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.

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