News

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!"

Back at camp we heard even sadder tales. A young appraiser from Safford was particularly irate--his group had been dropped right by a road, and they had to squabble over fishing holes with Boy Scouts all day. "Geez," he lamented, "I don't have that much money, and I thought this was the opportunity of a lifetime. I hope I get some checks in the mail come Monday."

I could really sympathize with him-- I've spent a lot of time with Boy Scouts, and they are animals when they're out of uniform.

A big guy in camo fatigues went one better. His group included the man who was his commanding officer in the military, and they'd been visited by bears. He pantomimed fording the river Rambo-style, knife between his teeth, ready to obey the CO's order: "Hey, do something! He's eating our lunch!" (The next day, they were both wearing guns.)

After dinner, there were new rules. The drop zones had all been changed, and the pilot who dropped you off was the one who would pick you up. Some of the guys who had straggled in after dark cheered that one. Also, the pilots could refuse to pick you up if you were drunk. A few people laughed.

We were assigned a new zone, and the appraiser from Safford who'd spent the day clubbing Scouts was assigned that site, too. We looked it up on the map and decided it should be a great spot--miles from any road. Anticipation built.

After a dinner of ribs done to a turn, we were to have entertainment. I staggered down the lumpy path to the canopy, careful to avoid my loose shoelaces. I was unable to tie my shoes because every time I tried to bend over my legs cramped up. This fact, added to the multitude of bruises on my shins and the increasing number of mosquito bites on my arms, made my Don King hairdo scarcely noticeable.

As I stumbled toward the porta- potties, four Apache men loomed out of the dusk ahead. "Welcome to Apache International Airport!" one said, grinning.

These guys turned out to be the entertainment. They did a traditional Apache dance usually performed when a girl comes of age, and it was quite a sight to see them dancing around a huge bonfire, followed by dozens of tipsy, uproarious anglers.

When the dancing was done, the Apaches slipped off into the night, but an argument broke out as stories of huge smallmouth began to circulate. One man claimed he had one that, according to his partner, "would go 21 inches." This was loudly disputed and bets began to fly. A small group broke off and headed toward the motor home where the questionable fish rested, and soon returned to the measuring board, where, amid jeers and catcalls, it was revealed that the fish was a mere sixteen and three quarters. "You dickhead!" the braggart cried as he forked over the dough. "Why'd you tell me that was 21 inches?" His buddy was laughing more than anyone. Soon word spread of a big-fish pot, which you could enter for the trifling sum of $5, winner take all. We declined and limped off to our tent.

The next day, we were the third flight out and the pilot warned us repeatedly about bears as he circled a gorgeous pool. He dropped us off, and after we removed the sand from our eyes we sprinted to the pool and took a look.

This place was the slimy moss pit from hell. Top to bottom and shore to shore, it was solid green yuck. We tried everything (all but John, who had evidently eaten something not to his liking and spent the day calling Ralph and seeing a man about a dog). Every lure came back a huge, heavy, dripping mass of moss.

Some other guys got dropped there later, but it wasn't the group with the Safford man. These guys looked tough. One walked past carrying nothing but a Baggie full of waterdogs and half a quart of vodka. That was the last I saw of him. After six-and-a-half fruitless hours of casting, my sunburned neck was sloughing off my body in chunks, and I was beginning to be just a bit disheartened. There were too many miles of rapids at either end of the moss pit--we'd never have been able to bring a net full of fish back to the drop zone alive--so we were stuck there.

Walt and Maggie fell into the same hole about eight times each, and I had managed to catch two fish, when this guy walked up with a fly rod. Fly fishermen are like guys with BMWs. This dude casts out there one time and lands a really nice smallmouth. I hated his guts right away. I think Maggie and Walt did, too. It got real quiet and he finally went away.

Turned out the waterdog-and-vodka party was supposed to be in zone 9. Since we were supposed to be in zone 5, we didn't have any idea where we really were. I was glad that the same pilot who dropped us was going to pick us up. It really didn't matter that the fishing was bad, because they never came to pick up the fish that day, either.

The four of us made a unanimous decision to forgo the dinner and entertainment that night and just head on home.

So I never did find out who won the big-fish pot, and I still don't know what the night's entertainment turned out to be. But I called Jim Warneke the next Monday, and he said 1,120 fish made it to Saguaro Lake alive and "hit the water running." He sounded really happy about it and thanked me for helping, and it made me really wish that one of my fish could have made it there.

But such is the life of a fisherman. I can always lie about it, and probably will.

I figured I had really lucked out--great fishing and free dermabrasion, all in one day.

I could really sympathize with him--I've spent a lot of time with Boy Scouts, and they are animals when they're out of uniform.

This place was the slimy moss pit from hell.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Margie Anderson