Remembering float-fishing in New Mexico

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The author's wife, Cherie, with the catch of the day.

In the realm of travel, nothing can approach a successful river run on good water, with the opportunity for some gamefish along the way. Okay, maybe if we could work some hunting into that river run, too. That should be next.

Browsing the magazine rack the other day - the most likely place, along with the local honky-tonk, to find me wasting my time - I spied a new outdoor magazine. At least it was new to me. River Runner featured a splashy cover, color inside, and some worthwhile information in regards to whitewater and float trips. I’m all in favor of whitewater and float trips, but what I looked for in River Runner was a fishing story. There was no fishing story, no fishing article at all. Fish weren’t even mentioned. From cover to cover, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles of water were covered, but as to fishing, River Runner obviously had other things on its mind.

I have this little book at home, a guide to river running in New Mexico. A moderately useful book which does say something about fishing. It says, in effect, fishing and river running don’t go well together in New Mexico because river running is done in the spring time, the water’s murky then, and so the fishing very poor. “Don’t bother,” is the message. I suspect if the author was a fisherman he would realize that the water isn’t always murky and, even when it is, you can often catch catfish till your arms ache, and catfish inhabit most any river you can run in New Mexico.

But there’s more. The “Bible” of the modern canoeist would have to be The Complete Wilderness Paddler by Davidson and Rugge. A very useful book this, a lively anecdotal ream of information full of good humor, and it is indeed complete. Except for fishing. In this, Davidson and Rugge are quite candid. They don’t know much about fishing, don’t much care, and they say so. But wanting to make their book “complete” they solicit the knowledge of a friend who does know something about fishing, and he is granted several sparse pages to tell us that fishing is a worthwhile activity when canoeing the wilderness, for which we fishermen are grateful.

And I almost bought a book this past weekend, a nationwide river running guide on display at a bookstore in Las Cruces. I didn’t buy it, because in all the hundreds of pages describing possible float trips coast to coast there was very little on the sport of fishing. In describing the Colorado River the author said bass, catfish and trout were available in places, but cautioned that the guided float trips allowed little time for fishing. On down! What is this? Granted, fishing is not for everyone. There is nothing inherently noble about the sport; it’s good if you like it and that’s about all. But statistics prove a lot of people do like it; even more people are fond of river running. I would have surmised there would be a lot of overlap amongst fishermen and river runners, but the literature on river running seems to indicate that we’re talking about two different sets of people. Myself, when I run a river, I’m gonna fish.

One spring day I put my thirteen foot canoe on the flow just below Socorro in order to run through the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in Southern New Mexico. There was a great rush of water going through and I expected excitement, catfish and some fine informal nature study on the float. There was plenty of excitement. It was a big runoff. Technically speaking, there were no rapids, but I was riding along at a speed that only a strong jog along shore could keep up with, and the sand waves would well up out of nowhere and a situation in a thirteen foot canoe became suddenly tenuous. The rise and fall was equal to anything I’d ever encountered on a windy lake. I worked my paddle hard to stay head-on to the waves, the water would slop in nonetheless, and just when I would begin to envision myself going down, the sand waves would disappear. A little bailing, or a dump-out ashore, and I was ready for the next rush. That was a good float. Lots of thrills, but nothing really to worry about. Either that or I had learned to quit worrying.

And the wildlife was there. The Bosque lines either shore, and though I was often close to roads or dwellings, my seclusion was secured by a jungle of cottonwoods, willow, alders and salt cedar. Mule Deer peered at me through the leaves at several places along the route. The dark cormorants, looking like a vague cross between a heron and a loon, stood watchful and at home on snags over the river. A coyote put on a wonderful display, lilting over a mud flat at full gallop, kicking up an ongoing and disparate spray with every foot down and glancing over his shoulder at a canoeist as he ran. But I caught no fish.

I picked my campsite for the night specifically for the backwash pool nearby that said “catfish.” I felt a channel cat was likely there and a flathead a real possibility. I had beef liver for bait, which is certainly more likely to entice a channel cat than a flathead, and I got a chunk of it on the bottom of that muddy pool hooked on the end of an eighteen inch sliding sinker. It was proper rigging, I thought, and a likely pool. During the night I was awakened as the rod bent down from a strong pull before the drag released the pressure. I rolled out of the bag and grabbed it and set the hook and after one more short, strong run the hook pulled out. It was a good fish, probably a catfish. But it was gone, gone, and that was all for the night.

The next day I floated on down through mellower water, gliding past the big, blackrock lava mountain to the take-out near San Marcial. A guy fishing by the railroad bridge there had a large channel cat caught, about the size of the one I had in my mind’s eye from the night before. He said his weighed twelve pounds. I don’t think he was exaggerating. In spite of his trophy, this local fisherman said this stretch of the river was not the best. It seems the Bureau of Reclamation “de-waters,” to use the parlance, this stretch of the river each year, putting the entire flow in the irrigation ditches. The river itself - the BOR calls it the “floodway” - dries up and the fish die in great gatherings, trapped in the mud wallows. The river must therefore repopulate each spring with the run-off, the fishing coming largely from downstream, out of Elephant Butte Lake. Still, twelve pounds is a nice channel cat. I left disappointed with my fishing results, but intrigued, again, by the possibilities.

That same spring, my friend Karen and I canoed the Caballo Dam to Hatch run, a twenty mile stretch of the Rio Grande through farm lands. This too, is “de-watered” a part of each year but a fine guitar picker at the Buckhorn Saloon in Pinos Altos told me a story of someone grabbling” a forty-seven pound flathead from out of the waters somewhere below Caballo Reservoir. Right away my blood was up. And friend Karen needed a little fresh air and some downtime. She also carried a far off hope that three days away from cigarettes in the company of someone who didn’t smoke them would cause her to kick the habit.

At the Percha Park, a state facility, we left my pickup and loaded that thirteen foot canoe at bankside. A young man with presumptions of authority kept mumbling to us something about a permit he felt we needed to be doing this. We nodded out heads, waved our paddles and shoved off. Permit my ass! There was plenty of water and with the silt filtered out by the dam it was fairly clear. I was certain hidden in the depths were a lot of forty-seven pound catfish, as well as walleyes and bass.

A Great Blue Heron lifted off ahead of us and led us downstream to our first camp, carrying my hopes for a fish killing I felt was long overdue. After supper, friend Karen helped me roll out and bait up the trotline which we presented to whatever fish might be interested in the likely piece of water we’d selected. Then we sat around the fire and I loaded up my pipe with a wonderfully aromatic blend from the only tobacconist in Silver City. Friend Karen sat on her hands, squirmed around like a nervous squirrel, then finally asked for a drag. I passed it over and she drew deeply, satisfying. Then she did it again. I thought I was going to have to get cross to get my pipe back! But I did get it back, and I finished the bowl. Later, I caught friend Karen rummaging around in my duffle. She found the pipe and tobacco; just luckily I’d planned well in bringing enough tobacco for two people.

There was good weight on the trotline in the morning. But no action. The weight was a preponderance of moss which had gathered along the cord and collected around each hook. No forty-seven pound catfish ever weighed so much! We were a good while disentangling the line and it began to look like a long way to Hatch. All day the sun shown on a good current which was swift but calm, and in spite of our proximity to modern agriculture were all manner of ducks, egrets, herons, muskrats, beavers and a school of large carp mouthing the surface as they scooped up the billowy cottonwood seeds that had landed there. I also saw many big chunks of moss float by. Each spring, it seems, the moss cuts loose in a river cleansing action, and I suppose if you were into watching moss you could say the timing was perfect. We’d hit the peak of the moss run.

Evening of second camp I left friend Karen by the campfire smoking my pipe while I waded the river, a big live tadpole I’d caught with my hands impaled on the hook as bait. I figured I could entice a nice fish before the moss got to my hook, but the moss always got there first. Within minutes the slow heavy pull of moss required me to reel in and clean my bait. Within minutes of removing all moss I felt that steady pull again. There was no escaping the green cloying stuff.

We made it to Hatch, hitched a ride back to my pickup and took the scenic route home. Friend Karen, seated on the passenger side smoking the last of my pipe tobacco, professed satisfaction with the trip; it was good downtime. Fishermen are not so easily pleased.

The Gila River in New Mexico offers a fine float trip for raft, kayak or canoe during the few weeks out of the year when there’s enough water for the float. Fishermen find Brown and Rainbow Trout, Smallmouth Bass, and Channel and Flathead Catfish at places along the flow. One who floats the Gila drifts through the land that Victorio, Mangas Coloradas, Geronimo and other Mimbres Apaches called home. Earlier, the cliff dwelling Mogollon peoples lived here. One can drift through the last great wilderness in the Southwest, the first designated wilderness nationwide. The fishing can be very good, in part because the free-flowing Gila is a viable stream, in part because the good fishing is not readily accessible.

One spring day I put my thirteen foot canoe on the Gila, and accompanied by a hound and a tom cat, rounded the bend into the wilderness. No visible sign of the ancient Mogollon people or the predacious Apache was in obvious view but my mind’s eye had tiny wizened Mogollon Indians stuffing corn into rocky crevices while balanced precariously on the high rock bluffs. And equine buccaneers stood mounted on the ridges, largely camouflaged by piñon, juniper and ponderosa pine. Certainly my imagination had a good view of those who came before, but no better I’m sure than their ghosts watching me.

In time my imagination was drawn away from historical meanderings, and my necessity became riveted on what became an endless series of Class I, II, and occasionally Class III rapids, spaced a quarter to a half mile apart by strong, even currents. And the winding, meandering stream put current and rapids up against rock walls and dirt banks, creating deep pools. You didn’t need to be any expert angler to see that this was a stream designed for game fish. With the hound and the tom cat riding up front and creating a precarious balance, I shot through numberless rapids over the next two days. On a couple of occasions, more in caution for the hound and the cat, I lined down.

On the evening of the third day I finally got around to what I’d come for all along - game fish in the wilderness. First I baited up six or seven hooks on the trotline with beef liver, tied one end to a bush, the other to a rock, and tossed the rock out halfway across a deep run. Then I snapped a small Mepps spinner on and used a lightweight spinning rod to toss it here and there into the flow, working upstream. At the lower end of a riffle I hooked a foot-long rainbow and didn’t horse him any getting him in. I let him work and he worked good, colorful and swift in the water, before he came ashore. Later, working a pool, I hooked a stronger fish, who fought deeper, longer and just simply bent the pole more before yielding. I knew it was a Smallmouth Bass long before I got him in. This fish too, was about a foot long. About then I wouldn’t have traded places with the blessed in heaven: Deep in the nation’s first wilderness, I had just caught a fine specimen of the gamiest fish that swims out of the last free-flowing river in New Mexico. And I wasn’t working for wages.

But I wasn’t done with having it all. Next, I lofted the spinner into a deep cut under a rock wall and worked it slow and deep, jerking it like a jig. Directly the line went off upstream and I nailed him. Not so swift as the trout, but nearly as dogged as the bass, the foot-long channel cat nosed away from his tormentor until he flat wore out. I dined on fried filets of three species and marked the catfish first, the trout second, the bass third. But any one would have pleased the most discriminating connoisseur.

In the evening, the hound, the tom cat and I sat around the fire, waiting for a breakfast catfish to snag himself on the trotline. Presently, a persistent splashing told me there was one hooked; as I got up to retrieve the catch, I thought that river running is indeed great sport. And certainly there are special thrills if that river has whitewater. He who is satisfied with that and cares not for fishing is spared the many disappointments with which fickle fish and water may taunt the angler. But the fisherman on a float trip at times has rewards all his own.