December 30, 2018
Greetings and my best to all my friends and readers for a great 2019!! It’s been a very fulfilling and fun year writing my blog. As well as providing an admitted excuse to go fishing and explore remote places, my main goal is to help reinforce and build the constituency to preserve and protect these wild and wonderful places. Given the current state of politics in the country and multiple threats to our environment and natural resources, it’s more important than ever to take a stand and do whatever we can to protect Mother Nature.
An added and very satisfying benefit has been connecting with people and making new friends around the USA and the world—readers from over 60 countries. As of Dec. 31, the blog has had over 40,000 views and 16,000 visitors, a 50% increase over 2017.
Now it’s easy to figure out why most of my readers are from English-speaking countries, but who am I to ask why someone from the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, Brazil, or Turkey would take a look.
As the year comes to a close, I found it enlightening and gratifying to look back on the best, the bummers, and the blood-curdling moments of 2018 from a piscatorial perspective. Here you go….
Cream of The Crop: Aly’s First Fish
Nothing really came close to the delight of helping my 2 ½ year-old granddaughter Aly catch her first fish in June—a brown trout from Beaver Creek in Colorado. The smile on her face said it all. Of course she needed a little help hooking the cooperative little guy, but by fall Aly had caught and released everything from rainbow trout to bluegill. Being a toddler, I think she ended up having as much fun playing a new pretend fishing game with Grandpa as witnessed by the video.
I count as one of my most important accomplishments in my life as being the guy who helped over 40 people catch their first fish, first trout, or first saltwater fish—like the Ryan and Katie Dale, son and daughter of my business partner Greg Dale, who caught their first snook while exploring the Everglades backcountry with me in the spring. Then I had a blast watching my college dorm roomies Joe Perez and Lance Miller master the art of fly casting then catch some big trout with me on Saguache Creek in Colorado.
I think most gratifying and unexpected have been the heartwarming stories from readers like the young college student who wrote to say she had been searching for the name and location of the lake where her grandfather, who had recently passed away, took her fishing as a young girl. She wanted to revisit that special place as a tribute to him. She couldn’t find it until she happened to read my article on Island Lake in Colorado, and when she saw my photos knew that was the place.
Other readers shared happy memories of having fished, in their younger days, the creeks and lakes featured in my blog. In doing so they have enriched my life and made me determined to share more stories of special places in the coming year, knees willing and the creeks don’t rise!
It’s always interesting to look back and see which articles were the most popular among my readers the past year. There are always some surprises. The most-read fresh-water were a trio of blogs about fishing the picturesque and productive alpine lakes in the North Fork Valley near Salida, Colorado—Arthur, Island, and Hunky Dory.
The single most popular article was one on fishing the Rio Grande River near the historic mining town of Creede, Colorado. Oddly, in third place was a piece about a small tributary stream of the Rio Grande, the Los Pinos (See photos below). Odd because it’s hard to access, odd because it’s not nearly as famous as other waters in southern Colorado like the Conejos. Maybe it’s just all those Texans and New Mexicans who invade southern Colorado in the summer.
Best Big Fish Day: Faka Union River, Florida
Any time I catch a fighting snook over two feet long, it’s a good day on the water—but three over 30-inches in one spring day on the Faka Union River in Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park made for an epic one. The Faka Union is a remote upcountry tidal creek in the Everglades, punctuated by a series of shallow lakes, that can only be navigated by kayak, and even then it’s not easy. The fishing is usually good, but one sunny afternoon in April I stumbled on a shallow flat along a non-descript shoreline that seemed to hold little promise, but was loaded with cruising behemouths. I caught and released three big girls (all large snook are females) and lost several more. Did I mention one broke my rod!! Sometimes the fishing gods do smile on us old codgers.
Best Lots of Fish Day: Cochetopa Creek Headwaters
Some days I don’t care about catching big fish or technical fishing—I just want to catch a lot of fish. Such was a primo day I had on the headwaters of little Cochetopa Creek, high in Colorado’s La Garita Wilderness Area this summer. Now mind you, I had to work a little bit—a two-mile hike in, but from the get go there were multiple fish in every pool and run where they should have been. What a treat to size up a stretch of water, think to one’s self “that’s where the fish should be,” and by god they are there, which tends of over-inflate one’s self-image of piscatorial perspicacity . By the late afternoon when I hiked out, I had joined the century club once again (100 fish caught and released) and scored a coveted grand slam—four different species of trout topped by a beautifully colored, lunker cutthroat.
In the Honorable Mention Category, was an early fall afternoon I had at Franz Lake just outside Salida, Colorado, where I spend six months of the year. I was on an outing with little Aly and her Daddy, my youngest son Matthew. We were using gear that would have made some of my purist fly angler buds roll their eyes—one rod was rigged with a fly on a spinning rod with a bubble and the other featured Berkley Powerbait, a doughy concoction, wrapped around a tiny Size 10 hook (At least it was barbless!). The same stuff my boys had caught their first fish on some 25 years ago. Aly and Matthew both nailed chunky, spunky rainbow trout on their first cast, then it was constant fish on. After the first 10 or so, Aly lured me away to play some hide and seeking, as she calls it. But out of the corner of my eye I watched in satisfaction as Matthew reeled in fish-after-fish. He’s an excellent fly fisherman, but doesn’t get much of a chance between working hard at his job in Denver and raising by himself little Aly (with a lot of help from Grandma).
The Bummer: A Septuagenarian Reality Check
For several years, I have had my eye on a stretch of the South Platte River in Colorado with the intriguing name of Wildcat Canyon. Better yet, very few of my angling buddies had heard of this water let alone fished it. The South Platte meanders through the famous South Park Valley below Fairplay, then plunges into a series of canyons on the way to the lawns of Denver. I found a couple of posts on the internet that gave some decent directions to navigate into the remote, rough canyon, and hints there of some big fish awaiting. Despite having just turned 70 a few months earlier, I didn’t give it a second thought that I might run into trouble. Indeed, the first mile or so of the hike in was a proverbial pleasant walk in the park through a beautiful mixed ponderosa pine and aspen forest, then things got interesting…and dangerous. After bushwhacking through some nasty overgrown sections, I soon was scurrying over big rocks and sliding down loose gravel chutes on the steep trail to the river…all with my chest waders on and two rigged fly rods. Finally I had to jump about four-feet down a ledge, and when I landed I looked back up, the words of one of my fellow senior citizen fishing buddies echoed in my head….”what goes down doesn’t necessarily come up.” Now despite carrying a Garmin satellite phone that would allow me to call for help in an emergency, still I was shocked to see how steep the trail appeared looking back up the incline. In this narrow defile I might not be able to get a satellite signal, and I still had another one-half mile of seemingly vertical path to descend to the canyon floor. I picked my way down extra slowly, and the good news is when I reached the South Platte it was stunningly beautiful and the fishing decent, although not the epic day I expected on this remote stretch.
Best Laugh: A Catfish Tale
One of the most detested fish among anglers in Florida is the Gaff Topsail Catfish. Despite being a very handsome fish with its graceful sail-like dorsal fin, a tenacious fighter when hooked, and tasty on the table, this cattie gets no respect because of the gelatinous snot it deposits on the anglers line that is nasty and hard to remove. So imagine my delight when my Florida fishing buddy Bob Wayne, an accomplished veteran fly fisherman who has sampled waters all over the globe…….
hooked and landed one of the biggest sailcats I had ever seen….then made the fatal mistake of posing for a gag photo.
His disdain got me to doing some research on sailcats that resulted in a fun, tongue-in-cheek article that was published in Florida Sportsman. And the nickname “Catfish Bob” seems to have stuck on my esteemed friend.
The Balmiest Trips—Big Pine and Bahia Honda Keys and the Big Ark
Balmy weather in May always lures me to the Florida Keys, where I chase anything that bites, including barracuda, tarpon, sharks, permit, jacks, etc. etc. But this year I was a bit balmy myself when I set up my mobile fish camp in Big Pine Key in the wake of Hurricane Irma. The devastation was still everywhere, with RVs submerged in the water along some of my favorite kayak routes and some of my favorite remote keys completely stripped of vegetation and the once-productive flats destroyed. Yet the fishing was as good as ever, if different. But possibly the balmiest thing I did was to do some wade fishing around one of the smaller keys between Big Pine and Bahia Honda Keys. I was fishing in waist deep surf when I had a tremendous strike, and the water erupted as a giant barracuda sounded. About halfway through an epic battle it occurred to me 1) I didn’t have a net, and 2) this critter with big sharp stiletto teeth and who was very unhappy with me was only a few feet away looking at me with his big baleful eyes. Fortunately I managed to coax him slowly through the sharp rocks and corals back to the shore until I could beach the brute safely. I managed to remove the treble hooks without major incident, but then in one of the balmiest moves of the season, proceeded to wade back out and repeat the scene two more times. Who says we get wiser with age??
On the other end of the balmy spectrum recounted in my first article of 2018 were the days I spent in very late December 2017 on the Arkansas River, crashing through shore ice to stand waist deep in near-freezing temperatures in pursuit of trout. Thank the gods for old-fashioned neoprene waders! And I even managed to catch some big brownies and bows.
It’s conventional wisdom among veteran anglers that the further you can get away from the madding crowd, the bigger and more fish there will be. I certainly subscribe to that thinking as I search for new waters to explore. But once in a while I find the gem is hiding in plain sight and close to home. Such is the North Fork of the South Arkansas River high above Salida, Colorado. I have fished the high altitude lakes of the North Fork Valley extensively and with great luck. But only once, about 20 years ago with my young boys, did I fish the North Fork. We did okay, catching some rainbows, but for most of the 12 miles it runs down the valley, the small river is heavily overgrown or is hidden in deep gorges that are next to impossible to descend. But this year I decided to buck conventional wisdom, and so happy I did. With some pre-trip exploring via Google Maps and on-the-ground sleuthing I discovered a couple of good open stretches below the reservoir and a short steep canyon section that is negotiable, albeit barely. The result was a couple of banner days without another angler in sight with a bonus of breathtaking scenery.
Most Blood-Curdling—Gator Tale
While my septuagenarian escapade down into Wildcat Canyon certainly was nerve-wracking, the most blood-curdling incident of 2018 involved a big alligator. I was in my kayak navigating the twists and turns of the West Branch of the Faka Union River, also known as Canoe Route #4 in the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. I was nearing one of my best honey holes, a big S bend in the narrow river that usually teams with snook and some good redfish. I customarily hop out of my boat at a sand bar just before the first bend in the S to have a snack and get my gear ready. As I beached the yak, I notice some skid marks on the sand, a telltale sign that an alligator had been sunning himself there. But the skid was small as were the claw marks, so I ignored them. Soon I was wading into the water and throwing my lure into the deep, dark hole on the opposite bend. I caught a few fish then proceeded to the next bend in waist-deep water, towing my kayak with a rope attached to my belt. The very first cast produced a nice red and then the show was on for a good thirty minutes with a parade of snook, snapper and more reds. When the fishing finally slowed, I mounted up in the kayak and proceeded upstream. I had another couple of hours of good fishing before deciding to float back downstream to my vehicle. But as I rounded the S bend again, I came face-to-face with an eight-foot long gator that immediately crashed into the water and headed directly at me. I let out a scream and lunged for the big knife I keep tethered to the boat, ready to rumble.
But the gator dove under the kayak and disappeared into the deep hole just a few feet from me. It was then I realized that the gator probably had earlier in the day heard me coming and slid into that same hole that a few minutes later I would be wading through obliviously. I literally started to shake as I skedaddled out of there. I would have been no match for the big boy and an easy meal. Needless to say, when I see a gator skid in the future, my skinny body stays in the kayak.
Most Scenic—Upper Saguache Creek Falls
Sometimes a long hike into a new wilderness area produces grand fishing and other times grand scenery. A ramble up to Saguache Creek Falls high in the La Garita Wilderness chalked up both. Indeed photos online of the falls come nowhere near their grandeur and wildness. The falls are actually twin falls, the Middle Fork of Saguache Creek and Benito Creek cascading together in a deep gorge.
And at the bottom of that gorge big brook trout can be seen fining in the crystal clear pools. After a vigorous almost three-hour hike (with only a few stops for sample the creek), then soaking in the scene and taking sundry photos, I did my best mountain goat imitation and descended to the canyon floor where I spent a delightful hour catching wild, gorgeous brook trout that obviously had rarely seen a fly.
Needless to say, I am already planning a return trip in 2019 and thinking about the big cutthroat trout that reputedly swim just upstream of the falls in a series of big beaver ponds.