Fishing With Frozen Food on the Colorado River
(A Boy and His Turkey)
Submitted by Michele Murray
Doug was reluctant to do the Colorado River. At that time, it wasn’t a major fly-fishing venue. He was used to packing the Clackacraft with beer and “Little Juan’s” burritos and driving for ten hours to reach a river worthy of his intensity. Usually, he fished the same two blue-ribbon tail-waters: the Big Horn and the Green River at Flaming Gorge. In contrast, I am a Colorado River girl, through and through. For me, the Colorado is The River.
I accompanied Doug out-of-state nearly every weekend all summer. We fished the Salmon, the Kootenai, the Yellowstone, and the Missouri River repeatedly before he finally followed me to the Colorado River. He was impressed enough to split the cost of a self-bailing raft with platforms for fishing the bonier rivers of Colorado to halve his usual commute. The raft seems sluggish compared to a dory, but it’s a lot more durable in big water. We learned this during a sloppy run through Hoyt’s Narrows on the Colorado River when we got sucked into a churning hole and didn’t sink. My sister dubbed the raft, “Blueberry Muffin” for its color and less than dynamic shape.
There is a clan of river people who camp together nearly every summer weekend on the Colorado River somewhere in the vicinity of Radium, Rancho del Rio, or State Bridge Lodge. They raft, kayak, and hike the canyons between Pump House and Dotsero. One of them, Uncle Charlie (a zesty, cantankerous river guide with a white pony tail under his Stetson) sometimes constructs an enormous, crazily dipping canopy out of a 30’x30’ blue-tarp (as only an ex-denizen of the Vietnam jungle can). He makes a smoldering fire under a tripod that holds either a Dutch oven, or his large pot of John Wayne coffee. This was our destination. One only has to float down The River leisurely fishing and, at the end of the day, look for an enormous blue-tarp to know that is the good place to stay.
Sometimes, I address the whining of my loved ones in Denver to come down and visit them by inviting them to come up and visit me at Charlie’s blue-tarp city. In this way, at one time or another, I’ve had on The River my whole family, including aged aunties, and friends from all over the world. There is nothing like camping on The River after a day of floating through rapids in canyons and watching eagles watch us to get to know a person better. One weekend, Chad Binkler joined us: a plasma physicist from Boulder I’ve known for over 25 years.
For some reason, Uncle Charlie was fascinated with Chad Binkler. Maybe it was the plasma physics, maybe it was Chad’s three-foot ponytail, but I think it was the frozen turkey. Chad Binkler brought a 20-pound frozen turkey to The River. I was astounded by the bird and by Chad’s first request to me, “Did I have a large grill?” Charlie built this blue-tarp city at the State Bridge peninsula for people who would be arriving by car. Chad’s logic: someone must have a large grill in his or her car. He over-estimated the quality of our facilities. My sister, Cheryl, had a pop-up camper, but it only had small burners. Chad asked kayakers and rafting people living in a teepee if anyone had a large grill or other sort of sophisticated cooking apparatus. “What?! He’s got a frozen turkey?! You’re kidding!” Charlie was amused. He only had his tripod over a stone ring to cook on.
Chad wasn’t totally unprepared, though. His necessary items, sleeping bag, sunglasses, oven-mitts, cooking thermometer, ballpoint pens, charcoal briquettes, and apple-wood branches formed a nest of debris in the backseat of his car. No grill, though. He put Birdzilla on ice for the time being. Later, I saw him hacking away with Charlie’s axe, which is an industrial logger-size axe nearly as big as himself. I saw him staggering backwards across the camp under its weight until he muscled its head forward. At first, I thought he was hacking at the frozen bird to bring it down to reasonable proportions, but he was making chips out of his apple-wood.
In the morning, Doug and I put the Blueberry Muffin in at Rancho Del Rio after greeting “Karen-with-a-K” at her luncheonette stand in the middle of the parking lot: KK’s BarBQ. Chad was frantic. He had a certain time of day he had to GET THE THING ON A GRILL or it would be too late. He stressed this issue before I even had a cup of Joe from Charlie’s pot. He had a plan, though, that was partially in effect. The big frozen bird was immersed in brine, thawing in Charlie’s plastic bailing bucket with a bunch of apple-wood chips.
That morning, Chad brought the troublesome carcass to KK’s, hoping she might let him use part of her industrial grill for the next five hours. He had no idea he was dealing with the most focused and intense Bar-BQ woman in the universe. KK utilizes every inch of her grill to cook up piles of ribs, chicken, sausages, burgers, and wieners for all the hungry souls on the river. My tolerance waned when Chad stowed the frozen bird in our raft. I’m not a strong oarsman, and three people, two fat dogs, and a 20-pound frozen turkey in a bucket of brine were going to be heavy cargo to hold against the current while Doug fished the trout lairs.
I was thinking I might launch the turkey into the river to bob through eddies and rapids like flotsam. The thought of it washing up at our campsite all bloated and FOUL put me off this plan. Fortunately for Chad, Charlie recognized the signs of a man about to break. Charlie put the bucket of frozen bird and brine in the storage of his own boat.
Doug and I took Chad and the dogs. Charlie took my sister, her husband, two other people and THE BIG DEAD BIRD in his raft. Both boats had beer and lunch in coolers, too. Since Charlie knew Doug and I would be rowing against the current to slow our boat and hover at nice holes, he would take his crew on land expeditions. We often over-take his anchored raft and keep on going while his group hikes to view Ute Indian ruins, things like eagle-traps, fur-trappers cabins, and even dinosaur tracks. Too bad for Chad, we intended to use him as our slave at the oars.
As we shoved off, Chad began fiddling and fussing with a piece of twine he produced from his pocket. In a moment he had fashioned river-gear to fix both his glasses and his hat to his shirt. “Remember that time I almost lost my hat in the river?” he asked me. “Here, Chad. Watch how I hug the bank and keep the boat parallel to the shoreline. Think you can do this?” was my answer.
Chad rowed most of the day, certainly through all the big lakes. And that was no easy job in The Muffin, considering that the wind had picked up. He used the “love-stroke” – a maneuver that utilizes a raised pelvis and arched spine to put all your weight on the oars and pull against the current. Doug and I snapped commands at him – “Can you slow it down a bit?” and “Too close! Get off the bank, will you?” I think I resented him for trying to put a huge avian in our boat. When big water came up, either Doug or I took over. Otherwise, Chad rowed our butts all the way down river.
It was as it always is on the Colorado River: fish on. The water is always deceptively cloudy. It’s murky, foamy, and brown as Charlie’s coffee, but for some reason, the fish are there and ready for a dry fly. No need for 6x tippet here. As far as I remember, I’ve never seen a hatch of any significance either. There are always some caddisflies, some mayflies, but mostly, a lot of grasshoppers. The banks are overhung by tall weeds. So, terrestrials (not only insects, but sometimes also an unfortunate cow) often fall in. Consequently, large fish are always along the bank and they will go for anything you throw at them, especially attractor patterns like a Royal Wulff, size anything from 10 - 14. The only thing you need to bring for sure is a net, because the fish are big and fat. You will definitely break the tip off your rod, as we have done, if you try wrangling them without a net. Doug and I seldom nymph the Colorado, though it is full of stoneflies year-round because of the consistent dry fly action. It’s a good river to fish if you want to utilize your casting.
Most of the best fishing between Rancho and State Bridge is floating from hole to hole and hitting the few riffles between islands and the banks. There are a few places where the river backs up into lake-like stretches. Unless you want to drop a stick of dynamite in these, the fishing is still best along the banks and in the weeds. One note: if it’s a hot day, the fishing will drop off around noon. Then, you’ll have to use streamers. We’ve had decent luck with green and black Wooly Buggers with brass heads. Once I caught a nice brown using UFO-looking rubber legged stonefly nymph patterns left over from our trip to the Salmon River. Fish action will pick up again on the Colorado River when shadows from the steep canyon walls hit the water, usually late afternoon. During the evening, The River surface is a carnival of feeding activity, especially across from State Bridge Lodge at the boat ramp. The stretch between Rancho and State Bridge is a short one and can be accomplished in 4-5 hours. So, don’t hurry along the way. Stop and fish from the islands.
There is one significant, foamy lake, just above the confluence with the Piney (a small tributary chock full of Brookies and Browns), where fish are always rising in abundance. That lake is just above where the old Trough Road is still visible on river-right as a shelf in the side of a basalt lava cliff (I once drove off this cliff in a car and now call this stretch, “Miracle Lake”). There, the new road disappears from view behind some brightly colored, nearly vertical sandstones. This spot is one of the top stretches to dry fly fish between Rancho and Bond (Bond is located 2-days more floating down river. The Rancho-Burns float makes for an excellent overnight expedition, with multiple public landings available along the way). This particular lake is certainly the best spot for dry fly fishing between Rancho and State Bridge.
Chad scooted us around Miracle Lake, pleased with our enjoyment of the fishing and the abundant action on the surface. He used the eddy to take us back to the top and fish it again and again. No one was thinking about cooking the damn bird anymore. I realized, too, that maybe it wasn’t the bird so much, after all. Maybe Chad was uncomfortable to be in the middle of all these hard-core river people. Maybe he wanted to make a good impression and make food for everyone. Perhaps the silly bird embarrassed Chad. I remembered how he jostled Charlie’s axe, but won the battle to chop wood. Now, he was doing a great job of rowing the boat. I felt badly about my hostility toward the turkey.
“Chad, when we get to State Bridge Lodge, I’ll ask the owners if you can use one of the ovens in their restaurant.” But Chad wasn’t worried about the turkey anymore. That fine day on The River had transformed him into a river man. He was truly content at the helm, rowing Doug and I about in and out of eddies, slowing for suspected trout hide-outs. He held the Muffin right on line with the drift nicely. “Oh, that would be perfect, Michele!”
Unfortunately, State Bridge Lodge had a large party going on and the kitchen was rocking. However, the bartender offered a two-legged Weber without a lid or grill from his cabin. Doug made a third leg out of some piece of garbage from a prolific junk pile behind the lodge. Further rousting in the garbage procured a refrigerator shelf, which, after Charlie bent the corners, made for a grill. Now, the plasma physicist would take over.
Chad made a chimney out of two industrial-restaurant size coffee cans. He perforated these and filled them with charcoal. Charlie was intrigued to observe that, stacked vertically inside this vented device, the briquettes burned much more efficiently than if they were piled in a heap and drenched with lighter fluid. Then, Chad made Doug hold three long sheets of aluminum foil out in front of him as he rolled a seam between them and constructed a large foil dome. Chad placed the brine-soaked apple-wood chips on the grill as a bed for one magnificently huge, naked, turkey – now thawed and waving its arms about like a needy chimpanzee. When the woodchips began to smolder, he nestled Big Bird in them and covered her up with the foil dome. The camping-gone-rafting turkey was now beginning to look a lot like dinner.
We all danced, drank, and carried-on to a live band at State Bridge Lodge for 4 hours while Chad stuck his thermometer in and out of the chest cavity until it reached a critical temperature for a certain amount of time. When it was finished, Chad presented the amazing, golden bird to the crowd with oven-mitts. Bobbi & Michael, (the owners) laid out buns, forks, plates and napkins. We ordered other food from the kitchen and everyone feasted on the moist, smoked turkey. In the morning, there was turkey left over for the next day’s river regatta. I’ve since heard that Chad now has a recipe Website for smoking turkeys on river expeditions.
All text, photos and graphics Copyright © 2001 by Michele Murray. No reproduction, linking, or copying without permission
Resources - Plan your trips:
- Click here to buy an ebook on CD The Colorado River: A Fly Fisher's Guide by Al Marlowe and Karen Christopherson which includes color maps and info on the Colorado and its main tributaries (Blue, Eagle, Fraser, Roaring Fork, Fryingpan and Fraser). The book is over 170 pages and includes info on access, flies, hatches, and more.....
- Click here to buy guide maps for the Colorado River