To The San Juan

I followed a narrow path casting miscellaneous brush aside until it opened to the water. A few weeks back there had been a contamination warning from the EPA and the river had been temporarily closed. The water wasn’t exactly muddy, it was like copper and caramel, made you think of a pumpkin spice latte, but in a sickly sort of way. If I hadn’t searched #SanJuanRiver on Instagram a week before the trip, I would have never known. The water was crystal clear, so clear that it didn’t even look like water flowing through the river bank. It seemed completely dry. There was no feint green tint to it and no motion that I could detect, the surface was even and smooth for a long distance before it ran shallow again and the water splashed and sputtered over the stony floor before it plunged deeply into Texas Hole. We didn’t have the time to step in and fish just then, though I played with the idea, was even tortured by it, as we drove the 20 miles back to where we would stay the night.

Small flies on a penny

We passed countless white trucks. Little orange triangular flags jutting up from their beds on swaying mud splashed poles. When I was a boy my father had worked for one of those companies and drove one of those trucks. They had more sites now, more jobs, more trucks. Everything in those Natural Gas sites painted the same green as the pinion and juniper trees of the desert leading to the river, trying to let the land keep its character. To sort of hide, if you drove fast enough, what was really happening out there.

There was a feeling in my chest, a sort of tightening. Without realizing it I was holding my breath for intervals and then gasping in the air. It’s the nerves and the excitement. I get it every time I fish a river. It’s a sinking in my chest, like accidentally swallowing ice, that feeling of cold that glides down into your gut and then dissipates. It was clear I wouldn’t get much sleep.

We rose at 5AM and put our gear on in the living room. We used our cell phones as flashlights in the dark house, trying to minimize the disruption of our early departure. Reaching for my boots the light cast an eerie shadow on the wall, the delicate curves and swells of a spider shone black upon it, the form floating static between my boots. The feeling of little spider legs danced down my neck. My former courtesy replaced by fear of spiders, I turned on the living room light and heard the instant pattering of weasely dogs as they dared one another to investigate the disturbance. The spider was yellow and small; then dead a moment later. The dogs lazily resumed their posts and drifted easily to sleep. I carefully dressed in my remaining gear and put the rest in the back of the truck.

I had set up rods for both of us the night before so we wouldn’t lose any time in the morning. It was the San Juan River over Labor Day weekend, so I figured at 5AM, I was already late. We made bets on how many cars would be in the parking lot. Always the pessimist, I said 8. She said 2 and she was right. We stepped out of the truck grabbed our gear and set out while the other anglers were getting dressed. When I saw that I was the first person to step into the water that morning, I relaxed a bit.

Fly fisher holding a fish

We ambled through the placid water spotting fish as we passed. When the water deepened I felt a familiar sting. There were holes in my waders. By my last count there was 1 or 2, but I could clearly feel a few more now. The water seeped in, so cold it felt like heat, instead of the cool water that perpetually flows from the bottom of Navajo Dam.

We reached the spot I had in mind and she took first cast. She ran through 5 or 6 quick passes, trying to get her drift just right. I watched the white yarn indicator for any signs of strike. A few times I told her to set the hook, she looked at me like I was crazy. Like I had seen something that wasn’t there. I took my turn casting a few yards above her and quickly mended to stack some line behind the indicator.

I saw it pause a little. I leaned in closer, unable to tell if it was the current merging with another, then set the hook on my first fish of the day on my first cast of the day. The fight didn’t last long. I curled the fish into the stillness of an eddy and netted him. “I hate you” she said, then snapped a quick photo of me grinning and hefting my prize before it was set back into the water to swish off.

Dark torpedo forms were stacking up below us in the water now. Moving away from their haunts and out into the open. Rainbows of all shades lining up in the shallow water by our feet. Waiting for us to dislodge the tender insectine morsels of the riverbed with our footfalls. A battered old warrior swayed lazily no more than 6 inches from my feet.

She took her turn again. Casting back into the same place she had cast before. This time understanding that the skill of it was in detecting the strike. It wasn’t long before she had her own fish. “What do I do!” she said. “Just let it have line if it wants it, and if not reel it in. We will land it” I said, and we did. Her first fish on a river, a Rainbow Trout landed on a size 26 gray midge. She would go on to out fish me that day. While I untangled “wind knots” of my own design, she was hooking and netting fish after fish, every one bigger than the last. Even that old warrior ended up in her net. He was easy out though, staying calm as I removed the tiny hook from the corner of his mouth. Some of the other fish still had a lot of fight in them after they’d been netted, dislodging the hook themselves as they bounced around in the net.

Looking at him, it was the first time I’d seen a living thing that resembled a zombie. His nose had been torn away and the upper bone of his jaw shown stark white against the mottled pink flesh. His fins had been split all around, they draped in languid ribbons like some grislymangled Beta.

“Why does he look like this? Do you think it’s from peoples hooks or is he just beat up from spawning?” she asked. “I’m not sure” I said, imagining the hooks of small midge patterns imbued in his flesh being torn away with drastic strokes. “It sorta seems like it could be from hooks, but I don’t know how that would happen to his face though.”

I considered it for a moment then sank him down into the chilling water. He swayed lightly for a moment then was still. I waited. The cold of the water sucking the dexterity from my fingers. I rocked the fish gently back and forth, the wind humming a sort of mournful lullaby as it passed through the brush. I worked my way over to a place where there was a little more current coming through, a place I thought might help him revive a little quicker and waited there. I realized as I stepped that I wasn’t sure if my toes were moving at all in my boot. I tried to wiggle them, the three smallest molded into an icy block of senselessness. I held the fish there, wondering if I would make the other fish lingering downstream into cannibals before the day was through. He swam away, it was sudden and strong. I watched him glide back to his place at the head of the riffle.

We traversed the braids a little more. By days end we had both lost count of our catches. In the truck on our way home we recounted the day: tired, cold, wet, and yet enchanted by that great majestic river. We both remembered the warrior.