Friday, January 28, 2011

Chernobyl Ants and Twenty Inchers

Now that February is nearly upon us and the western regions are enjoying the benisons of a warming globe, I had thought to totter down to the local freestone water 

and have congress with the resident trout. The Arkansas River, from its headwaters until it reaches the plains of eastern Colorado, is a source of joy and recreation, for me and for about 2500 brown trout per mile of river. And going fishing in early spring becomes more urgent as the cold weather hatches begin and give way to the fabled mid-May "Mother's Day Caddis Hatch," an entomological donnybrook in which caddis flies emerge from the water in honor of American motherhood, and fill the river valley like a blizzard. 

What makes spring angling even more urgent, however, is the impending "rubber hatch." By the first of June the river is bobbing with a flotilla of inflatable rafts

filled with tourists wearing plastic helmets and day-glo Mae Wests, 

 Float My Boat

slathered in various unguents and sunscreens, throwing their gum into the river and behaving like 12-year-olds. The river in spring flood keeps its share of them but never in numbers quite sufficient to abate the annual traffic. Once the rubber hits the river, other quieter civilized pursuits become impossible.

Even more sinister than the rafting conspiracy is the dark plan of the infamous blackguard and professional curtain hanger, Christo, to drape the river under what the locals disparage as "Rags Over the Arkansas,"  six miles worth of silver-ized fabric festooned through a narrow stretch of canyon where the sunlight that spawns a healthy insect population can be at a minimum; the haunt in ordinary times of eagles, osprey and kingfishers. One can at least justify rafting by the profit motive, or the excitement and sense of adventure that come with the prospect of a horrible drowning. Draping a river in plastic has no such rationale beyond the fact that lovers of such spectacle generally buy hamburgers and throw the wrappers along the road. 

 "Rags Over the Arkansas"
Plastic draperies can improve the scenery when festooned from, say, the Coit Tower or the Hoover Dam or the Seagrams Building. But unless it's the Cuyahoga on fire or the Mississippi in the precincts of New Orleans' oil refineries, no river to be at its best needs help from Christo. "Ars gratis artis" doesn't mean the same as "devoid of any point or redeeming feature."  Some of Christo's earlier "temporary" industrial-scale installations remain, like old mining operations, to haunt the landscape. In 1971, he erected the "Valley Curtain" project near Rifle Gap, Colorado, an attempt to drape a heavy plastic curtain between two canyon walls. As the curtain sagged and project engineering proved inadequate, more and more structural materials were trucked in. At least one large concrete supporting bunker is still in place; other concrete formations are sliding slowly down the canyon in a litter of old steel girders and other industrial refuse. It was a Seventies thing, I guess, before Christo knew about Earth Day.

 You see, then, the urgency of getting onto the river before it turns into a veritable gallimaufry of multiple uses.  I pulled out my flyboxes, which are generally by late winter an unsorted litter of flies left over from the fall fishing, flies in various stages of ruffled and unravelling disreputability. Hackles have loosened like a mangy fox stole on a dowager scrap metal heiress; a once immaculate Royal Wulff now resembles Leona Helmsley in a stiffish beeze. I tend to tie the classic patterns, patterns known to work where I fish - black ants and green drake and caddis, pale morning dun and blue-winged olive, serviceable flies named for exactly what they mimic. "Adams" means nothing to the uninitiated, but it's a traditional pattern recognizeable on either side of the Mississippi, named like the Hendricks, the Quill Gordon, the Cahill and the Gray Wulff, for its inventor.

But the newer generation of flies can be baffling. Once you've learned the old vernacular, it's a new country and a new language - what's a Chernobyl Ant? a Woolly Bugger? a micro-flashtail egg? a Red Pig Sticker? a Skinny Minny? Get Stoned? and why do I need to buy foam to tie flies? And is a Twenty Incher what I think it is?

Chernobyl Ant

But maybe this is the best of possible worlds. I'll be able to see a radioactive Chernobyl Ant floating along in the semi-darkness beneath six miles worth of silver-ized fabric.  And maybe Christo will be there in person, rafting downstream without a Mae West.

Update - January 17, 2012: See my newer post at

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