The Worst Day Fishing…

You remember that old quote, “The worst day fishing is better than the best day working”? Well, not necessarily.

Recently, my husband Gene and I got up early in Purgatory, Colorado (It’s really Heaven), and drove 90 minutes to the San Juan River in New Mexico. We were excited to fish for “the big one.” 

I love that river. It was the first place I went fly fishing on my own; that was in 1997. I caught one fish that day, with a guide, in the snow; it was about 8 inches. But it was a milestone fish.

San Juan River, November 1997

Gene and I parked near Texas Hole, a large area near the Navajo Dam within the Quality Waters section, where only single, barbless, artificial flies are allowed, and trout must be “carefully” released. These fish – rainbows and browns – average 16-18 inches. (In 2019, Mary Freelove of Round Rock Texas, caught a 30-inch brown trout!)

So, we pull on our socks, waders, and boots. We load our vests with flies, floatant (stuff to keep the yarn indicators afloat, so you can tell if a trout is interested), tapered leader (attaches to your line), tippet (fine line to tie onto the leader when you’ve lost flies, and had to keep trimming the tippet to tie on new ones), nippers, forceps (for removing hooks from the fish), retractors (to pin on your vest and hold your nippers and forceps), and line straighteners. Then there are the extra flies, weights, and indicator yarn. I put my medicine, Kleenex, and lip gloss in a special vest pocket, and slip my phone into the plastic zippered holder that flips upside-down inside the front of my waders.

Yep. Fly fishing really is this much trouble. But once you get the hang of it, it feels natural.

We don’t want to leave our spots to eat lunch because they’ll be quickly taken, so Gene puts the picnic into the zippered pocket on the back of his vest, and I offer to take the two large waters in mine. I grab my walking pole, which attaches to my belt. (My balance is not good, due to Parkinson’s, so the walking pole, which I use as a fishing staff, is like having an extra foot in the sometimes slippery river bottom.) And off we go!

We walk down the path to the channel we need to cross to get to the thicket we will fight our way through to get to Texas Hole, a deep area in the river where your chances of catching “the big one” are the best. (Trout don’t move much from their territories, so when you find a good spot, you go back to it, unless someone else has been there recently.)

When we get to the channel, which is two to three feet deep, the current is fast, and the rocks are slippery. Gene takes my rod and I hold his hand and use my pole to cross. Then we fight our way through thick growth, taking care not to get our lines caught. (Thank God for hats!)

Gene waits for me in a portal to Texas Hole

We emerge from the thicket, and there’s the San Juan in all its glory! And it’s a beautiful, overcast day. The water is clear and the usual 42 degrees — it’s nearly always 42 degrees because it comes from the bottom of Navajo Dam. There are about seven guys wading and a few guides with their clients in drift boats out in the river.

San Juan River, just below the dam

Gene gets me situated near the mouth of one of the channels – a perfect spot to cast to, as the fish like to lie on the bottom and grab your fly as it goes by. There’s a guy down channel from me casting up past me and hogging the whole area. I do my best for the next hour or so to stay out of his way, but I can see he’s annoyed. I finally manage to get tangled in his line, and he untangles them and throws mine to me in disgust. “Damn women!” I can hear him thinking. Meanwhile, Gene has waded about 100 feet from me, and catches a nice rainbow.

Another hour goes by, and I need to pee, so I carefully make my way to Gene and let him know that I’m going to go back through the thicket and into a little clearing where I can hide behind some trees.  I turn around and begin to make my way carefully through the water, when – you guessed it – the current is too fast for me, I slip on the moving stones, and fall. My waders begin to fill, and the bottles of water in the back of my vest pull me backward, and I can’t get up!

Gene gets there quickly, and the bully — I mean the guy who’s been hogging the channel — kindly asks if I need help. (I hate it when I don’t want to like somebody, and they turn out to be nice.) After thanking him, Gene gets me to my feet and walks with me to the portal in the thicket, through the jungle to the clearing, waits while I pee behind a tree, and then carefully gets me to the other side of the channel. (Yes, this man is a saint. Well, most of the time.) Meanwhile, the 42-degree water inside my waders is beginning to penetrate my feet and legs.

We walk down the path to the picnic area, and out to the parking lot, my teeth chattering. First order of business, of course, is to pull out my phone, and it’s fine – Hallelujah! Then it’s off with my hat, my vest, my boots, and my waders (which takes two of us, as the booties, which are attached, are filled with water). My socks are a challenge, but I get them off and put on my flip flops, grab my dry clothes, and make my way to the women’s bathroom in my wet shirt and leggings.

Teeth chattering, and standing on the cement floor of the bathroom, I finally peel off the leggings, which were stuck to me, and take a good look at my feet. They’re bright red from the cold.

I get dressed, make my way back to the car, and sink into the front seat. Gene has eaten, and as I start my lunch, he walks back to the river to resume fishing. I’m not about to ask him to stop when it took 90 minutes to get here.

So, that was my day at the San Juan – August 11, 2021. But I’ll be back because I love this river. And I’m like the little girl in the pile of poop: I know there’s a pony in there some place!

Epilogue: We had better luck two weeks later:

Fishing, Life, and Me

Day 1

We arrived at Silver Creek*, wind blowing 20-30 miles an hour, with gusts of 40. If you know anything about flyfishing, you know it’s tough to fish in the wind. The line is heavy, but the flies are light, the opposite of spin fishing; so it’s not uncommon for the wind to blow back every cast you make. And the knots are insane.

It had been a four-hour drive, and I was tired (and not exactly ecstatic over the weather conditions), so I used the porta-potty, washed up, and took a nap in the car while Gene caught a nice rainbow trout. I got up and, protected as well as possible from the maddening wind, rigged my rod inside the open car door.

Thirty frustrating minutes later, I walked out to the creek and saw huge rainbow trout moving slowly in the clear, choppy water. Suddenly I remembered how much I love to fish. I caught up with Gene, just as he was catching his second trout, a 16” beauty. I could hardly wait to get going.

On my first cast, the wind blew my fly right back at me and tangled the tippet so badly, it took half an hour to untangle it. I had to kneel on the ground (I should have prayed while I was there), my back to the wind, slowly undoing the tiny nest. Finally, I got ready to cast, and noticed I had missed a guide when I threaded the line. I untied the fly, rethreaded the rod, tied the fly back on, and it was time for lunch.

Feeling more optimistic after hot chocolate, I barely got the fly into the air, and the wind threw me another knot. After an ungodly length of time getting it out, I needed to pee again. I walked to the loo, returned to the car, and battled the wind while tying the tippet to the leader with a double surgeon’s knot (if I did catch one of these giants, I wasn’t going to lose it because of a weak knot), tied on a chamois fly, and turned to walk back out to the creek. The wind was blowing harder, and although Persistence is my middle name, I suddenly changed my mind. “Hell with it,” I said to myself, and got in the car to read my book. Gene returned a short time later, having caught a third fish.

Lesson for the day: You won’t catch fish if your line isn’t in the water.

Day 2

Today we walked to the Silver Creek Fish Hatchery, where the trout can be 26 inches. It was about 30° and raining lightly, but there was hardly any wind. Then it began to snow, and we found cover under a juniper tree. I was reminded of one of our first dates – fishing at Willow Springs nearly 24 years ago – and I wondered if Gene would kiss me under that tree. But he was in task mode, and next thing I know, he’s a few feet away, standing under a different juniper with thicker cover. So much for romance. I held onto my rod and watched the snow land gently on my arm, and in a few minutes, the snow gave way to a bit of sunshine and we were on our way again.

We got to the hatchery, where there are picnic tables and a porta-potty. “Yay!” I thought. We fished for five hours, and I tried every fly recommended for Silver Creek: a dark pink salmon egg, a chamois, a black leach with a streak of red, a light pink salmon egg, a Parachute Adams, and a caddis. I had one bite, but the damn fish ate my fly and swam away.

Photography is one of my passions, so when I couldn’t stand the disappointment, I photographed the gorgeous scenery, got video and pictures of Gene catching another big rainbow, and took video of a young guy as he caught two monsters, one on a leach and one on a PMX.  

Gene caught another rainbow, and we headed into the magnificent sunset. Well, I thought, at least I got my steps in today.

Lessons for the day: 1) When you allow two passions to pull at you simultaneously, one of them is probably going to get short shrift. 2) Luck is often a reflection of focus and discipline. But sometimes luck is just fickle. 3) You won’t catch fish if your line isn’t in the water.

Day 3

We arrived about noon; it was sunny, and the wind was blowing about 10 miles an hour. It felt perfect. We decided to stay at the front section of the creek, rather than walking the mile and a quarter to the hatchery, since we wanted to be home in Phoenix before dark. Gene was committed to coaching me to victory,

I had taken the time that morning to rig my rod, decide what flies I was going to use, and organize my vest so that I had everything I needed when we got to the water. Nothing except a trip to the loo was going to take me away from the task at hand: today I would catch the big one.

We started casting and I paid rapt attention to the line, anticipating that adrenaline rush. Bang! Gene hooked one, and after some excitement, got the feisty thing to the net, deftly removed the hook, and released a beautiful rainbow. After an hour, we decided to go around to the other side of the creek.

They say that if you can see the fish, they can see you. I found a break in the reeds where I could cast and then move behind cover that I could peek through. I tried a zebra midge. Nothing. I pulled out my favorite, a black woolly bugger, and cast into the stream. No luck.

I set down my net and walked back to the parking lot to – you guessed it – use the John. When I returned, an old guy was sitting in my spot, looking as if he had sprouted from the ground, so at one was he with that exact spot.

He turned out to be a nice guy about 75, sitting in a sort of walker/chair, which allowed him to sit near the water, cast, and pull in a fish without having to stand.  I asked Richard about sitting in full view of the fish. “What do you do about that?” I asked. And I got the best advice of the day: “I let ‘em get used to me,” he said.

I moved to another even better place on the edge of the creek, where I could cast and then sit down on a built-in seat along the muddy shore. With my feet planted firmly in front of me, waiting patiently for the fish to “get used to me,” and ready to stand and finesse a huge trout at a moment’s notice, I cast my fly and waited. Enough said.

Just then an older guy walked by on his way to the parking lot, and I asked him how he’d done. “I’m frustrated,” he said. “I’ve been here since 8:00 and haven’t caught a single fish.” I told him I was having an awful time getting the line through the glue-filled hole of a new fly. He offered me one of his, not to keep, but to use to poke a hole through the glue in my fly, which I did, and voilà!

I returned Ted’s fly, went back to fishing, and 30 minutes later, still no fish and it was time to head home.

We walked to the car and I felt happy. I had learned a lot in three days… about fishing, about life, and about me. Today I learned that some days, no matter what you do, the fish just aren’t biting. Don’t take it personally. And although I already knew it, I was reminded of John Ray’s famous observation, “Misery loves company.” Oh, and I learned that sometimes I would rather take a picture or talk to somebody than focus on fishing, and that comes with a price. But for me, it’s worth it.

  • Silver Creek is a 45-mile-long stream north of Show Low, Arizona, in the White Mountains. It’s a tributary of the Little Colorado.