Sometime in March 2011, Somewhere in California
It was the wrong season. The sun had yet to paint it’s colors on the morning sky when I found myself heading south, packed with my day hiking gear and enough food for a weekend fishing trip. Rain was scheduled but if we were fortunately, it would hold off- at least for the first day.
I hadn’t fished this country before. I had always meant to but like many things, had simply never had the time....no… I never made the time to do it. I wouldn’t be doing it now if it weren’t for a note from Bernard saying that he and Noah were heading north and did I want to meet them for some Steelhead fishing. Like many messages from Bernard it was probably brief. Something like: “Steelhead. ‘Place you always wanted to fish’ Wilderness. Let’s stay in touch.” I don’t recall if it was a text or email. Could have been a phone call, I don’t do phone calls much these days but I’m pretty sure all 3 where involved. In fact, as I recall, we did a 3 way video conference on skype. There’s modern trip planning for you.
The plan was set. We would rendezvous at a gas station close to the turn off for our campground and set out from there. Our timing was nearly perfect. Noah and Bernard arrived at the gas station about 10 min. before me and were still refueling as I pulled in. By this time the sky was pale blue and filled with wispy clouds extending unevenly across the sky. The evening storm clouds were almost imperceptible in the distance.
The campground was nearly empty when we arrived. Only the campground host and a couple had decided to camp on these last days before the end of Steelhead season. No other fisherman were seen. Perhaps the forecast had scared them off.
Noah and Bernard set up camp, pitching their tent and tending to gear while I became familiar with my new fishing vehicle. I’d brought my tent but with the Corolla now retired from fishing duty, I actually had a vehicle in which I could comfortably spend the night or several nights. My new Rav4 was ready to put the “car” back into “car camping”.
It was still midmorning when we donned our day packs and hit the trail. For me the first day hike of the year is one of curiosity. I’m always curious to find out exactly how trail fit I am. A winter on an elliptical machine might prepare your heart well but the legs need real resistance, real weight bearing that is best achieved by carrying a pack.
The hike was actually shorter than I expected. We came upon the stream almost immediately. The trail carried us on a ridge high above the stream which snaked through a rugged canyon. It was rough, rocky terrain and big, fast water. From the highest points on the trail, we could see how the river had carved it’s way through the mountains and stacked the ridgelines one behind the other, like an accordion. Every now and again a longer ridge would be seen and then several additional stacks of ridges were a tributary had done the same.
When we’d felt that we’d hiked far enough, we took an offshoot trail to the stream. Here the stream was smallish, but deep and fast. I was excited. It looked like my kind of stream. I knew parts of the stream might be brushy, but I was unsure how brushy so I brought my standard go to rod- the 8ft 4wt whose taper I have yet to name but often refer to as the 215 rod. At first glance, it would be too long for this stream and a rod reserved for Mystery Creek, such as a Payne 100 or Payne 97 might be in order- both rods being 7’6” and 7’0” 4wts respectively.
Had I spent a lot of time on that first section of stream, that might be true. It resembled Mystery Creek in many ways but as we moved upstream, the character grew to resemble more of an East Coast stream in character. Very much like one would find in Pennsylvania or Maryland.
Bernard and Noah hit the stream before me- both having a go at the water at our feet before branching off. Noah headed upstream while Bernard forded the small but powerful stream to head downstream. I followed Noah and decided pretty quickly that it probably wasn’t a great idea to follow behind a fly fisher as good as Noah. It wasn’t very long before I decided to hopscotch above him and found a pretty fishy looking run. It was probably 25 feet long, with deep water along a well worn bank that had too many rocks to be undercut. The water plunged in from a riffle of boulders above, concentrating in the deep water along the near bank on the left and down the shallow water under a tree on the far bank. In the middle was a nice sized rock which created a small pocket and a great seam along the shallow water.
It was one of those “there has to be a fish here” spots. I worked it methodically. First, watching from the bank for some sign of fish and then making prospecting casts to the deep water, then behind boulder, then along the seam and finally through the riffle under the tree where no sign of fish was seen.
The water was fast and getting my fly to slow down, go deep and drift slowly along the bottom was a challenge. I had already taken a step or two up the run and was into my second series of casts when I felt my first strike. I pricked the fish slightly and immediately made a second cast. We were on the look out for larger fish, Steelhead, and were expecting fish 15 inches plus. This 6 or so inches fish wasn’t even close to what we might expect but it was my first trout of the season. I called Noah over to help me land the fish but to avail; the fish was better than both of us. The water was fast; the fish was feisty and came off at the last instant.
Encouraged by my limited success, Noah continued upstream in search for more good water and, as I would later find out, the water just kept getting better and better. I stayed and managed to land 2 or 3 more fish from the same seam. It wasn’t until I landed the third fish that I noticed a strange and presumably distinguishing feature of these fish. They had orange tipped fins. I knew rainbows could have white tipped fins and could vary significantly in body color and overall appearance but in all my years, I’d never caught a rainbow trout with orange fins. That’s a great thing about trout fishing. You’re often treated to new and often wondrous experiences.
Upstream the brushy pocket water was replaced by long glides and choppy runs and the fish kept coming. Not hand over fist or in any expected kind of way but if I found some good water and plied it long enough, I was rewarded. I actually hadn’t fished that much water when it became late enough in the day that I needed to find the others. It was still pacific standard time and the evenings came early. We needed to be back on the trail in late afternoon.
I headed upstream in search for Noah. Mostly by passing water that I would normally fish. Mostly of course because the water was so sexy that I just had to make a stop or two. It was in one such stretch of water that I caught my largest fish of the day, a 14 inch fish, just short of what I would need to fill out my Steelhead punch card. It was a smooth glide with a sandy bottom and a seam along the outer edge of where the river had gouged out a deep pit in the sand. It was the sort of place that if the water were clearer you should be able to see the fish and in fact, I was sure that I’d seen a dark shadow or two moving around.
I had just crossed the stream to follow the trail and presumably Noah but had to cross back to get into position for a good presentation. I was sure in doing so I must surely have put down the best fish but I’d gone through the trouble to get into position, so I thought I might as well make a few casts. The run was fast but smooth in the way that you could easy see and gage your drift and the depth of the fly. I was pleased I was getting good drifts.
I don’t remember the take but it was soon obvious I was into a good fish or at least better than the 4 to 10 inch fish I had seen thus far. I was tempted to fish the run longer. I just felt there had to be larger fish there but I was satisfied having landed this fish and knew I needed to find the others.
I crossed the stream again, about as ungracefully as I had done the time before and headed up the trail shouting Noah’s name. The trail moved away from the stream and I knew he wouldn’t be able to hear me if he was one the water so I back to the waters edge and again what I found was amazing. At the base of a hill the stream had been cut so that surrounding flat land formed a plateau. Tall thin trees lined its banks and no doubt provide a cooling canopy during the warm summer months. It was about the width of my favorite section of Hot Creek, with the character of my favorite section of Upper Sac and looked like I was fish just off the Youghigany River in Southwestern Pa.
I wish I’d found it earlier. That is the gift and curse of stream fishing. There’s always something undiscovered around the corner. Whether to stay put or move on is a delicate balance between satisfaction and expectation. On new streams, where I don’t know the water or the fish, I tend to fish slowly; trying to figuring to figure the fish out. Confidence figures into it as well. Some days you just know your drifts are right and you should be into fish, so you move on. The first trip of the year however I’m rarely in “the zone”.
I was contemplating whether to fish or find Noah when Noah and Bernard found me. Somehow Bernard had past me unseen and fished quite a ways upstream. He'd found Noah and they were both heading back to find me for the hike back to the car. I did manage a few last hurried casts into a run that looked like it had dropped in from the East. It's certainly the type of water that would give up good fish if one had the time to work it properly.
We found the trail quickly and were back in the cars in no time. On the hike back the strangest thing happened. Some one noticed a tick and then suddenly we realized we were all covered in them. Not just one or two like one might expect but 4, 5, 6 or more and as we brushed them off they seemed to keep coming. The near as we could figure it, they were dive bombing off the tree limbs over hanging the trail and targeting the near heat source- us!
The evening was uneventful, we ate and then turned in just as the first rains started to come down. The following morning we would decide not to fish in the dreary cold drizzle that followed.