Longtime newspaper outdoor writer, Neil Cantwell, off to ‘fishing hole in the sky’
Steamboat Springs — The news arrived this month that one of Steamboat’s most-recognizable characters from the ‘70s and ‘80s, longtime Steamboat Pilot outdoor columnist Neil Cantwell, died June 1 at the age of 90. He had been living in North Denver and daughter, Candice, wrote that he slipped away to “that big fishing hole in the sky” after a short bout with pneumonia.
I would be surprised if Cantwell didn’t have the brass to ask St. Peter for permission to fish some private water.
Cantwell, who went by the pen name “Carl Creel” (It’s a pun, get it?), was a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and he never quite lost that Marine bearing. He sold phone book advertising in Butte, Montana, in the early 1950s and continued his sales career in Denver in the 1960s.
But it was his move to Steamboat with wife, Delphine (Reichert), in 1970 that allowed him to become a traffic enforcement officer with the Steamboat Springs Police Department and a familiar face on downtown sidewalks. He wore a full uniform with badge and patches, and on most summer days, a straw cowboy hat.
Neil was not shy about enforcing parking regulations and would give a jaywalker a ticket in an era when the number of motor vehicles on Lincoln Avenue was mellow compared to what it is today. But he was also the guy who wouldn’t hesitate to take a shim and unlock your car when you locked your keys inside.
I always figured he loved the job because of its proximity to the Yampa River and most especially the Elk, which allowed him to brag about fishing 150 days of the year.
Cantwell and I had no choice but to get to know each other; every week, he dropped off his latest weekly outdoor column, handwritten on lined paper. It was my job to polish his syntax.
My best memory of fishing with Carl Creel goes back to a mild March day when he picked me up for an outing on the Yampa. He was wearing bright red felt pants and a jacket, with a matching cap that made him resemble a slender version of Elmer Fudd.
On this day, the snowbanks were about 4 feet deep and overhung the edge of the river. But that didn’t stop us from catching whitefish on tiny dry flies. Cantwell had the misfortune to be standing on one of the snowbanks when it collapsed, dropping him thigh deep in the water. Instead of cussing, he just laughed, and we continued fishing for a time.
Cantwell wrote columns for the Steamboat Pilot for more than 20 years as well as for a number of national publications. He was also a trap shooter and taught hunter safety education courses. He wrote about turkey hunting at least twice a year.
But mostly he wrote about trout fishing from the Conejos River in Southern Colorado to his favorite rivers in Montana. What made his columns stand out was the human friendships he described in the context of angling for trout.
Candice Cantwell (she has a brother named Peter) wrote that he was most proud of “Your Fly is Down,” written with Larry Gordon in 1981, and still available on the shelves of the Bud Werner Memorial Library.
Among my favorites is “Barnstorming the Flat Tops,” a story about a snowmobile trip into the Flat Tops to go ice fishing at an un-named lake. It describes Cantwell and his friend Chuck Lodwick lying prone on the ice with a tarp over their heads so that they could peer into the clear water and see 2-pound brook trout taking their jigs.
The following is Carl Creel’s anecdote about Lodwick, well known as a pilot.
“Chuck was one of the original barnstormers, logging thousands of air hours in California in the 1930s. I was always very secure with Chuck whenever he was at the controls of his Beech Bonanza. I vividly recall one flight to the Madison River in Montana. After about an hour in the air, I asked Chuck how we were doing.
“Well,” Chuck groaned, “we’re cruising at 200 knots and making excellent time. The bad news is, we’re lost.”
Candice Cantwell reported this month that her father had written several versions of his own obituary, which gave me a good laugh and the last word. She will scatter Neil’s ashes in the Elk River Valley. I feel reassured that he’ll never lose his bearings on his home fishing grounds.
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