fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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plenty of water and willing fish, and a return to Crooked Creek, part three

It’s a good thing that the shoreline of Crowley Lake isn’t much to look at; indicators go down the moment one looks away.

Looking down at Crowley Lake from the west, toward Nevada.

Nested in the south end of the Long Valley Caldera, Crowley Lake is a reservoir turned model trout fishery. Created by the damming of the Owens River just before the Owens River George, the lake sits at 6,800 feet and cool during the summer but doesn’t fully freeze during the winter. With a pH on the alkaline side and feed by a confluence of snowmelt-fed creeks – the Upper Owens River and McGee, Convict, Hilton, and Crooked creeks – and underwater springs, it offers a near-perfect mix of abundant oxygen and nutrients to sustain a robust population of aquatic insects, dominated by an incredible number of chironomids. The addition of Sacramento perch offers fry to feed big trout.

Whenever on this trip, I put out a call for partners to share the cost of a guide boat. While stillwater nymphing may not be a tactic favored by all, it’s unfair to dismiss it without trying it, at least once. Like guided fly fishing on any boat I’ve been, it’s like stepping onto a cruise ship. Just bring yourself, your license and sunscreen.

Gerry was the first to respond to my query and we set up a trip with Joe Contaldi. The owner of Performance Anglers Guide Service, he’s well-known on the fly fishing club speaking circuit and possesses the qualities that make for a great guide: enthusiasm, knowledge, and skill.

We arrive at the marine just before its 7 a.m. opening. We watch in disgust as an angler, two trucks ahead of us, strips all of the monofilament off his spinning road and leaves it lying on the road. The gate opens and we pull up, stopping long enough for Gerry to open the passenger door and grab the line.

It’s busy around the boat ramp as we walk toward the docks. After quick hello to Doug Rodricks, who I’ve fished with before on Crowley and Eagle lakes, we find Joe and his boat. Joe’s got that lake guide look, weatherworn, clear eyes, and a natural penchant for enthusiastic encouragement. He welcomes us aboard, offers massive and unexpected muffins for breakfast, then readies the boat for a short run north to McGee Bay.

It’s calm this morning on the lake; it’s a liquid mirror reflecting the mountains and sky. Beautiful, but not my favorite conditions. My best days fishing Crowley were helped by a little ripple on the water, just enough wave action to keep the fly moving and enticing hits a dozen feet under the surface. Gerry and I are instructed to occasionally raise our rod tips to give the flies action, a tactic with which we’re both familiar.

We anchor, rig up, and Joe points out the lane we should target. It’s a drop off twenty to twenty-five feet from the boat. I settle in, reacquainting myself with the lake, like meeting up with a friend after a long absence. It’s not long before there’s confirmation of fish in the area, on other boats. The still morning air is broken now and again by shouts of “fish on,” sometimes followed by the noises of anguish when a fish doesn’t make to the net.

Stillwater nymphing on Crowley Lake requires patience, focus, knowledge, and hope. I could on a guide for the knowledge, then hope I’m fast enough to set the hook. It’s the focus on the indicator, quickly followed by a quick and smooth hookset that’ll factor into success. Sometimes it takes a few misses to reacquire that skillset. Less than an hour after anchoring, that skillset was reacquired.

It’d be nice to say that I hit that first strike and landed a fish, but I can’t exactly remember. Regardless, that first fish was more than nice sized, about eighteen-plus inches. Joe asks if I wanted a photo with it, but I opt to wait for a bigger trout.

Fish on for Gerry in the early and too calm morning.

There can be days on Crowley Lake when the fishing is fast and furious, or consistent, or tough. This would be a day of consistency, both in terms of frequency and size. There was a chance nearly every half hour to hook a fish. A chance that required we consistently perform good hooksets. Sadly but honestly I must say my hooksets were less consistent than the bite.

The fish we did bring to net were consistently impressive. About midmorning , Gerry and I had a double. We both landed fish nearly every hour until about 11 a.m. When the bite slowed, I dug into lunch, a ritual that often elicits strikes. It didn’t.

One of my first Lahanton Cutthroats of the day.

Gerry’s big Lahanton, out of McGee Bay.

This is the time of day when guides decide whether to hold out for better fishing or to explore other options. Friend and outing companion Wayne and his guest, Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing participant Mike, were on the move, their guide on the hunt for a better spot. Joe asked us if we wanted to pull up anchor, suggesting we might try the Crooked Creek arm. Despite uninspiring reports from other guides, I said I was willing to give it a try.

(Crooked Creek was where I first learned stillwater nymphing. During April 2007, son Christopher and I attended the DVFF’s Novice Fly Fishing Seminar and, inspired by the class, sought a real-world experience reinforce what we had learned and expand out skillset with the help of a guide. I booked a trip on the hitherto mysterious Crowley Lake. When I was a kid, my family and I would pass the lake on the way to Tuolumne Meadows or June Lake Loop. The local newspapers we’d pick up to read and use in starting campfires were peppered with photos of unbelievably large trouts.)

Wayne and Mike headed out in search of fish.

Joe spent extra time positioning the boat mid channel and the first 10 minutes didn’t inspire confidence that this had been the right move. With my attention span waning, I missed the first solid takedown. But consistent opportunities that afternoon allowed Gerry and me to hook, fight, and land some of the most exciting fish of the day.

That evening, without embellishment, we dutifully made a report to our club colleagues. Perhaps our only complaint were sore cheeks from the constant grinning.

The next morning coffee was on early and a coordinated effort ensured the cabins were quickly cleaned. After a final group photo, some would make one last stop to wet a line. I chose to take my time through Yosemite, lingering to enjoy time well spent in beautiful places.

 


For those who missed ’em: Part One and Part Two.

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back in the saddle again (or, oops, I did it again)

It’s hard to pinpoint when I first decided that I wanted a motorcycle in my life.

There were the summer days zipping about family friends’ property in Nevada City on a now forgotten mini bike, weaving between blackberries and jumping off berms that then seemed to touch the sky.

Then there was the mid ’80s Kawasaki 454 LTD that went up for sale across the street when the kids were young. Impractical and unreasonable at the time but gleaming with well-cared-for chrome.

Over the years, when the brother would visit, we’d spend too much time ogling bikes at the local dealership. I loved the ’91-’03 CB750 Nighthawk and absolutely coveted the ’89-’90 CB500 TT, which now is worth twice as much as it sold for 26-plus years ago.

Finally, it was the lessons of life that urged following through – some might call it giving in – to the wish to experience the world on two wheels motivated by controlled detonation. My license was first stamped with an M1 endorsement in 2007.

Only by chance did I start riding sooner rather than later. It was late December that year when opportunity arose in the form of a 1983 Honda CB650SC. Parked in a neighborhood driveway, the price and condition were right. With my wife’s support of my aspiration, I bought it. I learned a lot about riding on it.

About a year later, my son bought the CB650SC from me and, again, opportunity led me to the bike I dreamed about a decade before, a 1997 Nighthawk. Bought on a whim by the original owner, it sat in his warehouse with less than 4,000 miles. I put another 10,000 miles on it. About half of those miles were commuting. The other half accumulated during local scenic rides that led to the annual trips over Tioga and Sonora passes soon after they opened in the late spring. There was just something about starting in warmish weather at 3,000 feet and climbing into the snow-chilled air of 9,000-plus feet.

The Nighthawk left me a couple of years ago. Being an adult requires accepting change. It was for the better and there were no regrets.

I did miss it. Mostly on those bluebird days, when each run into town or to a movie would, on two wheels and exposed to the world, become an experience. Occasionally, long-festering imaginings of longer trips bubbled to the surface.

It began with “just a stop to look” at a local shop and innocent conversations with salespeople. The main attraction was the new crop of smaller displacement motorcycles, with an eye to finding a bike that might fit most of my wants: fun, light(er), reliable, capable of handling a graded forest service road, and suitable for longer highway trips. The Nighthawk weighed nearly 500 pounds. Less weight equated to more fun. The Kawasaki Versys-X 300 is nice. The Honda NC700X is an interesting idea but was a heavy as the Nighthawk. While thought was given to the 200 cc Suzuki Van Van and Yamaha TW200, both seemed a tad small for everyday riding and much less highway capable.

Then there was the Honda CB500X. It fit right in the middle. It passed the ergonomics test. A mental note was made to arrange for a test ride in the coming weeks.

Then, opportunity knocked, again.

The new-to-me 2013 Honda CB500X.

There weren’t many used CB500Xs on the market. But that one Saturday night I decided to see what might be on Craigslist. There were four. The asking price on three was a bit higher. The fourth was priced right. The ad was simple: “2013 Honda CB500X in good condition.” No photos. It had been posted only an hour before. After a quick email exchange and urging from the wife, a meeting was set for the next day.

The original owner had taken care of it. It did have some scars: a nearly imperceptible ding on the right-side cowl and a snapped right rear turn signal. A test ride confirmed its handling, adequate power, and comfort.

With the knowledge that his wife wanted it gone – he now had two motorcycles – and the necessary fixes, the offer I didn’t expect to be accepted was. In the week since I’ve fixed the turn signal and installed a Vololights license plate frame. (Have to say, my clean installation almost looks OEM. That’s a story for later.)

While I tend to be a proponent of spending money on experiences rather than things, this is one thing that I hope opens up possibilities of many new experiences.


I spent a bit of time this last weekend getting the feel of the new bike by exploring the old Mare Island Naval Shipyard.


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up close with the WP&YR, Skagway, Alaska

WP&YR Engine

White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad engine in Skagway. Completed in 26 months and finished at the end of the Yukon Gold Rush, the narrow gauge WP&YR climbs nearly 3,000 feet in 20 miles with grades up to 3.9%, two tunnels and multiple bridges and trestles. The WP&YR’s total length is 100 miles and connects the deep water port at Skagway with Whitehorse, Yukon. Close in 1982 with the decline of the Yukon’s mining industry, it reopened in 1988 as a tourism operation. June 15, 2017


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still here

Like all excuses, mine are more credible to me than anyone else. Our finite allocation of time has been consumed by classwork, the usual demands of full-time jobs, visitors from out of town, tending to the house and yard, emergency response training, dinners and events that keep friendships alive, and a purposeful exploration of local places previously ignored because “we’d get there someday.”

That was January, February and March. Three short months brimming with experiences, mostly good, some not so good.

Apart from spring break next week, the coming months will be just as full. We have one weekend day that remains unplanned. That won’t last long. There’s a shipment of Prager port to pick up.

Though the days are full, there’s a slowness – even if just a few minutes at time – encouraged by the bluebird skies of the last week. Brought to life by the accompanying warmth of the sun, our California native landscaping is putting on a show unforeseen.

Native landscaping in California requires acceptance that the bounty of spring gives way to dormancy during the summer. While manzanita, a huge island mallow, salvia and yarrow remain green all year, the vibrant green leaves of blue-eyed grass turn brown and whither. California poppies die off after scattering the seeds that will become their progeny.

But for now, the yard is playground of color visited by lizards, birds, bees and butterflies.

Blooms on Arctostaphylos densiflora (‘Howard McMinn’ Manzanita).

Lamiaceae Salvia leucophylla (San Luis Sage)

Sisyrinchium bellum (blue eyed grass)

Heuchera (‘Fireworks’ Coral Bells)

And now that the windows are open at night, spring is real and summer looming fast.


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this year’s gifts already given

newphew-axeThe best of this year was comprised of the many little moments. How, when during a stay at a vacation house tomahawks were discovered in the garage and friendly competition revealed that a younger nephew and my sister-in-law are aces. Or, time spent with the parents exploring a small arts and crafts show at which dad finds something humorous and for a moment looks like an over-sized teenager, walking while texting.

Like when the rescue dog adopted four months ago bolts out an open gate for the first time. There’s the fear fed from knowing that this little fur ball has wormed his way into my wife’s heart. After walking out to the street, he’s not in sight, with open space to the left and busier roads at either end of the street, and I don’t have shoes on. Then he comes running with that odd but funny gait the moment you call his name. It’s clear he now understands that he’s a member of our pack.

mexico-departureOr that quiet moment when, during our cruise in October, my wife and I simply watched Ensenada slip from view at sunset.

Then there are the friends met; some who seem destined to become enmeshed in your life, some who are only of that moment, but all who add joy simply by sharing time and experiences. I’m a naturally inclined introvert. It’s my wife who, unafraid, strikes up the conversations that bring new acquaintances into our life.

I’m thankful for these times, when the noise of the world is silenced, or at least stifled for a bit. Call it mindfulness, being present or living in the moment, but it happens more than we appreciate. I know that good things, whether events, other living things or simply a landscape, creep up on me. Without speaking of them, without relishing them and giving them life, they quickly wither into the background. The trick is not being blind to them.

Merry Christmas and all the Best in the New Year


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following no plan

Unhurried, we turned what could have been a three-hour drive into an easy-going, day-long expedition. Hours were spent exploring thin blue lines on maps and the unfamiliar dirt roads that would get us to hopefully fishy water. That time was rewarded with wild fish. One of us had to be satisfied with drifting a fly well enough to at least provoke strikes. We stumbled over boulders and walked through cold, clear waters on both the east and west slopes of Stevens Pass. Passed up less welcoming waters and greedily eyed a pod of big fish, fish too smart or wary to tempt. We stayed where we wanted as long as we wanted, and when the urge struck, we again headed east for a few or more miles before searching new water along another dirt road.

Often the best aspect of a destination is the journey required to get there. It’s all the better if that travel takes you out of your comfort zone. That’s now part of the nature of our Bro’ Trip™.

It was during June eight years ago that the rough outline – or at least the possibility – of an annual Bro’ Trip™ took form. Such traditions don’t just happen. They require work.

Back in 2008, our trip was about taking Dad fishing in Alaska, something he’d talked about but never followed up on. We spent four days of fishing for salmon and halibut out of a Kenai River lodge. Today, our Bro’ Trip™ is more modest but still adventures that include discovery and often take us to new places.

We easily throw trip ideas back and forth at the start of a new year before getting down to the real work: scheduling. We’re not retired or self-employed. Mark has two young boys. Side projects – Neighborhood Watch, college classes, and website work for my fly fishing club and the IWFF and NCCFFF (two other fly fishing groups), demand my regular attention. We both try to plan family vacations each year. Mark takes the boys camping and the whole family to various destinations. My wife likes cruises. Thankfully, both our wives support the allotment of some time for brothers to be brothers, and to sometimes act like boys.

After my banzai run up I-5 and the visit with the parents, I met up with Mark and family Sunday evening. He was barbecuing kokanee that was swimming earlier that morning. I was pretty ready to roll out the next morning. Mark wasn’t. It didn’t bother me much that he wasn’t ready. I’ve made a conscious effort over the years to avoiding worrying when it’s not necessary. And it’s definitely not necessary on vacation.

By midmorning the next day we turned off Hwy 2 and headed down a Forest Service Road toward Money Creek. Like many of the waters we’d fish that week, Money Creek is small pocket. The type of creek that attracts very few people, most likely fly fishermen with self-esteem issues. But its small dry fly water is worth a few casts. We were a bit too heavily armed, perhaps optimistically, with 3 wt. rods. We agreed to meet at the next bend to decide on whether we would extend our stay.

The weather was warm enough to allow wet wading but the water cool enough for the fish. Dense forest shaded both banks, their branches demanded care when casting unless we stepped into the water to make an upstream cast, which is my favorite tactic on previously unvisited water. The first step into the water was mildly shocking.

It’d been too long since I last laid hand to a fly rod, but the old muscle memory came back fast enough to generally place flies where trout might be looking. Without a visible hatch and expecting these to be wild and relatively unmolested fish, both Mark and I had tied on stimulator flies of one kind or another: Mark’s with an orange body, mine in yellow. The color didn’t matter; both were about size 16.

Quick strikes confirmed my guess; the trout were there. However, a lack of hookups suggested my fly was too big.

Mark working his way up Money Creek.

Mark working his way up Money Creek.

The benefit of not being a “purist” allows me to easily adopt strategies that other fly fishermen might frown upon. Rather than replace my size 16 fly, I tied a piece of tippet, about 10 inches, on to the stimulator, onto which I tied a size 20 Elk Hair Caddis. The biggest benefit to this setup is that the larger stimulator would give me an approximate location of my smaller, almost invisible fly.

That’s all it took. Later, Mark reported numerous strikes but not one fish to hand. I had landed half a dozen or so. The largest was about eight inches. It was a promising start. During the day we’d fish other creeks. We’d pass up others, usually because the footing was too treacherous for two not-in-their-prime guys. We found willing fish in the East Fork Miller Creek, before it merges with the Tye River to create the South Fork of the Skykomish River. Other waters on our list included Foss River, Rinker Creek and Quartz Creek.

Just after noon we had run out of easily accessible water and headed over Stevens Pass to make the descent into eastern Washington. We were talking like brothers can and munching on snacks, and the scenery whizzed by. That should have been a clue. The state trooper in the oncoming lane turned on his lights and made a U-turn. I couldn’t see any other cars headed east.

In retrospect, I found it heartening that I didn’t feel my stomach dip or my heart flutter with the realization those red and blue lights were for me. A quick check of my paperwork, an admonishment to slow down, and we were off again.

Mark interrupted our descent toward Wenatchee, suggesting we pull over to check out Nason Creek, which slips in and out of sight of the highway for many miles. This was a spot he’d checked out before. It was a broad, flat bend in the creek, its slow water hemmed in by broadleaf trees.

I half looked for signs of fish. This is the best way to spot a fish. This looking/not-looking – unfocusing on what you want to see – reveals subtle movements at the edges of your vision. Shadows, formerly rocks, start to sway back forth. Just above, the streamlined body. First one, then two, and a third and fourth. I pointed them out to Mark.

Then my jaw went slack and I went silent. An impossibly large trout swims into view. Larger dots along its back suggest it’s a brown trout. It would be former brood stock beyond its prime breeding years, but I’d rather believe it’s a wild and clearly piscivorous fish.

A welcome flight at Icicle Brewing.

A welcome flight at Icicle Brewing.

Before heading into Leavenworth for lunch, we sought out access on Icicle Creek, but hunger, fatigue and unfamiliarity with the area made beer and lunch more attractive. We stopped and walked a couple of blocks to Icicle Brewing Company.

The heat of eastern Washington was unlike anything I’ve felt before. It’s terribly dry. Even a small breeze feels like sandpaper. Shade offers only minor relief.

We lingered while munching on a pretzel, landjaeger and a meat and cheese platter, critiquing the beer and musing about unimportant things. (Who matched pretzels to mustard in the first place?) From Leavenworth it should have taken about 75 minutes to the house in Chelan but construction delays added about 40 minutes. Enough time for Mark to get in a nap.

Chelan was still baking in the afternoon sun when we arrived. We’d bake the rest of the week.


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averaging 58.4 mph equals one fast day

I’ve already put almost 300 miles behind me by the time the morning sun’s risen above Mt. Shasta. The gas tank’s just a bit less than half full, one of the four bottles of water is empty and the bag of jerky on the seat next to me beckons. It’s almost time for a stop.

This trip is rooted in the idea of brothers getting together at least once a year. It’s also about driving. Back when we were both underage, short impromptu road trips were about freedom, a small bit of excitement and creating memories. My ’71 Beetle was our magic carpet for many.

I-5 SignLonger trips came later. Our parents had moved to the Seattle area while I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and, for a time, my brother lived in Southern California. The reason for our first 788-mile run to Washington has faded now but the thrill of the drive is alive and well. It took us 14½ hours. Stops were few. We ate in the car. While one was refueling the car the other would use the bathroom, then we’d switch places. There’s a lot more to that story, but that’s for another time.

Attempting this latest trip from Benicia, Calif., to Issaquah, Wash., would be an uneasy balance of reality and perception. And a promise to my wife that I’d exercise good judgement, stopping if there was even a remote possibility should it be necessary. The reality is that I’m not a spring chicken (or rooster?) anymore, but the idea I could do it myself – encouraged by the memory of that “banzai run” (my brother’s words) year ago – was enticing.

The plan was to visit the parents for a bit, then meet up with my brother for fishing, shooting, hiking and swimming; all activities of summer well suited for the last week of July. I would have no co-pilot, no flight attendant. Preparation was vital. The cooler would be loaded with two bottles of water, frozen the night before, aluminum bottle also filled with water, and two small pastrami sandwiches. (The old trick of lightly buttering the bread before slathering on condiments would prevent any sogginess.) Another aluminum water bottle sat in the cup holder. Everything would be within easy reach.

I woke up five minutes before the 4:30 a.m. alarm. It’s odd how that works – the body wakes up ready to go when the day doesn’t involve going to the office. I left the driveway a few minutes after the hoped-for 5 a.m. departure.

There was no competition for the fast lane. I don’t feel like I’ve made enough progress until familiar roadways are miles behind. The I-80/I-505 interchange is for me a demarcation between familiarity and mere acquaintance. Here begins long, lonely, two-lane stretches of highway that pass thirsty orchards and fields; towns that owe their existence to I-5 travelers; truck stops filled with Freightliners, Kenworths and Peterbilts (and these days Volvos); and rest areas roughly 40 miles apart. Endless power lines and aqueducts fade in and out of view.

Though “The Five” parallels the Pacific coastline, it is well inland and generally manages to skirt much of the best scenery in California, Oregon and Washington. But it’s fast; choosing I-5 is all about expediency. Much of the way, the posted speed limit is 70 mph. My first stop was 258 miles later in Weed, in the shadow of Mt. Shasta and deep in the State of Jefferson. After topping off the tank and visiting the bathroom and no lingering, the climb into the Siskyou Mountains began.

The 246-mile stretch of I-5 from Weed to Eugene, through Ashland and Grants Pass, offers a welcome change: green mountains. The downside is Oregon’s low opinion of citizens’ driving skills. Speed limits drop, generally to 65 mph but often lower for brief stretches. From Eugene to Portland it’s flat, but there’s just enough variety of terrain, vegetation and crops to make it not boring, and the rest stops are more updated, or at least cleaner. Unique to this part of I-5 is the smattering of Adult Shops (that’s the name of this chain of stores) strung along the highway, which contrasts with a fair number of religious billboards that pop up south of Salem.

Oregon goes by in a blink. It takes me about the same amount of time to drive through Oregon as it did to drive from home to the northern border of California. About midway through Oregon, one sandwich is gone, the jerky bag has been opened, and I’m down to one bottle of water. I’ve listened to nine podcasts. My pace is steady. The only stops are to fill up in Salem and at rest areas as needed.

You’d think crossing the Washington border would bring a feeling of relief, but it’s a reminder that I still have about three hours to go. It’s green but monotonous, with a patchwork of farmland giving way to retail centers and too many RV dealerships. While the “Uncle Sam billboard” near Chehalis celebrates free speech, over the years I’ve found the messages to range from mildly amusing to patently offensive. The billboard also marks the long slog through never-ending construction zones and constant traffic in Olympia, and to Tacoma.

Trusting that Google knew best, I slipped off I-5 to take State Route 900, a more interesting but generally slow alternative that cuts between Cougar Mountain and Squak Mountain on its way to Issaquah. By now, a road trip playlist has replaced podcasts. It’s clear I’m moving deeper into the Evergreen state. There’s little dead space, the open areas between buildings are filled with trees and overgrown bushes and vines. I wonder if underneath it all one might find broken down trucks, discarded 55-gallon drums and other castoff debris.

Soon I’m back in familiar territory. Decades ago I lived in Issaquah for about seven months and have visited often enough to know the route. It’s not so much about landmarks – things have changed a lot in and around town – but the curve of the road and that oddly angled intersection. I debate whether to top of the gas tank and decide it can wait; any stop would delay my arrival. Finally in town, I slow for traffic. Nearly where I need to be and Washington drivers’ tendency to abide by all speed limits becomes an annoyance.

A renewed energy arises within me as I take that last right turn. I park and open the door. Glancing at the clock, I brim with smugness. My driving time was just over 13½ hours.

Sure, it’s an irrational pride to have accomplished something that means so little. But for once, I felt that I was in control of my destiny, however illusionary that might be.