Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Arizona Years

For ten years my wife and I lived in Arizona, specifically in the Paradise Valley area of northeast Phoenix.  We didn’t live in Paradise Valley, which is next to Phoenix and not in Paradise Valley, but in Paradise Valley that is in Phoenix and not in Paradise Valley.  I don’t know any other way to say it.  Maybe I should say we lived in northeast Phoenix and leave it alone with that.

As a hunter and fisherman I was in paradise (okay, I’ll leave this word alone now), but I rarely hunted or fished during those years.  Honestly, there was just too much to see and do, and the outdoor sports morphed into travel and photography.  A few minutes from our home brought us into the beauty of the Sonoran Desert where our eyes could feast on some of the most intriguing flora and fauna in America.  (I think I will qualify that by stating I have seen very intriguing flora and fauna just about everywhere, but the Sonoran Desert is very, very different from most other places.)

At first we were taken by the hummingbirds that kept feeding at the blooming tree in our front yard (I never did determine what kind of tree).  We put up a hummingbird feeder on our porch so we could get a closer view of them, and it was then we noticed there were a number of different kinds of hummingbirds.  Soon we were researching the tiny birds at the library (long before we had internet), and the more we learned, the more we wanted to learn.

Our research led us into a love of the desert wildlife that I cannot begin to explain.  Watching a red-tailed hawk circling, hunting for a meal was just as fascinating as observing the burrowing owls living under a sidewalk at a nearby mall.  A rain would bring out millions of frogs that would disappear again before the water drained into the soil.  Hiking to an ancient Native American ruin and finding a Gila monster sunning itself was a thrill.  Even an inner tube float down the Salt River provided a fish’s view of the eagles flying from the cliff high above.

Soon our ventures out across the state searching for new discoveries became almost an obsession.  The old west was still alive and well just off many of the back roads.  The vistas of the Navajo reservation were endless.  The mesa villages of the Hopi were a step back in time many hundreds of years.  The Grand Canyon deserves its name.  The petrified forest and painted desert are beyond description.  And the list of places goes on and on.  Sahuaro National Park, Tombstone, the Dos Cabezas Wilderness, Organ Pipe National Monument, Prescott, the Salt River Canyon, the Mogollon Rim, the Tonto National Forest, Oak Creek Canyon, the hummingbirds of Ramsey Canyon, and many other places named and unnamed.

While driving through the Petrified Forest, we stopped to observe an antelope wandering beside the road.  It was taking its time, but eventually walked within twenty feet of our car as it crossed the road in front of us.

Driving north on the Black Canyon Highway out of Phoenix, we decided to take a remote exit and just see what was down the road.  In less than a hundred yards the road changed from concrete to asphalt to dirt, but we kept driving.  At about 4 miles we realized the road was a bit too rough for our car so we turned around to return to the highway; however, our way was blocked by hundreds of horses.  I stopped the car and we watched and photographed for nearly an hour before they wandered away.

On the Hopi reservation we decided to drive up the narrow road to First Mesa and the village of Walpi.  We arrived to discover a ceremony was about to take place, and we were allowed to attend (but no cameras).  We were guided into an area among the pueblos where we privileged to witness the continuation of centuries of history.

Tubac and Tumacacori.  Canyon de Chelly.  Mission Xavier del Bac.  Lake Powell, Navajo Bridge, and Lee’s Ferry.  Superstition Mountains and the Lost Dutchman’s Mine.  And the Apache Trail.

We drove up to Monument Valley and over into Utah to spend the night in Mexican Hat.  Our goal was to explore some of the Anasazi ruins around the Four Corners area, but we were in such awe of what we found we couldn’t absorb much of anything.  A week later we returned to Phoenix with a carload of purchased books and headed straight to the library to search for more.  This adventure alone occupied us for many years.

Yes, I did some hunting and fishing, but very little beyond a few trips to a lake or river to throw a line in for a few hours, or some sporadic dove hunting when the season opened.  Something changed when I moved to Arizona.  I had always appreciated the beauty of nature, but until now I had never understood grandeur.  Yes, I had seen it before.  Never had I been awed before.

Unfortunately, time passes quickly, and Arizona is now a distant memory for both of us.  Fortunately, for once in my life I took photos.  Thousands of photos.  Someday I’ll sort through them.

Just a couple of weeks ago we returned to Phoenix for the passing of a friend.  It’s been just over twenty years since we visited the area, and much was the same and much was changed.  Areas we used to drive to in order to escape the city are now housing tracts.  A shopping center is on top of the land where I used to target practice.  Dirt roads are now 6-lane streets.  Rawhide village has been moved to a reservation.  Oaxaca village is just gone.  All very sad.

On the other hand, the hawks still sit on top of the telephone poles surveying the land for some meal to wander by.  The sky at sunset is still unbelievably colorful.  Saguaros stand erect everywhere.  The small town feel of the Phoenix has been replaced by tall buildings and freeways, but just a few minutes from the edge of the city one can still imagine the days of the early Spanish explorers, the Apaches and other native Americans, the miners, and of course the Old West.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


The idea of fishing encompasses many techniques.  Most involve a pole with a string and a hook, but there are other techniques.  Spear fishing is one of those approaches most people have heard of, and so is netting.  However, there are other ways to catch fish.  Noodling works for some people, and so do fish traps.  Electro-stunning is quite frowned upon, and even dynamite is used on occasion.  One of the least publicized is the trotline.

A trotline is simply a rope strung between two points and a number of short strings with baited hooks attached at intervals.  This is lowered into the water and left alone for a day.  With some luck, there will be fish on those hooks when one returns.  I consider this a lazy way to catch fish, but once when I had a few days in town I decided to give it a try.

My great-uncle Sam was adamantly against using a trotline, but he agreed with me that I should try it at least once in order to know what it was about.  He showed me how to build it and gave me a few pointers about setting the hook depth.  He even suggested a few places where I might wish to set it up.  If he didn’t use a trotline, how did he know so much about it?

I had listened to Sam for about a year as he taught me about fishing, and he was always right.  There was no exception, and that’s no exaggeration.  He was always right.  That man knew how to fish, and when he said to do this or try that, I did it.  And he was always right.

I loaded the trotline parts into my canoe and paddled over to a large inlet where a stream was emptying into the lake.  It was a wide inlet and about 7 or 8 feet deep at the center, but I had never seen anyone use the stream for anything, so I set up my trotline across the mouth.

I strung the rope from one stump sticking up out of the water to a stick in the water on the other side.  There were any number of stumps and sticks available, but I chose according to convenience.  I probed the depths to determine how deep to set the hooks and tied them onto the strings accordingly as I spaced them along the rope.  And I baited with a variety of items from bacon rind to chunks of fish from previous outings.  Then I paddled back to our dock and drove home.

The next afternoon I arrived back at the trotline and was disappointed to find my hooks still baited.  I checked each one, replaced a couple that needed replacing, and paddled back to the dock.  I walked over to Sam’s house and told him what I had found.

He scratched his whiskery chin and stared at the floor for a few minutes, and then he decided to take a look for himself.  We could take the canoe, but I had to do all the work.  Fine with me.  Within an hour were back at the trotline where he spent about 2 minutes looking over how I had it set up.

“You attached the rope to the wrong stick.  Move it over to that one next to it.”

I looked at the stick just 6 inches away and wondered why 6 inches could make a difference, but I didn’t say anything, I just moved the rope.  That was all.  We, uh, I paddled back to the dock.  Sam got out of the canoe then told me to go back and collect my fish.  By now I was getting tired.  The sun was getting low, but I still had about 2 hours of light left, so I paddled back.

The first thing I noticed was the rope moving around and the stick was bending back and forth.  I had a fish on one of the hooks, but which one?  I started along the line pulling up the strings one at a time.  By the time I pulled up the last string, I had 8 catfish from 15 to 20 inches long.  The rest were a bit smaller, although I kept them anyway.  I re-baited my hooks and paddled home.

I cleaned the fish and packed them away before putting away my canoe.  Then I sat down with Sam and asked how moving the rope just 6 inches could make so much difference.  His response was that the rope needed to line up with the noon sun on June 21st.  Huh??  I never did get an answer that made sense, but the next morning the trotline was full again.

Just to test his theory, I moved the rope back to the original stick, and that evening I went fishless.  I moved the line back, and the next morning, my trotline was full again.  I was convinced Sam knew something he wasn’t sharing with me, but he stayed with his story.

I never had the opportunity to run the trotline again, so I’ve never tested the theory at a different location, but at the same time I keep remembering Sam was never wrong on anything else about fishing.