Various means of fishing | AspenTimes.com

Various means of fishing

Tim Willoughby
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

Willoughby CollectionFrank Willoughby, left, and Russell Volk examine their catch, enough for a 1950s family fish-fry.

My first fishing experience was made easier because my father baited the hook. Even at that young age, I wondered why Rocky Mountain trout would be interested in the eggs of a fish, salmon, that resided a thousand miles away. The trout were never too interested in my salmon eggs, but everyone around me who used the same bait succeeded.

The next summer I graduated to worms. I wanted to fish more often, and worms that I dug out of the back yard were free. My fishing technique did not improve, but I became more interested in worms. Selling worms to trout-fishing tourists became a lucrative undertaking for Aspen boys, sufficiently profitable to buy an ice cream cone on a hot summer day.

Fishing with flies presented a rite of passage; in this adult sport, the art of casting was as important as the actual catching of the fish. But fishing in 1950s Aspen was not just a sport; it put food on the table, as it had since the town’s beginning.

Some of the earliest accounts of Aspen trout fishing are recorded in “The Lost Journals of Charles S. Armstrong: From Arkport, New York to Aspen, Colorado.” Armstrong lived on Castle Creek beginning in 1880. He provided much of his own food with a garden, trapping, hunting and fishing. His diary entries often included the number of fish he had caught. His entry from Sept. 1, 1889 said, “I went up the creek fishing this afternoon caught 26 nice trout.” He also mentions that he had recently bought a new trout rod for $4 made from ash and lancewood. That replaced an oak rod. An 1888 entry says, “I caught four trout with the fly, I did not expect they would raise.”

Charles Orvis designed fly reels and published catalogs in the 1870s that popularized fly fishing. His New England methods, equipment and fly-tying developed fishing-with-flies as the preferred method in Aspen. But not everyone was interested in that approach. A few who felt more intent on filling their frying pans took a different approach, a short cut: dynamite.

I remember my father telling me a story from the 1920s. He was fishing on the Roaring Fork behind Red Butte when he heard a dynamite blast. He headed toward the sound and came upon a sad scene: fish lined the banks of the stream. His arrival scared off the perpetrators, and no one was apprehended, but it sparked talk around town.

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Dynamite fishermen stealthily employed their methods, while even those who needed quantities of fish to feed their families abhorred the practice. Whenever information about an incident arose, reporters wrote scathingly of the details. There was an incident in 1886 on the Fryingpan: “Complaints of dynamite fishers destroying the stream and fishing for others, dead smelly fish left behind,” the headline said. Locals vowed that, “they will make it interesting for anyone caught using giant (a common name for dynamite) in those waters.”

To discourage the practice, the paper printed stories even if they were not local, like this one from 1894. A man in England threw a stick of dynamite into the river to blast out the fish, but his dog retrieved it; when the dog brought it back, it exploded, killing the dog and nearly killing the fisherman.

In 1901 the paper told its readers that the Leadville Sportsman’s Association was offering a $50 reward for the arrest of dynamiters.

My fishing skills never equaled the talents of the trout – I mostly caught willow branches. I often imagined better ways to catch trout than by floating flies on the water, but I never dreamed of fishing with dynamite.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at redmtn@schat.net.