The Rio Grande tumbles out of the mountains of Colorado cramped between the walls of an immense canyon. Six hundred feet deep and 40 miles long, the canyon channels the river due south through the dry mesa country of northern New Mexico. A lesser river, dwarfed by these imposing heights, would pass down the gorge unnoticed. But the Rio Grande, which is determined to reach the sea, 1,885 miles from the river's source, draws the eye down to itself rather than to the walls of its prison. Without the river, the prison would be burnt and dying, like the mesa above. There would be no grass growing at the bottom, no cattle grazing on the banks, no beaver, no porcupine, no trails which men have chiseled out of the rocky walls in order to spend a few hours in the prison themselves.
Most of these trail makers arc fishermen. They have been lured into the "box," as they call the prison, by the size of the rainbow and brown trout that inhabit this part of the Rio Grande. From late spring to early fall you find the fishermen scattered from one end of the canyon to the other, balanced on boulders, sprawled on the banks, standing up to their chins in white water. And where you find them usually determines what kind of fishermen they are, whether soft, hard, or mad.
Ordinarily fishermen don't mix well. There is nothing a hard fisherman finds more loathsome than the sight of a soft fisherman. Mad fishermen he can endure for short spells, because in all probability he was once one himself, when he was younger. But now all those wild leaps and the mad haste seem to him unnecessary and faintly offensive. Soft fishermen, on the other hand, those for whom fishing is the next best thing to a bed, hate anybody who disturbs their sleep, while mad fishermen hate anybody who gets in their way.
The Rio Grande, however, unlike the usual trout stream, is big enough to support all three. And that is no small accomplishment.
Mad fishermen are the wild-eyed fanatics who would parachute into the box were not climbing into it harder. Their theory is that the most accessible fish are to be found in the least accessible water. So they fish places like Arsenic Springs, appropriately named and 26 miles upstream from the New Mexican village of Taos, where the trail is a mile long and almost perpendicular as it hurls itself down the eastern cliff. Descending is bad enough, but ascending is pure hell, especially at the close of a long fishing day. Water will log even a mad fisherman's bones, and trying to get those bones to the top after dark makes every muscle in his body cry out for peace at any price.
The thing that drives mad fishermen to such mad exploits is the size of the brown trout that have been raised in Arsenic Springs and other equally inaccessible places along the Rio Grande—raised but rarely caught: great shining slabs of trout that drift phantomlike up from the bottom, suck in a No. 6 hook, then, submerging, snap a heavy leader as though it were a 5x tippet. As fly-fishermen on the Florida Keys used to talk about jumping tarpon, so trout fishermen on the Rio Grande talk about jumping browns at Arsenic Springs.
No doubt many of these stories are phantoms themselves, haunting weary heads at nightfall. But even so the Rio Grande does carry a heavy cargo of big fish. The main reason is that so much of the river is hard to reach. You have to want to fish in a bad way to put up with all the discomforts, and the plain truth is that most fishermen do not want to fish at all: they simply want to get out in the sun.
Take soft fishermen, for example. On the Rio Grande they congregate along the only stretch of water in the box that can be reached by car. A dirt road progresses by many soft curves down to the river, crosses a bridge and then climbs up the other side, again curving softly. On weekdays the bridge has the river all to itself, but come Saturday, when the soft fishermen show up, it's like opening day in New Jersey.
Soft fishermen rarely get much farther from the bridge than a mile on either side. By then they have climbed enough of the big boulders for one day and seen enough water. So they find a cozy spot on the bank, heave out the old craw-dad, whose oozing life might attract a fish, and go to sleep.
Here then is a bird's-eye view of a small part of the box on a typical Saturday afternoon: several dozen softly sleeping fishermen are clustered on the fringes of gamboling dogs and children. A woman with nothing else to do is polishing the car. At the same time, four miles away, a lone figure with mad eyes is scaling the last 30 feet of a precipice that he hopes will lead him to a pool not five men have fished all year. In between, porcupines waddle through the sage, cattle (which have been trucked into the box in May and will be trucked out in October) graze along the banks and magpies quarrel, but not another person is in sight. Not yet, at any rate.