by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO — According to some, this is spring, and spring means the opening of fishing season. Everyone has a favorite fishing story, also known as yarns and often as tall tales, and I have mine. It is an item from the Huerfano Herald newspaper, published in La Veta, on May 25, 1882. It reads, “George McKinney of the Denver and Rio Grande caught an eight inch long trout in the irrigation ditch in front of the La Veta Hotel.”
This is fun to envision, because the La Veta Hotel fronted on Ryus Avenue, making that ditch IN the street. Nowadays, Ryus is one of La Veta’s busiest thoroughfares (if you’ll pardon the term) so it’s a silly vision of a person fishing out in the middle of a paved street.
Back in the good old days, licenses were not required. Permission, if fishing on private property, was recommended. So many people considered the lakes and creeks of Huerfano County to be open to the public, however, that it didn’t take long for ranchers to begin posting their properties with no fishing or hunting signs.
The era of the license begins
Then in 1905 the San Isabel Forest Reserve was created along the Sangre de Cristos. Even though it was 65 miles long and from six to 12 miles wide, it did not include Huerfano County. In 1907 the Las Animas Forest Preserve was established to run south from La Veta Pass into Las Animas County. This strip was about 18 miles wide. It was soon renamed the Las Animas National Forest but was merged into San Isabel in 1910. On the west side of the Sangres, the land became Rio Grande National Forest a few years later. Now it really was available to the public, more or less.
With national forest status, ownership of the land belonged to the government, and that government had strict rules about usage. Hunting and fishing now required licenses, available, it seems, from the forest ranger though earlier they could be purchased from the county clerk where a combined small game and fish license cost a state resident $1. For 1909, the clerk reported selling 846 licenses.
Cuchara Camps are born
Shortly after the preserve was designated, along came one George Alfred Mayes, of Plano, Texas, to buy a large ranch adjacent to the national land. He turned this former occasional guest ranch into a campground called Cuchara Camps, and he began developing the streams and lakes on his place into private fishing areas. Several small ponds were available, such as the one where the Timbers restaurant now stands, and another behind today’s Dakota Dukes, but the largest was a “reservoir” that covered the low ground west of the Cucharas River and south of “Park Creek”, the old name for Dodgeton. As late as the 1950s, this was still a marsh.
Mayes stocked his ponds and creeks liberally, as any one renting one of his “cottages” and everyone camping on his land had free rein to throw his (or her) line into any body of water on his property.
He claimed land as far south as what we know as Blue and Bear lakes, but which were known collectively way back then as “the Blue Lakes”. Before this name, according to the La Veta Advertiser in 1912, they were called Crater Lakes. There were five or seven of these, with separate names, including not only Bear, but Wolf, Lost and Long lakes. The Blue Lakes were accessible by horseback or foot – it took several decades to get a road all the way up. Before then, the end of the road for vehicles was the Cuchara timber company sawmill a mile or so below today’s Blue Lake.
All of these mountain lakes were regularly stocked. In the earliest times, Mayes received the fish he ordered from hatcheries as fingerlings packed in cans and then released in either Blue Lake or the river. Eventually, Long Lake was improved into a holding pond for the small fish, which had to be moved to deeper water in the fall. For this undertaking, he enlisted the aid of local anglers. A few of the ranchers along the road between La Veta and Cuchara helpfully deepened their ranch ponds to provide winter shelter for the fish.
Stocking the county
Meanwhile, the forest service was also grooming the upper Huerfano for the fishing public. In March 1907, Game Warden David Farr received 40,000 brook trout to place there, and in July 1909, two Walsenburg men managed to pull out some 200 trout from the river above Malachite. Obviously, there was no legal limit. At the same time, 14-year-old Charley Elmire “caught the largest fish ever to come out of the Huerfano about two miles west of Gardner.” It was a salmon trout weighing two and a half pounds and measuring 19 inches long and 10 inches around. Alas, poor Charley died in the “Great War” in late 1918, and this great feat was lost to history.
Eventually, this area on the upper Huerfano became the Huerfano State Wildlife Area.
For many decades, fishing season opened the last week of May, after the spring duck hunting season closed. In 1930, for instance, the La Veta Commercial Club welcomed out-of-towners to “a big picnic” at Blue Lake to officially open the season on May 25. While it wouldn’t have surprised the local anglers, some of the visitors were dismayed to find they had to break ice to get access to the fish.
In about 1910, rod and reel clubs took the initiative to stock lakes and streams. Then in the 1930s, the Izaak Walton league was organized to improve the entire fishing experience. The league set the basic rules, ordered the fish and even did some clean-up around the lakes and streams. Later, the county sportsmen’s clubs took over these responsibilities.
In 1937 it became the law that women too had to have licenses. In the same state legislative bill, the age for boys to have licenses was lowered from 16 to 14. In 1942, it became unlawful for foreign aliens to purchase licenses to either hunt or fish. By this time, the limit had been set at 10 for mountain lakes.
When the City of Walsenburg obtained use of Martin Lake and the land around it for recreational purposes, anyone wishing to fish there had to buy their licenses from the city clerk. The fishing season was short, about three months, but in 1949 Martin Lake was opened to year-round fishing. State laws have been in effect since Walsenburg sold its interest in the land to the Colorado park and recreation board in 1961.
Worth facing the weather for the bragging rights
One problem with the season beginning in May was not just ice on the lakes, but high, muddy water in the creeks and lakes. The game warden used to submit fishing reports in the local papers, and would warn sportsmen of conditions. Many paid no attention, which is why you can read the old papers and learn that, alas, another man had drowned in the upper Cucharas. There was also the danger of anglers being drowned after their boats capsized on various lakes.
When it came down to bragging rights as to who caught the largest fish, there are many contenders. Some that stand out are the story of a five pound, two ounce Loch Laven trout caught in the upper Huerfano and the 11 ½ pound, 31-plus inch mackinaw trout from Blue Lake. Of course, my question, as a non-angler, is, what are Loch Laven and mackinaw trout?
The Walsenburg VFW club used to sponsor the annual Huck Finn Day at Martin Lake on the Fourth of July holiday. This was for the best Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher costumes but also was a fishing “derby” for kids under 12 who were confined to a certain area of the lake which had been stocked. Renette Elley won the 1967 event with a ten and a half inch trout and received a rod and reel. A few weeks later, the lake was so fouled with dead fish it was closed for the season. It was determined that low water and high temperatures had exhausted the oxygen supply and killed the fish. Martin Lake, and even some of the high altitude lakes suffered similar problems with similar die-offs through the decades.
My second favorite fish story comes from 1956. It involves a Pueblo County assistant district attorney. He was found guilty of fishing in Martin Lake before the season opened.