fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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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.


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memories of candy and adventure

Not that long ago, at the counter of a local drugstore, I caught myself reminiscing about the candy of my past. Specifically Bottle Caps. But not today’s version.

The Old-School Packaging

The Old-School Packaging

Those Bottle Caps found at the five and dime of my childhood were bigger. Back then they came in a flat package, neatly lined up, each one closely resembling a bottle cap and duplicating soda flavors: root beer, cola, cherry, grape and orange. It may be a faulty memory or wishful thinking, but I seem to recall another flavor akin to Dr. Pepper.

The older version, indented on the bottom.

The older version, indented on the bottom.

While Bottle Caps stick out in my mind as a favorite candy, their taste evokes memories not just of the candy itself but also of adventure. According to biological anthropologist John S. Allen, the author of The Omnivorous Mind, food is a powerful trigger of memories. That explains why many of the collective memories of my immediate and extended family revolve around food. Our family travels on its stomach, with a standing joke that one uncle journeys from restaurant to restaurant on vacation.

Perhaps my Bottle Caps experience isn’t that unusual. It’s not the candy itself that provokes strong feelings of nostalgia, it’s the associated adventures it signifies.

Once in a while, my brother, sister and I were allowed to ride our bikes the six-tenths of a mile to that five and dime. (Some quick but unverifiable research shows it may have been Les and Don’s Market, near the corner of W. Leslie Drive and N. San Marino Ave., but I don’t recall it being a big store. Perhaps my focus on candy led to tunnel vision.)

This was a time without cell phones, when we’d carry a dime for a pay phone. Not that it was expected that we’d have to use it, and I don’t think we ever did.

It was the greatest experience—our first taste of freedom…with candy. Crossing each driveway, each cross street required a new level of responsibility and awareness. We were now accountable for our own safety. We left the familiarity of our neighborhood behind to more intimately explore bordering lands. In our minds, those six-tenths of a mile could have been one hundred miles.

The new version, flat on the bottom.

The new version, flat on the bottom.

However, Bottle Caps candy was redesigned in 2009. Each piece became smaller. The underside was flattened, diminishing its approximation of a real bottle cap. There’s a rumor that Bottle Caps stacked in paper tube packages are the original size and shape, but I have yet to confirm this.

I went on to have other adventures, but the emotions and wonderment originally associated with Bottle Caps also no longer exist in their original form.

There are no instructions for life. It progresses into a series of memories. It’s those that you choose to carry and those you leave behind that form your expectations of adventures to come.

This isn’t a lamentation. Just ask my wife; a kid-like wonderment still exists within my soul. But those embers of wonder need to be stoked.


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National Parks Week and appreciating a high-country home

Centennial-Logo-W-Find-Your-Park-LogoOur days were measured by trout caught, bears seen and miles hiked; nights by stars and the embers of a campfire. During those summers we’d rarely see a familiar face, but the place seemed unchanging. We grew a lot during those short visits, climbing granite domes, hiking trails commonly rising 1,000 feet in less than five miles, floating in a river that only a few miles earlier was born of snowmelt.

I was reminded that Tuolumne Meadows was our vacation “home” last week when I posted a photo of my brother and me with a trophy high-country trout, back when our fishing was more about self-sufficiency and every fish ended up in a pan surrounded by bacon. Mornings my brother, sister and I would hike to Soda Springs to capture the naturally carbonated water – and bits of minerals I’m sure – our mother would gently blend with pancake mix to make some of the puffiest pancakes in the world.

Our visits to Tuolumne Meadows were more adventure than vacation. Stories of our exploits of those summers come up frequently: The poor decision to slide down the granite face of Lembert Dome as the sun set. The bear that followed us back to camp after a long day hike. My sister’s discovery that fish were living beings while ironically still fishing but refusing to eat our catch. On tougher hikes, mom’s constant encouragement to discover what might be around the next bend.

TM-Mark and meIt wouldn’t be out of place to say that Tuolumne Meadows, a less visited part of Yosemite National Park, helped form the person I am today. I’ve since returned to Tuolumne Meadows, one time fishing there with my sons, another time hiking up Lembert Dome with my brother and one son. Nature seems to ignore us humans; the changes over the last three decades are entirely ours.

I’ve been lucky enough to have visited Death Valley, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Lassen, Redwood and Mt. St. Helen national parks. Many national monuments, recreation areas and historic sites as well: Alcatraz Island, John Muir National Historic Site, Point Reyes National Seashore, Muir Woods National Monument, Cabrillo National Monument, Fort Point National Historic Site and Golden Gate Recreation Area.

The national park system is America’s Best Idea. Next week is National Park Week. Every national park will offer free admission from April 16th through the 24th. If you can, get to one and #FindYourPark.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”
― John Muir, Our National Parks


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grinding the nose in between what really matters

“We’ve been busy…” would be the applicable excuse to explain the lack of posts here, and it’s true in more than one way. The nose has certainly been to the grindstone, but thankfully interrupted by (multiple) visits from out-of-state family rarely seen south of the 47th parallel, too much food, copious beer tasting, and the celebration of one of those big steps down the path of life. The yard lies ignored.

Another road trip begins in just over 24 hours, an annual trek that’ll put us in the middle of a pretty fishy — and pretty — spot east and a smidge south of Yosemite. We’ve fished there before quite a few times, but this year, conditions seem to be a couple weeks ahead; more of what might be expected later in the month. The upside is that a small river not visited before may be a prime candidate this year.

At any rate, life’s been good lately, and now that we’re on the downhill slide into the holidays it’s hard to believe another year is closing fast.


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the weekend so far

Evidence that I’ve had little time to write this week…visit by the brother, a newphew’s first football game of the season, and a son’s graduation from the police academy…

Nephew Nicholas running down the ball.

Newphew Nicholas running down the ball.

Class 84 Inspection

Napa College POST Academy “Class 84” ready for inspection.

Sean Ready for Inspection

Sean ready for inspection.

Self Improvement Certificate

Sean recieving a certificate for an RTO score of 100% based on “performance, maturity, professional conduct, attitude and readiness to enter an FTO program.”

Two Generations

Mark and Sean, hopefully soon to be two generations of peace officers.


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folks might think I’m one of those guys, but I’m now old enough to not care

This is how my journey of self discovery (one of many recently) started this week:

“The new seat for my custom motorcycle seat arrived today. I’m going to test ride it tomorrow,” I told my brother, realizing that its arrival Monday sort of made it a birthday gift to myself.

“Cool. How much did that cost?” asked Mark.

“Oh, about $400…”

“You mush like your tush…”

The conversation went on with justifications about spending that kind of money, talk about long rides that have been planned for some as-yet unset date.

I’m certainly not wealthy, but with a bit of scrimping and saving in other parts of my life, I can equip myself with motorcycle (or fly fishing) gear that increases my enjoyment. Good gear is worth it: not thinking about how my butt may start to go numb is priceless.

Stuart Smalley

“I deserve good things, I am entitled to my share of happiness. I refuse to beat myself up. I am an attractive person. I am fun to be with.” Three out of four ain’t bad. Dig the sweater.

I’m tough on all my gear, but the big name waders I purchased almost five years ago only recently needed repair after hiking through brambles and blackberries, scrambling over boulders, only to be unceremoniously crumbled and thrown in the trunk until their next use or being unpacked and hopefully cleaned at home.

There’s also that one rod I use most, even when it’s not an exact match for my quarry, even when it’s a bit too long for the brush-lined banks of relatively small water. It’s the one that casts best. I don’t have to accommodate the rod, it fits me. Like that motorcycle seat, I don’t think about it, it just does its job. Also like that seat, my favorite wasn’t cheap. But it does everything that I ask of it, without me asking.

In some respects, I was a fly fishing snob in my formative fishing years, arguing that landing a 14-inch trout on my less-than-$100 rod was equivalent to a 21-inch fish on more expensive gear. Back then, I figured waving around a more expensive rod would scream “poser.” Perhaps I’m wiser now. Or, like that honey badger, I just don’t care.

Luckily, my wife’s been the most ardent support of my purchasing good stuff. I’ve just been a bit too miserly to listen. So when the bill comes, she can’t complain. She started it.