no fishing, but a good catch

Summer’s gone and dribbles of rain have wet the ground a few times. It’s been an almost fish-less year for me. That may change with an end-of-the-season trip after the first of November, but in the meantime I’ll remain a bit cranky.

That’s not to say I haven’t been busy with tangential fishing endeavors. By the end of this month the move of two fly fishing club websites to new online platforms should be finished, and my involvement will taper off from full-time developer/designer to part-time consultant. I’ve also busied myself with experiments in online learning, recreational shooting and a personal goal of walking 5 miles daily. It’s become difficult to remember how fishing could fit into my schedule.

Last weekend it was creepy neighborly curiosity that had Karen and me traipsing through a home across the street and a houses up. The residents weren’t people with whom we had wanted to acquaint ourselves. The house was now vacant and an estate sale planned for Saturday.

In the world of estate and garage sales, every minute counts; but we had things to do and arrived about an hour late. There weren’t too many items of interest, though a nice rolling tool cabinet and couple decent pieces of furniture were tagged as sold.

I’m not a picker by any stretch of the imagination and generally won’t dig through a pile of junk hoping for a gem. But walking through the garage my attention was drawn to a few rods tucked into a corner.

It was the usual collection of rods bought on the spur of the moment: a mix of spinning and bait casting rods and nothing remarkable. The same could be said of the reels, with one exception tucked behind the others. A fly reel attached to a medium saltwater spinning rod.

Two years ago I purchased an unbranded bamboo rod at the club auction for minimal money and since had been looking for a reel that might match the rod’s patina and pedigree. At first glance, this reel would fit the bill. I offered $5, mumbling that it was the reel I was interested in, but that I’d do them a favor by taking the rod off their hands as well. The deal was sealed and money changed hands.

The Catch

The Catch

The rod cleaned up well enough to keep for the occasional misstep outside of fly fishing. The reel was in decent shape and only required wiping some dust and cobwebs away, which revealed it was a Pflueger Medalist 1495, a solid reel that I suspected might work well enough on the so-far-unused bamboo rod. But it was set up for left-hand retrieve, and I don’t do left-hand retrieve.

The Internets quickly offered up enough knowledge to indicate that I could set it up for right-hand retrieve. With a few tools and decent instructions the reel was soon in pieces. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but I admired its construction and relatively simple design — a more elegant reel from a more civilized age.

After a simple inversion of the drag plate was all it should take, but the right-hand retrieve side of the drag plate was missing a bezel that would allow the drag bearing, which fits inside the drag plate, to nestle into the drag plate. Test fitting revealed that would prevent the spool from seating properly. I scratched my head for a bit then sent off a few emails to guys who know better than I.

Apparently I had found a left-hand retrieve only Medalist 1495, likely manufactured in the late 1950s or 1960s before Pflueger changed the drag plate to allow folks to reel with the “wrong hand,” apparently a “quite collectible” version of the Medalist.

You’ll find me looking for another $5 reel for that no-name bamboo rod.

on the progeny of planted parents (or, can a wild trout be a good substitute for its native cousin?)

There’s something wonderfully satisfying about the surprising fight-per-ounce ratio of a wild trout that is followed by a revelation of coloration more vivid than man might create. That’s doubly true when the wild fish is native.

There are purists who would dismiss the progeny of planted parents, but earlier this week, Mark Kautz raised an interesting thought about a possible decline of opportunities to catch wild trout on his Northern California Trout blog as the California Department of Fish & Wildlife’s stocking program shifts to triploid trout.

Shelving the wild vs. native fish discussion for a bit, if I can’t chase native trouts, I’m just as happy stalking their wild brethren. Wild trout are the reason I took up fly fishing. There comes a point in every fishing career that you develop an affinity for a style of fishing, or a species, and often both. It can happen unexpectedly and unconsciously.

With me it began on a little creek in the Walker River watershed, with a spinning rod and a size one spotted Panther Martin teardrop. The cookie-cutter planter rainbows are the standard fare downstream, but my recent rediscovery of the benefits of hiking a bit farther than most weekend warriors had convinced me that whacking through dense stands of cottonwood could be worth the effort.

Trout are one species that adhere to the adage that “life will find a way,” and there’s no better example that the wild fish that often can be found upstream of the ruts created by the DFW’s live-haul stocking trucks. That day it was a cast to riffles in the shade of streamside willows that introduced me to a sizeable wild trout, at least by my standards. Until then, my familiarity of trout with parr marks had been limited to fish measuring less than six inches; this one was about twelve inches long. That wild trout was my gateway fish to appreciation of native populations.

As Mark observed, it’s likely that many folks expect to stock their freezers with trout poundage with a value equal to the cost of a fishing license; perhaps by any means necessary and without knowledge of or concern about the toll on wild and/or native trout. Perhaps it’s fed by the illusion of self-sustenance, even if for only a few days each year. It’s just as likely those fish won’t be replaced as the DFW’s triploid trout — chosen in response to a legal action challenging its hatchery and stocking operations — can’t reproduce. In the long-run, this should be a good thing for California’s native fishes. (It should be noted that the California DFW hatchery system has been gearing up production of native fish for selected waters.)

Still, it’s hard not to wonder if meat fishing, especially in a state as populous as California, would decimate populations of wild fish that have gained a foothold where native fish don’t exist. Also, with California’s now minimal sustainable populations of native fish, it could eventually impact native fish without stronger enforcement of regulations. That, or we have to hope, as Mark alluded, that meat fisherman will be more inclined to drive a few miles to grab some steaks than clamber over rocks, descend into a canyon or even walk a few thousand feet upstream.

Thank you, Mark, for the thought-provoking discourse.

unnatural restoration of wetlands

While the most radical statement I made during the ‘70s was the purchase of a white and green-striped backpack emblazoned with the ecology symbol, I’ve always been pretty certain that Styrofoam isn’t environmentally friendly. Yet there it is; big blocks of the stuff being used in the restoration of the wetlands north of my commute on Hwy 37.

Ecology Backpack

Used one like this in Boy Scouts.

Restoration of this area, in the Napa River delta and known as Cullinan Ranch, began three years ago. According to the website, long-term farming led to subsidence — up to six feet — as the marsh dried out. This puts the area below mean sea level. The hope is to restore 1,500-plus acres of tidal wetlands in the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge. But it’s estimated it would take Mother Nature about six decades to rebuild the site with sediment deposited in by the Napa and Sacramento-San Joaquin rivers.

It seems that’s where Styrofoam geofoam plays a part.

About two weeks ago, semi loads of big blocks of geofoam were offloaded while tractors of all sorts and sizes carved out a building-sized ditch paralleling Hwy 37 for about four miles. Now that ditch is being filling with geofoam. The geofoam website lists various applications of the stuff and touts its benefits.

I just can’t get my mind around it. I can understand stabilizing the embankment along the highway, but stuffing what in essence is Styrofoam into the earth as part of restoring a site to its natural composition seems contradictory.

Of course, once covered with dirt and after vegetation takes hold, no one will know.

quick note (or, yes, I haven’t been fishing)

I sit down tentatively in front of the keyboard, the one-eyed monster stares back, unblinking. The view out the window reminds me that midsummer has passed and for the first time in a month I’m fully aware of just how much fishing I’ve missed. It’s a long time before the end of the season, and there should be opportunity to haunt favorite fishy places. But there’s no making up for time lost.

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything just for fun. The prospect of doing so is exciting but a bit terrifying. I’ve been challenged the last month or so by genetics that required minor surgery on my left hand, not my casting hand, thank goodness. Apparently I inherited from some long-forgotten Northern European ancestor the necessary components to develop Dupuytren’s contracture. After outpatient surgery, I was in a brace for two weeks. There was no keyboarding at 70 words per minute. But life didn’t sit still. Work piled up. I was in the middle of three different website projects as well as my regular job. It’s taken weeks just to get back to par. To the three readers still left, I’m sorry for the absence.

My forced downtime did not go to waste. Karen and I spent a weekend in Chico; no fishing, just lots of beer tasting at the Sierra Nevada Beer Camp Across America.

The weekends this month are already full with life’s non-fishing activities and that’s just fine. Given that California’s in the middle of a horrendous drought, the trout have more important things to do than ignore my fly as it drifts by. Vegetation has become tinder for fires. It’s anyone’s guess if this winter will put a dent in the drought. The recent reports of warm water game fish and mammals appearing in the ocean off the California coast (mahi mahi, yellowfin tuna, pilot and Bryde’s whales) and the recent humidity and showers could be the tea leaves predicting El Niño is developing. However, expectations have recently changed, and it may be a weak event.

In the meantime, you’ll find me preparing for the time opportunity presents itself.

higher and higher (or, personal accomplishment, part two)

The second day of my Memorial Day trip was undecided until I rolled out of bed that morning. A lot of the time, my angling is a solo affair. There was initial hope that Sean might join me — hitting the high country together is nearly an annual affair — but as happens with kids, they get jobs, take on other responsibilities and interests, and simply can’t always get away. Funny how that works: just as a parent gains a bit more freedom, children tend to lose theirs.

Lyell Fork bridges.

Lyell Fork bridges.

A lack of soreness from the previous day’s hiking encouraged the consideration of another adventure, this time one that would harken back to the adventures of the younger me. During the family vacations in Tuolumne Meadows, we’d often hear about the trail along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, but a trail I can’t recall ever hiking.

Lingering was nice that morning, but the trail head was about two and a half hours away. I’m pretty practiced at whipping together a lunch and getting the gear ready. The previous day had shown that my Orvis day pack would serve me well, and with only one rod, the other rod pocket kept a water bottle handy. I was on the road about 7:00 a.m. That’s late for me, but today wasn’t to be rushed.

Having traveled the route so many times, it could be said that I’m able to make the drive to Tuolumne Meadows with my eyes closed. But that would be a waste. Though I know what’s around that next corner, each visit offers a new revelation. The Sierra Nevada was called the Range of Light by John Muir for a reason; every view changes, depending upon the season and time of day.

The canyon where I stopped and turned around.

The canyon where I stopped and turned around.

Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of the camping season, but campsites in Tuolumne Meadows are usually still covered in snow or flooded by snowmelt. There was still traffic, mostly comprised of rock climbers itching for that first touch of that unique Sierra Nevada granite, and sprinkled with the usual sightseers passing through on their way to the valley.

I pulled into the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center just before ten. A line of hopeful backpackers wound around the building, but parking was easy to find. Pack secured and confirming I had the proper map, I hit the trail a few minutes later.

The trail was both familiar and unknown. Many high Sierra trails must look the same at the onset. About a mile along, landmarks revealed this was new ground. There were the rusted steel signs pointing to various destinations, the two bridges that lead to the opposite side of the Lyell Fork, and the river itself, meandering through meadows and twisting through and over the batholith that forms the core of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

This is the type of country that refreshes the soul.

Another view, looking down river.

Another view, looking down river.

After a mile, I was alone on the trail. The hike was easier than expected. I was inclined to chalk that up to hard-won improvements in my physical fitness — particularly with a trailhead elevation of 8,600 feet — but later determined that the elevation gain was less than 500 feet. Roughly two miles in I left the trail to follow the course of the river. It wasn’t easy. Down trees, boulders and the Lyell’s long elbows required numerous detours.

Further upstream.

Further upstream.

About four miles along I came to a narrow canyon. Continuing up river would require a long detour. But I had started a bit late, and daylight can be precious when in the wild.

I rigged up the 3 wt. rod and began that slow walk downstream, presenting my fly to suspect water. The river was high, limiting where a cast could be made without immediate drag.

This is the type of country and the type of fish where stealth pays off. I spooked fish with every step. Where possible, I’d cast four or five feet from the bank, with only a few rises to show for it.

The course of many high Sierra rivers is dictated by huge granite outcroppings, creating pools. In midsummer these pools attract swimmers, but this early in the season it was still too cold for such nonsense. I found one such monolith that directed the Lyell Fork almost ninety degrees from its course, creating a deep pool that offered a feeding lane and overhead protection. Up against the granite was slack water, from which decent sized brook trout would intermittently rocket to the surface.

I tend to avoid putting myself in position to hook a fish without an easy way to bring them to the net. A fishless morning, however, changed my outlook. Moving away from the water and giving the fish a wide berth, I quietly and slowly crept to the top of the outcropping. Carefully peeking over the edge, I could see about half a dozen trout about fifteen feet below. Counting on the height to conceal any false casts, I laid a stimulator in the seam that would funnel insects to the trout. A fish rose, inspected my fly, and dismissed it. That was the pattern on subsequent casts.

Offering a break for both myself and the fish, I sat down to tie on an Elk Hair Caddis. That’s all it took. A nice-sized brook trout nailed it and went wild. It jumped like a rainbow and shook its head like a salmon. My excitement began to change to panic with the realization that there was about twenty feet of line between me and the fish and that I had to lead it thirty feet to my right if there was any hope of getting it to the net. It was a thrilling fight for all of about forty seconds, and I did get a good look at what could’ve been about twelve inches of healthy Salvelinus fontinalis before a not-so-long distance release.

Marmot!?

Marmot!?

The tug of that fish — and the fact that I once again was able to fool a wild fish (an accomplishment that continues to amaze me) — made the day seem brighter. I wandered downstream a bit, trying to sneak up on fish in the meadows, and after a few hits but nothing solid, I sat down in the world’s best dining room for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I met more people on the hike out, followed a marmot for a few hundred yards and lingered here and there. It was another day of personal accomplishment. No knee brace was required and my breathing wasn’t labored like it was last year.

Now, I hope to get back when the water’s lower and the fish hungrier.