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HELL'S ANGLERS

It read like a fisherman's dream come true, and the minute I saw the notice in the Anglers United bulletin, I knew I had to go.

The plan--which hadn't been tried in five years--was to get sixty to seventy fishermen up to the Black River, where helicopters would fly them to remote stretches of the river to fish. The smallmouth bass harvested would then be picked up by the Bureau of Reclamation and trucked to Saguaro Lake for restocking. All I had to do was send them $250 and get up there with my gear and tackle.

I didn't know what I was in for. But anyway, this is what happened:
My husband John and I hightailed it over to Fisherman's Choice (a favorite hangout of the best liars in Phoenix) to tell Walt about it. Walt Oxley is a local fishing guide and a well-known smallmouth addict. He's usually a pretty low-key type of guy, but he positively lit up when he heard the details.

We were a couple days past the mid- June deadline, but I called Dave La Morte of Anglers United, and he said no problem, we could all come. Four days later, Walt and his wife Maggie and John and I were on our way to Indian country.

The Black River is part of the boundary between the San Carlos and the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservations in eastern Arizona, and it's quite a long haul. We followed our maps and the paper-plate road signs and pulled up to what looked like a circus in the middle of nowhere. A huge tent had been set up, and RVs, trucks, dogs and guys with big bellies swarmed all over the place.

That night after dinner (chicken broiled over juniper wood and liberally seasoned with beer), fisheries biologist Jim Warneke of the Arizona Game and Fish Department explained to us that Anglers United had just finished spending more than $600,000 to improve the fish habitat in Saguaro Lake, and the "cat houses" (for catfish) and "crappie condos" were just chock- full of itty-bitty fishes. He had done some diving there, he said, and had never seen anything like it. He was real excited. "I want you to bring out only fish longer than nine inches," he said. "I'm gonna pass out these measuring tapes so you can all see what nine inches looks like." This got a huge laugh, which Warneke did not appear to comprehend.

There was supposed to be a drawing for drop zones, but for some reason that plan was scrapped, and instead the assignments were posted on a board hanging from the huge tree next

to the dining canopy. We
found out we were bound
for "drop zone 4," on the
first flight out. We could
hardly sleep that night, what with the

excitement and the noise from the guys who had stayed up to celebrate their drop zone assignments. It was pretty loud.

Our helicopter ride was great--I only screamed twice--and the fishing was great that first day. In no time at all, we had the floating net bulging with about ninety smallmouth bass. Walt, being the pro fisherman in the group, demonstrated that falling down face-first into the river could be done gracefully and without getting your cigarette damp. Maggie, who doesn't really even like to fish, outfished all three of us, and I lost about $40 worth of lures and hooks to the rocks.

The bureau's specially equipped whirlybird was supposed to come by between noon and one and lower a barrel of water for us to put our fish in. So we all had a sandwich and then sat around for a bit to wait. We waited quite a while. They had given us a two-way radio, but told us not to use it unless there was an emergency, so we turned it on in case they wanted to talk to us. We even shook it a couple of times.

Well, the 'copter didn't show, so one by one we wandered off and started fishing again. Helicopters kept flying over us, but none landed. The sun was starting to go down, and I was starting to get nervous, when finally a big Bell Ranger swung down and sandblasted us. The lid blew clear off the cooler, and Walt's hat shot way up the mountainside. I figured I had really lucked out--great fishing and free dermabrasion, all in one day. We jammed our stuff into the storage, jumped on and nearly cried as we watched John turn the fish loose.

He didn't have a choice. This 'copter didn't have a barrel, so we had to release our fish back into the river. Everyone seemed confused.

"You know you're about two miles away from where you're supposed to be?" hollered the pilot. "I landed next to some people, and they looked at me like I was from outer space!"

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Margie Anderson