Catching the limit | AspenTimes.com

Catching the limit

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly

Willoughby collectionRussell Volk, left, and Frank Willoughby survey their catch after a day of fishing in the 1950s.

Warning: If you read this while waiting to catch the bus to the Maroon Bells, you may yearn for “the good old days.”

Ever since William Henry Jackson’s 1870s photo of the Maroon Bells circulated, mountain lovers have flocked to America’s most photogenic peaks. Shutterbugs sought that famous lake scene in the 1950s, but locals were more interested in the fishing.

During my childhood, you didn’t make a quick trip to Maroon Lake. It was an all-day excursion. The road was not paved, so the washboard condition prevented any vehicle from speeding. The ruts and protruding rocks could be terminal for older cars. In a rainstorm ” and it did rain every evening ” it provided a slippery slope for bald tires. Mornings, the long dusty road discouraged all but the determined, but with so few trekking that you could drive right up to the lake’s edge.

There was no parking lot. The road forked, and the forks terminated at water’s edge. Our family’s favorite picnic perch was at the end of the lake, where the stream exits. We welcomed the shade at the edge of the aspens, but the real attraction was the best fishing hole.

The view was a familiar one, etched in our log of local locations, but the destination was dedicated to angling. There were more whopper stories than whopper fish caught, but what Maroon’s fish lacked in measurable length, they made up in quantity. In those days locals defined “the limit” as the legal limit times the number of people on location. My limit as a kid, though I rarely caught any, allowed the adult creels to fill.

The ’50s was a gender-divided era. My mother and the other women tended the kids and conversed while the men circled the lake or paddled out in small inflatable yellow boats. Hard liquor was the favored libation. The mothers usually got a head start on the bourbon.

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By early afternoon, the men had their limit and the eating commenced. The menu consisted of fish, fish and fish with some baked beans on the side. Trout were fried on the griddle or in seasoned cast-iron frying pans. A favored Colorado recipe prescribed cooking trout in gobs of bacon grease, but the culinary result was less important than the speed of getting fish on the plate.

Trout were not often thrown back; they were eaten. The rule that “smaller fish are tastier than big ones” reigned. Fish that avoided consumption were hauled home to be frozen in water-filled aluminum ice cube trays (without the dividers) for a later meal. Seafood was not available in Aspen’s many steakhouses. Locals traveled to California for that experience, but freshwater fish was served in at least three out of five homes every day of fishing season and well into winter.

Campfire stories followed feasting. In big fish stories, the weight of the catch tended to equal the amount of bourbon consumed. As the sun dipped and the temperature dropped early in the day at that elevation, the coffee boiled and everyone began packing up.

I don’t remember much about going home since, as a child, I was asleep in the back seat no matter how rough the road.

In the “good old days” you could picnic beside Maroon Lake on almost any summer weekend completely unaccompanied. When my family began sharing “our” lake with others, we moved to alternate picnic spots in other valleys, chosen for the fishing. I am not at liberty to divulge where.

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