Originally written 9/29/14
Photo credit: David Goehring, https://www.flickr.com/photos/carbonnyc/76463757
All photos from Flicker used in accordance with the Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
Trout Haven Fishing: http://www.trouthavenfishing.com/
Estes Park, Colorado is a town in the mountains ninety minutes northwest of Denver. The setting is gorgeous: Estes is nestled in a bowl-like valley with a lake in the middle, surrounded on all sides by the evergreen-clad slopes of the Rockies. The entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park is only three miles away, and since there aren’t any hotels or amenities within the park itself, Estes thoughtfully caters to all the tourists coming to take in the wildlife and majestic views, providing grocery stores, gas stations, and a multitude of accommodations ranging from motels to deluxe cabins. There is a one-street “downtown” lined with restaurants, ice-cream parlors, and souvenir shops that definitely qualifies as a tourist trap, although a charming one; and along the many winding side roads there are businesses that offer every kind of Colorado outdoor adventure, from Jeep tours to horseback rides to rock climbing.
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/x_/4905308457
Estes Park also hosts one of America’s biggest Scottish/Irish festivals every September, at the fairgrounds right by the lake. There’s an Irish dance competition at the festival that I attend with my students, so my husband and I always rent a cabin for the weekend. We then stay an extra day and do something fun after the competition, like go hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park.
This year, my husband suggested that we do something for one of my 40 adventures. After looking at different options online (Estes has a great website to help tourists find fun things to do), we decided to go fishing. Ray used to go fishing with his dad when he was a kid, but I had never even seen a fishing pole close up.
We arrived at Trout Haven early Monday morning, so early that the employees were still unloading supplies from their truck. Trout Haven appealed to us because all the equipment and bait were free, and you only paid for whatever you caught. Just the kind of place to appeal to a raw beginner like me. The business was housed in a small, shack-like building sitting between two stocked trout ponds, which were also appealing—stocked ponds meant that we were virtually guaranteed to catch something, Ray said. That was especially important to him, since he said that he had never actually caught anything when he went fishing with his dad in Cherry Creek Reservoir.
The two employees were twenty-something men wearing waders, plaid shirts, and baseball caps, their expressions bored. They were obviously over the excitement of working at the fishin’ hole. We signed waivers that said we understood that the risks of fishing included eye gauging from the hooks, drowning in the pond, and other forms of maiming and death (!), and then the older of the two guys handed us two rods, a bucket, and a net on a pole.
“When you get a fish close to shore,” he said, “scoop it up in this net. Then fill the bucket with water and put the fish in it.”
That was the extent of our instructions.
Meanwhile, his buddy was preparing bait for us. He reached casually into a plastic box on the counter and pulled out a handful of wriggling mealworms, which he dumped into a Tupperware bowl. My mouth dropped open in horror. I don’t like touching insects particularly, and I especially don’t like touching worm-shaped insects. Dead ones aren’t so bad, but live ones give me the creeps (literally, I guess). I didn’t think I could handle a job where I had to handle live worms every day.
Photo credit: Mike Licht, https://www.flickr.com/photos/notionscapital/7609245024
He then reached into another container and pulled out a faintly curling earthworm, which he proceeded to hold over the bait bowl and cut into pieces with a pair of scissors. I felt sick. The poor earthworm! I was perfectly willing to believe that mealworms were evil and deserved to die, but earthworms were harmless, even beneficial. Theoretically, I knew that earthworms could survive being cut in half, and that each half would grow into a new worm, but watching the nice young man hack the worm into pieces made me feel like an accessory to murder.
There was a last box on the counter which held tiny salad shrimp—dead, cooked salad shrimp. The guy put a handful of the shrimp into the bait bowl, and I could have sobbed in relief. THANK GOODNESS. I was not going to have to touch the live, mutilated worms. I could use the safe, lifeless shrimp instead.
Bait assembled, Ray and I picked up our gear and walked outside. Concrete walkways led both ways around the pond, with wooden benches here and there in the grass. We parked our bucket, net, and bait bowl on one of the wooden benches, and Ray showed me how to use my fishing pole. The first step was to disengage the hook, which had been attached to a ring on the top of the pole for safety.
“The hook is sharp,” Ray warned me, “so be really careful.”
The pole was lightweight and maybe five feet long, with rings all along the top side of the rod. The extremely fine fishing line fed from the reel to the tip through these rings, then down to the white ball of the bobber, and finally to the hook. The reel was a round metal container near the handle where the line was stored, apparently wrapped around a spindle inside. There was a little handle sticking out of the reel that you turned to wind the line back in, and there was a big black button on the back that you pushed to get the line to play out.
Photo credit: Jessica Fiess-Hill, https://www.flickr.com/photos/gesika22/5851704626
“The first step is to bait your hook,” Ray explained, grabbing a wriggling piece of earthworm and sticking it on the sharp piece of metal. I couldn’t look. I picked up a pink piece of shrimp and speared it on the hook instead–carefully. The hook WAS very sharp, and slightly barbed at the very end to make sure that fish couldn’t wiggle off of it.
“Now hold the end of the pole like this,” Ray said, standing next to me and showing me, “and then press the button and flick your wrist, and the hook flies out into the pond.” He demonstrated with his own pole. The line flew out over the water in a graceful arc, the white bobber landing with a soft plop and floating serenely on the surface. Wow. I guess he really had gone fishing with his dad a lot when he was a kid.
Photo credit: Marc Aubin, “Last Cast,” https://www.flickr.com/photos/43931600@N06/14537631472
This is what Ray looked like when he was casting.
OK. I could do this. Concentrating fiercely, I stood sideways to the pond, pressed the button down, and swung my whole arm toward the water. My line extended maybe two feet, and the hook came splashing down into the rocks at the very edge of the shore.
“Use your arm more,” Ray said, reeling his hook back in and recasting to demonstrate. I turned my handle, and the hook came back up out of the water, the shrimp still firmly attached to the hook. At least I wouldn’t have to go back and look in the bait bowl again. Taking a nervous grip on the handle, I pushed the button and hurled the tip of the pole as hard as I could toward the pond. The hook once again plopped into the shallows at my feet, and I looked at it in despair. What was I doing wrong?
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/skippy/193031964
This is what I looked like when I was trying to cast.
“Here,” said Ray, laughing a little in the way you do when you are good at something and your spouse is totally botching it. He put his rod down against the bench and took my rod out of my hands. “Let me show you. Watch carefully. You press the button and then flick your wrist”—he did so—“and then the hook flies out like this. See?”
He smiled, handed the rod back to me, and then walked back to the bench. I took the pole, feeling incompetent, and watched as the bobber jerked under the water for a split second. A shudder went through the pole, and a weight pulled against my hands.
“Um, Ray?” I said. “Uh…”
He ran back over. “Do you have a bite?”
“I…think so?” There was definitely something making the rod bend in my hands.
“Well, reel it in! Reel it in!”
I took the handle and slowly turned it, not sure exactly what I was supposed to be doing. So I just kept winding the line in, and all of a sudden a small, silvery fish rose out of the water, bucking and twisting against the line.
“You got it!” Ray shouted, running to get the net.
Photo credit: Tony Warelius, https://www.flickr.com/photos/fishking1
We wrestled the trout into the net, and then I grabbed the bucket and scooped up some water with trembling hands. I’d done it! I’d actually caught a fish!
By the time I got back to Ray with the bucket, he was trying to get the hook out of the fish’s mouth, but the hook wouldn’t come.
The older of the two employees came over, carrying something in his hand. I don’t know how he knew we needed help, since we had only pulled the trout out of the water seconds before, but maybe he had a well-developed sense for the struggles of beginners. Also, we were the only customers there at that point, and I’d told him it was my first time fishing, so maybe he’d been keeping an eye on me.
He took the fish out of the net and held it over the bucket. The thing in his hand turned out to be a pair of needle-nosed pliers, and he peered into the trout’s mouth, found the hook, and grabbed it with the pliers. Then, to my horror, he shook the hand with the pliers violently up and down several times until the hook ripped out and the fish fell into the bucket. The fish sank to the bottom, not moving, and the water all around it slowly turned red.
I didn’t think Mr. Fish was OK.
Photo credit: Mark Ittleman, https://www.flickr.com/photos/markittleman/15025637926
My feeling of success at landing it warred with guilt at having killed a living thing. I’d known, of course, when I chose fishing as an adventure that I would be hooking, killing, and eventually eating the trout; I just hadn’t realized how I would feel as I stood there, looking down at my first catch. I had a short, silent philosophical struggle with myself, during which I wondered if I would be happier if I became a vegan.
I hope you won’t think less of me when I tell you that I decided I would not be happier as a vegan, and that I was in fact going to go try to catch another fish.
My existential crisis having passed, my biggest concern was now repeating the performance. Sure, I’d reeled in the fish, but Ray had done the actual casting. I wouldn’t feel like I’d done all the work until I could cast AND reel the fish in.
Photo credit: Dylan Otto Krider, https://www.flickr.com/photos/memekiller/3818208519
I went back to the bait bowl, grabbed another piece of shrimp, and baited my hook. Taking a deep breath, I planted my feet, pressed the button on the back of the reel, and hurled my line toward the pond.
The shrimpy hook swung dangerously through the air, whistled past my ear, and wrapped itself, line and all, around my pole. Sadly, I untangled the mess that I’d made, wondering AGAIN what I was doing wrong. Ray made it look so easy.
Maybe it was time for a little bit of experimentation. I turned away from the water, letting the hook hang over the grass, and pressed the button. Nothing happened. The line didn’t play out. Huh. That was odd. I let go of the button, meaning to ask Ray if maybe something was the matter with my pole, when all of a sudden the line spurted out and my hook fell to the ground.
AHA!! The line didn’t play out until AFTER YOU’D LET GO OF THE BUTTON! That’s what I’d somehow missed when Ray was showing me how to cast.
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/skippy/193032623
This is what my face looked like when I finally figured out how to cast!
Excitedly, I turned my side back to the pond, pressed the button, and then flicked the tip of the pole toward the water, this time letting go of the button as I flicked. It worked like a charm. My shrimp-laden hook flew out over the pond, landing with a splash somewhere near the fountain in the middle.
“I did it!” I shouted. I can’t even tell you how happy it made me.
The morning was cloudy and windy, and the wind pushed the bobber on my line quickly toward the shore. I wound the line up and recast, feeling smug. The bobber came back and I wound the line up again. Time to show off my newfound casting skills a third time! I sent the hook flying back through the air.
When it landed, the line jerked and the bobber danced crazily on the surface of the pond. I held my breath. Had I hooked another fish? I felt a weight pull against the pole. I had!
Trying not to make any sudden movements, I turned the handle, pulling the fish toward where I was standing on the shore. It came out of the water struggling against the hook, and Ray, hearing the splash, came running over with the net.
“You got another one!” he said, his voice equal parts admiration and annoyance, since he hadn’t caught any fish yet.
We got the fish into the net, but the hook once again had disappeared mysteriously into the fish and we couldn’t get it out. I went into the shack and asked the employee if he could help me again.
“Two for two!” he said cheerfully, grabbing the hook with his pliers and shaking it out of the fish, which plopped into the bucket next to its unfortunate predecessor. “Since you’re bobber fishing, let me give you a piece of advice: when you see the bobber dip down and feel like you’ve got a bite, give the pole a quick tug upward. That sets the hook in the fish’s lip so you can get it out easier. When it swallows the hook like this it makes it a lot harder.”
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mrbologna/2349490984
Swallowed the hook? Oh, geez. I glanced in the bucket and saw that Fish #2 was looking (in the paraphrased words of Monty Python) like an ex-fish. The Butcher of Trout Haven, that’s what the fish would start calling me.
And maybe word of my infamy was getting around the pond, because I cast another dozen times or so without a catch. The bobber dipped down a couple times, but when I jerked the tip of the pole up to try to set the hook, I must have done it too abruptly, because the line went slack again. Even worse, when I reeled the line back in, my hook was empty of bait and I had to go back to the bowl for more shrimp.
Photo credit: Arnob Alam, https://www.flickr.com/photos/arnoblalam/3418717701
Meanwhile, Ray was grimly fishing a little further around the shore, trying to get a catch of his own. I definitely got the feeling that we weren’t leaving until he got a fish, which was fine with me; I wanted to prove that my two fish weren’t flukes.
After reeling my line back in and finding the hook once again empty, I began to feel an admiration for the trout. Their brains might not be very big, but, man, they were wily. I couldn’t figure out how they were getting the shrimp off the hook without spearing themselves.
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14596396939
I went over to the bowl and found that I’d run out of shrimp. All that was left in the bowl were mealworms and pieces of earthworm. My stomach turned over. I didn’t want to touch the worms, let alone stick them on the hook.
I thought about going to the shack and asking for some more shrimp, but my pride revolted. I did not want to admit to the two young guys that I was squeamish about touching the bait. They would probably smile knowingly and think it was because I was a woman. I couldn’t do it. Besides, it wouldn’t be much of an adventure if I didn’t at least try, right? I gritted my teeth and reached into the bowl.
I grabbed an earthworm, feeling like if I had to touch some live bait, an earthworm was better than a mealworm. The inch-long piece of worm wiggled in my fingers, and I nearly dropped it back into the bowl. Eww, eww, eww, eww. I somehow managed to raise the piece of worm to the hook, all the while trying not to wonder if it would feel pain when I pierced its body with the metal point.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Earthworm,” I whispered, close to tears. I pushed it onto the hook and stood up quickly to do my cast. Ray was standing there, having come back over to get more bait himself. He’d overheard my sad little speech to the worm and was trying really hard not to laugh. Great.
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nomadic_lass/
These I could have handled.
My next several casts came up empty again, and soon I was having to return to get another worm. It was easier the second time, although I tried as hard as I could not to think about what I was doing. Seriously, maybe I was too soft-hearted for fishing.
While I was casting with this second worm, Ray caught his first fish. I put my pole down and hurried over with the net, helping carry the trout back over to the bucket. Ray had jerked his pole up perfectly when the fish took the bait, and the hook was right in the fish’s lip. We pulled the hook out and let the fish free in the bucket, where it swam around, probably wondering what had happened to the two previous occupants. No Butcher of Trout Haven for Ray.
Photo credit: Bharath Kishore, https://www.flickr.com/photos/bharathkishore/5527920783
You really don’t want to see a picture of the inside of our bucket. So here’s a picture of a nice goldfish in a bucket instead.
When I got back to my pole, the bait was gone. And I’d used up all the pieces of earthworm. I was now going to have to either use a mealworm or go back into the shack and admit my cowardice.
I used a mealworm. It wriggled much more vigorously in my fingers when I picked it up than the earthworm had (ugh!), and there was kind of a crunchy sound when it went onto the hook that made me want to throw up. Somewhere, my Scottish and pilgrim ancestors were looking down at me and shaking their heads at my wussiness.
Since the universe has a sense of humor, I lost a mealworm every three casts or so and had to go back for more. Well, facing your fears is supposed to be healthy for you, right? And it got a little less disgusting each time. A little.
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fsphil/2981792457
I am so glad I’m not a bird.
For my perseverance, I was rewarded at last with my third fish, which I landed right after Ray got his second. Pride satisfied for both of us, we packed it in, carrying the bucket and our other gear back to the shack.
While we were fishing, a third employee had shown up to work, a skinny older man with a white beard and a grumpy expression. He was wearing the same plaid shirt and waders as the younger guys. If I drew a cartoon fisherman, my picture would look exactly like him. He took my bucket without comment while Ray went to the bathroom to wash his hands, and I watched with interest to see what would happen next.
The guy took my bucket behind the counter and set it down on the floor next to a stainless steel sink. Then he picked up a stick—one that was maybe a foot long and half an inch in diameter, like a wooden police baton. He held the stick in his right hand, reached into the bucket with his left, and came out with one of the fish. Then he set the fish on the edge of the sink and whacked it in the head with the stick.
I jumped in shock, my eyes nearly bugging out of my head. If I’d thought about it at all, I’d vaguely thought that fish died after you caught them because they asphyxiated in the air. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that you hit them over the head with a stick.
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/heipei/2509090982
When I said I wanted a fish stick…
I stood there, frozen, as the man unemotionally pulled the other fish out of the bucket one at a time and repeated his head-whacking performance. And I thought I was the Butcher of Trout Haven! Little had I known. I felt like I was watching a Monty Python skit, or a live-action Swedish Chef.
Photo credit: Kenneth Lu, https://www.flickr.com/photos/toasty/3026605827
The man then lined up the five fish head-to-tail along the counter where something like a yardstick was set into the edge. I figured that was so he could see how many inches of fish we’d caught, as customers were charged $1 per inch. We’d caught 50 inches of fish, which I was pretty excited about. 10 inches per trout sounded respectable, like I was a real fisherman.
I paid for our catch, and the man asked if I wanted to pay him to clean the trout for an extra $1 per head. Sure, I said. So we added that on, and then he went back to where my fish were laid out on the counter.
The man picked up the first fish in his left hand and a short, sharp knife in his right. He slit the fish’s belly open with a brisk, efficient movement, reached into the cavity with his fingers, and pulled out a handful of guts, which he tossed into a trashcan. I’d been wrong–I wasn’t watching the Swedish Chef. I was watching Chef Louis from The Little Mermaid.
Photo credit: Steven Brewer, https://www.flickr.com/photos/limako/8745075088
First I cut off their heads, then I pull out their bones…
The whole time the man was working on the first fish, he was muttering to himself, mostly about how the two young guys had deserted him. I started to wonder if he was maybe a little nuts (although it was true that the other two employees were nowhere to be seen right then). I wondered even more about his sanity when one of the fish, apparently not quite dead, began to thrash around on the counter, knocking one of its trout friends into the sink.
“That’s quite enough out of you!” the old man shouted, picking up his stick and cracking the trout another blow on the head.
I started edging toward the door.
The youngest employee came back about then, and when the older man had finished gutting and decapitating our fish, the younger guy packed the trout into a plastic bag filled with ice and handed it to me to take home. We drove back to Denver with our catch, and that night we grilled the fish on the George Foreman and ate it with rice and a side of roasted asparagus (after first watching a YouTube video on how to prepare the trout to grill, since it turned out that there were still a couple steps to do). The fresh trout was definitely a labor-intensive meal to eat, since you had to stop pretty frequently to pick out the bones, but it was one of the best fish I’ve ever had.
And I’d caught it myself.
I don’t think I’ll be taking up hunting anytime soon, and I don’t think I’ll be going fishing every weekend–I’m far, far too soft-hearted. But as an occasional adventure that ends with the freshest fish dinner possible? Definitely worth the trip.
Photo credit: Jim Pennucci, https://www.flickr.com/photos/pennuja/4515908091
PS–As I was writing this, Ray said, “You’re going to put in the part where you were apologizing to the earthworm, right? Because that was my favorite part of the whole day.”