SI Vault
Jack Olsen
September 02, 1963
An avid fisherman and amateur naturalist finds his days filled with both wonder and exasperation on a trip along the Colorado from lively Las Vegas to sleepy El Golfo, Mexico
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September 02, 1963

Colorado Jackpot

An avid fisherman and amateur naturalist finds his days filled with both wonder and exasperation on a trip along the Colorado from lively Las Vegas to sleepy El Golfo, Mexico

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Like a gambler trying to kick the habit, the Colorado River rushes westward toward Las Vegas, then makes a sharp left turn at the city limits and runs straight down the map to the Gulf of California. This left turn is a good thing not only for the Desert Inn and The Dunes and the Sahara and several hundred other palaces of gaucherie but also for those zany gamblers, the fishermen. The long sweep of flat water from Hoover Dam to the Mexican village of El Golfo, from steep mountains to parched desert, makes up as arcane and unpredictable a run of fishing water as is to be found anyplace in the world.

This is not necessarily because the stretch, 500 miles as the channel cat swims, is exactly overloaded with fish. In the vernacular of the movie critic, the Colorado would get only two stars, or maybe three on its very best days, so far as pure fishing is concerned. But the deep pools of green river, the sapphire man-made lakes, the twisting, canyon-hemmed gorges and the vast saline estuary at the river's mouth turn up natural jackpots and surprises that are not to be found in a mere fishing stream like the Beaver Kill or the Madison. The Colorado holds salmon that are not salmon, minnows that reach 60 pounds and feed on baby bass, weakfish that run up to 300 pounds, carp that fight like trout and vice versa, and a certain breed of turtle, the different parts of whose flesh rival a Howard Johnson ice-cream list for variety of flavors. The surrounding countryside is the home office of owls the size of sparrows, wild burros that rule water holes like longshore hiring bosses, rats that leap like Ralph Boston and a bird that is sui generis: the roadrunner, relative of the cuckoo, killer of snakes and general lunatic of the desert.

You can start a Colorado River fishing trip at the mouth of the river, but then you may run into the same problems faced by Ulloa when, under a Spanish flag in 1539, he sailed up the Gulf of California, took one look at the salty waste, the huge tidal bores and the oven-hot desert and announced that this was a good place to get away from fast, and did.

It is better, safer and more comfortable to start 500 miles north in the clear waters running through Black Canyon below Lake Mead. Twenty miles south of Hoover Dam, the river rounds a bend and comes upon two of the Colorado's natural wonders: the Crazy Canoe Cove Camp and Guide Tom Jester. The camp, run by Glenn Massey, calls itself HEADQUARTERS FOR FISHERMEN, HUNTERS AND ALL OTHER FANCY LIARS. The camp's slogan is: "They'll be hitting tomorrow," and a sign on the wall advises that ALL FISHERMEN ARE LIARS EXCEPT YOU AND ME AND SOMETIMES I'M NOT so SURE ABOUT YOU. The refrigerator stocks 20 different kinds of beer, most of them imported, and the dinner menu includes such delicacies as "tuna fish and strawberry jam sandwich, 60�" and "peanut butter and dill pickles, 50�."

Crazy Canoe Cove is the hangout of Tom Jester, once the sheriff of Kenosha, Wis. Jester developed asthma and came out to the Colorado "to see if I could have a little fun before the end of the line." He promptly regained his health and now, at 68, has become as conventional as the Colorado River, which is to say he is wildly unpredictable. For example, he fishes for trout with cheese. Not just any old cheese, but that 200% American cheese, Velveeta. "I've tried other kinds, but Velveeta stays on the hook best, and the trout seem to like it," he explains, thus reducing Camembert, Bel Paese and Port-Salut to the status of inferior baits.

Armed with half a pound of Velveeta and a box full of fancy lures, I went out on the river to fish with Jester and learned quickly that he knows his cheese. After fishing with buck tails, streamers, plugs, spoons, flies and the kitchen sink, I ruefully attached a tiny gold treble hook, covered it with Velveeta, made a sloppy roll cast, and promptly pulled in a foot-long rainbow trout.

Before wearying of this avant-garde fishing technique, I nailed seven more trout in an hour. They were all small; some fought with the toughness of their breed, and some in the lack luster manner of the hatchery, which was their finishing school. Every now and then there would be the most delicate wiggle of the flyrod's tip, followed by a more positive wiggle, followed by a yank, and out would come a one-or two-pound carp, strange Colorado River bedfellows of the rainbows. In the clear water of Black Canyon these gef�llte fish on the hoof are abnormally healthy and, perhaps inspired by the company they keep, put up a strong fight. One leaves them for the vultures and coyotes.

This Nevada section of the river is a sort of prototype of the whole stretch from Hoover Dam south through Needles, Calif, and Parker Dam, through Blythe, Calif, and Yuma, Ariz., and on to the Gulf. The water comes out of the base of Hoover Dam, 257 feet down, at a steady temperature of 52�-55� , just right for trout, which are as particular about water temperature as old ladies taking their evening bath. For 20 or 30 miles below the tailrace of the dam, trout abound. But then the fairly fast flow of water through Black Canyon runs into Lake Mohave, a warm and lazy bass lake, and a piscatorial phenomenon occurs. The cold water flows under the warm water, the warm water slides over the cold and the result is a sort of rolling motion that brings up vegetation from the bottom. On certain days this moss forms a visible line across the river. One stops his boat in the moss, casts upstream for trout and downstream for bass. Says Jester: "It isn't always that fine a line, but I've seen the day when you could put your hand in cold water on one side of the boat and warm water on the other."

The same fishing conditions exist, more or less, all the way down the Colorado. After Hoover Dam, which forms Lake Mead upstream and 30 miles of chilly water downstream, comes Davis Dam, which forms Lake Mohave upstream and 15 miles of trout water below. The pattern continues through three more major dams, although the trout fishing dies out almost completely on the last 200 miles of the river because of the blowtorch heat of the desert. Almost everywhere there are channel catfish ranging up to 30 pounds, good to fight and good to eat.

Almost as ubiquitous as the catfish are the water skiers, sworn enemy of the dedicated fishermen. To a man accustomed to, say, the lakes of Westchester County, N.Y. (no motors, no water skiing, no speedboating, no admittance whatsoever except fishing under permit), these broad Colorado River lakes can be unsettling. The young studs tool over from Los Angeles, dragging powerful boats behind them, their water skis jutting from the car. They hit Havasu Lake like lemmings, and turn it into a Sunday afternoon Battle of the Coral Sea. In Martinez Lake just above Yuma, the war between the water skiers and the fishermen is said to have been resolved amicably. The fishermen stick to the backwater sloughs and the skiers to the channels. But no one has explained how the fisherman is supposed to get to the sloughs without using the channels, a process roughly equivalent to crossing the Ohio Turnpike on a broken tricycle. The most refreshing trend has begun on parts of the river controlled by the Department of the Interior. There water skiers are restricted to zones, and if they slash their huge wakes out of their zones they stand in peril of getting a Bass-Oreno right between the eyes.

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