Next morning, Team Wild Fish assembled in the dining area of the Red Lion for an early breakfast. I ordered the Rancher’s Skillet which was more than ample to satisfy the appetites of three hungry cow pokes! My over-sized breakfast was washed down with copious amounts of good coffee, setting me up for the rigours of the day ahead.
Our first port of call was at The California Trail Interpretive Center, located about 8 miles west of Elko where we were met by the Trail Center’s manager, David Jamiel. David is one of those inspirational people who enthuses an audience with his encyclopaedic knowledge and great passion for his labour of love in bringing to fruition this magnificent California Trail Interpretive Center.
David gave us a guided tour of the then-almost-complete Center and I must say the quality of the exhibits, sets, murals and the magnificence of the whole California Trail experience is an absolute must visit for everyone passing this way.
I predict the Trail Center is destined to become one of north east Nevada’s foremost visitor attractions in the coming years as the word spreads of this amazing experience.
I recommend you go to www.californiatrailcenter.org to get a flavour of this wonderful addition to the list of things to do and see in north east Nevada. The California Trail Center features incredible life-size dioramas that transport visitors back to the 1840s – 1850s to the formative period in American history that became known as the westward expansion and like me, you will learn how these hardy migrants, pioneering farmers and gold miners contributed to the development of America, the unique American character and its cultural identity.
My reluctance to leave the Trail Center was somewhat tempered by the prospect of setting my hook in those beautiful rainbows on Wild Horse Reservoir and the cause of particular excitement, catching my very first Wiper from South Fork which the boys had earlier filled my head with their stories of past successes here in the high desert.
Some twenty odd minutes after leaving Elko, South Fork Reservoir came into view. I was sitting in the back of the truck, drinking in all that lay on the horizon, becoming more excited with our fishing prospects with every passing minute.
The reservoir gets its name from the south fork of the Humboldt River that originates along the western slopes of the impressive, snow-capped Ruby Mountains. The dam was completed in 1988 and resulted in the flooding of 1,650 acres of water which has become very popular with campers, picnickers, boaters, wildlife watchers, hunters and of course, us anglers!
In no time, we had our groceries, gear and duffels unpacked and stowed in a very comfortable and well-appointed “double wide”, sited in an elevated position with commanding views toward South Fork and which was to be our home from home for the next week of filming.
Then it was off to the boat ramp in double quick time and soon we were afloat on the big Tyee. Denis and I got out the rods, Adamsbuilt 8 wt. fly rods were our weapons of choice to handle the large, heavy, wind-resistant flies.
A recurring mantra of mine is “you cannot beat local knowledge” and as though on cue, Denis got chatting with a local wiper angler who generously gave us the low down on what flies were ‘doing the business’, line preference and what these finicky fish had been doing recently.
Soon we were marking fish in 10 to 14 feet which appeared to be holding tight to the limbs of drowned trees, using this skeletal cover to ambush their prey.
Rod motored across the water, adjusting his position from his intimate knowledge gained down the years he and Denis have been fishing here on this alpine reservoir. He lined the boat up just up-wind of where the depth starts to shelve away and where the submerged structure looks like a tree-littered graveyard.
Immediately we had a nice drift going over promising water, but fishing appeared to be hit ‘n’ miss. Most wiper strikes came to the rod loaded with the number 4 uniform sinking line while the fast, sink tip outfit produced very little. As we only had one fly reel loaded with a number 4 uniform sink line, we were somewhat peeved with our predicament.
Denis by now was in his element, laughing aloud with each hook set as he had a real pattern dialled-in: cast, count down, strip, strip, pause; strip, strip, pause.
A really fast stripping action was important, including the strip, strip, pause rhythm. However, the main feature of the successful presentation was the incontrovertible evidence that the wipers definitely preferred the controlled, horizontal way that the big chartreuse fly was coming back through the water, the stand-out feature of this fly line. My buddy soon had a procession of beautiful, plump wipers and smallmouths coming to the net. Me, I was on the fast sink-tip line with only sporadic interest shown by the fast-biting, silver-striped rockets!
Realising the lop-sided nature of the fishing, Denis generously handed over the winning combination and soon I too was enjoying wonderful sport on our beautifully balanced, AdamsBuilt combo loaded with the uniform sink line.
Over the next days, we enjoyed fantastic wiper action but the successful technique never deviated from the horizontal retrieve presentation that the uniform sink line allows. We continued our swap and cast routine and the wiper fishing was really excellent for the duration of our filming.
At night, we enjoyed Rod’s culinary delights while I made high balls for the boys. This act of kindness on my part also allowed me the time to continue my recent study of the compatibility or otherwise of various brands of Irish whiskey, on the rocks of course, with coke! This seemingly unlikely cocktail has been a revelation to me, to which I owe full credit to my Nevada chums for my introduction to this exquisite tipple!
Meanwhile, Denis had established a thriving, cottage industry in the dining area – turning out super looking replacements for the gaudy, flashy chartreuse and marabou creations that the obliging wipers and indeed smallies would routinely rip to smithereens each day. Such is life!
Day four rolled around and it was an early start as we packed and loaded everything up and headed back to Elko and onward to Wild Horse Reservoir, a journey of some eighty miles or so. The arid, rolling plains and boulder-strewn vastness of the landscape soon gave way to a spectacular vision of Wild Horse Reservoir set amidst an amphitheatre-like backdrop of the Independence Mountains to the west and Wild Horse Mountains to the east. Snow clad peaks set in formidable terrain, these soaring ranges exude an impenetrable aura. With some individual peaks rising to almost 9,000 feet, the area comprises spectacular wilderness characterised by rocky peaks, glacier lakes, seemingly endless rolling hills and wide valleys of sage and coarse grasses and impressive steep sided canyons. This remote, treeless landscape offers unequalled hiking and other recreational activities year round but very much subject to the vagaries of the harsh, cold climate that this area of Nevada is famous for.
My homeland is Ireland with its mild, wet climate nurtures a rich, green landscape very suited to a great many farming enterprises. Here in the northeastern corner of Nevada, I was amazed at the treeless, arid, limitless vistas that rolled out before me, a million light years from the landscapes back home!
Wild Horse Reservoir was originally built in 1937 and is named after the wild horses that roamed the area in great numbers. The purpose of this alpine impoundment is to provide irrigation water to agriculture in the Duck Valley Indian Reservation. By the late sixties, the original dam was found to be suspect and a new one was constructed which doubled the surface area of the reservoir and today when full, Wild Horse has a surface area of 2,850 acres.
Wild Horse is renowned for its abundant stocks of rainbow trout, as well as a strain of brown trout from Germany, wipers, smallmouth bass, yellow perch and catfish. There is also a small population of elusive cuttbows, a vividly marked sterile hybrid from a cutthroat and rainbow cross. These are strikingly pretty looking fish.
I was keen to do battle with these high-country, Wild Horse Rainbows, because back in Ireland, bows are only found in a limited number of stocked “put and take” fisheries. Also, I secretly wished for a cuttbow to ‘show me a kindness’ by slurping down my fly at some time during my visit.
Denis was off to a ‘flier’ with a number of beautiful bows and wipers snaffling down his fly, retrieved close to clumps of sedge grasses, which were growing in the shade of a vertical rock-face while a brace of feisty rainbows and a fearless wiper took a fancy to my Panther Martin #5 in quick time.
Then I put up the fly rod and although I am a novice when it comes to fishing the fly and choosing the right fly to match the hatch, after some guiding words from Denis, I was soon competently casting my 4 weight outfit and tightening my line into some wonderful rainbows! Then Denis and I had a double hook-up with Denis soon realising his chartreuse clouser was attached to something a little bit special! The fish bore deep and made some great runs but the AdamsBuilt rod was more than a match for the wiles of what materialised from the depths, a real hog wiper bass of more than 8lbs. A cracker of a fish for Wild Horse! My fish was a rainbow that had ideas above its station in life, believing itself a gymnast! Jumping airborne and cart-wheeling, its own party piece!
A lovely bow of about 3 1/2 lbs made its TV debut in my wet, cradling hands.
As the day progressed, we moved away from the shoreline and trolled Tasmanian Devils, with Denis on downrigger and me experimenting with 2, 3 and 6 ounce weights. Rainbow after rainbow took a shine to our favourite trout catching lures from “down under”. The Taz are made tough, simple in design and are proven catchers. The patterns we were trolling were hot pink with black barring along the flanks and Firetiger. We have such confidence in them that they are a real ‘go to’ trout lure for many of the waters we fish.
Later on the wind got up and before any of us could say “tenacious trout tangle a tight line” there were white capped, 4 footers rolling across the reservoir. Rod wisely headed toward the northwestern arm for respite from the blustery gale force winds. As we got into the shelter of the north shore, we put a fly pattern together with beautifully conditioned, fat rainbows gamely taking our offerings. Rod having steered the boat through the rough weather, the wind dropped off as suddenly as it had arrived and we worked our way in bright sunshine toward the river channel and the direction of the dam. Denis had a couple of takes and then he latched into a nice bow that was all of 4 1/2lbs which was soon followed by a solid take to my rod as I stripped my fly back from the rocky margins at a bend in the channel. After a tremendous fight, during which the fish stayed deep, I saw the tantalising first glimpse of my prize. And what a prize! As Denis slid the net under, he said “you’ve got yourself a cuttbow and it’s a good one”! My very first encounter with a cuttbow, a gorgeous fish with a vermillion splash on its gill cover and a horizontal band of the same glorious hue along its lateral line. A real beauty of about 6lbs. I was now away in an altogether different place: cuttbow paradise!
That night, I dreamt of arm-wrenching tussles with rainbows, cuttbows and other great fish, both real and imagined.
Next morning we returned to the scene of frenetic activity close to the high bluff shoreline and grassy outcrops. Alas, there was nobody home! Not a sniff of a bite was forthcoming and so we moved backwards and forwards along the shoreline, casting our flies and varying the speed and rhythm of retrieve. Only the odd wiper was willing ‘to have a go’. Denis suggested we change tactics and go trolling just as we had done the previous afternoon when we enjoyed a really hot troll bite. We started off as we had done previously with us running Tasmanian Devils, Denis deploying the downrigger, while I alternated between 3 ounces and 6 ounces, tied about 5ft above my Firetiger Taz. So off we set at a speed of 2.5 – 3 mph with the two lures working their magic. Or so we thought!
The wind was creating a great deal more chop and there were some big weather cells in the near distance which caused the winds to rise suddenly to near gale force and then just as suddenly, to peter out. Very bizarre I thought.
The rainbows and wipers were definitely not in the mood for chasing lures. We were marking good fish on the sounder and they were staging quite deep. I was feeling plucks and pecks on my lure but could not set the hook in many of these finicky, shy short takers. Those that I did manage to get a hook into, came adrift half way back to the boat – a sure indicator they were not really in the mood. I changed lure colour. I dropped down deeper and then came shallow, but the same result was achieved each and every time – either a missed strike or the fish would get off on the way to the boat!
My buddy and co-host on Wild Fish, Denis, is a shrewd operator and I believe, really gifted when it comes to fishing. In my opinion, he is the best multi-species fisherman around! End of story. I know, because I have fished with many down the years. There is no one that I am aware of who comes close to what I believe is a true sixth sense that he is so, so fortunate to be endowed with.
His sense of timing and self-belief when it comes to the big decisions that periodically have to be made in order to turn around what I refer to as a “dry net day” to turning the situation completely around and putting some good sized fish in the boat when all else is not working or not achieving the desired results is absolutely extraordinary to say the least.
On a number of occasions now, his judgement for a completely left of field change in tactics or presentation have resulted in extraordinary results with immediate effect! This “sixth sense”, “fishy intuition” or just downright “genius decision making” is sadly only found in a very few anglers. The rest of us mere mortals have to make do with our own intuition, interpretative skills and indeed water craft and other fish related skill sets. Sometimes we get it right and many times we don’t get it right!
What sets fishermen like Denis apart is their ability to be consistently successful with many different species, on a great many and varied fisheries using a whole range of tactics and methods to achieve their success. These gifted individuals certainly ain’t “a one trick pony” and that’s for sure!
Apologies for this digression!
To cut a long story short, Denis started to rummage around in his lure boxes and after some moments he pulled out a walleye spinner in Firetiger pattern which came complete with a small Colorado blade. He laughed loudly as he tied the spinner on, put his baitcaster in freespool and proceeded to let it out the back of the boat. He put the rod in the holder and clipped his line to the quick release on the downrigger before lowering the cannonball to the desired depth.
I swear on all that is holy in the world of downrigger fishing that the walleye spinner was barely working away 2 minutes, when he had a slam-dunk of a take, resulting in a well-hooked rainbow of 4lbs! What followed next is kind of surreal and in many ways hard to believe, but believe me when I tell you this happened and it is not a one off incident either. No sirree!
Over the next 3 hours or so, the wizard Denis hooked, played and landed maybe 35 rainbows. To be honest we lost count – it was that fantastic.
All the rainbows were fat, like peas in a pod…identical in shape and size…all going around the 4lbs mark! It was quite wonderful, the whole episode! I told Denis that I would never have chosen such a walleye spinner, not in a million years! Me, well I had to be content with setting the hook of my Taz very periodically as we did not have another lure that even approached this miracle spinner that he was using to such devastating effect. I announced that perhaps I should embark upon a new career and become a professional landing net operator given the amount of “on the job training” I was receiving this day!
I wonder if I have conveyed the majestic magnificence of this wild country and its awesome fishing in these two similar yet very different, high alpine waters. The vividness of the colours of the mountains, the canyons, the limitless skies and endless rolling plains. The sparkling brilliance of these aquamarine waters and the enormity of the vistas all overwhelm in this theatre of dreams.
You simply must go and see it for yourself. Oh, and don’t forget to bring at least one Firetiger pattern walleye spinner, complete with Colorado blade for that big decision if and when it has to be made!
Images courtesy Wild Fish Wild Places