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Original Issue


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

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 gefüllte 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.

Another fight rages on the river for irrigation and drinking water. Almost every inch of the Colorado has been the scene of tooth-and-pail battles by the thirsty states on its banks. Once the sovereign State of Arizona dispatched warriors equipped with machine guns to force California to stop work on Parker Dam, which was built as a diversionary dam to tip water toward Los Angeles, 225 miles away. The legal squabbling has filled volumes of jurisprudence, but for the moment Arizona appears to have won greater satisfaction in the high courts than California.

Meanwhile, the game wardens of both states, aloof to such minor matters, have been busily working together to improve the fishing and hunting. The most dramatic step came in 1954, when a prolific forage fish from Tennessee, the threadfin shad, was introduced to the river. Almost immediately the game fishing improved; bass became fatter and trout grew faster. The thread-fins have now become the staple diet of the river. Says an Arizona wildlife manager: ' "Some mornings the lake is covered with 'em. Drillions of 'em. Looks like wind on the water. Then you'll see those big rainbows cruising through the schools, stuffing themselves. Once I caught a rainbow with 36 shad in his stomach, some of 'em still kicking."

There is a minnow in the river that will never be eaten by trout or bass. The squawfish, sometimes mistakenly called California salmon, is a native of the Colorado. He is the largest of the minnows, up to 60 pounds, a predatory fish with a head like a pike and a toothless mouth. In the 19th century the squawfish was an important food fish on the Colorado; now his numbers have dwindled. But every now and then one will turn up, to the puzzlement of the fisherman. California Warden Larry Redfern recalls a few months ago when a fisherman took a 34-pound squawfish and became convinced that he had broken the world's record for largemouth bass. "He had our department in an uproar," Redfern says, "until we finally went out and identified it."

The wardens also are called upon now and then to identify a striped bass, a few of which remain from experimental plantings made several years ago. The stripers do not seem to have caught hold, but fish up to 20 pounds have been taken from the original plants. As if this finny cornucopia were not enough, there are also strange specimens like the greaser blackfish, the hardhead, humpback suckers and humpback chubs, bonytails and the breamlike tilapia, imported from Africa, as well as the more familiar fish, bluegills, crappies and smallmouth bass.

And there is the soft-shelled turtle. It weighs up to 30 pounds and can be turned into a seven-course dinner by an expert with the carving knife. Depending on what part of the soft-shell turtle you are eating, it tastes like veal, pork, beef, turkey and several other flavors. The only problem is that the soft-shell turtle has a vicious bite, a rapierlike neck and the distinct impression that the human being is also a tasty morsel.

Nor will the terrestrial animals of the lower Colorado River basin win any awards for normalcy either. Jester has fished almost a whole morning accompanied by a lynx, usually one of the shyest of animals. "Wherever I went, he went," Jester says. "He followed me along the bank just as if I was another lynx." Wild burros, descended from the faithful old companions of prospectors, roam the desert in packs all the way down to the mouth of the river, finding sustenance where man would perish in a few days. They prefer the back country, away from the broad highway of the river, because they have become as frightened of their old friend and employer as the wildest coyote. But now and then a pack of 20 or 30 will be seen at the river's edge, refueling. One jack burro, usually the biggest, will take his stance at an observation point, and at the first sign of human encroachment he will let out a snort, and the whole pack will vanish up a draw. When a crew of burros takes over a water hole, no other animals need apply; the stubborn little animals will drive them away.

All along the cliffs and buttes of the river, Desert Bighorn sheep stand watch. They are America's rarest big-game trophy, and the extent to which they are protected may be seen in the legal bag limit: "one per lifetime." There are a couple of dozen breeds of rattlesnakes, including the sidewinder, which has to wriggle sideways to get a purchase in its sandy home. And there is the Gila monster, glamour boy of the American lizards. The thing to remember about the poisonous Gila monster is that he is protected by law from you, but you are not protected by law from him. He is more interesting to watch than to be bitten by.

Almost all the larger animals and birds of the Colorado basin owe their existence to the ability of small creatures like lizards and desert rats to eke out an existence where nature is less than bounteous. They are staples of diet for the coyote and the lynx, for the roadrunner and the hawk. The kangaroo rat needs no water at all. It feeds on dry seeds, and if domesticated and provided with water, will ignore the refreshment. The kangaroo rat's body makes the small amount of fluid it needs by metabolic conversion of carbohydrates.

Long aware of its prime position on the bills of fare of snakes and hawks, the kangaroo rat tries to make its life last as long as possible. Its long tail acts as a spring, and when an enemy comes near the kangaroo rat is likely to fly into the air in one prodigious six-foot leap. The chuck-walla, a large lizard also popular with the desert diners, takes a different tack. Chased, he wedges himself into a crevice, then inhales deeply, jamming himself into every cranny with his tough skin. The Indians solve this problem with a sharp stick. The gridiron-tailed lizard stays alive—sometimes—by sheer speed. When it sees an enemy, its barred tail waves in the air, and then it is gone, traveling across the desert at speeds up to 15 mph, which doesn't sound like much until you try to figure out which way it went. Natives call the gridiron-tailed lizard "the desert racehorse."

One fishes in company with these creatures all the way down from Black Canyon through lakes Mohave and Havasu, to the warm-water bass lakes, Martinez and Ferguson. Then one steps through the looking glass into Mexico and as inhospitable a stretch of water as is to be found in North America. In many ways, this is the most fascinating part of the Colorado River, but only in the sense that the fangs are the most fascinating part of a rattler.

By the time the river spills across the border into Sonora, the states of California and Arizona have scooped most of the water out to refresh the rich Imperial Valley and provide water for hundreds of cities. For 80 miles into Mexico the river is narrow and shallow and heavily silty. There are a few catfish and an occasional "ten pounder," a saltwater fish that moves up from the Gulf to spawn. But mostly there is desert: hundreds of square miles of it, scored and scarred by the washes and draws of the old Colorado, which plowed into the Gulf by a thousand different routes until man tamed it with his big dams.

One travels past ruins of old cultures, fields of lava from extinct volcanoes, geode beds crusted with wulfenite, fire agates, quartz crystals and fossils of dinosaur bones. Dust devils vacuum-clean the desert floor; if you perch on the edge of a mesa, you can sometimes see hundreds of them dancing across the desert. Greasewood, ironwood, mesquite and tumbleweed hang on for dear life, and the heat is so intense that almost all the animal life is on the night shift, spending the days in burrows two or three feet below the surface in air-conditioned privacy. Here and there are the parched bones of a "wetback," fallen on his way to seek work in the fertile Imperial Valley without benefit of visa, pressed on by hunger and trapped by the Great Desert.

Would anyone but a wetback attempt to cross this scorching desert so hostile to life? Of course. A fisherman would. It is impossible to spend more than a few days in the jumping-off place of Yuma without getting the itch to head down to the river mouth, because wherever Colorado River fishermen gather, they talk unceasingly about the mysterious fish that live there. And mostly they talk of the totuava, the largest of the weakfish or croaker family, which sometimes run up to 300 pounds. The totuava, they say, swims into the mouth of the Colorado, feeding on crabs and shrimp and baitfish, and it can be caught from the shrimp boats that lie along the beach.

Being a bona fide fisherman and psychopath, I succumbed to this siren song and headed south out of Yuma one morning to see for myself, accompanied by an equally demented friend. We crossed the border into San Luis and on the advice of locals hired two Mexicans: Lorenzo, because he spoke English and could act as interpreter, and Rodrigo, because he knew "all about" our destination: the fishing village of El Golfo at the mouth of the river. A few miles down the road, Lorenzo's facility in English became obvious. He pointed to Rodrigo and said, "Him say road more best than before. Him say him have nice time." As for Rodrigo, him merely sat there guzzling the sparse supply of soft drinks we had laid in against the possibility of getting stuck in the desert.

The paved road ran out at Riíto, a small town 20 miles below the border, and now we were on sand. Everybody had said our 1963 superduper, low-slung automobile would get stuck, and everybody was right. We went over the top of a rise at about 30 miles an hour and then plopped into a bed of sand three feet deep. An hour later we had dug the car out; that is, my friend and I had dug the car out, while our two hired hands had watched and admired our industry. It was a two-hour drive across the desert, and we arrived in El Golfo shortly after noon.

The desolation of El Golfo became instantly apparent as we came near. The tide was out, exposing miles of clean brown sand and salty tidal flats, and standing boldly in the flats, eating marooned crabs, were three coyotes. The coyote, as everybody knows, is not exactly the Perle Mesta of the animal world. You can live for years surrounded by coyotes and never see one. But here they were, starkly visible, within a quarter mile of the "town." When we pulled in, we saw why. El Golfo is supposed to have 375 residents, but 370 of them must have been taking their siesta. A few children played on the beach, and a hefty señora was on duty at the Cafe Rita, where chickens clean up the floor after (and during) dinner, and where the walls are a melange of religious pictures, scenes of wildlife and photographs of nudes.

Rodrigo walked us down the road to find a fisherman who would take us out for the giant totuava. Stepping around the decayed heads of the totuava, which residents merely fling out the window after cleaning the fish, we came to an adobe shack where a grizzled Mexican worked lazily on the starting mechanism of his boat. Rodrigo talked to the fisherman; words and arms flew, the conversation waxed and waned for 10 minutes in the broiling sun. Finally there was silence.

"What did he say?" I asked Lorenzo.

"Him say no fishing today."

"Por qué?"

"Him say boat not nice today."

Rodrigo turned up two more fishermen, but their boats were not nice either. Meanwhile my friend and I went down to the beach where we saw the heads of huge totuava, several desiccated sharks and a ray with a wingspan of about four feet. We were ready to wade into the river mouth and attack the fish barehanded when Rodrigo announced that he had found a boat for us. We waited for an hour while the skipper went out to his shrimp boat, at anchor in the estuary, examined it and returned to tell us that it would probably sink if he took it out into the river mouth.

Now, after a glorious day's nonfishing, it was time to go back across the desert to Yuma. We were mired in the sand five more times, ran out of gas, ran out of soft drinks (courtesy of Rodrigo) and ran out of patience. That evening we discovered that we had fallen prey to the most common of the turista's ailments, as a result of which each of us can now run the 100-yard dash in 9.5.

But the next day my friend and I, dedicated fishermen to the end, were in ecstatic agreement that we had had a fascinating and worthwhile trip. Some would not agree, but they would not be fishermen. We had caught something as important as fish; we had caught fish stories. Fish are perishable, like those totuava heads rotting in the sun. But fish stories abide forever.

And you can always catch them on the Colorado River.