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.
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!)
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.
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: