Trout Fishing in America

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RIO COSTILLA, N.M. — We are wearing hip waders and standing nearly knee-deep in cold, running water surrounded by plush pasture filled with fat Angus cows. Lots of cows. The Rio Costilla winds through this 80,000-acre ranch, which provides both fishing, hunting and camping opportunities as well as livestock management. The ranch has been operated by the Rio Costilla Cooperative Livestock Association since 1942, when a group of New Mexicans purchased the property from the state after it had been seized for non-payment of taxes. The water is clear, the riverbed rocky. The Sangre de Cristo mountains rise in the distance. I am humbled by the beauty of this place.

My Beautiful Mystery Companion and I have followed Joey’s venerable Land Cruiser (444,000 miles on the original engine) from the general store in Arroyo Hondo 30 miles north up the highway, then for a dozen miles or so up and down caliche roads to this spot. Joey has been a fishing guide in New Mexico for 35 years, assisting both the experienced and those who know nothing about fly fishing. We definitely fall in the latter category. Joey is about to give us a half-day tutorial in fly fishing, something that has appealed to both of us for some time. Or at least the idea of fly fishing appeals, standing in rushing water while casting a line amidst gorgeous scenery.

So here we are in northern Taos County. It is a good thing Joey is a patient man. We have “Rookies” stamped on our forehead. Joey starts at the beginning, reminding us it’s a rod and not a fishing pole, explaining the three types of flies, expertly tying knots I’ll probably never master. He ties a piece of yarn to the end of our lines, and we begin practicing to cast. No hooks are allowed until we have a rudimentary understanding of how to do this, in order to avoid a hook in someone’s neck if a cast goes awry.

Joey stresses two points. The harder one casts, the worse the result will be. This is similar to trying to hit a golf ball, a lesson hard-learned back in the day, when I spent hours on the links. Second, don’t over-flick the wrist. Of course, I am immediately guilty of both transgressions, with predictable results. The yarn lands at my feet. After watching my hapless attempts, Joey straps my forearm to the butt of the rod with a red bandana, helpfully supplied by my BMC. She is having no difficulty correctly casting with minimal effort. As usual, I’m the problem child.

Eventually we advance to actual flies. Joey separates us to prevent mishaps, placing my BMC 50 yards or so upstream from me. I begin casting, over and over, walking up the river as instructed, looking for swirling eddies of which trout are allegedly fond. The cows amble closer, no doubt impressed with my new-found casting ability. My arm is still tied to the pole, I mean rod. Eventually, I’m able to put the fly, its surface tip marked by Joey with an orange Sharpie so I can see it, in the same spot nearly every time. Apparently, this is a spot unoccupied by trout. Joey is working with my BMC, and I’m left to my own devices.

A foot-long trout approaches, easily visible in the clear water. I cast in its direction several times, silently entreating the little fellow to take the bait. Not that I have a firm idea of what do next if that occurs, other than rear back with the rod and yell, “Joey! Joey!” But the trout glides by, not fooled by the fly meant to resemble a surface insect.

I manage to tangle the line so badly that Joey has to cut it and restring a new tippet, as the last piece of line is officially called. Fly fishing has its own language and enough exotic accessories to make it appealing to my inner nerd, even if I never catch a trout. I keep casting, enjoying the scenery, cool weather and even the cows, who let loose with an occasional bellow, probably angry I don’t have any range cubes — cow candy.

My BMC and I practice for about four hours, after which we are famished. Fly fishing is hard work. Joey generously offers to loan us two of his rods that we can return to him later in the day, if we wish to continue. We politely decline, citing hunger. I also know the minute he roars off in his ancient Land Cruiser, I will again hopelessly tangle the line and be done for the day anyway.

It’s been a grand day trout fishing in America.

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