I’m approaching the age that Colette delicately described as “agggh! … halfway to 90,” so lately I’ve been looking over my Life List, the catalog of things I want to get done before I start wearing diapers again. No. 1 is Golden Years stuff and thus can wait—“Replenish yourself by taking the time to reread all of (somebody, but first double-check: Have I ever read all of anybody?).” No. 2 may have to be scrapped because the government’s Department of Lying About Atlantis continues to ignore my calls and e-mails. Then I come to No. 3, which pulls me into its net: “Learn to catch trout.”
That one’s challenging, since I bite at fishing. During my first stint living in New Mexico (1994-1996), I caught the fly-fishing bug big-time and made all the usual rookie mistakes. I bought an expensive fly rod that I didn’t know how to use and started waving it around like a ratchet-elbowed goofball. One day I borrowed a pair of waders that didn’t fit, stepped into a spring-runoff stream that was moving dangerously fast, got knocked down by rapids, got wrapped around a submerged log like a Gumby man, and almost drowned.
This time I decided to slow things down—a lot—which means my fly rod has stayed in its deadly scabbard while I’ve worked a slower apprenticeship using fishing methods that are easier for beginners. The big difference is that, instead of using flies and a fly rod, I’m using spinners and bait with a spinning rod, tactics that fly-fishing purists tend to refer to as Slob Fishing. (I do, too, but I say the term with pride.) What I especially like about spinners (shiny, tricky little guys with skirts and propellers that whir, flash, and pop as you reel them through streams and lakes) and bait (salmon eggs, worms, and, lowest of all, psychedelic-colored sparkle-glop called PowerBait) is that, with your mechanically zesty spinning reel, you can cast them safely from the shoreline. So there’s no chance of wandering into deadly riverine suck-holes. They also work really well, which is another reason purists frown. Slob-Fishing tools are mostly used by people who fish for meat, not for catch-and-release sport.
My fly-fishing friends are tolerating this ghastly lapse (barely) because they assume that I’ll eventually grow up and join them in the manly, ethical art of fly fishing. Which I will, eventually, but my dirty secret is that whatever happens, I’m going to keep up with my Slob-Fishing studies on the side. And I won’t always practice catch and release. When the purists say, with anguish, “Sometimes, rarely, I choose to catch and kill a trout,” I’ll reply: “Sometimes, quite often actually, I choose to catch and kill a whole stringer of trout. Then I slap them on the grill. Yum!”
This makes me sound like a resource-wasting jerk, but when you look at the reality of contemporary trout fishing, you’ll see that a lot of gill guilt is misplaced. The truth is, bait fishing is an inevitable fact of life, and state governments compensate for it with robust hatchery-and-stocking programs. In 2000-2001, for example, New Mexico raised and released 1.8 million trout, mostly full-grown rainbows and rainbow fingerlings, and you don’t have to look far to see the evidence. At every body of water I fished last spring, I was able to find tire tracks where the stock trucks had backed up, dumping their silvery loads. Bait guys keep careful watch on stocking schedules and plan their trips accordingly. A trout-purist friend calls this system an elaborate, aquatic food-stamp program, and he basically approves of it—as long as the bait people stay in their place. And their place is state-managed lakes, where fly fishermen don’t go anyway.
I got clued in to trout fishing’s dual nature when I went through a bait-fishing tutorial with my next-door neighbor Eloy, an old-school semiretiree who fishes for stocker trout with combat determination. I tiptoed down this path for a good cause: I wanted to gear up for a visit by my friend Ross, a 10-year-old kid from New York whom I’d promised to take fishing. Ross is too young for streams, and he can’t fly-cast anyway (a soul mate!), so I knew that bait was the way to go.
Eloy took me to a state lake about two hours north of Santa Fe, kicking off the day with his jaunty cry of “Sometimes you catch, sometimes you don’t catch!” We caught, though it was trickier than I’d imagined. The basic method: You use a weighted rig that keeps two hooks floating just off the bottom. You load these up with salmon eggs or PowerBait and chuck a cast. Then you wait. Eventually the trout cruise by and start lipping what to them must look like tasty gumballs. The difficult part is that they don’t strike hard, so you have to be ready to set the hook in a twitch.
Eloy had it down. He kept reeling in fish while I missed tap after tap. I eventually caught two, one of which hooked itself when I was off taking a wee-wee break. Eloy congratulated me patronizingly for “not giving up” and gave me his stringer of fish. They were all nearly identical rainbows—they must have graduated from the same stockery class. They looked natty and uniform on the grill.
Cut to two months later, and I set out on a weekend camping and fishing trip with Ross and his dad, Michael. I took them to Lake Eloy, and I won’t keep you in suspense: We didn’t catch nuthin’. In retrospect, I can see my crucial mistake: I still didn’t know what I was doing. For some reason it was a PowerBait day—I later learned that PowerBaiters on both sides of us caught their limits—but I went with salmon eggs. (Who knew? And why didn’t I just use both at once?) That, and we got there too late—9 a.m., by which time morning heat was pushing fish away from the shoreline.
Eloy knew all this, as he informed me later, rather cacklingly. He’d been in place by 6 a.m. at a different lake and caught his limit in 30 minutes using PowerBait. When I related my morning’s goofs, he looked at me like I was brain damaged. I slunk away, feeling like less than a man. Eloy must have sensed that he’d thrashed my soul, because he showed up shortly after, offering me his entire catch. Who says bait fishermen don’t have class?