Dateline: March 10, 2014 – Salt River, Arizona
Martini warned me not to look. But I looked.
But wait, I hear you say. There was never a Salt River blog in the first place, so how can we be returning there? This is what I like to call “editorial magic.” This is when I botch something really badly and don’t report it to you until I have gotten it right. It’s not an ego thing – I’m just trying to respect your time. Or it’s an ego thing. I forget which.
The destination this time was the Salt River in Arizona, where, in mid-2013, the Arostegui clan had caught two species of suckers – and of course, set records on both of them. In November of 2013, Martini and I paid a visit to the same spots, hunting for the same fish, but the results were unfortunately not as successful.
This is exasperating fishing. Exasperating. On the drive from the airport, Martini tried to warn me it was going to be exasperating, but I paid no heed. He especially warned me not to look at the water as we walked up to our spot.
Of course, I looked anyway. “Holy $#@%” I said out loud. Martini said “You looked. You shouldn’t have looked. ” But I had. There were fish everywhere. In groups on the rocks. Cruising the surface and the midwater. Everywhere. Right out loud, I said something very stupid and downright offensive to the Fish Gods. “This should be easy.” Martini winced – he had been here before and knew how hard it was going to be. Just because they were there didn’t mean they were going to bite, but I hadn’t put this together yet.
Hours later, as it got dark, I shook my head and looked back on a day of utter failure – a truly ugly fall off the cliff of hubris. I had seen hundreds and hundreds of suckers. I had eased bait within millimeters of their little snouts, and I had been ignored like I was trying to give Miley Cyrus good advice.
Martini caught a couple of suckers, because he is a good angler and because he did not upset the Fish Gods.
One of Martini’s fish. I was smiling because I at least got to touch a fish.
As the sun set, wild horses came down to the water to drink.
But they couldn’t drag me away.
I was completely aghast as we plodded through the twilight to the car. “What the $%#&?” I asked. Martini responded “I warned you.” I countered “But there were hundreds of fish.”
The Arizona sun sets on my dignity.
“I warned you. I WARNED YOU!” he continued into a Scottish accent like Tim the Enchanter from Holy Grail berating the knights who survived the rabbit attack. “But oooooh no, you wouldn’t listen to me …”
John Cleese as Tim the Enchanter. This is culturally important.
“What the %#^.” I mumbled, to no one in particular. The conversation went on like this for most of the evening, including our dinner at a spectacularly misplaced Falafel house in the middle of the Arizona desert.
We also had a spectacularly awkward moment at our hotel. We were staying at some sort of ranch, where city folks go and somehow get a kick out of doing chores and wearing chaps, and one of their greatest selling points was apparently their regionally famous “hearty cowboy breakfast.” When Martini and I were arranging our 5 am checkout so we could get fishing early, the ranch hand didn’t get it at first. He politely told us, in just the slightest cowboy twang, “But breakfast starts at seven.” Then he added “It’s a hearty cowboy breakfast.”
We politely explained that we really needed to leave at five. His face fell and kept falling. It was then we realized that we had hurt this man down the very core of his being. “You’re … (long moments of processing time) not going to make it to breakfast?” The only other person on earth who has ever been this disappointed would be Cousin Chuck’s wife, 90 seconds into their honeymoon. “But … but …” he stammered. “It’s a hearty cowboy breakfast. You work it off during the day!” He was proud of this breakfast, and he sounded almost, but not quite, ready to cry. Martini and I felt like bad people.
We excused ourselves as quickly as we could and left him in the lobby, still mumbling about “a hearty cowboy breakfast.”
The morning represented a fresh challenge. Our target would be the roundtail chub, an extraordinarily rare species that lives in a few isolated creeks in Northern Arizona. The main issue was whether we would able to reach the creek without a halftrack. The creek, you see, was at the end of some 15 miles – that’s 25 kilometers at today’s exchange rate – of “road” that hadn’t been maintained since Nixon was trusted. It appeared to be designed without motor vehicles in mind, and we had left our donkey at the hotel. (Long story.)
How about “never maintained – EVER?”
The only advantage of getting someplace that difficult to reach is of course that it was completely unspoiled beauty. We had reached a perfect, aqua blue creek in the far reaches of the high desert. There are very few places like left anywhere, and we took in the scenery for a moment and made sure not to dump any toxic waste. (Despite breakfast at Denny’s.)
The nameless mountain creek, northern Arizona. It was almost worth the drive.
They do this without chlorine.
At first, no fish were in evidence. After about 30 minutes of fruitless angling, I began to get that horrible feeling I get when I have just driven 15 miles on an alleged road and there are no fish. But we kept at it, and finally, a small, silvery shape shot out from under the bank and grabbed my tiny jig. I flipped it up on the bank and took a quick photo – I had just added one of the rarer species I would ever catch.
The roundtail chub.
Just as I released mine, Martini hooked up. Suddenly, the chubs were everywhere. They had apparently stayed in tight cover until the water temperature got to their liking, then they came out all at once. I cast again and got one, resulting in the photo below, which, to species hunters, is extraordinary. To everyone else, it’s two unattractive men holding small fish.
This may be the only picture in existence of two anglers with roundtail chubs.
We got to enjoy this scenery at very low speeds.
We called the day a success after another hour or so, and began the long ride back to Phoenix and the flight home. I was pleased to get the chub, but still aghast about the suckers. Martini texted me as his flight took off – “I warned you.”
Fast forward four months and about ten inches of water level in the Salt River. I had a business trip to Phoenix in March, and I was determined to make good on the sucker species. I flew in to Arizona in the morning, got a car, and was out at the scene of my humiliation well before lunch.
Peering down from the bluffs, it was clear there was more water in the river than there had been in November. There was nice flow at the head of the pool, which hadn’t been the case before, and local rumor has it that the fish bite better when the water is moving. The fish were still everywhere, although I made a point of not looking at them as I walked along the bank to my first spot.
I closed my eyes while I took this photo. If you look closely, all of the dark shapes in the middle of the river are suckers. And they were a lot denser further down the pool.
With what passes for great stealth on my part, I crept up to the bank, keeping as low a profile as I could, and cast into the mass of fish. Breathlessly, I watched the worm slowly drift through the groups, and sadly, I watched the fish ease away as the offering came near them. Would it be an ugly repeat of November? Just then, a Sonora sucker swam across the riffle with great purpose and slammed the bait. I was so surprised I was very late on the hookset, but the Fish Gods were merciful and I had a fight on my hands. A few moments later, I netted a beautiful Sonora, a new species, and, at three and a quarter pounds, a new world record – #94.
Now that’s a way to start the trip.
It was a very different experience than last November. The Sonoras bit quite reliably, and I got several more as the afternoon went on.
All the rest of them seemed to be exactly 3.24 pounds.
But aren’t they adorable?
So the Sonoras were cooperative, but as the afternoon progressed, it occurred to me that the desert suckers had remained elusive. I sight cast, and sight cast, and sight cast, moving baits right on to their noses, but they wandered off with stunning indifference. I have only seen that level of indifference from one other animal – Rossi, the Arostegui’s cat, when I try to pet him.
I moved all along the bank, and there was no shortage of targets, but they all ignored me. I had gotten quite cynical about the whole thing, but stubbornly continued dropping baits in front of their upturned little noses. Around four, I was lowering a piece of worm on to the snout of a fish just a yard or two off the bank, when it suddenly decided it was hungry and pounced on the bait. I almost fell over in surprise, which was sufficient to set the hook, and I had a delicate fight on my hands as I had left the net upstream. I finally landed it in a shallow pool, and then had a moment of drama as I got out my Boga grip and weighed the fish.
It was exactly one and three-quarter pounds. The world record was exactly one and three-quarter pounds. I had tied it, which counted as record #95, and I would be sharing this record with none other that Dr. Marty Arostegui.
The lone desert sucker. I was ecstatic.
I fished until late in the day, satisfied and in a bit of disbelief.
The sun goes down over the desert. And this time, there was no one yelling “I warned you!”
I had checked off two more species on my lift list. More importantly, I had added two world records – numbers 94 and 95. Now it was seeming possible. I needed to get five more before August 15 to get the Lifetime Achievement this year, and I had a big trip to Asia coming up in April. It had taken two forays out to the Arizona desert, but I had transcended my own hubris and caught the suckers.
And the next time Martini tells me not to look, I won’t look.