2019 Hooknfly High-Water Marks: The Best, The Bummers, and the Blood-Curdling

Late December 2019

Greetings to all my friends and readers. I hope your holidays have been peaceful, and here’s wishing you the best for a great 2020. It’s been a very interesting and rewarding year writing my blog. In addition to providing an admitted excuse to go fishing and explore remote places and share them with my friends, my main goal continues to be helping reinforce and building the constituency to preserve and protect these wild and wonderful places fish inhabit. 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 and her finny denizens.

I was especially gratified to have some of my piscatorial peregrinations published by Florida Sportsman magazine in an article about kayak fishing in the Everglades. You can find a link to it in my October post.

It was also great to see that by late December, the Hooknfly blog has had over 53,000 views and over 23,000 visitors, a 40%+ increase over 2018An added and very satisfying benefit has been connecting with people and making new friends around the USA and the world.

Among them are readers from over 60 nations.  Now it’s easy to figure out why people who follow my blog are mainly from English-speaking countries, but who am I to ask why anyone from Belarus, Ukraine, or Russia would read my articles.  Hmmm, but on second thought perhaps there is indeed a common thread here—could it be I’m on Putin’s watch list after posting a not-so-flattering wise crack and photo of him in a 2018 article on upper Saguache Creek:

“By now it’s nearly 2 p.m., and the sun is beating down and things are heating up.  I decide to shed some clothing and strip off my long-sleeve fishing shirt and polypro T under it, reveling in my bare-chestedness in the mountain air with no prying eyes.  Visions of Vladimir Putin, similarly bare-chested and buff, riding over the ridge float through my mind.  No wonder Agent Orange couldn’t resist him at Helsinki! What a hunk!!”

Agent Orange’s Dreamboat

But seriously, as the year comes to a close it gives me great pleasure to look back on the best, the bummers, and the blood-curdling moments of 2019 from an angling perspective. It’s been a treat to have you with me! Here we go…

Cream Of The Crop: Nothing gives me more delight of watching my little sweetheart granddaughter Aly squeal with delight when she catches a fish, be it her big brook trout at Staunton State Park or a pesky little sunfish at Bear Creek Regional Park, both near Denver.

First Fish On A Fly Rod!!

Aly’s quite the independent little scamp, and by October was insisting that she knew how to cast on her own.  I chuckled as I handed her the rod expecting to have to crawl into the streamside bushes to extract the lure.  But she got the last laugh with an impressive skillful display that she repeated several times just to show it wasn’t a fluke. 

Casting Queen!!

She also warmed my heart by asking for some little pink and gold curlytail fishing lures for Christmas when we visited Cabela’s!! However, like last year, I think she ended up having just as much fun playing her favorite pretend fishing game with Grandpa as witnessed once again in this video.

 A very close second in this category was taking my son, Matthew (Aly’s Dad), far into the Everglades National Park backcountry and then watching him fulfill his wish of landing a big snook.   Matthew is an excellent all-around angler and has caught and released many good-sized trout in the streams of Colorado and some big redfish and speckled sea trout in the saltwater of Florida.  But despite catching a good number of baby snook, the big one had eluded him.  Early one morning in April, we shoved off in my Gheenoe motorized canoe, vowing to end the hex.  We wended our way for over a half hour to one of my remote, secret lakes fed by several narrow tidal creeks.  By early afternoon we had caught a respectable several dozen sea trout, snook, jacks, and ladyfish, but prospects for the big girl were dimming (All big snook are female!).  My hopes were slim as we started up the last constricted creek before we had to head back home—Aly was awaiting her Daddy in the swimming pool with her Grandma.  He caught some small snook as we proceeded slowly, then we came to a narrow neck where the creek disappeared into a mangrove tunnel featuring an impenetrable tangle of mangrove branches and roots.  This good-looking spot would be our last chance.  Matthew looked at me skeptically as he skipped a perfect cast into the shadows under the mangroves….and then all hell broke loose.  The water erupted in a mini-geyser as a big shook inhaled his lure.  I slammed the trolling motor in reverse and then pinned the boat with our shallow-water anchor to prevent the lunker from pulling us into the tangled tunnel.  Matthew’s rod bent double as he tried to muscle the snook away from the snags.  Lady luck was smiling, and after some major frothing of the water, he eased the fish close to the boat as I reached over the side and slid the net under the hard-fighting 25-inch snook.  His big smile said it all! That photo made it onto the bragging board of Coastal Angler, a leading Florida fishing magazine!  Call me a proud and happy father!

Most Gratifying

I have received dozens of enjoyable comments from readers this past year thanking me for tips and advice about fishing in remote waters that I love.   I think most the unexpected and satisfying was a heartwarming missive from a newlywed angler from Alabama: 

Chris, was looking over some other blogs you have posted and was reminded of this one (Fishing the Rio Grande River near Taos, NM.)  I came on my first trip out West last year in April with my wife on our honeymoon. I’m from Alabama so fishing out West was a little daunting. I had no clue where to go, but I discovered Taos as a little bit of an undiscovered fly fishing gem and gave it a shot.  I found your post right before my trip, and your directions let me find the spot easily. I know a few folks give you a hard time about giving away undiscovered locations, but thanks to your directions my wife and I were able to enjoy a stress-free fishing trip in the beautiful Rio Grande Gorge all by ourselves. I caught my fair share of fish in the few hours I was down there, and my first fish out West was caught on the mystical Rio Grande. I’m so thankful for your willingness to share your experiences. Keep it up and I’d love to stay in touch. 

The Rio Grande Gorge Near Taos

Now what can beat that!!  Other readers shared happy memories of having fished, in their younger days, the creeks and lakes featured in my blog. Still others who are no longer physically able to explore the wilds remarked how they felt like they were there on my treks with me.  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!

Most Popular

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 single most popular freshwater article was one on trout fishing on a small tributary stream of the Rio Grande, the Los Pinos. It attracted over 1,000 views.  Odd because it’s hard to access, odd because it’s not nearly as famous as other waters in southern Colorado like the Conejos or Rio Grande.  Maybe it’s just all those Texans and New Mexicans who invade southern Colorado in the summer.  Go figure.

Los Pinos River Rainbow Trout Lair

The overall freshwater award goes to a trio of articles about one of my favorite streams, Grape Creek, near Canon City, Colorado.  They garnered over 2,000 views, not surprising because of the proximity of the creek to Colorado Springs and Denver.  Interestingly, I rarely bump into anyone on any of the three stretches I have written about.

Grape Creek In Temple Canyon Park

The saltwater and overall prize with over 1,600 views goes to my article on kayak fishing around Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys.  This one is not so surprising since the park is the most popular in the state.

Bahia Honda State Park

Most Fish Days

While all my fishing is catch-and-release, some days it’s fun to just try to fool as many as possible, harkening back to days as a teenage boy when quantity was every bit as and usually more important than quality and size.  This year in freshwater it was a close contest between two creeks in southern Colorado. 

The close runner-up was Treasure Creek, high in the San Juan Mountains above Antonito, Colorado. I made the Century Club (more than 100 fish) once again on this little gem. To make the day even sweeter, I caught several large, beautiful and rare Rio Grande Cutthroats. My exploits are recounted in an article just published in January 2020 in my favorite fly fishing magazine, Southwest Fly Fishing.

The winner by a nose however was lower Saguache Creek near the town of Saguache where I spent a fantastic day with my Florida fishing buddy Bob Wayne on a stretch of private water.  I had some good luck last year on the Saguache as it appeared to be recovering from some sort of funk—maybe a winter fish kill a few years back.  Bob and I were there during late August hopper season so decided to go all in with a single dry fly sans dropper, an ungainly looking thing called the Double-Dutch Bug.  It’s a huge fly that is easy for old eyes to see and apparently irresistible to Saguache Creek trout. 

Double-Dutch Bug

Bob caught eight in the first pool to kick off the fun, and then it was Katie bar the door the rest of the day on the beautiful, sinuous stream.  Numerous nice browns and even a few rainbows couldn’t resist the allure of the voluptuous DDs.  By days end, we had totaled over 100, with Bob accounting for far more than half thanks to the generosity of his big-hearted guide (AKA me!) letting him fish the best runs first. 

Happy Fishing Buddy

I was able to put Bob in his proper place by fooling the biggest fish of the day, a gorgeous 18-inch wild brown, my largest of the year.

The clear winner in saltwater was a trip in December to the Everglades backcountry with my old college roommate, Morris Martin.  Morris had not fished in more than 20 years, yet the first day out with me we caught a couple of dozen fish, the next over 50, and then on the final day he put it all together and together we coaxed more than 100 fish to the boat, a smorgasbord including snook, snapper, redfish, jacks, gafftopsail catfish, and ladyfish.  And that’s not to mention a puffer.  It was a blast seeing Morris at work and that big smile of his after every fish—an epic day with an old pal.  And I managed to land a 30-inch snook for icing on the cake.

Morris Martin At Work!

The Bummer And Burst Bubbles

Every year there is an outing or two that qualifies as a bummer and burst bubble, usually because a tough hike into a canyon or a long paddle in the Everglades to fish what appears to be a remote stream or lake that should be loaded with eager fish turns out to be a total bust.  This year the winner was the upper reaches of Tomichi Creek.  I have posted several articles over the past two years recounting some fun days on the Tomichi near Sargents, Colorado, a short 45-minute drive from my cabin near Salida.  The Tomichi is full of brown trout, some pushing 18-inches, with an occasional rainbow thrown in.  But I have been salivating over the possibilities of the upper section of the creek above the old mining hamlet of White Pine, now a tiny second-home community.  Doing some on-line recon with Google Earth, I discovered several long stretches of the creek punctuated by huge beaver ponds, usually the recipe for an epic day. 

Epic Day In The Offing??

So one nice August day I set out with my friend and neighbor, Charlie Cain, to see what we could find.  We spent the morning on middle Tomichi on the state land board property, starting off with a nice 15-inch brownie followed by over a dozen more by noon.  After lunch we proceeded upstream navigating the rough road above White Pine in my 4WD vehicle.  Several miles about the hamlet we pulled over and bushwhacked to the creek.  What we found was a bummer.  All of the alluring big beaver ponds that appeared on Google Earth were actually built on small feeder rivulets, not Tomichi Creek.  They were crystal clear and completely sterile!  To make matters worse, the creek itself was a narrow, roaring affair, impossible to fly fish.  I offered my apologies to Charlie as we clawed our way back to the SUV.  As an act of contrition, I bought him a good Mex dinner in Salida that night.

A close second in the “bummer” category was a trip on one of my favorite waters close to my cabin near Salida, Badger Creek.  I was working a canyon stretch that was tough going because of an explosive growth of mats of water cress and moss due to a spate of warm temperatures and low water.  Most of the mats were in shallow water close to the bank, requiring me to step on them to get to the main current.  To my great surprise I ventured with my right foot onto one such mat, only to find my leg plunging through to a four-foot hole below, with my left foot still firmly planted on the shore line.  I did a beautiful lef split, worthy of a world-class gymnast, and then sank slowly to my right for a complete dunking, my first of the year.  As there was no current, I was in no danger, thus as I submerged, I couldn’t help but laugh and give thanks there were no witnesses to my awkward circumstance.  Resolutely, I dog paddled to shore, boosted myself onto dry land, dried out as best I could and continued fishing.  Fortunately the fishing gods took pity and just a few minutes later I came upon a giant (for this small water) brown trout sipping mayflies off the water in full view.  I managed to lovely cast followed by a perfect float, all of which culminated in me catching my biggest trout ever from good old Badger Creek!  Hard to call that a bummer day!

Big Brown Post Dunking

Best Laugh:  Mangrove Madness

The winner here was a clear one, a tale of mangrove madness in April that finished up with a happy ending and my biggest fish of the year, a huge snook.  I titled it “Now For The Rest Of The Story:  Behind The Big Fish and Big Smiles Lurks Mangrove Mayhem.” 

Mangrove Mayhem Backstory!

This was another adventure in a remote backcountry creek accessible only by a shallow-draft motor boat, featuring my erstwhile and nearly former Florida fishing buddy Bob Wayne.  Mr. Wayne, Esq., managed to make practically every mistake in the book after I hooked the leviathan—dead batteries in his trolling boater remote so we could not reverse out of the narrow mangrove tunnel and its numerous snags and then nearly throwing me headlong out of the boat when he finally got the gas motor started by instead of going forward to follow the monster who was threading himself through the barnacle-encrusted mangrove roots, throwing it in reverse.  Finally as icing on the cake, as we tried to untangle the Gordian knot of line in the mangrove roots, he had the temerity to look at me and say, “Just relax.”  You get the picture—now read the full story.  Fortunately for me and Robert, he redeemed himself with an Olympian effort to net the fish, leaning perilously far out over the gunnel of the boat  into the dense mangroves to net the fish that inexplicably swam back towards the us after freedom was all but assured. 

That Blood-Curdling Moment

The biggest blood-curdling moment of the year for me came not on any water as in years past featuring sharks and gators, but on the highway outside Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  I was involved in an accident that resulted in my SUV and travel trailer flipping on their sides.

Minor Miracle–Hobie Kayak Survives Crash!

Providentially and somewhat inexplicably, I was not injured aside from a few cuts and bruises, and my beloved Hobie pedal kayak strapped to the top of the SUV suffered nary a scratch!  But I can tell you as the SUV started to roll, windows shattered, and air bags blew, everything was in slow motion, and I thought to myself that this might be the end and I might never see my little granddaughter and sons again.  After what I called a trip through Hades, I wrote down some thoughts I hold near to me more than ever—here are a few of them….

Be a shining knight and positive influence for someone, especially a youngster. Little Aly is the delight of my life, and I’m going to do my damndest to make sure the sun shines on her all the while.  Life is so much tougher for little kids today than it was for us Boomers, and a little helping hand can make such a difference for them.  Find someone and be there for them come rain or shine.

Touch base with old friends….and make amends for your missteps. For my old friends, I will thank them over a good meal or via phone for all the things I learned from them and how they enriched my life, as well as recounting the things they have accomplished that I admire so much.  I’ve already started that journey with a great reunion last summer with two college buddies, but will speed it up now that I am a septuagenarian. And for those people I may have mistreated, I will seek forgiveness and try to make amends.  Don’t wait.

Be tolerant and understand the other person’s perspective. Or as one of my old favorite rock singers Joe South advised, I’ll walk a mile in their shoes before I “abuse, criticize, or accuse.”

Stay curious and keep exploring. Grow old but not up.  My granddaughter Aly reminds me every day we are together how wonderful it is to be curious.  Answer one question she poses and she follows up with another perfectly logical one.  She loves catching rolly pollies and playing with wriggling worms. I hope she maintains that curiosity forever.  It makes life fun and interesting.  There’s a big world out there and a lot in it I still want to see and know more about it.  And in your travels and time with your loved ones, don’t be afraid to make fun of yourself and be a little goofy. 

The Biggest Surprise

I have fished a lot of remote creeks and lakes over the past few years, but am continually delighted to find new surprises just around the bend or over the ridge.  This year there was a tie between two forks….the North Fork of Saguache Creek and the South Fork of the South Platte.  In some ways they couldn’t be more different.  The North Fork is a tiny stream that flows into the Middle Fork of Saguache Creek in the high country just on the edge of the La Garita Wilderness area in southern Colorado.  I had driven over it for years in a rush to get to the headwaters of the Middle Fork and the incredible scenery and fishing there with lots of solitude.  At the ford over the North Fork it’s barely a few feet wide and completely overgrown with little promise…or so it seems.  Finally I decided to explore the North Fork upstream of the road and discovered a real gem with nary a boot mark anywhere.  A short hike revealed a beautiful canyon flanking the water, and a creek full of eager brown trout at every bend pool.  I only hiked up a mile or so and there are several more miles to explore….next year!

Miles More Water To Explore

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the South Fork of the South Platte.  The South Platte in South Park near Fairplay, Colorado, is how to some monster trout, but it gets hit hard by the madding crowd of anglers from Denver and Colorado Springs—an easy couple of hours drive from both.  I drive along the South Fork, a small tributary of the main branch, when I travel from Denver along US 285 to my cabin near Salida.  There are several developed access easements along this stretch, but they also get pounded.  I wondered if I could find solitude in South Park anywhere along the South Fork.  A little Google Earth sleuthing and on-line research revealed several stretches some distance from the developed access parking lots, so I targeted them….and was happy I did.  In September I parked at a legal service vehicle access drive right off the highway, hopped the barbed wire fence, and strolled a short quarter mile through a meadow to the creek.  I could see several cars parked a mile or so downstream, so my strategy was to work upstream.  And it worked.  I immediately caught a colorful brookie and then some nice little browns.  The big revelation was the two 15-inch cuttbows that smacked my dry fly, one in the morning and one in the afternoon! 

Surprise Cuttbow!

By days end I had caught a couple dozen trout, not bumped into anyone, fished through many picture-perfect pools, and still had another mile of water to fish next time.  I like that kind of surprise!!

Most Scenic:  Wild And Wonderful Temple Canyon

Temple Canyon, just outside of Canon City, has been a tourist destination for over a century thanks to an astounding, huge cave called the Temple above the canyon floor where Grape Creek winds.  It’s a tough hike to the Temple, so you won’t likely bump into anyone.  When I took off into the canyon this last fall in search of trout I found them, and much, much more than I could have possibly anticipated.  Yes the fish were there—good numbers of wild browns and bows. I savored catching them in some of the most alluring, enthralling pools I have seen anywhere in the West, one after another for hours.  And all of this was enveloped by the incredibly picturesque walls of the canyon, a scene right out of the Wild West.  Go see for yourself. 

Scenic Temple Canyon

Most Beautiful Fish:  Rio Grande Cutthroats

Each species of fish has its own special beauty and features, from the fierce eyes and menacing teeth of the silver bullet barracuda to the sun-lit golden color and hooked jaw of a spawning brown trout.  But it’s hard to compare to the beauty of a big flaming orange and red Rio Grande cutthroat trout.  Up the remote Lake Fork of the Conejos River above Antonito, Colorado, I felt I had hit the mother lode when landed two of these gorgeous trout on a water I could jump across in spots. 

Gorgeous Rio Grande Cutt

An artist couldn’t conjure up anything more beautiful than these rare fish, only recently endangered but staging a welcome comeback.  Nearby Treasure Creek has more of these beauties.  Tread lightly and leave no trace when you visit these special places.

My Best Wishes To All For 2020

4 thoughts on “2019 Hooknfly High-Water Marks: The Best, The Bummers, and the Blood-Curdling

  1. Chris……your name came up at a DC dinner last week in honor of Larry Amons retirement. Ann Felber, Grant Thompson & I we’re seated together….great fun…great memories!

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  2. Thanks, Chris, for another delightful read. I was introduced to Grape Creek this fall as a result of your blog, and thoroughly enjoyed the “solitary” outing. Wishing you and yours a prosperous and fun-filled 2020…..especially that kick of a granddaughter!!!

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