The alarm at 4:40 a.m. was not warranted. I was already awake, and had been for an hour so I turned it off before it could wake sleeping beauty. For some reason sleep is hard to come by the night before a fishing excursion and I knew I’d pay for it that afternoon. But there were fish to be chased and being late for fishing is something I’ve never been. As always when sneaking out of the house early, I did my damnedest to go stealth mode. In true sneaky style, I immediately dropped my phone on the wood floor with a loud bang and clatter, waking up my better half. That afternoon there was a 100% chance I’d hear about it.
The gate hadn’t opened yet as the sun was still hiding behind the Kansas plains. We stepped out of our vehicles in the pale early light and swallowed breakfast burritos whole as our excitement grew. We kidded about how we should try to camp in the nature reserve so we could fish earlier than sunup and through the night. We concluded we probably wouldn’t get caught but we haven’t tried it yet. Mouse fishing for big pike at night would be a blast. Add the fear of being prosecuted, and you have something to remember. I pictured sneaking through the cattails in full camo complete with painted face and boonie hat. 9 weight in hand. Night vision goggles. Just us and the raccoons. Chasing pike while spotlights scanned our positions.
Fishing the infamous Rocky Mountain Arsenal, especially on a weekend, is a little annoying now that everyone thinks catching mutant Northern Pike on a fly is cool. The pressure has also increased due to proximity to Denver and the fact there is a season at the Arsenal. Opening day is out of hand, depending on the weather. Lifted Toyota Tundras and 4-Runners line up at the gate at sunrise with expensive rod tubes showing off various levels of wealth and/or dedication, depending on my mood.
Once the gates slide open with the sunrise, the string of beards and flannel winds down the pavement through the prairie dog towns. Mule deer and white tail barely look up from their breakfast as we all rumble to the pay stations and jockey for a spot on the bank. $3 gets you a day on the water. Not too bad when you are talking a shot at a 36″ pike.
Out here the prairie dog towns seemingly never end. The little fur balls rush around as we tramp through their residences. Chirping at us with just the tops of their heads poking out of their holes. There was a time when all I could think about was blowing their brains all over the buffalo grass with a little too much rifle. Mom and I even tried poisoning a town of the poor critters once. We spent an afternoon sprinkling neon green wheat grains over each hole yet somehow they persevered. They do eat a lot of grass that her cows should have been gaining weight on, but poisoning them just didn’t seem very sporting.
The bird watching here is alone worth the trip and there are plenty of folks driving around with binoculars and high powered cameras among the rod wavers. If there is one sound that reminds me of warm water fishing it is the call of the redwing blackbird. That sounds means there are cattails somewhere close, and water. And usually fish. Many times while casting streamers we have shared the lake with eagles, owls, and even loons. The variety of ducks alone is amazing. Brave ducks they are. I’ve never seen a duck get taken by a pike, but this seems like the perfect place for it. I bet the waterfowl swim around with their butts puckered.
The first steps into this water releases a black cloud of swirling mud that wreaks of methane and reminds me of the Baileys Irish Cream I added to my coffee this morning with swirling clouds of deliciousness. This used to be a military arsenal, so naturally the mind wanders to what might be getting stuck to my waders. A trout could never survive here. This place is made for hearty fish that don’t sip mayflies. The fish here eat crayfish, frogs, and each other.
Once while hip deep in the shallows I witnessed an incredible spinner fall on a glassy windless morning. It felt like speckled noses should have been dimpling the film, but there were no rises. I was almost pissed I was out there on the plains chasing pike instead of trout. Then I remembered how nice it was just to be in water so close to the house if I had to poop.
When the mud settles, the clarity exposes hundreds of rusty crayfish creeping along the grey bottom. As you wade towards them they shoot backwards with arms raised as if at a tent revival. It must feel like Godzilla is invading their pond, wearing Simms boots and waders.
Airplanes roar overhead about every ten minutes. Therefore it’s easy to stop noticing these noisy, magical feats of engineering. Sometimes though, while not catching fish, I can’t help but ponder their destinations. All I know is when I look up, smell of pond in my nostrils, I’m glad I’m not up there next to some sweaty fat guy from Oklahoma City who goes on and on about the Gaylord Hotel monstrosity.
In the Arsenal lakes live some beastly largemouth bass, carp, and bluegill, but the main target is the Northerns. They get big. And they see enough of us streamer fishermen they get picky. I’ve read too much about the techniques of fly fishing pike and the YouTube videos haven’t taught me much either. But these fish aren’t spooky. They will follow a fly right up to your shins and just hover in the water column, staring at it until there is nothing to do but try a figure eight. Easier done from a boat than in four feet of water and mud. As soon as you reset, they are gone.
The takes are always a surprise. Especially after stripping streamers for an hour, watching birds. The lake doesn’t have many snags, so if the line stops, an immediate and fierce hook set is in order. Then the fight is much like a carp just not as strong or with as much stamina. As soon as I have a toothy pike on the line along comes the doubts, like a Texas flood. Are my knots good? Will the steel leader hold up? Did I remember my long nose pliers? Which one of my kids will most likely spend some jail time? Eventually I settle in to a strong fighting fish like a strong fighting woman. It’s going to stress me out, and there’s moments you think you might lose her altogether, but as long as you maintain patience the fight ends up in great sex.
I don’t recommend sex with a Northern though. That’s not what I’m about.
The first time I netted a pike, my biggest surprise was just how slimy it was. They border on gross. I would best describe them as toothy snakes covered in bucking bull snot. But they are so fun to fish for it all makes up for their lack of beauty.
Now that the word is out, the Arsenal pike see a lot of streamers and the lake has gotten a little small for my liking. Maybe the novelty has worn off for me, so I don’t get out there as much as I used to. But if a nice-sized Northern is a fish that need checked off the list of fish to catch, it’s a better option than driving all the way to Steamboat Lake, or the Yampa, or Minnesota.