Mid-May and it is snowing, again. We’ve had plenty of warm weather – ski slopes are closed, aspens are beginning to bud at the branch tips, creeks are swollen with runoff – but winter is slow to let go. But you know it will, and you can see it on the face of Eagle Nest Lake. A week earlier, there were scouts on the shores watching the ice break up, huge slabs drifting apart, enough open water that a boat could be launched. It takes me back to a similar May morning many years ago.
There’s nothing like ice-out and the first stab at trout fishing to get a household up early in the morning. Guys who you have to drag out of bed to go to work are up early, puttering around in the dark, whipping up coffee, frying eggs and bacon, whistling (is that whistling I hear? wives wonder) before dawn.
We haul the boat to the put-in. Good. First ones here. You can hear owls, honking geese and the screech of seagulls in the distance, cutting through the crisp air. The snow has let up, leaving a lovely morning mist, a backdrop almost primal in nature.
First light. Just enough to see the patches of ice around the lake as we launch and head to the Honey Hole, a famed spot near the mouth of the rock-walled canyon leading to the dam. Our old boat, a fiberglass junker with a duct-taped gas line powered by an old Evinrude outboard, moves slowly toward the gentle curve of shore where we want to fish. Three of us hunker down in the boat against the cold. One up front to watch for ice. All of us in worn-out but warm clothes: stocking caps, fingerless wool gloves, big boots – the height of fishing fashion.
Stashed below the gunnels are rods and reels, tackle boxes, oars, a net, and old tools in case we have to coax a few more hours out of the old motor.
There are days during ice-out when there’s a rag-tag flotilla heading to the Honey Hole – an odd assortment of boats from pontoons to shallow skiffs to floating tubes to canoes with shovels for paddles. But today, we are alone. As we head toward the wind-swept sandbar, we spot a huge slab of ice beached on the shore, right on top of a favorite spot. We talk about moving to another hole but then land on the idea to move the iceberg instead. Two of us stand in the bow and launch anchors at 45 degree angles onto the ice. They dig in and catch so that slowly, in reverse, we are able to drag the huge slab from its perch on the shore. It is massive so we take our time until we can get it far away from the shore, and then release it and slip back behind it to the beach.
There are days when you can catch a hundred fish, days where you snip the barb off the hook so you can release back to the dark water all but your limit, days where no matter what you cast out – flies, spoons, even tackle you never use – the fish will bite. Sometimes the fish will arc out of the water and throw the hook, wiggle off by themselves, and that’s as fun as hauling them in. You can’t see them when they strike, only feel the tug of the line and then the reel sings, a song we love, that tells of the girth, power and heart of the fish.
But for us, the catching is only a bonus. We are there for the brotherhood, the chatter, the banter. We have different histories, families, jobs – all behind us when we’re fishing. Now we’re a band, local headquarters for joking around, telling tall tales and big lies; cursing is encouraged, as is belly-bumping, hooting and hollering, howling, barking, even tapping a friend’s line when he isn’t looking to make him think he’s had a hit. All a part of the angler’s unwritten code of ethics.
There are the purists, fly fishermen so absorbed in their art they can drift away from the others, wade out on their own, read signs for what the fish are feeding on, never using any bait. And at the other end of the fisherman food chain are the carne-hunters, there for the harvest, catch ‘em any way you can. But no matter your status, all of us are there to connect with our wilder side, tap the pirate deep inside.
Our fingers have all turned red now from the cold, handling the fish, nicks and dings from hooks, gnarled from fins and scales and gills and filling the stringer which hangs over the back of the boat. And our faces are chapped red from the weather.
The wind starts to whip up, a wind full of groans and moans, bringing a chop to the water. As we start to think about heading back, another boat approaches and lands near us.
As we shove off from shore we notice the ice slab we’d moved is slowly drifting back toward the beach. The other boat noticed too and probably worried about getting wedged onto the shore. They also pull out. A little too late, boys, wind is up, should have been here earlier. As we head back to the launch site, the prop churning through the wind-chopped waters, we look out on the ice-riddled lake and know the waters hold many levels, many depths and many stories. And will have many more tales to share.
Welcome to the southern Rockies. You’ll be coming back for years to come.
— Joe Haukebo, publisher of HighCountry and SkiCountry magazines as well as numerous other books and publications, has been writing for many years about his experiences in the Rocky Mountain village of Angel Fire, New Mexico and beyond.
This piece appeared in HighCountry Magazine, summer 2016.