CHERRY CREEK RESERVOIR | It wasn’t until I’d spent about four hours in a chill wind on a boat on Cherry Creek reservoir that I realized the sport of fishing isn’t the part where you reel in a trophy.
It had been so long since I’d had a rod in my hand, I couldn’t remember what was so thrilling that 49 million Americans each year spend some time angling for fun, food or both.
In Colorado alone, 1.1 million anglers — they don’t like to be called fishermen, fisherwomen or fisherpeople — spend a whopping $1.2 billion hunting for reel fun every year.
For years, local pro George Blissett has been talking about how good the fishing is right here in Aurora. As a kid, I remember seeing things that resembled fish in Lake Rhoda, behind Lakeside Amusement Park, and in Sloan Lake. They were ghastly, bloated creatures that consumed anything you threw to them and in my opinion were likely suspects for more than a few missing persons cases.
My own fishing, er, angling, tenure was spent in my childhood home of Rocky Ford. Everybody was forced to fish if you lived in the Arkansas Valley. My grandfather coaxed me onto what he called a metal boat on lakes like Henry or Meredith, vast vessels of mossy, murky water where large things lurked. If my granddad’s trolling motor quit, my job was to slowly row the boat until my arms gave out. Then I would be tossed overboard with a life preserver to drag the boat while Gramps micromanaged my trolling speed.
We caught bullheads, channel cats and what my Gramma called “crap-pees.” They all tasted like the mossy lake no matter how much ketchup you poured on them. I never understood why they were called “catfish.” It was like trying to reel a full-sized dog into the boat. The memories of being “horned” by these creatures with their needle-like dorsal fins forever had me hoping the damn things would get away before I got them in the boat or on shore. Any hesitation to grab the fish and get at the hook prompted threats from my uncle to stuff the defiling creatures down my pants.
The times have changed.
I accepted an invitation to tag along with George and his pal Ron Lowry, a professional, competition angler and local guide. That’s a thing. It’s a big thing.
Both Ron and George are paid experts at local Bass Pro shops, advising folks on endless matters of fishing.
Ron goes to regional competitions and catches as many big fish as he can and wins big money. For mortals, this is like getting paid to get paid. When he’s not stalking big bass or walleye across the high plains, he’s guiding small excursions booked with lowryoutdooradventures.com on local lakes and reservoirs.
We met at Cherry Creek lake at 8 a.m. What was supposed to be a stunning spring day. It wasn’t. It was the coldest recorded temperature in late May in decades.
Both Ron and George were dressed like scouts on an arctic ice cutter. I wore a puffy coat that stood out like a Hawaiian shirt on a sledding hill.
First I met Ron. He is that rare breed of enthusiastically patient and cheerfully unflappable kind of guy.
Then I met his boat. This is not my grandfather’s boat, and probably not yours.
It was a sleek, black, 21-foot-long floating panther. It slid silently into the water from the dock and somehow purred itself in small circles while Ron parked the truck.
It has some kind of GPS-activated faux anchor that will automatically keep the boat within a few feet of where you tell the remote to keep it. The boat is also driven by a remote, or you can go old school and steer the wheel.
On the water, Ron seems to will the boat to quietly crawl across the water. While baiting hooks, releasing snags, minding the sonar, measuring fish and throwing lines, he and the boat effortlessly stalk fish and maneuver buoys and the rare fellow boater.
The craft cost more than any car I would ever want or can’t afford.
It’s not just a boat, it’s a state-of-the-art fish finder. Two independent sonar systems scope the lake depths and geography. What to untrained eyes looks like a modest, boring body of water turns into a three-dimensional video game pointing out not just schools of fish, but a variety of species, right down to a lone fish.
George and Ron can read the monitors as if they were neighborhood road signs. Each type of fish produces a uniquely shaped and colored signature on the sonar monitor.
“It’s not enough to just know where the fish are,” Ron said about “the fishery,” which is what mortals call a lake. “We want to know where the ones aggressively feeding are.”
Underwater terrain maps and GPS help with that. Fish in deeper crevices and folds tend to be less interested in passing bait than those on top or sides of underground hills, Ron said.
But endless things affect when the fish are game for what you’re dangling on the end of your line.
Barometric pressure is a big deal. High pressure days can be slow fishing days. Increased air pressure affects the air bladders in fish, Ron says, affecting their need to feed. Same with hot, still weather.
“Fish are more interested in eating during slightly choppy water and overcast days,” Ron said.
Bait color is critical, too. There’s a reason there are virtually billions of lures, which have nomenclature all their own: spoons, jigs, spinners, flies, baits, plugs and buzz-baits.
Ron and George knew the name, rank and serial number of just about everything that came out of seemingly endless bags and trays.
While playful waves lapped relaxingly at the hull of the boat, small birds skimmed the lake.
“May flies,” Ron said. If the birds are feeding on them, so are the fish.
But not today.
Ron says chartreuse spoons and jigs work well in Cherry Creek right now for the walleye, a sort of go-to fish in Colorado.
He reels in a greenish jig attached to the mouth of 15-inch walleye to prove his point.
We’re using “bottom bouncers” at this point. Worms on weighted hooks attached to thick metal wires that scrape or bounce along the bottom of the shallow lake. The goal is to drop, hang or drag things in the water that trigger an instinctive grab by a fish.
It worked. Both George and Ron reeled in a variety of sizes of walleye. Each fish is unhooked, ogled, treasured, photographed, measured and critiqued before it’s turned back into the water.
Ron says he still takes home an occasional prize for dinner, but the sport is in the victorious catch of the elusive and often fickle fish. If this were wrestling, Ron and the fish would shake hands and go their separate ways. It’s fishing, so the match ends with a gentle splash back into the water.
More proof that fishing is a sport: There are a lot of rules.
George rattles them off for me. “You want to feel your line in the water.”
One vibration means a jig is mimicking a bait fish. Another one means it’s knotted.
On sunny days, you have to mind your shadow on the water, which fish can see. You have to draw your rod fast enough to hook the fish, but not yank it out of its mouth. Pay attention so that a fish doesn’t swallow a hook. That’s a mess.
Talk on the boat is easy, but it’s all about fish and fishing. George and Ron recall nearly everything they caught and from where the previous day. Water temperature. Cloud cover. Wind speed. Bait fish migration.
Between them, these two men have gone fishing tens of thousands of times.
But when a rod on the starboard side dips, both men react like a dog spying a squirrel. Their response is electric and as instinctive as is the fish’s compulsion to lurch at something wriggling by.
“Fish,” Ron declares.
As they reel in, they both jauntily describe the sensation and forecast what’s coming in.
The predictions started: About a foot long. He’s a fighter. It seems that fish are all males when they’re on your line.
The net pulls up a seriously flopping walleye that’s about a foot long.
There’s quick discussion about the bait, the depth, distance from the boat and the condition of the fish. It’s pleasantly intense. I’m feeling a sense of completion. But, almost suddenly, the line is back in the water.
For these guys, getting a fish is only a part of the sport of catching fish.
I’ve advanced past standing on the side of the boat and staring at my pole in the holder. Ron shows me one of his personal specialties: strolling.
He’s kind of famous for this, having worked for years on perfecting the technique.
For the untrained, it looks like someone on a boat is trying to unsnag their line. The goal is to throw blade bait on a line far behind the boat. The blade bait looks like a small, flat fake fish with hooks on both ends. In the water, it kind of wriggles and vibrates when you pull it along.
Strolling means you hold the tip of the rod close to the water and snap your wrist just right as the boat slowly trolls forward. Done correctly, you can feel the lure vibrating through the line and into your hand. The move simulates a small fish scuttling through the water. “Too much arm,” Ron advises me. Just the wrist. Faster. Harder. Not that fast. Not that hard.
“You can hear the line tug in the water when it’s just right,” Ron said.
I could. He does this for hours. I lasted about 15 minutes. My wrist hurt.
Nothing in this part of the lake, we reel in. The boat muscles to life, feeling like it might hydrofoil to the dam side of the lake. It’s a giddy sensation that tastes like your favorite thing on a plate that’s piled with interesting tidbits. I want more of that.
We trolled through some shallows. Ron explained how walleye spied on the sonar are at a depth indicating they had no interest in lunch. He was right.
In the absence of line tugs, talk turned to yesterday, last week, that one time. Fish stories. Each one relished, admired and then topped. The fish are never bigger, they’re just better.
The sport, as it turns out, is in the minutiae of fishing. Suddenly there was more drama than I’d seen all day. There was a counting of the fish and a tally.
“Let’s call it,” Ron said.
“We’re calling it,” George confirmed.
It had all the finality of the buzzer going off in the last quarter of a basketball game. It was an OK game. Nothing remarkable, but we did win.