Time: 3:30 pm - 6:30pm
For the second year in a row my first fish of the year was a largemouth bass. Spotted Bass really, or at least to my untrained eye they appeared to be “Spots” and not true Largemouth Bass. What’s the difference? Frankly, I don’t really know for sure. I’ve always understood that an easy way to tell them apart is that the lateral line on a Spotted Bass is more like a series of spots or diamonds where as the lateral line on a Largemouth is more continuous and the mouth on a largemouth bass extends well past the eye while the mouth on a spotted bass extends to the eye.
If I was an old timer I’d probably call them all Black Bass and be done with it. It’s all the same to me but I’m sure there are subtle, yet important distinctions regarding the two in terms of behavior and habitat. Important from a fishing standpoint, sort of like knowing why one is only catching Brown Trout on a stream that is 75% Rainbow. Since I’m a trout fisher and not a really a bass fisher, the distinctions regarding bass are lost on me. I am planning on doing more warm water fishing this year so eventually those distinctions may come to mean something to me but in the mean time, as long as the bass are in the shallows and willing to hit my fly, I’m happy.
Saturday was a happy and leisurely day. I woke up an hour late of my Saturday norm and lounged about the house a bit before making my 10:30am exit. I dropped my wife off at work and made the 3 hours drive to Red Bluff in good time. I missed the proper exit and thus arrived 30 min. late to my planned rendezvous with Gino at the Elk Flat Ranch.
I don’t think I’ve ever been late for fishing but I guess there’s a first time for everything. What’s that line from “A River Runs Through It?” Something a kin to “In Montana, there are two things we're never late for- fishing and church.” Well, that was me, except that I usually go to church with my wife’s family, who always arrive on “Pilipino Time”. I guess, Pilipino Time can only be considered late if you aren’t Pilipino or part of a Pilipino family, so I’m covered. Though we agreed on 2pm, Gino was expecting me between 2 and 3pm so as they say, "no harm no foul. "
Elk Flat Ranch is a cattle ranch owned by Gino’s in-laws. Yep, that’s right, Gino did what all fly fishers of good conscience should do and that is marry into a family with fishing water- a farm pond in Gino’s case. Claire's parents were wonderful people and made feel at home immediately. I arrived late but Gino and I were soon atop a couple of “quads” and off to the reservoir. I’d never ridden a “quad” before and it was a dusty, gritty experience to be sure. I was a bit tentative at first, I’d heard stores of folks easy flipping over on the machines but after the day of fishing that we had, I felt like I could race the Baha 500. I’d have to invest in a scarf and goggles first but the care free high that goes along with a good day of fishing was present and accounted for.
Gino took me on a quick tour of the ranch which was quite a spread and absolutely beautiful. After checking out several views and several more cows we headed down to the lake. The lake was low, due to the general drought conditions in California this winter. In fact it was 10 feet or more below normal which was amazing when you considered floating in the water and then floating the same water 10 feet above your normal position. The lake seemed to be blessed with equal amounts of shallow and steep shoreline. The ends of the lake were shallow and the sides high and steep. There was a dock that was sticking out high over the water and a small inlet stream which had dried up. There wasn’t much structure in the lake, perhaps two downed tree limbs but it was on these two pieces of structure, at the opposite ends of the lake, that I hooked into my largest fish.
The rest of the fish were taken along the shoreline. A steep, shaded bank around an old beaver hut was the most productive. So productive that, just for fun, I tried to count down how many seconds it would take for a hook up after the fly hit the water. I didn’t get to the count of two. Gino and I drifted the lake in a canoe, also a new experience for me. We paddled up to the top of the lake and drifted with the wind. Most of the day Gino played the trolling motor, while I played tournament bass angler. We switched roles a little but not much and despite my insistence that he fish, Gino was content to paddle and watch. How many fish did we catch? How many casts can you make an 3 hours? Got a number? Now divide that by 2.5 or 3 and you probably have a good handle on how many fish we caught. The longest I went without a strike was something like 8 casts. At which point panic set in and I was looking to switch flies.
In some situations, catching so many fish, so easily can be boring but this was not one of those times. I was fascinated with trying to predict where the fish would be. Make a cast 6 inches short of the shade line and nothing. Put that same cast 3 inches inside the shade line and “WHACK”, fish on! Making a cast along the sunny bank? Better let the fly sink two dozen or so seconds before retrieving your line. Retrieve too soon and nothing. Wait a little longer and “WHOA”- strong pull.
In fact, the first fish was hooked while preparing to reposition the boat. Gino and I were on the sunny shore and deciding to move to the opposite bank. I had just reeled in my line and left about 10 feet of fly line hanging outside the boat. I was fiddling inside the boat, all the while my fly was sinking. I was just about to put down my rod and pick up the oar when I had a savage take. “Geez! What was that!” I exclaimed to Gino who just sat there with a big grin on his face. I didn’t land that fish but I did decide keep my line in the water as we paddled the canoe.
I didn’t land that first fish, nor did I land the next dozen or so. I was fishing a size 6 conehead muddler with two rabbit strips that stuck out like frog legs. At first I thought I wasn’t striking hard enough- not the case. Then I switched flies. The new fly didn’t seem to get the same immediate reaction as the “frog” and I LDR’ed with it as well. I gave it some thought and decided the hook gap was too small. With some slow, even pressure I managed to widen the hook gap without compromising the strength of the wire. That was the trick and long distance releases were few and far between from that point forward.
There were two big fish that will stay with Gino and me. The first was 16 inches long and probably 3lbs or 4lbs. The second broke off and we never did see it, though I imagine that it went 5 lbs. Both fish were remarkable in how hard they fought. The first fish had me unsure of whether I hooked into a fish or snagged on a log. I seemed to have a fish on but the bend in my rod was quite substantial and with the boat drifting and twisting I thought for a split second that maybe I didn’t have a fish but was hung up instead. In retrospect, the drifting and twisting of the canoe was probably due to my playing the fish as we were drifting up wind. The second big fish had Gino thinking I was hung up. It was late in the day and Claire and her mother had ridden their horses out to the lake with some cheese sandwiches, fudge brownies and cans of Fresca.
I scarfed the food down and decided to fish from the bank. There was some shallow shoreline that Gino and I had failed to fish on the leeward side of the lake. There was also the second of the two downed tree limbs. We’d fished this tree but not really to my satisfaction. From the canoe we’d only caught one fish and the brush pile was large enough that there simply had to be more fish. The brush was in easy casting range of shore and with the first or second cast I landed a slightly below average fish. Most of the fish on this end of the lake seemed smaller than those we’d been catching earlier. I released this fish and made a cast just past and to the outside of the pile. As I stripped the frog fly up to the brush pile I got a good strike. Almost instantly, the fish had broken off then splashed on the surface, trying to throw the fly imbedded in its jaw.
I’d only broken off one other fish that day and figured that my line must have tangled with the brush pile. I pulled the line in. The knot on my 3X tippet was intact, the loop had failed. I was out of frog flies and tied on a black egg sucking leech about the same size. I modified the hook gap and just then, a fish in the shallow water on the other bank jumped. I moved about 20 feet to my right and made a double haul. I managed not to snag anything on my backcast and landed the fish on my third cast. It was actually one of the smallest fish I’d seen all day. Finding it curious that this particular fish was stationed where it was, I made several more double hauls and picked up several more fish, well below what I now considered “average.”
I was having fun with the double haul and continued to fish the far bank. I was fishing an 8ft bamboo fly rod called the Payne 200. It’s a 3pc 5wt rod and very light for it’s size. It’s not what one would normally think of as a “Bass rod” but it cast the larger flies just fine. It’s the rod I’ve decided to fish with for the local warm water fishing I plan to do this year. This was only my second time fishing the rod and the first time that I’d actually caught fish on it.
It was on the far bank that I’d catch the only bluegill of the day. According to Gino bluegills are a problem on the lake. They overpopulate and usually one catches many more bluegill than bass. Today was an exception and I thought that we’d go all day without actually seeing a bluegill. The sun was starting to set. It wasn’t yet twilight but it was getting late and we still had to ride the quads back to the ranch house. I moved back to the brush pile and made a couple of casts, again placing the fly just to the outside and past the brush pile. Again I hooked into a really solid fish. Gino said something about being hung up. I’m not sure if it was a question or a statement but I wasn’t hung up and I was concentrating on getting this huge fish out and away from the brush pile. It wouldn’t budge. I knew it was a much bigger fish than any I had hooked all day. I started backing up the bank, hoping that I could force the fish into the shallow water. The fish made a charge to the right of the brush pile and I followed by moving right and up the bank. I didn’t want to lose this fish but if I let it run it was going to run in or around the brush pile to be sure. The line broke and sure enough, the fish swam to the far side of the tree limb, splashed on the surface and was gone.
Wondering what might have been, Gino and I hopped on our quads and headed back to the ranch. On the way we made a quick stop at what Claire's mother calls the "Pterodactyl" nest. Obviously it wasn't a Pterodactyl nest but what it was, was about a half dozen Blue Heron nests. When Gino and I pulled up there were 10 Herons circling the nest tree and sure enough, they looked just like Pterodactyls in flight. That's one of the great things about fly fishing, you get to witness some amazing wild life.
All pictures on this page courtesy of Gino Zahnd. Originals and other can be viewed at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gzahnd/