhead, slapping down hard on the rocks behind me. As I reeled furiously, the 14-inch rainbow trout rose, dangling in midair, dazed. Recovering its senses, it started writhing wildly. Just when I had it in hand, it squirted out and unhooked itself, landing back on the rocks. What followed was an epic struggle worthy of Ernest Hemingway. I dropped my pole and fell to my hands and knees and began pawing at the rocks, turning them over and flinging them aside. The fish wriggled between and underneath rocks. Each time I lunged for it, it slipped away.

“I’m fishing now,” I announced to no one as I kept up the chase. “It’s been 20 years since I caught a 14-inch rainbow, and I’ll be damned if this one’s gonna’ get away!”

Five minutes later, the fish finally conceded; and I plunked it safely into my creel. Only then did I notice that my forearms, calves and shins were bruised and bleeding. I glanced around to see if anyone had witnessed my heroic man versus fish battle. No one had. As I cleaned myself off and prepared to cast again, I couldn’t help reflecting.

“You know, I think Dad would’ve been proud.” ?

Tom moved to Buena Vista five years ago when driving up from Denver and back every weekend simply became too much of a hassle. The Last Word is sponsored by Judith and Ed Kinzie.