fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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reining in water use

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

It’s been raining here in California; something much appreciated after three years of so little. Watching the drops dance on our patio, admiring our revamped back yard, I know it’s not yet the habitat we’d like it to be but a huge improvement over water-thirsty lawns. About a year ago we decided to tear out our lawns, front and back, and being cheap decided to tackle the job ourselves.

Removing a lawn is one of those jobs for which the thinking about it is more intimidating than just jumping into the work. Jump in we did. Sprinkler heads were capped, a sod cutter rented to make quick work of cutting up the turf, which was then flipped, eventually turning the grass into compost. The bare dirt was shaped and graded with a shovel and rake and a lot of pondering during the process. Hummocks were formed and drip irrigation installed. With only an image of a favorite stream in my head, a faux creek bed was dug and rocks, stones and pebbles placed appropriately.

Although I find it a bit distressing to remove one living plant in favor of another, the over-arching motivation was curbing water used for landscaping. Any new plants, trees or bushes would have to be California drought-tolerant natives. Research led us to the Bay Native Nursery; where a bounty of native plants is inauspiciously tucked between a mix of industrial buildings, open space and recreational shoreline in San Francisco’s India Basin.

Faux creek bed and faux fish.

Faux creek bed and faux fish.

We spent more money than planned but headed home with a few varieties of salvia, a single California currant bush, a low-growing coyote brush, Ceanothus thyrsiflorus (aka white-flowered mountain lilac), soap grass, manzanita (shrub and groundcover), yarrow, checkerbloom and blue-eyed grass. The good part of a day was spent planning and planting. Another few days to spread bark. Neither yard looked like much then. (A big upside: We made money doing it ourselves since both the county and city offered turf removal rebates.)

During the first six months the currant grew from about a foot high to over five feet tall with a diameter nearly the same dimension. The salvias and blue-eyed grass blossomed. Since they were newly planted and the winter of 2015 was dry, the drip irrigation system was put to use, but only sparingly.

Like it does for many California natives, the heat of late summer left the blooms withered and leaves brown. Except the currant; that plant is a juggernaut. Much of the plants’ growth came to a standstill from October through February and a stillness settled on the yard.

Almost a year later, with enough rain to thoroughly soak the soil, the back yard is showing potential of becoming a habitat. The runners sent out by the salvias have emerged with stacks of gray-green leaves. Blue-eyed grass is blooming. Seedlings descended from the few poppies planted last spring have appeared. Their parents are forming flowers.

It’ll be some time before our all-California native drought-resistant landscaping is finished but, for now, they blossom with hope.

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exploring before it’s all over

As if it hasn’t been a figuratively dry trout season for me, a long trip last weekend over three passes, along rivers and over two reservoirs showed that things are literally drying up…

This was my last and only second trip to the Sierras during the general trout season. It was happenstance that kept me off the water and only sheer determination — and a desperate desire for a break from every-day life — that crammed a 400-plus mile drive and not enough fishing into a single day.

Firsthand reports dashed any hope of great fishing. Small streams were trickles, meaning wild fish were off limits. State-stocked waters that normally received a few buckets of fish before the end of the season didn’t.

Another view of the sunrise from Sonora Pass.

Another view of the sunrise from Sonora Pass.

Optimism being the most overused tool in a fly fisherman’s arsenal, I still hit the road over Sonora Pass before sunup. If there were few fish to be had, at least a sunrise at 9,000 feet doesn’t disappoint. This late in the year, a sunrise seems to last longer.

Looking a bit southwest from Sonora Pass.

Looking a bit southwest from Sonora Pass.

There was unexpected company on the West Walker River, a couple planning to soak bait. They went their way, I went mine. I’d have pocket water all to myself, whitefish on the mind, and the sound of reveille arising (a bit too late in the morning this time?) from the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center.

My "office" for the morning. (West Walker River)

My “office” for the morning. (West Walker River)

Just like that “confidence fly” most fly fishermen keep tucked away, there are pieces of water one comes to expect to hold fish. My expectation held true this morning. It didn’t take long before a fish was fooled with my favorite red-butt zebra midge pattern. While not large, white tips on smooth fins suggested it was a more educated trout. Even if was a hatchery fish, it had spent enough time in the wild to learn a few things while it’s pectoral and caudal fins healed. There would be no whitefish this year and nothing big, but all of the trout I found were feisty.

This isn’t the time of year that these trout rise to dry flies, but the water level requires stealth, a dry-dropper setup, light casts to small seams and short drifts. It’s hard to disagree that this type of rig might be a reflection of my middle-of-the-road nature, mixing the oft-look’d-down-upon tactic of nymphing with the loftier technique of dry fly fishing. Deep down I hoped for a rise to the dry fly, but ice crunching underfoot suggested it was not to be.

My plans called for crossing Monitor Pass on the way to the East Carson River, then over Ebbetts Pass, and finally completing a twisting and oblong course over the man-made New Melones Lake. Unfamiliar with the route and wary of unpredictable delays, I was on the road again before noon.

Many times I’ve enjoyed driving — whether a car or motorcycle — over Tioga and Sonora passes many times, during the spring, summer and fall. Any threat of snow brings about closures, but during this trip Tioga and Sonora pass, as well as Ebbetts and Monitor pass had reopened after brief snow closures earlier in the week.

Looking west from near Monitor Pass.

Looking west from near Monitor Pass.

The landscape and vegetation of each pass is unique, with stark changes as one gains elevation. Over Monitor Pass, Highway 89 twists between and over numerous peaks, alternating between barren high desert to east and the fir and pine forests on the western slopes. Once over the summit, the road quickly descends to meet Highway 4, then crosses the East Carson River.

This was first visit to the East Carson River. The wild trout section was low and slow, and out of the shadows of the high canyon walls. Sunlight reflected off nearly every eddy, riffle and pool, and, as might be expected, the fishing was great but the catching not. It was suggested after the fact that I should have fished upstream, where a summer of stocking might mean a few stupid willing fish would remain. I chalked this visit up to exploration. Since it wasn’t too far away, I drove to Markleeville. I had to drive through town a second time; I blinked and missed it the first time through.

Colors along Highway 89, just south of the East Carson River.

Colors along Highway 89, just south of the East Carson River.

The route over Ebbetts Pass is more adventurous than the comparatively high-speed Highway 108 over Sonora Pass and Highway 120, which winds through Yosemite and over Tioga Pass.

Driving over Ebbetts Pass is not for the faint of heart. Sandwiched between a full-width, two-lane state highway is a section reminiscent of the descriptions our parents and grandparents might offer of roads built only wide enough that two Model Ts could squeeze by each other. This middle section, from Lake Alpine to Silver Creek, is a barely two-lane road. There is no center line or fog lines. Shoulders are a rarity. Steep curvy portions, precipitous drop-offs and vistas of pristine landscapes are plentiful. If the narrowness of this road isn’t enough to reduce one’s speed, the beauty was. Lack of planning meant I couldn’t linger. Plans are already afoot to return with a greater abundance of time.

Ebbetts Pass tarn.

Ebbetts Pass tarn.

The rest of my drive was in relatively civilized areas. I’d pick up apple cider outside of Arnold, then wine and special spices in Murphys. I crossed New Melones Lake, which looked more a river at flood stage (it was formed by the damming of the Stanislaus River). Back in Twain Harte early, I cleaned up and planned to attend to a few items on the to-do list, figuring I’d walk to the local Ace store for a halogen bulb and any other necessary item. During the walk I began an exploration of a different variety. More on that next time my fingers are willing to dance on the keyboard…

Leavitt Falls, late in the fall.

Leavitt Falls, late in the fall.

All of the photos, and some more:


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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.


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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.


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shaking the skunk off and paying it forward

There was a lot of fishing and more hiking crammed into last weekend that originally envisioned. Much of the time, there was more of a focus on adventure and exploration than catching. Perhaps it’s maturity.

Lessons have been learned the last few years and avoidance of the Bay Area commute dictates my departure time. Shoving off during the late morning and making a few stops along the way lead to a late afternoon arrival in Twain Harte. Being the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend, the town still had that hushed, pre-summer feel.

With gear stowed and a few hours of sunlight left, it was time to preemptively get the skunk off. Fifteen minutes up the highway and ten minutes down a Forest Service road is a stretch of a fork of a relatively well-known Sierra Nevada river that offers prototypical put-and-take habitat with all the conveniences. It’s easily accessed, offers a picnic area and toilets, and the makeup of the river in this area naturally corrals the hatchery brood into three pools.

The artificial twilight created by towering pines made it difficult to see into the water, but the occasional slurp confirmed they were there. This fork is just above 5,000 feet elevation, and generally doesn’t contain much water. Even less this year, compared to the same time last year.

It seems to me that even factory fish retain a natural skittishness, which this day warranted a dry/dropper setup with a light touch. Half a dozen rainbow trout made it to the net in the following forty minutes. During that time, a couple of other folks had arrived to try their luck. The skunk off, it was time to head upstream.

This is a place I usually think of as a quick venue to resurrect skills left unpracticed during the winter and to work the rust out. The spirit of this weekend, however, was to challenge myself.

Hatchery fish clearly abide by that movie utterance that “…life will not be contained” and I was counting on this. About 100 feet upstream, this river is marked by pocket water winding through thick brush. The burble of plunge pools hinted at possible places where any wild offspring might be found. Dappling more than casting, I found a surprising number of the more attractive progeny. None were longer than six inches, making me wish for much smaller rod.

Emigrant Pass

Sonora Pass (@Emigrant Pass): Where I’d be headed the next day.

There’s a feeling altogether different about fooling wild trout. Granted, they are hungry and more opportunistic, and high-Sierra trout will take most any well-presented fly; but they require a stealthy approach. Over-lining these fish guarantees they’ll scatter. Every suspect pool — successfully approached — yielded a fish. After about an hour, I returned downstream. There still being light and good water available, there was time to make a few more casts.

It’s fair to say, fly fishing, fully embraced, tends to permeate one’s life. Two years after attending a fly fishing class I had become the fly fishing club’s secretary, webmaster and was leading an annual outing. Later I was enlisted to help with that same class. One could have a long debate as to whether the hobby attracts those predisposed or the hobby itself engenders the idea, but paying it forward, it seems to me, is part and parcel with fly fishing.

So it was, after a few minutes of hearing the crack of a fly line that I wandered downstream to find a woman waving a rod around in a most inelegant manner. Greetings were tentatively exchange with the question if she’d like a bit of advice. The next hour I offered a condensed version of fly fishing basics, kept within my limited sphere of knowledge. She had whipped the fly off her leader, so I gifted her a couple of flies and used the opportunity to demonstrate a dry/dropper rig.

By then, the sunlight was fading, and having reassured myself that I could still manage to bring up a few fish after a winter away from fishing, it was time to head back to the cabin for dinner and an early bedtime. The morning would come early as my plan was to head over Sonora Pass and hike up the Little Walker River — despite warnings it was high and muddy earlier in the week.

But as I said, this trip was more about adventure than catching.


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ripples without water (or, this drought stinks)

The only reason I haven’t curled up in a fetal position and yielded to California’s 500-year drought is there’s at least a few days of trout fishing on the horizon.

It’ll be good news and bad news situation. The good news being that low water will allow access to most streams and rivers during my limited time fishing this month. The bad news is that the water may be gone when I can next venture into the Sierras.

droughtmapAs a native Californian, most of the drought news is the “usual” hue and cry about the fight to bring water to farmers, efforts to save water, dwindling city supplies and wildfires resulting from the record heat, as well as the not-so-usual and so-called Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

But the stories that truly illustrate the far-reaching impact of The Great Drought are smaller in scope and often just as alarming.

Spring fishing in the Sierra Nevadas usually means fewer people and rattlesnakes. This year, at least the rattlesnakes will be more numerous.

Wildlife experts from the high Sierra to Southern California report that snake sightings are up, largely due to the warm, dry weather that has gripped much of the West. Rattlesnakes, like many animals, have been drawn out of their wintertime dormancy earlier this year because of the mild conditions that have accompanied the drought, experts say.

Shrinking agricultural employment is affecting school attendance.

It’s not just fish that depend on insects — which often reproduce in water — but birds. The tricolored blackbird may make the endangered species list with help from the drought.

Reproduction declines have been noticed since 2007, before the drought, Meese said, but recent counts have shown even steeper declines. A statewide survey of tricolored blackbirds, known for their red shoulder patch with a bright white stripe, was recently concluded and the results are due out in three weeks.

At issue for the birds is a lack of insects since female birds require insects in their diet to form eggs. Also, young birds require insects during the first nine days of life, when they cannot digest plant material. Meese contends that the effects of the drought have created lower populations of insects, as well as less-extensive wetlands from which blackbirds can feed.

Even before the full effect of the drought can be felt, food prices are on the upswing. The $200 million cherry crop is expected to be up to half of normal. http://blogs.kqed.org/bayareabites/2014/05/13/light-california-cherry-season-thanks-to-warm-winter-expect-higher-prices/

…the warm, dry winter threw cherry trees off their game all over the state. California usually delivers the nation’s early season cherries, but with yields down around a third of what they usually are you can expect to pay a whole lot more at the market.

What the trees want is a wet, chilly winter with fog that keeps the daytime temperatures under 55 degrees.

But, clearly, the trees aren’t getting what they want.

California honey prices are being pushed to new highs. California was at the top of the list of honey-producing states a couple of years ago. Not anymore. This third year of drought could cut production to its lowest since 1981.

Suction dredge mining remains an issue for our rivers but, apparently, now is the time to shut down those machines and pick up a pan in the search for gold. Accessibility is creating a mini-gold rush in the Sierra foothills.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the severity of this drought has shifted the discussion on fracking.

Fracking a single oil well in California last year took 87 percent of the water consumed in a year by a family of four, according to the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry lobbying group. That amount — a modest one by national standards, the oil industry argues — has become an increasingly delicate topic since a drought was officially declared early this year in the state.

The drought, combined with a recent set of powerful earthquakes, has provided the momentum for about a dozen local governments across California, the third-largest oil producing state, to vote to restrict or prohibit fracking in their jurisdictions, as concerns over environmental effects and water usage have grown.

At the same time, a bill that would declare a statewide moratorium on fracking has been gathering support in the State Senate, a year after a similar effort failed.

The frail nature of our infrastructure — arrogantly designed to fight Mother Nature’s wisdom — is certain to be tested in the many months between now and the next rainfall. A switch to ignoble warm water species might salve the itch to fish, but at what cost to one’s pride?


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how to be a hero (or, hey, leave those fish alone)

It’s clear that nature’s dewatering of California this year will leave the trout that can be found skittish and stressed. I suppose that only the most thoughtful fishermen will leave them well enough alone as the summer wears on, or perhaps cross to the dark side of warm water species.

Opening Day may mark the beginning of the few weeks during which decent trout fishing may be found not too far away, while fish mortality is at a minimum. After that, it’s unlikely you’ll find solitude at a high alpine stream, creek or lake. The same climate change pushing wildlife to higher altitudes will similarly affect their human hunters.

This summer and fall — when still-flowing rivers will only offer skinny water — will be seasons of small fly rods and even smaller flies. A few small wild trout fisheries I hold dear (and of which I also hold a delusion that only I know about them) won’t withstand much molestation, meaning I’ll also be somewhere else.

It’s been proposed that “heroic measures” will be needed to save California’s salmon runs. As the weather warms up and naturally flowing water is scarce, it’ll be just as heroic to leave alone those fish that have nowhere else to go.