Bats, Rats, and Rattlesnakes
Every fly fisherman has his favorite place. Mine is in New Mexico, but I'm not about to tell you where. Don't want the whole world fogging in, ruining my honey hole, and creating an even bigger tourist trap than is already there because of art galleries and antique shops and good fly fishing in general. However, I'm more than happy to let tell you a little about the fish a group of friends, two of my sons, and my son-in-law catch each year from my little river, and some of the weird things that happen to us.
Each year we go to this little gem, camp out, and fish for trout for four days. We kind of rough it, since we stay in an adobe cabin high in the backcountry. The cabin is an authentic re-creation of an 1800s New Mexico farm family residence. Since there is no electricity, we make do with a wood-burning cook stove and kerosene lamps. If it weren't for my kids and grandkids, my wife and I would probably buy that little piece of heaven and write articles for magazines and work on outdoor books. My wife Jody would paint landscapes, early New Mexican buildings, and wildlife and make beautiful stained glass windows. It always saddens me when we have to leave and come back to civilization.
My little river gets its start in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico. Normally, it's no more than 20 wide. Average width is more like 10 feet. Most times it's no more than knee deep, except behind an occasional beaver dam—then it'll get up to your waist. It's crystal clear and is one of the most "pristine" streams I've ever had the pleasure to wade. I've also drunk from it several times with no ill effects. (Purists might disagree with my drinking out of a mountain stream, but when you're extremely thirsty and out of water, spring and snow melt mountain water tastes pretty damn good.)
Each bank is lined with alders, cottonwoods, and aspens—very pretty in the summer and even more beautiful when the foliage begins to turn to the reds, golds, and purples of October. What I like best about my little river is the sound it makes as it rushes by the cabin. I love to lie on the front porch swing and listen to it as it rushes by the cabin. I like the sound of rain on a tin roof, too, but the playful tinkling and swishing of the little river is very soothing and puts me to sleep very quickly each night we're there. Could be because I'm so tuckered out from wading all day. Whatever!
The lower reaches are fairly flat and slow moving, but as you move upstream into the mountains, it picks up velocity and is a lot tougher to fish. Of course, if you don't mind the stronger current and steeper climb you'll be rewarded with much larger trout.
This year we arrived at the cabin with enough daylight left to fish for about an hour before dinner. The little river has rainbow, brown, and a few cutthroat trout scattered along the seven-mile stretch we fish. It’s an area we've fished for the last seven years and have always caught literally hundreds of trout each year. We only kill a very few for our annual trout supper on the night before heading home. The rest we release from barbless hooks.
All of us used to be fish counters, but last year after the eight of us had caught just shy of 700 trout in three days we didn't see the point anymore. We're all good fishermen and we'll catch our share of fish unless some catastrophe comes along, like a storm, a flood, or extremely low water, so why bother with counting? I seem to lose count after 12 to 15 fish anyway. In golf, we say "it ain't how; it's how many". Unorthodox golf swings have won more than one major golf tournament. In trout fishing, it's not how many I catch that's important, it's the how of it, matching the hatch, and pitting my wits against the wary trout. To me one of the most important aspects of trout fishing is just soaking up the sights and sounds of nature and being out in the fresh air away from the "rat race" of the big city.
Dinner our first night there this year was a culinary delight, consisting of buffalo T-bone steaks cooked on an outdoor grill, with baked potatoes, corn on the cob, a huge salad, and good drink. After the sumptuous meal we went inside the cabin and began getting everything ready for the next day's fishing, getting to bed just before midnight. We were awakened at 6 by the smell of country ham and eggs cooking to order by our "used-to-be" guide, Johnny Ulibarri. Part Navajo, part Spanish, mixed with other assorted New Mexican bloodlines and a real life rocket scientist, Johnny is the best trout fisherman I've ever seen. He guided for us the first year, but after 20 minutes of instruction and observing us cast, etc., he said, "You guys don't need any guiding. Go forth and fish." And we did. Johnny has been with us for seven years now, not as a guide, but as one of the gang.
It was very warm in Northern New Mexico this September, so we waded barelegged. The water was cool, but not bone chilling. We'd return to the cabin at 1 for lunch and a small siesta, then go back out and fish until 6 that evening. We always fish in pairs for safety's sake, me and my best friend Steve Taylor from Asheville, NC, my oldest son David and his friend Lee, my middle son Chris and my son-in-law, David Price, Jim Patton and David Jumper. Johnny always fished with Dick Spinn another friend of mine. David and Lee fished the upper reaches where it was too steep for us old guys, while the rest of us spread out over the bottomland where the wading was much easier, albeit the trout smaller.
By lunchtime, we'd had action aplenty. The unofficial tally, not counting my five measly fish, was 100 trout. Discounted by probably 25 percent for chubs and "truth stretching," it was probably more like 75. I was reminding everyone that we weren't counting fish this year, when my son David piped up and said, "Dad, when you catch BIG fish like we're catching, it's hard not to count." Rub it in David! No one asked me how many I'd caught and that was fine with me because I'm usually on the low end of the totem pole count-wise anyway and I wasn't about to admit to only five fish.
That evening Johnny made one of his special New Mexican dinners. It was a kind of "goulash," but with Johnny's homegrown green chilies, it couldn't have been better. But let me warn you. If you've never eaten green chilies, a condiment that accompanies most all New Mexican dinners, don't take a big bite. Go slow and have your antacid real handy. After dinner the cigars came out and the tall tales began. I headed indoors, for I get deathly sick on cigar smoke. I used to enjoy cigars, but many years ago, during my ill spent youth, I smoked and inhaled an entire box of rum soaked "crooks" over the period of a week and got very ill. To this day cigar smoke gives me the mother and father of headaches.
We were in bed by 9. Fighting the green chilies, we raced to get to sleep before Dick got his McCullough chain saw snoring machine into operation. Dick said he didn't snore anymore, because his new pro football nose spreader prevented it. Seven reliable witnesses can attest to the fact that if anything, his snoring was louder than previous years.
As I was dozing off, my son David, who was on a cot next to my pallet on the floor whispered, "Dad, did you just touch my foot?" I growled that I hadn't, and for him to go back to sleep. Not more than five minutes and several green chili burps later, something flew into my head. "What the hell was that?" I yelled as I jumped up and switched on my flashlight. Johnny yelled, "look out for the bat", which had swooped down toward me again. Lee got his trout net and tried to catch the bat. However doing it by flashlight with a trout net don't work. It took a while to get back to sleep, with all of us worrying about being dive bombed by the bat—and the green chilies.
Next day was bright and sunny. Breakfast was Southwest "kish," which consisted of scrambled eggs, picante sauce, sausage, onions, green chilies, and potatoes, all stirred and cooked in a Dutch oven and served with very strong, but delicious campfire coffee. I'll put our kish up against any you can get in a fancy restaurant anywhere. Real men eat Southwest kish!
We packed our lunch for we planned to stay out all day. Steve and I played "leap frog" as usual, changing places so that each could fish undisturbed water. The trout seemed larger today, if not as eager. I'd like to think that we were doing a better job of fooling them, at least Steve was, but with me it was probably just dumb luck.
Right after lunch we got into a bunch of browns, then upstream about a quarter-mile we got into rainbows. We caught a few cuttbows that ran around 10 inches—pretty fish. Around 3:30, Steve and I had completed our run and being pretty well bushed, we headed out of the stream and to the car for the seven-mile ride back to the cabin.
As we were ambling along the dirt road in Steve's Rodeo, we saw David and his friend Lee walking up the road. Steve had the sunroof of the Rodeo open and all the windows down and we were enjoying the clean mountain air. I noticed that David was carrying a plastic bag, which I assumed contained trout. Stopping, we asked the boys if they wanted a lift back to camp.
Without warning, David reached into the bag and yelled, "Catch, Dad!" as he tossed a dead timber rattler into my lap. I shot straight up out of the passenger seat and through the sunroof. I'm not repeating what I said, but it was worse than when the bat flew into my head. It ain't printable. According to Steve, God was looking after me by having Steve open the sunroof, for I'd have broken my neck if it hadn't been. This really got big laughs at supper, except from me. As the cigars came out and we got started on our customary fishing lies, David smiled that devious smile of youth as he said, " Dad, that's payback for the copperhead you pitched at me 20 years ago at Scout camp." I knew David would get even some day, but 20 years? He was lucky his old man didn't have a heart attack.
When we got back to camp, David and Lee demonstrated how they'd killed the snake. Seems that Lee had pinned it down with the butt of his fly rod while David cut the head off with his pocket knife. Scary! Even scarier when David told of his encounter, his coming out of the stream and sensing the snake just before it struck and jumping out of the way just in the nick of time. David fried the rattlesnake as a side dish for supper, but no one except him touched it and he ate only one small piece, remarking that it tasted like rubber and got bigger the more he chewed it.
We were in bed by 10:30 and sleep came quickly for all. I was too tired to worry about bats, and we'd found their roosting place anyway and there were only two of them, so it wasn't like a whole bat air force had attacked us. Somewhere around 1 in the morning, something crawled over my head. I yelled the same unprintable words that I'd yelled when David pitched the snake in my lap. Jumping up, I switched on my big flashlight and caught the rat in its beam, just as Lee yelled "Rat!" By this time everyone had their flashlights on and were laughing and pointing at the rat who was cowering by the corner of the fireplace hearth. Now this wasn't an ordinary barn variety rat. It was big! Patton said it was one of those kangaroo rats that can carry the Hanta Virus and went on for several minutes about a Hanta outbreak in New Mexico several years earlier. I wondered if I'd have contracted Hanta if the rat had bitten me. No one got any sleep the rest of the night, at least no one except Steve and David. They were the only ones lucky enough to have elevated beds. The rest of us were sleeping on air mattresses on the floor.
After a night that seemed to last forever, the last day of our outing came and it was time to load up for the long drive back home. Sorely depressed at having to leave that little piece of heaven, we loaded our gear and began our trips home. Steve headed to the Albuquerque airport for his flight back to North Carolina. My son David and his friend Lee to Austin, Texas. Johnny traveled to his home in Albuquerque. Dick, Patton, Jumper and I headed to Waco.
We now had another 12 months to think about and plan next year's trip. Bats, rats, rattlesnakes! What would be in the offering for next year? Bears? Wolves? Who cares, when you can catch as many fish as we did and have the companionship of two sons, your son-in-law, your best friend and other and good friends in the great outdoors. I will guarantee you one thing though. We'll all take cots next year!
© 2000 by Jimmy D. Moore, Waco