Voices from the River: Fishing mouth

Sometimes, where you eat is almost as important as where you fish.

By Toner Mitchell

Joe is the most deferential person I know, which has only been a problem once. We were fishing the Lower Stanislaus one winter and made a deal that whoever caught the most fish would get to choose where we would eat dinner on our way home. I think the loser had to pay. Whatever the case, Joe won.  

Driving into Oakdale after fishing, I asked him where he wanted to eat. He asked where I wanted to eat, and I reminded him that it wasn’t my choice to make. He said something like, “I don’t know, do you want Mexican or a burger?” 

Again, I reminded him of our deal, and again, he deferred to my preference, which I made clear was for him to choose a restaurant. We went back and forth like this as we drove past our options. He literally would not make up his mind without my approval, which only got worse when I brought this to his attention. And by worse, I mean a mile-long, full-volume argument that culminated in him screaming, “OK, there! Pull in there!” 

It was a franchise place that shall remain nameless, not fast food but a monstrous bar full of colorful, heat-lamped food piles, serving spoons the size of shovels, and plates the size of hubcaps. I remember weighing the risks of eating there or getting punched in the nose. 

”Jesus, Joe, you can’t be serious,” I almost said. 

From Oakdale back to Berkeley, we may have gotten on one of our familiar rants. Or because we had fought – something we almost never do – we may have driven in silence. All I know for sure is that my seat belt gouged my belly like a saddle cinch, and my hands on the wheel swelled with salt. Dinner was still with us, as it would be for the next couple days. 

If I learned anything from that experience, it’s that the mouth must be appreciated during fishing trips. Mind you, we have no problem doing this with our intoxicants. La Cumbre, Bulleit, or even Pabst, the lengths we will go to ice our fishing cakes. Drum rollies or Copenhagen, we should suffer nothing less than what we want. 

Unless, of course we have to. Most of our fishing destinations are in sparsely populated locations, so when it comes to food, we’re forced to eat what is served. For New Mexicans, this amounts to no hardship whatsoever, at least concerning breakfast and the imperative to eat while making good time to the water. Towards the Chama and Rio Grande, we have El Parasol, Socorro’s, the Espanola Shell station, Bode’s Phillips in Abiquiu and Banana’s Chevron in Questa. Competition is fierce for the burrito crown, and the delectable cream rises everywhere. Even in Pecos, where Pancho’s Shell station is the only option; word can get around, to the point of making anglers decide where, or where not, to fish. In my state, gas station burritos are exquisitely more than edible. Questa’s Monte Carlo (owed by Questa’s mayor) makes a good one too, and it’s a liquor store. 

Then there are those sit-down breakfast joints where even if you think you don’t have time, you are willing to trade a few fish on the front end for a plate of food you’re afraid you’ll never get a chance to experience again. I’m thinking Patio Pancake Place in Salida (Arkansas River), Anna’s Country Kitchen in Burney (Pit River), and Gwin’s Roadhouse in Cooper Landing (Kenai River). As if by law, small towns seem to understand the depth of my weakness for biscuits and gravy, and in Gwin’s case, for reindeer sausage. 

Dinner can be difficult, because small town cafes tend to close early. In the case of the Wildcat’s Den in Questa, perhaps the tastiest basic burger in all of New Mexico, this is nothing short of tragic.  

Joe and I used to have this problem with Murder Burger on Yuba trips, where the days were hot and the fishing often fruitless until the evening shadows fell and trout began to mange on Yellow Sallies. Murder Burger is in Davis, not a short drive from the Yuba. Murder Burger (now called Redrum Burger) serves my favorite hamburger and is the only place where I’ll still order milk shakes. Before they extended their hours, late-evening fish bonanzas often came at a price we were reluctant to pay.   

The mouth is an integral pleasure center, to be acknowledged, nay, honored, as a sacred component of our fishing ritual. Without trying, I can see campfire flames licking at sizzling steaks and onion halves. I can see a shore lunch of fine salami, swiss cheese, and ripped bread laid out on the grease-spotted paper sack we packed it in. Joe’s popping olives while staring at an open fly box. I can hear beer cracking, birds singing, and water tumbling over rocks. 

Toner Mitchell is Trout Unlimited's water and habitat coordinator for New Mexico. He lives and works in Santa Fe.


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