“I’m just not going to fish like that!” yelled Doc, my father-in-law, as he stomped back into our rented summer cabin. He hung his fiberglass fly rod on two nails driven into the plywood wall, hurled himself into a chair, and started peeling off his hip boots.
“What’s wrong?” I asked innocently. I was new to trout fishing and didn’t understand stream protocol.
“What’s WRONG?!”, he roared, sending one hip boot skidding across the linoleum floor. “Some son of a bitch got in the water not two hundred yards from me! I’ll be damned if I’ll drive all the way out here to fish right next to some inconsiderate bastard!”
The clear mountain air was blue with swear words as he shuffled a deck of cards and started dealing a game of solitaire, slapping the cards violently onto the old wooden table.
That was 1958, my first year of marriage to his daughter and my first trout fishing trip. Since then I’ve enjoyed many years with the daughter and so many enjoyable days with her father on western trout streams that I can’t count them all. But I have to tell you, there have been a lot of changes since the ‘50s, some beneficial, some not.
Our equipment today is vastly superior to what was available then and we have a much greater variety of goodies from which to choose. Back then we used automatic fly reels. Mine fit horizontally against the reel seat and was filled with level fly line. In those days letters instead of numbers designated line size. A double taper might be HCH, a level line might be simply C or whatever. When I wanted to reel line in I pressed a protruding lever with my little finger and the spool whirred inside its green aluminum case, sucking in line like you’d suck a long string of spaghetti into your mouth.
Graphite fly rods might have been available somewhere but I didn’t see my first one until the ‘70s or ‘80s. We knew bamboo rods existed but we thought they were only for rich people. In 1958 if anyone had told me I would someday pay over $400 for a fly rod, $250 for a reel, and $60 for a fly line I would have laughed. Our rods were fiberglass, had names like Shakespeare and South Bend, and they served us quite well. Mine was all shiny and new in 1958 but Doc’s had been around a while and some of the guides were held on with black electrician’s tape. To say the man was not an equipment freak is an understatement.
The only flies we used were Rio Grande Kings, Royal Coachmen, and something called a Gray Hackle Yellow. In fact we didn’t even know about fly shops. We bought our flies at the hardware store, right next to the shovels and pick axes. The flies were all “snelled”, which meant they had a 3” piece of what appeared to be fifteen-pound test monofilament tied to the eye, with a big loop on the other end. One wall of the hardware store featured paper tracings of huge trout that had been hauled out of the surrounding waters. The name of the angler, trout’s weight and fly pattern, lure, or bait on which it was taken was written inside the outline of the fish. Doc and I would stare at those lunkers and hope that someday we would add a tracing of our own to the wall, but the biggest fish of the trip for us was always a thirteen or fourteen incher, flopping in the cabin sink and rapidly losing its color. We later learned that many of those “wall fish” were caught by local fishermen in the spring before runoff. We tourists were left to thrash the warmer July and August water for the little ten to fourteen inchers.
I didn’t own a fishing vest until much later. Besides rod and reel my equipment consisted of an old army gas mask bag for the few flies I carried, a pair of long-nosed pliers, a pocketknife, and an aluminum-frame net with an elastic cord. Dry flies as opposed to wet flies? Tapered leaders? Get serious! We tied straight sections of monofilament – usually the same six-pound test we’d been using for crappie – onto the looped end of the snell and started fishing. As long as the fly floated it was a dry fly. When it sank it became a wet fly. The trout didn’t seem to care and neither did we.
And yes, we ate some of the trout we caught. We stayed in the cabin ten days, tried to have a fresh trout dinner once or twice, and we usually managed to take home a possession limit. We never violated the regulations and Doc was proficient enough to release many more trout than he kept. I, on the other hand, was so proud of myself when I managed to actually catch a limit that I would put them on wet grass in my “creel” to keep them fresh while I took them around to show people in the other cabins. It was only after I became a more efficient predator that I discovered the joys of catch and release.
That first year my attempts at trout fishing were bumbling at best. I wore a borrowed pair of leaky stocking foot chest waders and my “wading boots” were high-top Ked sneakers. We didn’t know about felt soles yet, so I slipped and fell in the river a lot. However, to my surprise, when I kept my fly out of the trees and got it into the water I found I could occasionally bag a few small brownies and rainbows.
Years later a photograph of the opening day crowd at a popular Missouri trout park appeared in a national magazine. In the photo fishermen were literally lined up shoulder-to-shoulder waiting for a siren to blow signaling the start of trout season. I showed the photo to Doc and he thought it was a joke.
“You’re kidding me,” he said, staring in disbelief at the photo. “Nobody would fish like that.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was true.
Eventually Doc and I started fishing the Rio Grande twice a year, the second trip coming in the fall with a small group of other men. The weather was crisp, the aspens were bright yellow, and the trout were still reasonably cooperative.
Doc was usually head cook on these outings, and he said that after he got too old to fish he still wanted to come out with the group to cook for us and play cards. But a strange thing happened. As he grew older his wading and fishing skills stayed fairly sharp but his cooking deteriorated to the point where he had to be gently persuaded to let someone else take over most of the kitchen duties.
As I look back on fifty years of fishing Colorado I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything. Oh, I could do without some of the burnt biscuits, the scorched trout, and the dunkings I took while balanced in rubber soled boots on slippery rocks. But over all they are some of the most enjoyable memories of my life and I can hardly wait to get back out there and make some more.