I first fished the Rocky Mountain National Wildlife Refuge in 2003, but it was an end-of-season tease, and the fish were hardened and crafty. I had dreamed about plying these waters since I was a kid reading In Fisherman. Now, after a winter of waiting, I was going to get my chance to really fish Lake Mary and Lake Ladora, those tiny bits of water that consistently produce trophy-sized northern pike and largemouth bass the size of French bulldogs. And I was getting a shot at those lunkers when they were lean and hungry.
I had every advantage and was confident that my bigger brain and their ravenous hunger would make a winning combination. I kept reassuring myself that, contrary to all of my prior angling experience, I was actually smarter than the fish.
Casual visitors who'd heard about the Refuge's Sunday, April 18, opening on Saturday evening's news and thought it might be a fun way to spend a day found themselves staring into the unshaven, unblinking mug of angling monomania. They didn't get that fishing the former Rocky Mountain National Arsenal is not just plunking a bobber and killing twelve Old Styles with Granddad. This is serious. These two little fishing lakes on the former Superfund site offer the kind of angling that rich guys get on Alaskan fly-in trips. Last year -- the first in which the U.S. Army/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had allowed fishing since the late '90s -- the per-angler catch rate was estimated to be one fish for every four casts. There are representatives of most Colorado warm-water game fish that would not just break state records, but grind them into a fine powder.
But you can't just zip into the onetime Most Toxic Spot on Earth and wet a line. The U.S. Army requires that you attend an orientation. You have to show your ID to a guard at a gate topped with concertina wire. You have to bend down every barb on every hook in your tackle box. And for all that, you can fish only on weekends from 8 a.m. to sunset, April 18 to October 10 -- a mere fifty days a year. And even then, only sixty anglers are admitted each day.
But it's worth it. So I sit watching the PR film, which is running in a constant loop, retelling the tale of the refuge's redemption: from homesteads to chemical weapons to Shell Co. dumping ground to bald-eagle nesting site and wildlife preserve. Outside the visitor center, there is a large party tent set up, a relic from the previous day's public celebration. Saturday was one of the biggest days in the site's history: Interior Secretary Gale Norton (whose visage hangs on the center's wall, right below Bush II and a smirking Dick Cheney) was on hand to officially transfer the 5,000 acres of land from the control of the Army to the Division of Wildlife, effectively making the refuge a reality. A volunteer brings out a half-eaten Wal-Mart cake left over from the festivities. People line up to have a piece, but I decline. I'm not interested in snacking on Gale Norton's old cake; the sooner the orientation ends, the better. Right about now, some shlub is setting the hook on a 42-inch northern. My northern.
But bureaucracy knows no timetable. Ivan Vicente, the DOW officer in charge of the orientation, explains that they makes us attend the orientation every year so that the DOW can keep us abreast of any particular changes in access to the two fishing lakes. But I'm pretty sure they just do it because they're the Army. The orientation room is packed full of hopeful anglers, and almost every one is going to go home without throwing a lure. The sixty slots for today have already been filled, "but you can try to come back around four in the afternoon," Vicente says, attempting hopefulness.
We go through the paces: Don't picnic; don't harass wildlife; don't keep the fish. Don't use barbed hooks, and if you have barbed hooks, clamp 'em. Don't gill net, seine or gig. Vicente gets some laughter when he mentions an old con they call "Hernia Man," who used to limp everywhere until they found out he was smuggling pike out in his pants. Don't pick up anything you see lying on the ground and take it home as a souvenir. "In case you encounter chemical weapons," Vicente says with a small laugh born of actual fear. "Which is not gonna happen."
Not today, anyway. I get my refuge permit stamped, grab my tackle and hit the shore. First up, Lake Mary.
Named after the child of the Army captain who bulldozed the land in the late '50s, Lake Mary contains bass, catfish and panfish, but hardly any pike. The wife and I are going light, probably too light -- spincasters, six-pound test and leadhead tube jigs. If we get into a big largemouth and don't keep leverage, we're going to have our lunch stolen, but, hey, that's the fun. Every angler wants a big fish on light tackle. My first cast is nothing. My next nets the biggest bass I've ever caught.
We have Lake Mary almost to ourselves, and despite pestilential winds that make me rethink that dream vacation to Tierra del Fuego, we're hooking bass like it's our job. The wife gets into a mossback right next to the shore, and even though it throws the hook right as she's landing it, I get a good glimpse. Six pounds if it was an ounce.
We slowly work our way around the shore, catching bass after bass, many of which are sporting fresh hooks ripped from the morning's other anglers. Even the noon hour, usually fishing's dead zone, brings success. But we're losing interest in hauling in two-pound largemouths. It's time to go after the big boys in Ladora.
A short walk up a hill along a well-manicured trail and Lake Mary, a quaint little cattailed pond with fishing bridges that practically whisper "Kids' Fishing Derby," gives way to wind-whipped, rock-dammed Lake Ladora. The dam, a large fall of riprap that punishes shoes, is where the action is. Right away I find a local property owner bait-casting for northerns atop the rocks.
"I've caught eleven today," Tom Brown says as though even he doesn't believe it. "Most of them are caught right here," he adds, motioning to the water directly in front of us. Pike like to cruise shallow areas, near dams, in weed beds. He stops, his voice drops. "There's one now."
He's right. It looks like a shadow at first, a submerged log, a dark reflection off the building. But upon closer inspection, it turns out to be three-dimensional -- and moving. He drops his big jerk bait right in front of it and gives a twitch. There's motion, interest and...nothing. "You just have to get it right in front of his face."
Good advice, especially for someone like myself, who has never caught a northern bigger than a hammer handle. I don't have any jerk baits, so I pull out one of the biggest lures I own, a yellow spinner bait that I bought at age thirteen and probably haven't tied on a line since. Not three casts in, it happens.
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Pike aren't like bass. Bass hit quickly and forcefully and jump out of the water with lots of tail-walking and head-shaking. A pike bite is subtle for a millisecond, a nibble. Then, all of a sudden, your rod is bent in half and you're trying to reel in a nuclear submarine. I don't even think about my woefully inadequate six-pound test. I don't think about my drag, which I have stupidly forgotten to loosen to prevent a broken line. I don't think about the very real possibility of the gale at my back knocking me forward into the lake, which they say is not swimmable. All I can think is, I am the greatest fisherman the world has ever known.
In a silver-and-green flash, my northern breaks the surface. For one split second our eyes meet, and I gaze upon his prehistoric grimace, he upon my victorious gape. With a leap and a roll -- and, I swear to God, a look of disdain -- he breaks my line and absconds to the depths of Lake Ladora with my old yellow spinner bait still stuck in his mouth.
I sink down to the rocks, drop my rod and stare after the bastard.