Dateline: June 21, 2014 – Fish Lake, Utah
I usually write about something I’ve caught or at least the place where I caught it. But this post won’t just mention a fish I didn’t catch – it will mention a fish I will never catch and never even try to catch, and the amazing thing is that I’m OK with that.
Western Nevada has some desolate places – some of them worse than Las Vegas, or even New Jersey. After we left California’s eastern Sierra foothills, we headed – deliberately – through some of the vilest desert this side of northern Africa.
Why do people voluntarily visit something called “Death Valley?”
I had never been to Death Valley before, and while it is unlikely I will visit again, because it has little water and therefore few fish, I must say it was a startlingly beautiful landscape.
Coming over the hill from California.
The barren landscape and Penguito, the official mascot of the 2014 Road Trip. Don’t ask. Neither Martini nor Kyle could explain it, yet it was apparently extremely funny.
More desolate scenery further east. The last time I drank this much fluid was right before a colonoscopy.
Martini insisted on turning off the air conditioner, because he wanted to see us suffer. I can think of no other reason, and I will not be responding to comments from you MacGyver types who think there’s a reasonable explanation.
We stopped for the sign because it was the only shade for miles.
I think this about says it all. And I repeat, Martini would not run the air conditioner.
From Death Valley, we headed toward our stop for the evening – Las Vegas. But before we got there, we had one more destination – Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, which hosts some very endangered species of Pupfish.
Martini had emphasized to me that it would be unacceptable to even talk about fishing for these species. Apart from it being some sort of major Federal crime, it would also be a burn-in-hell kind of wrong thing. There were several varieties there, and one of them is apparently the rarest fish in the world.
We first stopped at a tiny lagoon, half the size of a backyard pool, and looked around. Martini saw them first – Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish. Electric blue, tiny, swimming from rock to rock with no knowledge that their whole world was the size of my dining room – and these weren’t even the rarest ones. I first thought of the wonder of it all, then, briefly, about the #32 hooks I had in the car. Martini saw the look on my face. “No, no, no.” he said. “No. No. Bad Steve. Don’t even think about it.” This is why people joke he is my older brother. At least I think they’re joking.
Steve looks forlornly at the pupfish pond.
The critter. Photo by Martini Arostegui – I was too busy looking for security cameras.
We went to the Devil’s Hole overlook to view another species – the Devil’s Hole pupfish. We hiked up a rock path and, through a fence and in full view of a lot of security cameras, we saw them. A little hole in the rocks, perhaps the size of a hot tub, was their entire universe.
Devil’s Hole. The entire universe for one species.
In good seasons, there are perhaps 350 of them swimming around in there. When conditions are not as good, the numbers can drop to around 150. It would take one really bad winter, one idiot tourist with a mishandled soft drink, one farmer angry about the water table required for the species to survive, and they would disappear forever. Yet they went about their little pupfish lives, blissfully unaware of how precarious it all really is. And even I was unwilling to think about disturbing this smallest of universes.
Martini bought me a pupfish hat, so I could be reminded that I will never catch this species. It’s the sort of thing Jaime would have done. I’m not paranoid, but I’m sure they are in constant touch and plan these things together.
The pupfish hat. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to a pupfish.
We went on to Vegas from there. I don’t like Vegas. It’s crowded, expensive, and they didn’t build those billion-dollar hotels by paying money to gamblers.
“In Las Vegas, they kill the weak and deranged.” – Hunter S. Thompson
Knowing we would be up early, I was crashed out by 10:15. This was Kyle and Martini’s first trip to Vegas together, and while they were 21 and excited to be there, I can only presume that they went to sleep around 10:30. I have no evidence to the contrary. Sure, they didn’t look all that great in the morning, but let’s face it, they didn’t look all that great the night before.
Six AM came quickly, and we were back in the car, listening for someone to shout one of those phrases that means a Vegas weekend has become truly unforgettable, like “Who the hell is SHE?” or “Oh no! I married a goat!” or worse “Oh God no! I married a Kardashian.” What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, as long as you get to the doctor in time.
Our next destination was the Virgin River in southern Utah. There was just one target here – the speckled dace – but the place also apparently has spectacular trout fishing. I’ve obviously caught trout before, but being able to cast for good fish on light gear in a clear, remote stream still is quite a thrill, and we planned to spend our day doing just that.
The drive up is through Zion National Park, and the place is gorgeous.
Your basic Zion National Park scenery.
Even more Zion scenery.
We hiked down to a couple of likely-looking pools, but to our dismay, the area appeared completely devoid of fish life.
The Virgin River.
It was early in the day and perhaps a bit chilly, so we decided to wait it out and see if the trout would come out from under the rocks. In the meantime, I brought out the micro gear and started fishing likely crevices, and after a little while – success. I pulled up a steaming ounce of hard-fighting speckled dace.
The savage speckled dace – released safely right after this photo.
I put my rig back down, and caught what I thought was another one, but Martini pointed out that I had accidentally gotten a Virgin spinedace – a rare and protected species. We released it unharmed after a quick photo, and put away the micro gear.
The Virgin spinedace. Nice to see that they’re here.
While the two fish may not have weighed an ounce in combination, there were still two new species on the board AND I had added Utah to my state list – #42 if you’re playing along at home.
Kyle kept himself amused by drifting night crawlers in the rocks and catching some nice trout. I could not get one – ironic that the least experienced among us was getting the most fish.
Lovely scenery, but Kyle managed to hold the trout at the exact angle where the glare would wash it out. Guido could learn a thing or two from him.
I kept looking for trout – the presumption had been that the bottom would be covered with them, but as the sun got a little higher, it was starting to look bleak.
Steve and Kyle stubbornly wait for a fish.
We were considering options for the rest of the day when I got a surprisingly hard strike. I hooked the fish and announced I had a big trout, but a moment later, while the fish was still deep, Martini and his amazing eyesight corrected me. “That’s not a trout.” It was a flannelmouth sucker, possibly the only one in the river – an unexpected third species for the day.
My flannelmouth sucker – quickly and safely released. I also kissed it for good luck, which has nothing to do with being locked up with men for three weeks.
Now we had a conundrum. We had some fish, but the trout were not showing, and we didn’t want to risk messing with any of the protected species. It was still early, and I could see the wheels turning in Martini’s fertile brain. “I have an idea. It’s going to involve 400 extra miles of driving and may or may not result in another species.” Our first official audible. We were in.
The destination was Fish Lake, a higher elevation spot known to have a big run of Utah suckers this time of the year. We drove on through the afternoon, stopping for lunch – the worst Subway meatball sandwich I have ever had. Seriously, how hard does someone have to work to mess up a meatball sandwich? It’s a formula, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t include sawdust.
We arrived at Fish Lake around six. The drive had been taken up by mature conversation about meaningful topics, and of course, farting. Martini had been to Fish Lake before, and knew exactly where to look.
Fish Lake, Utah. It looks desolate, but we were not alone … even as this picture was taken, mosquitoes were massing against us.
We stopped about 50 feet before a culvert that let a small stream under the road. Jumping out of the car, he ran ahead, looked down under the bridge, smiled, and said “They’re here.”
Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw next. There were dozens and dozens of big Utah suckers, holding in place in the fast current, jostling for spawning spots. It may have been hard to get to, but the fishing was pretty much automatic.
Steve adds a species, courtesy of Martini.
We all hooked up quickly, and Kyle’s was big enough to break the existing record. (Held jointly by Martini and Marty Arostegui.) I caught four or five, but I couldn’t quite get one the right size. I mused that the least experienced of us would get the record – his second of the trip.
Kyle and his record fish. We can’t publish the photo of him kissing it, because, frankly, things got out of hand. It’s lonely in Utah.
Martini then did something really, really gross. (Even grosser than WHEN HE ATE THE RAW MACKEREL.) Insisting that caviar was caviar, he actually picked eggs from a spawning fish out of the net and ATE THEM. I still get nauseated every time I think about. (Although the Fish Gods would repay him with a nervous moment a day later – stay tuned.)
Martini had one other spot he wanted to try, so I reluctantly left the culvert to head for a small wooden bridge over another feeder creek. It got positively freezing as the sun headed west, but this did not stop a swarm of vicious and organized mosquitoes from pestering us until we left. It was still worth it – we caught trout, perch, redside shiners, and more suckers. The decision to diverge from the plan had paid off handsomely.
Martini and a typical rainbow. He also got a nice brook trout out of this spot.
It had been quite a day – four new species and a new state, but now we had to face a lengthy drive to northern Arizona to put us back on schedule. We sprinted to the car just ahead of the mosquitoes, opened a round of Red Bulls, and headed south.