|On the road to the Cimarron
Day One: August 24
The web seems to demand a certain amount of narcissism, so I guess I'll go along with the tide. Over the next week, I'll report from the field what's happening on my fishing trip to the Cimarron River in northern New Mexico and share some pictures along the way.
This trip comes out of a promise I made myself when I retired that I would come up and fish the Cimarron in the fall. I used to fish the river for a couple of days in August when I was shooting the metallic silhouette championships at Raton, roughly every other year. Then I quit shooting in 1998, and have only made one trip up here since, in May of 2005, when I delivered a load of furniture to my brother-in-law. The river was murky with snow melt then, but I still caught fish.
I know, it's not fall yet. I really wanted to be here about the second week of September, but things just didn't fall into place for that. Most schools should be back in session tomorrow, so I think the river won't be too crowded.
So, here goes a blow by blow account of the trip. I left Lufkin about 6:15 this morning, in a light fog after an overnight rain. I guess I whined about traveling in my noisy little Honda CR-V so much my wife had pity on me and let me drive her 2005 Nissan Murano, on pain of death if I spill coffee in it or leave it smelling like fish. It's probably the best road car we've ever had--quiet, powerful, smooth riding on 18-inch wheels, and has that Constantly Variable Transmission that doesn't have shift points like a conventional transmission. Sunday traffic was light, although I caught every red light on the south side of Tyler. I went through Fort Worth quicker than Tyler!
Sound track from Tyler to Fort Worth
|After one stop in
Decatur for Starbucks, I was in for the long haul. U.S. 287 all the way to
Dumas: four lanes, divided, 70 mph speed limit except for all the
dying farm towns between Wichita Falls and Amarillo.
Back in the day, when the speed limit was supposedly 55 and a lot of 287 was 2-lane, it was a good day's drive to leave Lufkin at 6 a.m. and get to Amarillo before dark. Today, I passed Amarillo at 4 p.m. and drove all the way to Clayton, N.M., before I stopped. I'm staying at the Clayton Super 8, which is OK but seems a little pricey at $70. Gas on the way has ranged from $3.29 (one Valero station just outside of Dallas) to $3.78 in Dalhart. Most of the way, it was around $3.50. My big disappointment was finding out that my favorite place to eat in Clayton, the Rabbit Ears Cafe, is closed Sunday and Monday. I used to stop and eat pancakes there just about every trip through. I had to settle for a third-rate Pizza Hut with a out-of-square door that yelped like a kicked dog every time it opened.
Tomorrow, three more hours to Eagle Nest.
|Day 2: First shot at
After a sparse and starchy complimentary breakfast that was half an hour late, and a fill-up at Shell ($3.69/gal), it's on the road west from Clayton to Springer on NM56--80 miles with only the Gladstone General Mercantile store in the middle. This may be the best scenery in the whole of the West. Imagine coming across these great basins in a wagon, when you could travel for a week and still see your first campsite! Not as many pronghorn on the plains as I remember, but still quite a few. The bigger bucks seem to like to stand right next to the fences by the road.
On through Springer to Cimarron, and then up the canyon to Ute Park for a fishing license--$29 for 5 days. There's also a new $5 per day use fee for the canyon park. It's been raining a lot up here and the river through Philmont is running pretty dingy. It gets better up the canyon, but actually gets a little murkier higher up. Flow is very low--3 cfs as opposed to the normal 18-20. The banks are also grown up in weeds worse than usual, all of which makes fishing challenging. Most of the casts are not much more than leader-length, into tiny little holding pockets. A few spots allow longer casts. Early on, it becomes obvious that a big attractor dry fly is the way to go. I fish Lime Trudes and Royal Wulffs all day, with moderate success. By noon, the bite is played out, and fish are spooking off the riffles ahead of me. The rainbows I caught are pretty decent--12 to 13 inch fish. The browns are smaller, but more plentiful. In all I landed a couple of rainbows, and 6 or 7 browns, hooked up and lost about that many more, and missed a good number including one bigger fish that hit a strike indicator before I switched over to floating flies. I finally give it up about 3:00 and go on up to Eagle Nest to check in to the motel. The 4:00 thunderstorm isn't far behind. If it moves on through, I'll go back down for the late bite.
The thunderstorm moves on out about 5:30, but it's still raining a little when I go back to the river. The fish are in the beaver pond below Tolby campground. In the deeper hole at the dam, I get three 12"+ rainbows to hand, and any number of hits and short hookups, on olive and brown buggers. These are hard hitting, hard running fish; actually a challenge to land. Two more rainbows and a respectable brown come out of the upper reaches. This isn't classic trout water--it's dingy with runoff, with a muddy bottom and lots of weeds. But it's full of fish. At any one time, there were four or five fish feeding actively on the surface. Strangely enough, though, they would hammer the buggers and let surface flies go. Lots of good hits without hookups though--don't quite know why. Finally give it up about 7:30 as I'm getting pretty chilled. Temps today have gone from mid-50's to mid-80's back to mid-50's.
for the Open Range
Hard Fishing in the Canyon
I'm staying at the Econo-Lodge in Eagle Nest, which is the new incarnation of the old Moore Rest Inn. It's been slicked up quite a bit, but it's still a pretty down-home place. Deborah the manager is really good at what she does. Anybody who shares the office with a people-friendly black cat can't be bad. One of the perks of the place now is a custom cooked waffle breakfast--blackberry is the specialty.
After breakfast, I head down into the canyon, with plans to start in the special water below Tolby campground. There was supposed to be a permit station there to get the daily permit--of course it was empty, so I had to drive all the way down to the Blackfoot tent camp area to get a permit. I pulled four out of the box so I'll have one to file each day. Rather than drive all the way back up the canyon, I fished the lower section in three or four places. I'd call the fishing fair at best, even though I probably caught a dozen or more trout. No real quality fish except a decent brown up in the catch and release water. Yesterday's dry fly pattern was gone; almost all my fish came on an olive no-bead bugger fished like a soft hackle--cast upstream and just keep it moving down. Fish wouldn't hit it fished down and across. It was a hard morning on flies. I probably left a dozen in the trees. This river has always had a lot of overhead cover, but it seems worse now than it's ever been.
I kept a couple of middlin' rainbows to cook for lunch; at the picnic area I talked to the woman in the stocker truck. She'd just put fish in that section, the tourists will vacuum them out by the weekend. The fish I ate weren't the best I've ever had. They had that hatchery taste that Randy calls "dogfood." After lunch, I went back up river and fished a run of the quality water that usually holds a lot of fish. I caught one 12" brown and one 9" rainbow. Fish were spooking off the shoals and blowing the hole before I could really fish it. I don't know why they're moving out into 3 or 4 inches of water in the middle of the day, but there they are. I quit about 3 as the daily thundercloud started to build--don't think it will be as serious as yesterday's.
|Day 4: Early Bird gets
I tried to wait around long enough to get a waffle this morning, but finally gave in a went down to the river. My normal wake-up time of 6 a.m. turns into 5 a.m Mountain Time, and I just can't hang around two more hours to get fed, good as it is. I started at the beaver pond this morning, then worked my way up through the catch and release water to the campground. I gave up trying to count fish; suffice it to say that it was pretty steady for a couple of hours on rainbows averaging 12" and the odd brown (a couple of them pretty odd indeed--see the picture). Same fly, same technique, but a little slower. This section of stream has some good cut banks with overhanging willows, and the tactic was to try to get a drift through the deepest, darkest section of the cut. Every little hole held one or two fish that I either caught or hooked. Because of the tight water and short casts, I'm fishing a much shorter leader than the normal 9-footer I'd fish for trout. Six feet, tapering down to 4X, seems about right. There's no need for light tippet given the murky water, and 4X lets me get a lot of flies back out of the trees that I'd otherwise lose. I'm fishing exclusively with the TFO 8 1/2-foot four weight I bought last winter just for this kind of fishing. It's got enough muscle to throw Buggers up to size 10, but handles tight quarters and small flies equally well. I suppose this is my "goldilocks" rod because the 9-foot 5-weight is a little too much, and the 7 1/2-foot 3 weight isn't quite enough. This one's just right.
After fishing the first section, I went downriver to fish another stretch of the quality water and caught two or three more fish, but the bite was pretty much played out by then. I also went back to a place where I saw a bunch of trout yesterday, but they're too spooky to catch. One fish will charge through a hole and panic the rest, no matter how carefully I approach. If I could stay back far enough to make a decent cast, I could catch these fish, but they're in a really thick spot that limits the back cast to almost nothing.
Lunch today was at the Lucky Shoe, my
favorite hangout in Eagle Nest. It's a shrine to John Elway and the
Denver Broncos, and has the best food in town. I was about to get a
hamburger when the waitress mentioned the green chilie enchilada lunch
special. I'm a sucker for green chilie enchiladas, have been ever
since I got introduced to them the year I lived in Tatum, NM, back in the
60s. Big chunks of beef, not ground, and enough chilies to heat it
up without burning it out. Top it off with a Red Hook IPA draft and
I couldn't have eaten better. They make the best Caesar salad I've
ever eaten as well.
The daily thunderstorm didn't materialize today. Looked like Red River might have gotten a good one, but it never made it over the pass into the river canyon. As a result, I had clear skies until dark, which might have changed the fishing. I tried the section right below the beaver pond, but it's full of weeds, with only little channels through them. There are plenty of fish, because I can see them spooking out ahead of me. I caught one little brown on a yellow hopper. This is a new fly, made of nothing but light yellow Poly yarn and some rubber legs. It floats pretty good, and has good visibility. It may be worth keeping in the box. I got a couple more hits on it as well. I tried the beaver pond from below, standing on the back of the dam. I caught two browns; one about 12" and one about 15". Couldn't keep the line from tangling in the sticks, so I went around to the upper end, and caught three more browns--one 9", another 12" and another 15", all on some variation of the olive bugger. I couldn't catch a fish out of the upper section, but I caught one more rising brown out of the flat part of the pond, and missed a couple more, on a size 16 gray emerger, fished floating. I finally caught one rainbow out of the eddy above a tree at the upper end of the pond. Where the other rainbows went, I don't know.
|Day 5: Can't
land a fish
I had intentions of trying the lake shoreline early this morning, then coming back for a waffle. As I was about to leave, a fellow with a black and white Brittany asked me if I was from Lufkin--turns out he used to live in Hudson when he commanded the National Guard unit there. And he also used to live in Cotter, Arkansas, so we had to find out who knew who and so forth. His name is Bob Norvell. By that time, waffles were on and I never got to the lake. Later at the river, I had a tough time with fish. I started in the beaver pond and never got a hit, then worked up through the quality water to the campground. I finally put one fish in hand right past the Special Water marker--in all, I hooked 7 fish and landed one. Same story further down--at one point I was 1 for 9. I don't know if the fish weren't taking the fly all the way and were getting lip hooked, or if I was sloppy. I finally picked up 5 or 6 stocker rainbows working up from the day parking lot where I fished Monday. The river is getting a lot clearer, and I could see fish, all in tiny little pockets right against the bank. The river gods must like me; I thought I had sacrificed my magnifier glasses and a wader belt, but I found the belt at the parking area where I dropped it, and found the glasses outside the privy in the campground, where I had laid down my chest pack. I gave it up about noon and came in for lunch (Portobello Mushroom salad at the Lucky Shoe, with a Widmer Bro's Hefeweissen draft--excellent). I'm going to go back out a little earlier today--only one more half day left.
Starting early didn't get much result. I started on one of the heavily wooded loops between two bridges, and caught a nice 14" rainbow on about the third cast. I've learned to target any little pocket against the bank, particularly on the shaded side of the river. Nothing else came to hand in this section, although I had a couple of hookups with smaller fish.
|Day 6: Last gasp
on the Cimarron
Never trust what you hear in a fly shop. The guys at Dos Amigos in Eagle Nest swore that fishing the shoreline of Eagle Nest Lake early in the morning was a good way to catch bigger trout. I tried it for an hour without a tap and without seeing any sign of feeding fish. Maybe I was in the wrong part of the lake. Speaking of fly shops, I made the mistake of asking about a sign advertising private water fishing in a stream and a pond. I expected maybe a $40 or $50 daily rod fee, which would be acceptable for a shot at bigger fish. How about $175 for 4 hours, escorted but not guided! I guess I'm out of touch with the cost of fishing, but to pay half as much as I spent on four nights lodging for four hours of fishing seems extravagant. But then, I'm just an old retired schoolteacher. I suppose I'd better be satisfied with fishing public water.
On the river, I fished the beaver pond up through the quality water with only one little brown out of the beaver pond, and a couple more light hookups. A lot of fish were just tugging at the fly without really taking it. Maybe I've fished this section too much, or maybe the fish just aren't feeding. One thing that is really starting to bug me is trying to fish in just a few inches of water--all the time the line gets caught under my feet, or I step in a loop of it and get tangled. I probably will have to replace this 4-weight line as it's pretty badly abraded from being ground against the rocks.
|Down the river in
the run between the first day use parking lot and the bridge at the start
of the quality water, I got another decent brown and a couple of
rainbows. This section was a beaver pond three years ago, and it
still hasn't grown back any overhead cover. Some good holes but it's
beaten down by the Power Bait anglers.
I finished the morning down below the tent campground, crawling over blowdown logs to get one more little brown and a couple more hits, then gave it up about noon Texas time. All that's left is a 14-hour drive back to Lufkin. The first leg is to Childress, with nothing notable except a thunderstorm around Clarendon and a "Nowhere but Texas" moment in Amarillo when I pulled up at a light behind a new Lincoln Navigator with Farm Truck plates. I guess it's just the thing for hauling hay. Dinner is the buffet at Dawson's in Childress. If they work hard on it, they could rival the school cafeteria. Overnight at what appears to be the Calcutta Rodeway Inn--but it's clean and reasonable. As my old shooting buddy Hutch used to say, all you need on the road is "a cot and a hot."
Soundtrack for a hard ride
|Day 7: 8
Up at 5 and on the road at 5:20, looking forward to one high-calorie road breakfast at Denny's in Wichita Falls. I used to complain about the senior discount; now that I can get it, it's a great thing. I got to Denny's in the middle of a management crisis--new computers, waitresses that didn't have a clue, and a manager who obviously couldn't manage. The food, when I got it, was good, but service was slow and incomplete. I never even got a coffee refill, which is just as well as it was terrible. There were more fat people in the cafe than in Wal-Mart on Saturday afternoon. Gas at $3.59, stop in Decatur for a Starbucks, and then through the metroplex. Even though it was Labor Day weekend, traffic was light and moving at highway speed all the way--until I got out the other side onto I-20 at Terrell. From there to Tyler, both lanes were full and in many cases slowed down. Every time the pack broke up and cleared the left lane, some idiot would pull out and drive 60 while he inched around somebody in the right lane driving 59. It finally got better about Canton. One more stop to top off the gas in Jacksonville, then home about 1:15. Love bugs started showing up about Alto. Welcome back to East Texas.
fuel, lodging, and incidentals, I spent between $800 and $900 for the
week. By a lot of standards, that's a pretty cheap week of fishing,
but it seems like a big jump over what it cost the last time I was out
West. The biggest jump was in lodging and food; the higher gas cost
was mostly offset by driving a more fuel-efficient vehicle.
Fishing in general was fair. I think I averaged about 12 trout a day, which for most anglers would seem pretty good. But I've had much better success in the Cimarron. I would normally expect 20 to 30 fish days, but I think the low water just made the fish too spooky to catch consistently. On the up side, the average size was a little better than usual, particularly the rainbows. I was also a little disappointed by the fly selection. I'd like to have been able to fish soft hackles and such instead of having to throw the Wooly Bugger all week. Buggers are great flies, and I'll never complain about a fly that catches fish, but there's not much finesse in fishing with them. I'll need a week in the shop to refill my bugger box; I pretty much cleaned out all the olive and brown patterns. I did get a few ideas, including a new very simple hopper pattern. But now, if we survive Hurricane Gustav, which promises to camp out over Lufkin and rain for 3 days, I'll get back to business and start thinking redfish--the next three months should be prime.