Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Valle Vidal - My Hard Sided Unit

I awoke to rain tattooing the roof.

It was fall in Northern New Mexico.

In the backyard my aging Dodge van’s faded black skin glistened under a rare bath.

She was waiting to take me to the river.

But three-dollar-a-gallon gas did what 10 years of hard driving and several near-death experiences failed to do.

I had to park my beloved van.

For the past 10 years I’d been tooling around in the V-8 driven, one-ton, behemoth, rigged up with a full-size bed, propane heat, a working kitchen in the back and all the spare parts, tools, camping and fishing gear I could haul.

With a stiff tailwind and a long downgrade I was lucky to get 12-mpg.

But now I had a little, five-speed, four-wheel-drive, high-clearance, short-wheel-base 1996 Geo Tracker with a soft-top to run around in.

And it got 30 mpg and was a non-descript, sun-faded green, too!

I lucked into the little SUV, having dropped an e-mail to an old friend, Reggie Larkin, who works out of an automotive shop up in Pagosa Springs, Colorado and told him I was in the market for one of those little Japanese jeeps.

Turns out his shop had just picked up a newer, prettier, four-door, hardtop version of their trusty little shop truck and now the old two-door, convertible was up for grabs.

“I’d buy it,” he said.

That’s all I needed to hear. I talked to his boss who told me if I showed up with two grand, it was mine.

Me and my girlfriend, Wren, talked it over, pulled some cash out of the bank and headed north the following weekend to check out the little jeep.

It was just what we were looking for to compete with Santa Fe’s legions of high-end, monster SUVs - Range Rovers, Escalades, Expeditions, Land Cruisers.

We broke it in on the ride home, crossing over the San Juan Mountains and heading down to the Conejos River. The washboard dirt road that runs alongside this river for many miles would serve well as a shakedown cruise.

The little truck worked out fine as did the fishing and a few weeks later we decided we’d really break the little jeep in with a trip up to the Valle Vidal, in the high country north of Taos on the Colorado border.

I was looking forward to this trip because I knew we’d get into some reliable afternoon thunderstorms and slick roads that would really give the little jeep’s four-wheel drive capabilities a tryout.

It would be ironic because this is where a tragic, fatal encounter with a bear many years ago led me to buy my van in the first place.

I had been fishing at Shuree Ponds where on occasion a well-placed caddis fly can entice a hefty rainbow to the surface. It’s rumored the State Game and Fish boys plant retired brood stock in the ponds, which accounts for their legendary size.

I was fishing with a former co-worker from my newspapering days in the early 1990’s when I worked as a cops and courts reporter with the Albuquerque Journal’s Northern bureau in Santa Fe.

This was the guy who taught me the basics of fly-fishing and the formula news lead.

He had pulled in a big rainbow that evening and was anxious to cook it up back at Cimarron campground, about a mile from the pond. It is one of only two campsites located within the estimated 100,000-acre Valle Vidal and usually crowded.

We rolled in late and took one of the last sites located at the far end of the loop. It looked like an overflow spot, just an old road that ran off into the woods with a picnic table parked in the middle. Stands of trees bordered each side of the road.

When we paid for our site at the self-service fee station there were warning signs posted to tell campers that bears had been raiding the campground recently and to take the usual precautions to avoid tempting them any further.

Nonetheless, my fishing partner decided to clean his catch under the public water spigot and then fried it up in a great cast-iron skillet with bacon grease. Seems I remember eating my usual hamburger and Ranch Style “Husband Pleasing” chili beans.

And it wasn’t long before the aroma of our supper brought the bears in.

I was brushing my teeth by my little Isuzu Pup truck with my back to the tree line when I heard something rustle in the leaves. I turned to find a young bear at arms length looking at me quizzically.

I literally jumped out of my boots, scrambled up onto the picnic table and started spitting toothpaste as I screamed bloody murder.

The little bear took off running and I calmed down after awhile.

We thought about leaving but it would be a long drive off the mountain to find another spot to camp since there’s no camping “at-large” within the Valle Vidal.

Instead we decided it would be okay to ride out the night in our bedrolls under a couple of tarps strung up in the far tree line since it appeared we had scared the bear off.

Besides, we had my fishing partner’s dog, Pete, with us. He was a feisty male chow/husky-looking mix with one blue eye whose manhood was intact and he wasn’t afraid of a fight.

We also had my dog Wiley, a slight, whippet/Boston terrier mix, with us. I had only recently picked her up during a fishing trip up in the Jemez Mountains. She was out with us on the first of many camping trips and just a few days earlier she had disappeared during an evening lighting storm only to nonchalantly reappear the following morning.

The fight in her remained to be seen but there was the added peace of mind brought on by my partner’s big 12-guage, pump shotgun and my .357 Magnum pistol.

I soon drifted off to sleep curled up with my dog and my pistol. But within a short time I was awakened by a series of loud whispers urging me to “wake up!”

My buddy was whispering hoarsely that he thought the bear was back and rooting around in my little Isuzu pickup truck. Then he turned his flashlight on and in the powerful beam we saw a much bigger bear than before.

She was seated with her rump on top of the toolbox behind the cab and leaning over into the open bed. I saw the top of my cooler fly through the air before my partner’s flashlight suddenly went out.

We couldn’t believe it. His bulb had apparently chosen that moment to burn out.

While I frantically searched around for my flashlight, I could hear Pete going wild, barking and straining at my partner’s grip. It was too dark to see but I could smell and hear the bear.

I finally found my flashlight and when I turned it upon the truck we could see the bear looking over at us. We tried yelling and throwing things at the bear to scare her off but she wasn’t fazed in the least by our efforts.

It wasn’t until Pete broke loose and launched himself at the side of the truck that the bear responded, rearing up on its hind legs in the bed of the pickup, big as a church.

It was a quick decision to fire, my partner his shotgun and I my pistol, a single blast each and the bear tumbled from the back of the truck and out of sight.

We cautiously made our way over to the truck and peered around the front end to see the bear struggling to get up. She was a big, cinnamon-brown bruiser and my partner put her down with another load of double-aught buck.

It was a sad affair. I remember the feeling of guilt and remorse that washed over me. To top it off my dog had run off again during all the action. Then we began to wonder what kind of trouble we might be in.

We left the dead bear and my dog behind as we dragged our sorry asses down off that mountain. We drove about 15 miles to the payphone at the gas station in Amalia where we reported the shooting to the State Game and Fish.

The officer who took our report told my partner not to feel too bad about it. Most nuisance bears are doomed to such a fate and they had been expecting something like that to happen since there had been so many bear encounters in the campground that summer.

Nonetheless, I still felt bad about what happened. We were to blame for killing that bear no matter how we tried to justify it.

My co-worker and me parted ways that morning, he headed north to Wyoming to continue his vacation and I, back up the mountain to search for my dog. I was relieved to find her, shivering in the middle of the road by the campsite.

Nearby was the body of the dead bear we had covered up with an old blue tarp. The Game and Fish officer said he would come pick it up later.

I got a good look at her in the morning light and remember the shame of it all, having to kill that great creature, especially since she was obviously the mother of the other little bear we had encountered earlier.

What had happened to that little guy? Would he end up like all the other trash picking bears in New Mexico - doomed to die?

I surveyed the scene and in the clear morning light was shocked to see through the trees a group of tents in line with where my truck had been parked the night before.

I turned and looked real hard at the line of sight from where I had been bedded down and then turned and walked through the trees looking at them closely. There it was, a fresh wound in the bark of a tree no thicker than my forearm where a round had embedded itself.

I continued through the tree line over to the next camp and announced myself and a head of shaggy dreadlocks poked out from inside a tent.

“Hey, what’s up?” the guy asked.

“Everybody okay over here?” I asked. ”We shot a bear over there last night”

“Yeah, I guess. I didn’t hear anything,” he responded.

I told him I was worried about any stray rounds and the new-age hippie crawled out and checked with his campmates and found everyone was okay.

I left relieved we hadn’t ruined anyone else’s life and I rolled off that mountain with a whole new attitude about camping.

That’s when I went out and bought the Dodge van, a “hard-sided” unit, and figured I’d let the bears and other woodland creatures do all the rooting around they wanted without any interference from me.

Return to the Scene

As we rolled into the canyon leading up into the Valle Vidal a steady rain began to fall on the soft top of the little jeep. We splashed our way through puddles in the gravel road under a canopy of thick, gray, angry clouds.

I was psyched, up ahead the road would split and one fork would climb steadily up the mountain to the ponds and the other would continue on up a valley to the upper meadows of the Rio Costilla.

It was the high road I was interested in because when it rained it typically turned into a soupy, slippery, just “floor it and pray” kind of mess.

A couple years back I had skated down that stretch of road in the van during a rainstorm as Wren and me were returning from a long road trip to Wyoming.

We decided to cut through the Valle Vidal on our way home and were doing fine until we popped over the top of the mountain and skidded to a stop.

It was raining and I knew the road down the mountain would be nothing short of treacherous. Driving the van under such slick conditions was like riding a brick. All you could do was try to aim the van, stay off the brakes and pray.

As we began our way down I looked over at Wren and found her was covering her eyes with her hands, refusing to watch. I looked back at Wiley who was asleep curled up in a ball.

See, she wasn’t worried! But I was, my knuckles had turned white from the firm grip I had on the wheel.

I was inching my way down the mountain with my outside set of wheels riding in some gravel mounded up on the very edge of the road when I noticed something in the rear view mirror.

It was a big pickup towing a horse trailer coming down the hill behind me and he was blinking his lights and coming down fast.

I slowed the van down as best I could and stayed where I was on the outside edge of the road.

Looking down off to my left I imagined the van rolling down the long, slippery slope into the rock strewn ravine below.

I then watched in my passenger side-view mirror as the truck’s headlights grew and then the van quaked as the big rig barreled past me in a shower of rain and mud.

Wren screamed, Wiley awoke and I breathed a great sigh of relief.

I cut across the road as we entered the upcoming corner and aimed for the rain filled gutter on the inside edge.

The van’s rear end fought to break free but I steered into the skid and managed to keep the right front tire in the ditch and rode out the corner.

We made it around the bend and then it was a straight shot through the muck for another mile or so. At the end of this run the gravel resumed and we’d be home free.

We made it and I sheepishly suggested we stop and do some fishing. Wren slowly peeled her fingers off the dash and told me it was time to go home.

That damn road had sunk me again.

So it was with some sense of vengeance that I returned to the Valle Vidal on such a rainy day armed with four-wheel drive. I was relishing the thought of churning through the van-stopping slop, mud flecking my windshield as I powered up the mountain with confidence.

I looked over at Wren who was grinning at my giddiness; this time we were going to have some fun.

I stopped and engaged the front hubs and then as we peeled off onto the high road I could only watch in dismay as the rain petered out, the road grew dry and the sun emerged over the valley.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The San Juan River - A Glenn May Kinda Day

The hip-waders started leaking just as I managed to settle into a promising spot a couple hundred yards below Navajo Dam on New Mexico’s fabled San Juan River.

I had worked my way below a gravel bar that split the current and settled into a quiet, V-shaped pool where the two channels came back together. It was the kind of water where trout could lay up and easily pick off food in the passing current.

It looked real good but then an icy-cold dampness began to creep down my pants leg. In a few minutes a pool of freezing water had collected in the bottom of my boot.

I tried to ignore the situation, made a few casts, and then looked back to find two guys had waded into the water just below me.


I looked across the river my fishing buddy, Glenn May. He was all alone and waist deep in his neoprene, chest waders. With his rod held high, he was dead drifting his rig through the edge of the current.

He wasn’t slaying them yet but I knew he would be soon.

Overhead the sky threatened. Grey, pregnant clouds hung low over the dam. A damp, nippy breeze carried a slight hint of winter to come. It would be a cold, wet, miserable day if I didn’t get my wader's problem fixed soon.

“Damn!” I thought to myself again. “Hey dude. I think I found my leak!” I yelled across the din of the passing water.

May looked up, waved and grinned. The crazy son of a bitch was wearing a short-sleeve shirt.

I had complained of a wet boot last evening but figured I had stepped in too deep, once too often.

Now I knew better. I leaned over and started groping around between my legs, looking at the tops of my waders. There it was, a small hole had worn through one of the inside thighs where the boots rubbed together.

If I had caught this the night before, the glue would have cured by now, I thought to myself with disgust.

I pulled out the small roll of medical adhesive tape I carried in one of my vest pockets. It actually stuck and held for a couple minutes before it started coming off at the edges.

“Oh, man,” I whined to myself.

“Hey, May!” I yelled. “This ain’t happening for me. I gotta get these waders patched.”

May nodded and yelled back that he was going to stay on the far bank. He’d meet me later, a couple miles downstream at Jack’s Hole or the Lower Flats.

“Okay, see ya then,” I yelled and turned my back on the river.

He’d be fishing a couple of miles of really good, solitary water while I’d be dealing with a wardrobe malfunction. What lousy luck, I thought as I shuffled and slipped my way across the slick, rocky bottom.

I tried to ward off the negative vibe I was getting, that nagging feeling that it was going to be one of those days. Wind fouled lines, busted gear, lousy fishing and a bad attitude!

As I slogged back that Thursday morning through the marsh, fighting aside the suffocating willows, I thought back to the week’s beginning.

Sure Beats Looking for Work

May had driven in on Monday from Colorado where he’d been visiting his sister since he flew in from Pittsburgh on Friday night. I’d gotten here from Santa Fe on Sunday night and camped out in my van at Simon Canyon.

The trip was timely, May was looking to get out of his job while I was looking to get into one. We figured if we didn’t get this trip in now it probably wouldn’t happen.

We met up at Baetis Bend around noon. It was a sunny and warm day and after getting caught up over a couple of cold Coors that May thoughtfully brought with him, we got to fishing.

We should have stuck to drinking.

The fish were rarely striking. And when they did, it was on the soft side, resulting in many missed opportunities and few hook-ups. It was hard, frustrating work.

We retired early to the cheery glow of a kerosene lamp, a pint of Captain Morgan’s and plenty of talk. A dinner of grilled chicken breast, Ranch Style beans and boil-in-bag rice did little to slow us down.

We talked long into the night of the drought and fire restrictions, various streams and their fishing conditions and our days working together as newspaper reporters.

When we rolled out of our sleeping bags early the next morning it was with slightly swollen heads. It had rained overnight too and the weather looked ominous. We liked it that way and prayed it would hold long enough for a good hatch to come off.

At the parking lot my dog Wiley took one look at the gray skies, sniffed at the wind and declined to come out to play. She was getting old and had earned the right to sleep through the morning’s festivities.

The long slog upstream to the Lower Flats and the sight of rising fish cleared my head. I could see May up ahead in the corner pocket. He was already reeling them in.

I tiptoed my way across the wide expanse of water and snuck up on a shallow run where I found several good-sized trout rising.

I tied on a dry fly, flipped it out into the current and watched it float slowly over a dark shadow hugging the bottom. The form moved and began to come up. The trout’s features slowly emerged, a thick, heavily colored rainbow, and it was headed straight for my fly.

I steeled myself, it opened its mouth and then turned away at the last possible moment and slowly descended back to the bottom.

I laughed to myself and reeled up the fly. In this shallow, slow water these crafty trout had all day to check things out. And if my fly didn’t look just right then they weren’t going to touch it.

I pulled out my fly box, rooted through my collection and pulled out an even smaller version of the same fly.

This time the trout took it, shook its massive head and lit out for deeper water. The reel sang, the fish splashed and I howled with glee. May looked over and gave me the thumbs up. We were on!

We successfully fished undisturbed in the lower flats for a couple hours. At one point I wandered over to watch May perform his magic in the shelf just below the terminus of Three Mile Run.

I was watching from streamside, chewing on a piece of carne seca, dried beef. On the river we lived off apples, bananas, trail mix, little tins of tuna, snack packs of cheese and crackers, beef jerky, peanuts and lots of purified river water.

The morning’s overcast conditions had lifted and it had turned out to be a fine day after all. I was enjoying the sunshine and chewing endlessly on this piece of gristle when I finally tired of it and spit it out into the river.

I watched as a big brown slowly emerged from the current and snatched up the passing morsel.

What a hoot! A fly is born!

May had hooked into another fish and was yelling for me to come take a picture. I followed as he fought the fish downstream and around the corner into the upper reaches of the flats. He got the fish settled down in some shallower water and handed his camera over to me. It was a nice brown and we got the photo.

I decided to work my way back downstream on the far bank to get away from the drift boats and other waders that were starting to show up. I managed to hook into one in every spot I worked. And, it seemed every time I looked upstream there was May with his rod held high over his head with another one on the line.

It had turned out to be a fine day. That evening we visited with Bruce Holthouse out of Taos who was camping under the cottonwoods on the far side of the parking lot from us. He said he had just come down from fishing the Green River up in Utah where it had turned cold on him.

He seemed to be a serious, old-time trout bum and got a good kick out of us when we told of our scheme to float the river tomorrow in our latest equipment addition, a used, Sevylor, vinyl raft.

Let’s Go Boating

The following morning I took my time cooking up some breakfast burritos while May was down on the river. Working out of the back of the van off a two-burner Coleman gas stove, I fried up some canned potatoes with slab bacon, scrambled some eggs with diced onions, green chile and diced tomatoes and rolled it all up with some shredded Colby/Jack cheese into a burrito-sized tortilla.

Funny how May was there looking over my shoulder just as I was getting ready to bite into that burrito.

The smell of frying bacon must have brought him in. He stood there grinning and drooling until I forked it over to him and got started on another.

We had always eaten and camped pretty good on these trips, what with the old Dodge, one-ton Maxi-Van hauling everything we needed. Several coolers full of block ice, food and beer. Plenty of water, sleeping bags, tents, camp chairs, fishing gear, extra clothes, tarps, tools, spare parts, you name it we had it stashed away in there.

I slept in it and Wiley, my dog, literally lived out of it, it was a rolling doghouse.

We left May’s rental car behind and climbed into the old workhorse and set off upstream for the parking lot at Baetis Bend. Since we didn’t have a clue what we were doing we decided to make it a short float. It’s maybe a mile from there back down to Simon Canyon.

The boat is a Sevylor. They make lots of these things and seem to know what they’re doing. It has five inflatable chambers and seems quite safe. I checked it out on the Internet.

The only problem is it’s kinda small for a couple of guys and a dog, even a little Whippet/Boston terrier cross like Wiley.

Nonetheless, we hauled it down to the river and climbed in. Floating in the side channel off Baetis Bend we looked out onto the river where several drift boats floated by.

The well-muscled, deeply tanned guides in their rakish broad-rimmed hats sneered haughtily at us and our little craft.

We were in their house now.

As “wet-waders” we always did our utmost to upstage the drift boat guides. Staking claim to prime holes in places like the Lower Flats, forcing the guides to steer clear of us as we steadfastly stood our ground in the middle of the river.

It was an adversarial relationship and one we relished. There was no greater feeling than hooking into a fish, especially on a dry fly, as a guide and his bottom-fishing client looked on with slack lines.

But now we would be an annoying speed-bump out in the deep water and the guides could extract their revenge. I rowed out about a stone’s throw from the side channel and dropped anchor, a plastic, gallon jug full of sand.

May looked at me like, “What’s this? I could have waded out this far!”

The dog peered out over the edge of the raft and looked at nearby shoreline. She was obviously thinking the same thing.

I looked over the edge myself and saw the bottom wasn’t five feet down. After a few half-hearted casts May asked if we could head for the opposing bank.

“At least we’ll be in some water we don’t normally fish over there,” he said.

I inhaled deeply and paddled heartily between a couple of passing boats and beached the raft on the far bank.

We had made it!

Never mind the fact we could have simply waded over to this bank further upstream and then hiked back down. But having floated across somehow made it special. We started fishing and got into a couple big ones right off.

May was jazzed but the real thrills lay around the corner and downstream. There was deep water down there, water we knew couldn’t be waded and had never messed with, water only the boats could get to, water that was just now beginning to boil with risers.

Let the Battle Begin

We climbed into our trusty raft and headed downstream and as we drifted, it was right through a pocket of big bruisers rising to the surface. Their mouths opened wide as they sipped flies an arm’s reach from the boat. We watched in jaw-dropping amazement. You could have reached out and touched them on the head. We had reached the Promised Land.

“Stop the boat!” May pleaded as we floated away from the risers.
“I’m trying,” I cried.

But the anchor wasn’t working, neither was my rowing and when we finally got it turned around we were running afoul of the drift boat guides parked on the edge of the run. They were obviously annoyed with our amateur antics and glared heavily.

This wasn't working so we decided to beach it and try from the shore.

Bad idea.

The cast was too far, the brush kept snagging our lines, and the water was so deep we couldn’t get out any closer. We missed several strikes and now the hatch was beginning to wane. It was maddening.

A number of drifts boats had moved on although there were still several trout rising steadily out in the middle, so we decided to head back out onto the river again. We paddled across to the other side where we dropped anchor just off the bank.

To our amazement, we discovered we were in a strange eddy pool where a vortex of sorts kept us spinning lazily in one place.

This was a little more like it, we nodded in agreement. We tossed out the drys and proceeded to chase the remaining risers.

The time passed as they kept coming and nudged aside our flys for the real things. We still weren’t having any luck.

And then all hell broke loose as I hooked into a big one.

The fish made a run for the deep. The reel screeched and I prayed my knots would hold as the weight of the fleeing fish and the deep water strained the line. This was a strong fish and it hauled us around in circles in our little boat.

May finally figured out how to keep the boat pointed in one direction so I could fight the fish and the seesaw battle continued. When the fished stopped running, I reeled furiously to bring it back in. As it came closer the fish would then struggle mightily to pull off line and swim away again.

This went on for what seemed forever. My arm was killing me and then the fish finally tired and let me bring it up to the surface.

We let out a collective groan of admiration as we saw its size and coloring. It was a beauty!

May offered to net it, but I really wanted to bring it in myself. As I got the net under its undulating body I discovered there was no way it would fit.

Using the net frame like a kitchen spatula I managed to partially lift the trout out of the water only to see it arch its back and spring away - straight back at us and into the boat.

The fish landed on our outstretched legs in the bottom of the boat where it lay still for a moment.

It was as long as my leg from the heel to the knee.

A horrified Wiley scrambled up May’s chest and perched herself atop his head and shoulders.

We all stared in wonder for a moment and then May yelled for me to grab the fish as he dug out his camera. I wet my hands and gently cradled the fish, clipped the line to the fly in its mouth and then held her up for the picture. The fish stirred and then was over the edge and off into the water.

We both sighed with relief. What a catch. And we even had a photo!
After that I was pretty much through for the day and took over the oars again. I know May nabbed a few more but I don’t really recall because I was still replaying that catch over and over in my mind as we drifted slowly downstream.

We beached the raft right at the mouth of Simon Canyon and carried it up the arroyo to the parking lot where Mr. Holthouse was relaxing in the sun. He was obviously impressed at our survival and got a kick out of our big fish story.

That night we dined on American chop suey - boiled elbow macaroni with bottled spaghetti sauce fattened up with fried hamburger, sliced onions and green peppers and then topped with plenty of grated Parmesan cheese. We washed it all down with cold beer.

Around the kerosene lantern later there were many tales told including Mr. Holthouse’s story of how he tore up his new breathable waders walking into a barbed wire fence that day. He went on about how he had some amazing new glue from Loon that works on wet waders and cures by sunlight -in seconds - and how it literally saved his day.

Lucky for me I’m a good listener.

Back to Reality

I splashed out of the marsh willows and humped up the hill to the van parked by the side of the road. Sliding back the side door I sat down with a grunt and began wrestling with the wet boot. It came off with a loud pop and out poured a gallon of water.

No fish though.

I peeled off my sodden wool sock and wiggled out of my wet jeans. Meanwhile Wiley had crawled out from under the sleeping bags to see what was going on and began licking the water off my wet leg.

It’s a dog thing.

Just then an oil field truck drove by and the driver tooted his horn as I stood there in my underwear with a dog licking my leg.

Yup, this was definitely turning out to be one of those days.

I got into some dry clothes and drove down to the fly shop to see if they had any of this wet patch Holthouse was talking about last night. They did and I bought it and slapped some on my wet, leaky wader and sure enough it cured up even though it was cloudy outside.

This was some good stuff I thought as I headed back to the river.

With May working his way downstream I figured I’d catch up with him at Jack’s Hole and we’d fish downstream together from there. I parked the van at Baetis Bend where we’d end up and began hiking up the dirt service road.

I walked along a great marshy area laced with back channels and beaver ponds that separated the river from the road and remembered from past trips that finding just the right spot to cross over might prove tricky.

I hiked just shy of Texas hole and then began working my way over to the river, cutting through the willows on game trails. I came out a couple hundred yards shy of where the river split with the back channel that fed the marsh.

Splashing through the water with Wiley tucked under my arm I finally came around the corner at the head of Jack’s Hole.

There was one guy just above me fishing for risers in the shallows at the head of the back channel. His partner was just below me in one of the secondary holes just below the big drop off at the head of Jack’s Hole.

I recognized the first guy from yesterday when we had chatted down on the Lower Flats. He was wearing a Boston Baseball cap, name of Bob, he had told me how he was at the local bar here, The Sportsman, when the Red Sox won the final game of the World Series last year.

We were there too last year and it seemed to me that I did remember a lone guy wearing a Red Sox cap cheering them on that night.

“That was me,” he said.

Turns out Bob was from Lawrence, Mass. and since I’m from Malden, Mass. we hit it off just fine.

“Hey, Bob, how’s the fishing?” I asked him.

“Not bad,” he said.

“Were you going to hit this hole here?” I asked pointing to the drop-off.

“Already did,” he said. “Have at it.”

I waded out to the top of the hole and tied up a triple rig with a burnt orange worm up top, a red, lava-lace grub in the middle and a brown Johnny Flash on the bottom.

I floated it down over the edge of the shelf and it dropped into the boil below. I saw a shadow move just below the shelf, felt the line dip and I was on.

The fish turned and ran back into the big water, peeling off line as it ran, and ran and ran. It took me well downstream and into the next big hole. Then there was nothing. Broke off? Spit the hook? Either way, it was gone.

As I reeled up the slack line I looked across the river and saw May picking his way down the hillside.

Right on time. He gave me the thumbs up.

I checked my rig -- everything was still intact. The fish had simply outrun me and spit out the hook as the line slackened.

I tossed it back in and Bam! I was on again.

I laughed. Hey, maybe it was going to be one of those days.

We ended up fishing opposite sides of the same hole, rod tips twitching, lines singing, joyous hoots as one fish after the other took our rigs and ran.

A guide parked his boat on the far bank just above the hole, setting out a table and chairs for lunch. His client never took his eyes off us as he ate.

It seemed we were always on and a lot of times at the same time. That poor guide sure had had his work cut out for him now.

At one point I waded out into the fast water, dangerously close to my wader tops, headed for a rock island. I tiptoed my way to it and climbed up where I could see way down into the current. Then I watched as a fish took my rig on the tail end of the cast. Its sides flashed silver, red and blue as it twisted and rolled in the current.

That fish turned out to be a fairly stout and lengthy rainbow just bursting with color, vitality and strength. As I cradled it in the net and backed the barb-less hook from its mouth I knew I was finally having one of those days.

A Glenn May kinda day.

I was back in 2003 when I first coined that phrase. We were fishing the river with another guy, James Sandoval of Los Lunas, and he and I were doing poorly but there was Glenn off on the far bank, hooked up as usual.

I remember James asking, “What’s up with this guy?” I told him how May lived a trout bum’s life, the gods found him worthy and he could do no wrong.

And I told him the best that guys like us could ever ask for was a Glenn May kinda day.

This story is dedicated to Glenn Foster May who has since retired from the news racket and moved on to the Peace Corps where he is currently stationed in Cameroon, Africa teaching English. God bless and watch over him.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Rio Grande - When Ho Who?

While gazing out the window at work it suddenly dawned on me the flags on the pole at the police station across the street weren’t straining against the raging spring winds anymore.

I stepped outside and sure enough the wind had finally died down. It was sunny, warm and much too pleasant for a workingman to endure.

It was one of those early spring days here in northern New Mexico that breeds a spat of mysterious stomach flu cases or a dead relatives’ second or third funeral.

And then there was the fact that the caddis were hatching up on the Rio Grande, an annual event designed to even up the odds with many a frustrated flyfisherman who’d been skunked on the state’s stingiest river.

I could only hang my head dejectedly, there would be no skipping out mid-week and hitting the water. I had started a new job and was now a weekend warrior when it came to fishing.
“God, what has become of me?” I thought as I shuffled back into work, dropped the window shade and got back to banging away at the keyboard.

A short time later my boss showed up in the doorway, leaned against the door jam and smiled sweetly.
“What’re you going to do on your day off?” she asked.
I was a little confused, “What day off?” I asked.
“Oh, you didn’t you know?” she said. “We get Good Friday off around here.”

I laughed inwardly at my incredible luck and lifted the window shade back up.

Down the Road
That morning I bounded out of bed early, leaving my warm, soft, sensuous girlfriend mumbling her goodbye into the pillows. It would be best if I departed quickly.

As my old van lumbered up the Santa Fe bypass, I dipped apples slices into a cup of yogurt balanced precariously on the dash. Wiley, my trusty dog, sniffed at me and gave me a look that seemed to say, “Hey pal, whatever happened to the breakfast burritos?”

We both turn our heads to watch the people trudging along the shoulder.

Here in northern New Mexico, the pilgrimage to the Santuario in Chimayo on Good Friday is a religious tradition and strung out all along the highway, walking earnestly, were hundreds of pilgrims making the hike.

For many it is the time to pay penance, give thanks or just share time with family and friends.

I feel a touch of reverence and a slight pang of guilt as I pass the many walkers. They’re looking at about 25 miles of blacktop from Santa Fe to the Santuario and I wonder if I could handle a hike like that myself.

The thought fades with the miles as I continue north out of Santa Fe, top out at Opera Hill and drop down into the Pojoaque Valley where I come across a crowd of pilgrims milling about at the intersection of State Road 503, a back road to the Santuario.

They are resting up here before taking on the final leg of the journey. The road is jammed with cars carrying food, water and other support for the weary walkers.

I think back to when I once lived off this road up near Nambe Pueblo and enjoyed many a summer evening driving along the back roads under a canopy of cottonwood trees, past the small family farms and pastures, waving to people on their porches.

In the surrounding piñon and juniper studded hills I would hike the sandy arroyos where Wiley could chase after an occasional rabbit.
It was quiet out here, very rural and I didn’t mind the 20-mile commute to my job as a newspaper reporter in Santa Fe.

But in the years since I lived there in a run down, rented trailer, many an adobe palace has sprung up behind a gated entrance with an expensive SUV parked in the drive.

I wonder what affect the onslaught of gentrification will have on the culture that led to traditions such as the one I was viewing now.

I continue driving north towards Española. The pilgrims have thinned out but I encounter a few peeling off the highway at the La Puebla and Sombrillo turn-offs that cut over to State Road 76, the main road leading to the Santuario.

I lived off that road, too, in another run-down rented trailer on a family compound. And I enjoyed many a summer night plying the back roads and hiking in the nearby hills with my dog.

That was late in my newspapering career when I moved up to Española to work at the Rio Grande Sun which was then a commendable paper run by an admirable man.

It was also one of most target-rich, news environments in the state and I liked the people and the culture.

And it was a hell of a lot closer to the prime fishing than most of New Mexico.

I found a place that summer on the outskirts of town just minutes from the canyon through which the Rio Grande flowed and spent many a night after work making my way upstream to stalk rising fish with dry flies.

I’d spend the night sleeping in my van by the riverside and in the morning would hustle back into town to dig up some news.

My base camp was a little camp trailer parked in a pasture with open fields, grand mountains and the big river nearby. I had electricity to the site and a campfire pit outside my door.

I was living the life of a genuine trout bum and news hound and recall those days with fondness.

And it was on one of those warm, summer nights down on the Rio Grande at a place called Pilar that I met a fellow fisherman named Wen Ho Lee.

What a Ride
I was breaking down my gear after a long foray up a side canyon through which the Rio Pueblo De Taos runs down to the Rio Grande.

That stream is best wet waded in shorts and sneakers with a light rod, short leader and a hopper. There’s plenty of pools and eager fish the higher up you go but more of that later.

It was late and darkness was setting in. There was a rust colored, early model, American-made sedan parked behind my van. I had to laugh at the car being parked so close to mine when there was so much room to breathe out here.

The car reminded me of my Nana’s old 1973 Olds Cutlass, a coupe with a Rocket 350 under the hood fed by a four barrel Holley Carburetor.

Man, that car could move. When my Nana got older and didn’t drive as much, she would ask me to take the Cutlass out on the highway and “blow the pipes out.”

One of the few speeding tickets I’ve ever received I got in that car.

I was down in Las Cruces where I had gone to State and earned my journalism degree. I was rushing over to the Gila Wilderness on a Super Bowl Sunday to try and get in some fishing before the game started later that afternoon.

I crested a hill and bore down upon a slow moving Isuzu Trooper. I punched it and swung out and around the truck. The road headed down into a gully and then climbed again before curving off to the right at the top of the hill.

I had that Olds humming by the time I popped over the crest and passed a state trooper in a black and white heading the other way.

I knew I was busted and let it idle down until I pulled over up around the corner where I sat and waited.

A moment later the trooper came barreling around the corner and locked up his brakes up after he overshot me parked by the side of the road. He banged a hard u-turn in a cloud of burning rubber and screeching tires and pulled up next to me, driver’s window to driver’s window.

Smoke and dust drifted through the air. My engine ticked and sighed as it cooled. The Isuzu slowly puttered by, its driver grinning from behind the wheel.

“What the hell were you doing back there,” the officer asked as he removed his mirrored sunglasses.
“I honestly don’t know,” I replied. “Maybe seventy?”

He laughed and ran a hand through his short-cropped hair.
“You’re lucky,” he said. “You had to be doing at least ninety but my radar wasn’t picking you up on the other side of that hill.”

Naturally he asked what my rush was, I told him my grandmother’s orders as I handed over my license and her registration.
“So I guess you’re just being a good kid uh? Respecting your grandmother’s wishes and all?” he asked.

I could only grin in return and accept the ticket he gave me for doing something like nine miles over the limit. He said that seemed fair since he knew I was speeding but he really couldn’t say by how much. I agree and it turned out that was the cheapest ticket he could give me.

With our business concluded we exchanged some small talk about politics and the weather. Before leaving he commended me for pulling over on my own, said he sure liked the Olds and warned me to keep it out of the ditch.

Years later long after my Nana had passed on I ran that Olds hot one day and blew a head gasket. It now sits in a friend’s pasture in Las Cruces waiting for the day I repair it and I will repair it, some day.

But this car parked behind me at the river looked more like Telly Savalas’ ride from Kojack, a Buick Century maybe. I wondered where the owner was because it was getting dark fast and things could get real hairy down on those slippery, rocks in the canyon.

Just then a little Oriental guy wearing a Vietnam era boonie hat and hip waders, just like mine, came trudging up the trail from the Rio Grande.
He nodded hello and I offered him a cold beer. He declined and instead pulled a thermos of coffee from his car.

I asked him how he made out, what was he using and stuff like that but his answers were short and clipped. The conversation died and an awkward silence ensued as we broke down our gear.
I made one last attempt at conversation when asked him where he was from. He told me Los Alamos and after I told him I lived and worked in Española, he seemed to relax and open up a bit.

We talked about the lack of meaningful research coming out of the publicly funded national labs at Los Alamos. Solutions for the common good rather than just continued nuclear weapons studies.

He remarked that he felt like he was wasting his time and talent, that he didn’t get a lot of real work done and felt like they only kept him around because he knew too much to be let go.

He joked that it was like being in the Mob, where once you were a member of the family, it was for life.

Here was yet another bitter, angry government employee who wished he could just move on and forget all about their frustrating career in public service, I thought to myself.

I wished him luck and we said our goodbyes.

Later Days
I forgot all about that guy until one day I was watching the nightly news and there’s a couple of buzz-cut, beefy FBI types leading this little, Oriental guy out of a house in the bedroom community of White Rock up near Los Alamos.

He was being charged with being a spy at the labs.

And then there’s the FBI guys searching through the trunk of this rust-colored, older model American-made sedan and pulling out a pair of hip waders.

This was all starting to look vaguely familiar and then it hit me. Hey, that's the guy from the river that night.

Well what do you know?

Now I don’t claim to know the whole story about Wen Ho Lee’s case as my paper didn’t really cover it, but I know from news accounts that he spent about nine months in jail, in solitary confinement, before he broke down and accepted a plea to a single count of mishandling computer files and was released.

The rest of the government’s claims about him being a spy for the Chinese went up in smoke along with their case. It was such an embarrassment that a federal judge in the case apologized to Lee for jailing him on such flimsy evidence.

The disgraced scientist would later file suit claiming the government leaked information about him to the media which resulted in his being sacked with less than a year to go to retirement.

And one of the names that came up as a possible source for the leaks is our governor who was then head of the Department of Energy, which oversees the labs.

I guess we’ll never know because the case has been settled with several media organizations picking up a good chunk of the estimated $1.6 million settlement tab.

They did that so they wouldn’t have to reveal in court who supplied them the leak.

So now our governor’s off running for re-election, a race he is expected to win handily, and then he’s thought to be preparing a campaign for the White House?

Meanwhile Lee’s reputation has been horribly smeared and the media look like easily, duped fools - once again.

What’s wrong with this picture? Whatever happened to the day when the media was inherently skeptical whenever the heavy hand of government came down on the little guy? Where have all those heroes gone?

Back to the Fishing
I snap out of my reminiscing as I roll up on my favorite spot on the river. In years past I have done quite well here during a caddis hatch. It’s a nice day with just a slight breeze coming upstream. I don’t see anything happening on the water but it’s early still.

I gear-up and climb down the steep bank to the river below. Hordes of caddis cling to the streamside willows, scattering in the air as I push through the thick bushes. They settle on my clothing and I can feel some crawling about under my shirt.

I fish for the longest time with no luck and see no risers. My bottom fishing with an imitation caddis emerger is ineffective. I am perplexed as waves of caddis wash over me, headed upstream on the wind. They founder on the water in eddies by the rocks but nothing pierces the surface.

It slowly dawns on me that the surface feeding frenzy characterized by years past when I got to this spot has apparently passed. I was a day late it seemed.

The fish were already gorged on caddis and laying low. Besides, why chase my imitation on the bottom when millions of the real things were floating by? And with that much to eat off the bottom why come to the top?

I begin to worry I’ll be skunked and desperately began to fish harder. I tie on a triple rig and re-dedicate myself to the effort.

Then I see the first rise of the day, off where a side channel connects with the main current. Just the slightest dimpling of the water where its snout broke the surface and sipped off a bug.

I quickly stripped off my bottom gear and tie on a single elk hair caddis fly, one of several I tied up the night before. I slowly waded across the river, below and behind where I’d seen the rise.

It wasn’t the caddis that got him; it was a tiny copper-colored, bead-head pheasant tail I tied off the back end as a dropper. And it wasn’t a trout but a small-mouth bass that saved my day.

Just a little guy the size of my hand, but, boy, was I happy to see him. Then the wind picked up and began to blow hard. White caps appeared upon the water, clouds blew in and the temperature began to drop.

I called it a day and once again the Rio Grande proved it could be one the stingiest of rivers in the state, even under the best of conditions.

Some may say if I had taken a good, long walk earlier that day it might have improved my odds.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Rio Chama - Busted Butt Blues

It’s winter and I’m driving with the window rolled down, the cold air trying to crawl under layers of wool, fleece and thermal.

I’m acclimating, preparing for an afternoon fishing the Chama River below the dam at Abiquiu, New Mexico. It’s one of those beautiful days with plenty of bright sunshine, just a slight hint of breeze and the promise of a warm afternoon.

It’s that quiet time of the morning when everybody has gone to work and the highway is empty. Just north of Espanola I see the first dead dog, crumpled up on the shoulder, a spray of darkness on the pavement marking the impact.

There’s somebody’s dog that won’t be waiting in the driveway tonight.

I pass a blackened, burnt out home that’s been there for years. Its rusty tin roof has collapsed into a gaping black hole where the living room might have been. Undamaged on one side of the building, painted over the ruddy brown stucco, is a colorful mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Bedrock Catholicism rules in Northern New Mexico and with that comes the belief that life’s triumphs or tragedies are simply a matter of God’s will.

I wonder why they left the ruins still standing? Were they preserving the mural? Who knows, this can be a tough town to figure.

I cruise down the highway, past the white Corrections Department van parked in the middle on the median. Prisoners in orange jumpsuits stoop over in the roadside weeds to pick up trash, they never seem to stop moving but they always look up as you drive by.

I give a slight wave, they nod with their chins and we all go back to our lives.

I go on past the chopped and dropped Neons with their dark tinted windows, parked by the mobile homes clustered in compounds, their wrought iron bars and chained chows there to keep the thieves at bay.

On past the place where the famous black and white photographer, Ansel Adams, took his picture, “Moonrise over Hernandez”.

It’s a tribute to photography’s basic truth; it’s really all about being there.

Adams lucked out and caught a full moon rising over the distant Sangre de Cristo mountains while the crosses in the old church's graveyard were lit up by the fading rays of the setting sun.

The result was a captivating photo and one I find somehow revealing of the fatalism and hope that is Northern New Mexico.

It is a place where one encounters the desperation of a twitchy heroin addict casing cars in the supermarket parking lot, countered by the pride and determination of a single, teenage mom, working days at the local convenience store and schooling nights at the community college.

It’s a tough place to live, I know, I did it for years while working as a reporter for the local newspaper and later with a non-profit trying to help this rural community deal with its staggering number of heroin addicts and overdose deaths.

I’ve since moved on, but both the paper and the problem still persist.

I breathe a little deeper and push the gas a little harder.

I’m finally out into the country, where cows, pasture and empty hillsides keep the gritty city at bay.

This is Georgia O’Keeffe country, where the red rock cliffs, the seemingly endless vistas, the towering mountains and the stark beauty of the high desert can certainly be inspiring.

I sense the river and its possibilities ahead, I catch a glimpse of it off to the right just after passing the two little roadhouse bars at the El Rito turnoff.

It looks good, not too high and not too muddy.

This stretch of the Chama is a tough piece of water, and much like Adams’ photo, timing here is everything.

And that time is in the fall when they bring down the water flow at the end of the irrigation season. Then the level slowly begins to drop and the normally ruddy colored water begins to clear. Sometimes it seems to take forever for the silt to settle and then just when it seems about right, they kick up the flow again for some reason and the wait resumes.

But as the time grows near I find a way to slip out of work early and make the fifty-mile roundtrip to check on the water. It’s difficult to gauge unless you see it.

It’s all in the color, like a cup of milky tea.

And then if it’s right, the fish will let you know.

There’s the tug and then the run and in the waning light of day you cradle one of the hardy browns that has managed to survive the mud, the insane flows and the harsh environment.

It’s an exciting time, but sad, too.

I know I will only have a few weeks to catch and release the biggest and best browns on this stretch of river because there’s other guys out there, waiting for the right time too and they’re determined to take fish home.

Within a month most of the browns will be gone and in their wake a trail of empty salmon egg bottles, spinning lures packages, cheap beer cans and cigarette butts mark their departure.

It can be depressing and then there are days like this.

It was a weekday, a little late in the season but I had the river to myself. I was on a bank high above a hole peering down into the water from behind a downed cottonwood. I was just looking for now and would soon slide down the bank and into the water to take a stab at it.

I was just leaning on the log taking it all in when a bad feeling suddenly came over me, that feeling you get when you thnk there's something sneaking up behind you.

I slowly turned my head to look back over my shoulder and then, right there in the air above me, a Bald Eagle came sweeping down.

I ducked and she veered away, looking back at me as she glided off across the river to land upon a branch high up in a big cottonwood tree.

We watched each other for a moment and then she took off again with slow, full beats of her massive wings, flying off around the river bend and out of sight.

I laughed nervously to myself. Damn that bird had scared the hell out me.

I replayed the moment over in my mind. Her wingspread had to have been as wide as my outstretched arms. I saw the gnarly yellow skin around her talons, the white fan of her tail and felt the air rustle as she came at me.

Man, that was amazing, to come that close to an animal, the symbol of our country, something we had nearly driven to extinction.

I had seen Bald Eagles here on the Chama before and some down on the Rio Grande by Velarde. Then there was one in a cliffside nest up off the Red River near the confluence of the Rio Grande and plenty on the Baca.

It’s always a thrill to see them because they always tend to fly off before you can get near them.

This one was different.

This one got me thinking.

Then it came to me, maybe was she trying to scare me off.

I looked down at the river below.

We'd both been eyeballing the same fishing hole?

I slowly slide down the bank and crept up to a spot where I knew they’d be.

The Aftermath

Later, I was sitting at the roadside bar, obsessing over what I must have done wrong.

I had snuck up on that hole like a coyote, placed the line perfectly with no splash and then tensed up in anticipation as I watched it drift over the spot.


I slowly pulled up the line, recast and waited again.

After the third or fourth cast I knew it wasn’t going to happen but I kept working at it until the sun set behind the mountains and it grew cold.

I shook my head, drained my beer and pushed myself away from the bar.

“I guess I’ll see ya next time,” I said to the woman working the bar.

She nodded and told me to drive carefully.

That wasn’t an option on this stretch of road, you either drove it carefully or died, I thought as I climbed into my old Dodge van.

The roadside descansos here told that story. Some simple crosses, others elaborate memorials, all marking the spot of those who had been killed on this nasty stretch of highway.

I remember the night I was coming back after looking at a piece of riverfront property in Medanales. I was following a car down the highway, it was one of those older model lowriders, a Chevy or Buick, just motoring along slowly, heading into town.

I was impatient, itching to floor it and swing out and around the car but it was a moonless night, pitch black outside, so I waited until I was sure I could safely pass.

Then the lowrider began to drift off towards the shoulder. I began to lean on the gas when something made me hesitate.

I backed off and instead followed the lowrider off onto the shoulder and right past a pickup truck, dead in the water, in the middle of the highway. No emergency lights on, nobody standing outside waving down traffic, just left there in the dark.

I wasn’t that surprised, just relieved as we went around it and kept on going, flashing our lights to warn the on-coming traffic.

I checked with the cops later that night, but apparently somebody hauled the truck off before anybody got hurt, because they didn’t know anything about it.

I remember how I couldn’t sleep for a while because I kept thinking about how close I came to wrecking if I had impulsively passed that lowrider.

Yeah, this sure could be a tough place to live.

I would go back to the eagle’s hole the next week and again the following week next but with no luck.

Maybe there weren’t any fish left in there, maybe the eagle or the bait fishermen got them all already.

I was just chasing a hunch and it wasn’t panning out.

But then late in the season I found myself trying the hole again. I went to lift my line off the water and I found it hooked on something.

I tugged a little and it held fast. I cursed and then began reeling in as I waded up to it, I’d have to get out in front of it to try and pull it loose. By then I’d have to write off the hole, all semblance of stealth gone.

Suddenly the line twitched and began to move downstream, I lifted the rod and felt the weight and knew instantly I had been right about this hole all along.

I laughed liked a crazy man and began working on bringing her in.

From the depths she came, a hefty brown, barely discernable in the tawny water. And then I saw the fading, white claw marks across her back.

Seems that eagle gave this brown a try too but couldn't quite pull her out.

She was a big fish, I pinned her against my leg, one hand under her belly as I quickly slipped the barbless hook out of her lip.

She slipped back into the water and faded away, hopefully to live and fight another day, just like some of the tough, old spanish folks who inhabit this land.

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