fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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getting out and up in the Sierras (and personal accomplishment)

My family spent many summer vacations in Tuolumne Meadows. These trips were a family affair and in the interest of keeping everyone engaged, it was more than fishing. We’d spend the days hiking to higher elevations — the campground was at 8,600 feet — and sometimes we’d end up at nearly 10,000 feet. Mepps spinners would be cast into water along the trail and sometimes the destination was a lake where fishing was rumored to be amazing. Mom would keep the troops focused by wondering out loud about what might be around the next bend. My brother and sister and I would spend countless hours exploring the banks of the Tuolumne River, watching the occasional bear that wandered into the campground, and waiting for the rare treat of visiting the campground store, where we’d get to pick one comic book and maybe enjoy an ice cream.

Idealization taints memories but, for me, the Sierra Nevada high country has always lived up to my recollection. That’s what fueled the rest of my plan for Memorial Day Weekend 2014.

The view from where I started.

The view from where I started.

First-hand reports made it clear that water would be high in the Walker River Basin. But I had a plan that tied into two keywords in my last post: “maturity” and “adventure.” Not to get too personal, but I’m no spring chicken rooster, and for more than five years I’ve worn a compression brace on my right knee. Years ago, while carrying a bag of cement on my shoulder, I stepped into an unseen depression, twisted my knee and fell to the ground. I was young then, so shook it off. It was only years later that I began to feel a bit of pain after long walks. This year I finally got out of my rocker to walk every day. Not Forrest Gump style, but about five miles a day. That, in combination with weight loss, has eliminated the need for the brace.

Cautiously optimistic, in planning for this trip I had decided to walk up the Little Walker River, hoping this would rekindle my enjoyment of high country hikes. I enjoy fishing this creek’s small water, though most of my experience had been limited to the stretch through and downstream of the campground. Sticking to my plan, I ignored warnings of high and muddy water. The drive over Sonora Pass would take about two hours, but it’s one drive that’s always enjoyable as the terrain changes with the elevation and, particularly this time of year, snow still dusts the pass. This day the drive was even more pleasant; being a weekday I saw only four cars at lower elevations, and no one above 6,000 feet.

The section of Hwy 108 between Twain Harte and the junction with Hwy 395 rarely runs straight. It’s a good road and relatively fast considering the twists and turns. On the eastside, after beginning a descent into the high desert, there are at least four severe hairpin turns. It seems that every year I either run into a cattle drive on the highway or a semi-trailer truck stuck at a hairpin. This year it was another truck. I waited about 10 minutes as the driver unsuccessfully tried to free the drive wheels, which had sunk in the loose dirt on the inside of the turn, before walking up to ask if it would be okay to try to drive around on the shoulder. He helped me move a few big rocks. After getting past, I was talking with the driver, emphasizing that this hairpin was only the first, when assistance arrived in the form of a Ford Police Interceptor Utility in California Highway Patrol colors.

The longest part of this drive always seems to be the three or so miles down a washboard dirt road to the Obsidian Campground in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. It’s not a bad drive, and was made nicer this year by a late-season storm that dropped enough rain to keep the dust down. Best of all: I was the only person there.

One of many fallen trees...

One of many fallen trees…

I began hiking where a bridge crosses the Little Walker. Topographical maps showed a nearby trail, but that trail would only appear intermittently during my hike. This part of the river flows through a narrow canyon, and since my preferred tactic is to hike as far up as possible and return by slowly fish downstream, I headed for high ground. This is terrain marked by small and rounded granite cobbles, perhaps glacial debris, sandy loams and decomposed granite. Willow and quaking aspen grow along the creek, replaced by conifers and mountain hemlock, which tolerate a drier environment. Hiking was relatively easy. There’s not much underbrush and the only hurdles — literally — were the many downed trees.

After about an hour I emerged from the canyon to find the wide-open expanse of Burt Canyon. Here the Little Walker meanders through stands of willows. The mountains that looked so far away when I started at about 7,400 feet seemed to be within reach. That was clearly an optical illusion as I was at about 8,600 feet and those mountains scraped the sky. The hiking was easy here and I continued on for about another hour.

I find solitude to be refreshing, so I pulled up a boulder and sat. Handfuls of raisins fed my body. The silence of the mountains, the sound of birds and gurgling water, and the unfathomable history of this place, fed my mind and soul. It was as if I was one of only few humans to pass this way.

The view in Burt Canyon, where I turned around.

The view in Burt Canyon, where I turned around.

Shaking off such romanticism, I rigged up the 3 wt. rod. This is the type of water that begs for a dry fly, with the usual small dropper. I fished suspect water, sneaking through willows as best I could, but apparently not well enough. I re-entered the narrow canyon of the Little Walker River with only a single rise so far.

It took a combination of hiking, climbing and crawling to follow the course of the creek, which wound around boulders, under fallen trees, sometimes cascading ten feet. The water was indeed high. Side arm casting, parallel to the creek was the best option. The fish were there, and a few rose to my fly, but none with enough an appetite to bite. If you fish, you know that there are those special spots that you know must hold fish. During high water flows, those locations change, and observation is the name of the game.

I had taken to hiking above the narrowest sections of the canyon and noticed one such spot. A large boulder was forcing the creek to bend almost ninety degrees, so that even at high flows, a pool was created. A large pine offered shade and security.

Hugging the conifer to hide my profile, my first cast fell into place and the fly slipped along a seam. I let it flow around the boulder until out of sight but before my fly line could spook any fish higher up in the pool. On the third or fourth cast a fish slammed the dry. This wasn’t a long pool, so the fish was resigned to head shaking and circling, but it did stress my little rod. I hadn’t expected to find a thirteen-inch holdover rainbow, but that’s what I was looking at in the net. That pool gave up a few more small fish, wild rainbow and brook trout of no more than eight inches, before I moved on.

Confident these fish could be fooled, it was time to stop for lunch in a small meadow passed on the hike upstream. The entrée was a jelly sandwich — I forgot to buy peanut butter at Twain Harte Market — accompanied by pretzels and raisins for dessert. During this repast, telltale rises in a slow bend caught my attention.

Lunch finished, I crept up to the edge of the creek. I made my first casts while still a few feet away; the high water had fish hugging the banks. The fish landed was a bright wild rainbow. A cast to the far bank brought up a couple of brilliantly colored brook trout. Feeling accomplished, I started to hike back to the car.

Panorama from a stop along the Little Walker.

Panorama from a stop along the Little Walker.

The bridge where I had parked came into sight, and below another fly fisherman, dappling a small pool. In short order he had hooked a big hatchery rainbow. His problem was getting it in the net. The pool was at the limit of the reach of his 5 wt., maybe nine feet, and the skinny water in this wide spot of the creek meant the rod often had to manage the full weight of the struggling fish. It wasn’t until I was on the bridge and ready to render aid, that he had the fish in the net. We chatted briefly before he headed off to clean his lunch.

That morning, in my focus on the adventure ahead, I hadn’t taken a good look at the water around this bridge. Now I could see that, directly underneath, it offered some interesting water. I clambered down. Fish hit my flies cast after cast. The hatchery rainbows were numerous and hooking one was a non-event. It was the occasional brook trout that made it fun. The challenge was getting my flies past the rainbows at the top of the run so the brookies at the bottom could get a look. I’m not complaining about having a chance at numerous fish, but I had come here for the wild ones.

On my way to the Little Walker, a quick look at the West Walker revealed it was running high, but clear. Knowing that time was limited if I was to get back over the pass before dark, I packed up and headed to Pickel Meadow. During the regular season the Pickel Meadow dirt parking lot would have half a dozen cars in it. This early in the season there were only two cars and three fly fisherman.

They had been fishing all morning and had found fish stacked up in a few bends. High-stick nymphing had worked best. And clearly, these guys have a more class than I; they were setting up a table and chairs for lunch, with all the fixin’s for Dagwood sandwiches. They also gave me explicit directions on how to get to the best spots (walk to the second willow and cast downstream) and told me to have at ‘em.

Perhaps it was laziness, but I decided to stick with a dry dropper. The fish were easy to spot, and I’m sure I was from their point of view, so I tried to hide behind a third willow while casting upstream. Helped by a twelve-foot leader, good drifts prompted rises to the dry fly. Proving that hatchery fish tend to be dumber, I had landed almost a dozen in less than an hour.

About then, one of the gentlemen from the parking lot walked up and asked what I was doing to hook so many fish. He was new to fly fishing, but enjoying it so far. We talked tactics and I again found myself in the role of teacher. I shared some flies with him and recommended other nearby waters. Then it was time to head back to the cabin.

It’s taken me seven-plus years to take “catching” out of the equation of fishing. Now I’m able to hike, if not with the energy of my teenage self, at least without getting (too) winded or an aching knee.

Mission accomplished.


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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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(not) all fishermen are liars

A few weeks ago in preparation for the coming trout season, I decided it was time to replace the line on my 5 wt. rod. I won’t say that I’m cheap, but this line had served well during its all-too-long life. It wasn’t as if it had developed any hinges or cracks, but last September the welded loop broke and I used a nail knot and monofilament to create a new loop-to-loop connection, then finished the season without having to replace it. But while I’m not a great fly fisherman and don’t demand perfection in my equipment, a floating line that doesn’t float is a bit of a problem.

When I first set up this rod and reel, I used line purchased at a club auction. It was a great deal for a name brand line. Truthfully, I’ve since wondered how long it might have been in the club inventory. It would be hoped that it spent it’s time in a house closet; where the temperature was regulated and exposure to ultraviolet light limited, but it more likely spent its time in a garage, baking during the summer.

This was a plain fly line, nothing special. Its entire length was that vibrant green that makes outsiders question how fly fishermen catch anything. In my pre-fly fishing life I too wondered how fish didn’t see that bright, large-diameter line, not knowing then that there was nine feet of leader and tippet that I couldn’t see, to which a fly was attached.

I’m getting a late start this season, so replacing the line wasn’t imperative. The real decision was where I might get it replaced. I don’t have many choices in fly shops around here. I could drive an hour into San Francisco. There’s a new fly shop in the city, a shop within a shop, apparently, owned and operated by a guy well known in local fly fishing circles. I haven’t been there yet, but hear it’s pretty nice.

There’s another shop south of me, not too far away and across a toll bridge. But like many local fly shops, it is one that seems to be only surviving, not thriving. It’s in the suburbs, not near any fly fishing destination, not in a convenient location and not in a high-traffic area. More than that, it seems that inventory is lacking. I understand it’s a business and inventory is money, and no business owner wants money sitting on the shelf. However, the last time I spent a significant amount of money in this shop was a few years ago, when I found a pair of the previous season’s waders on sale and was lucky they fit. I was apprehensive that this shop would offer much choice in the way of line.

The other option was to head north, a little farther, but not an unreasonable distance. Luckily, my wife had suggested making a day of it, stopping at a new brewery, having lunch and casually exploring places we’d never stopped before. And this sporting goods store has a pretty good reputation for a wide selection of fly fishing gear and accessories.

It’s a well-stocked store, divided into clear sections dedicated to conventional and fly fishing, as well as hunting. I was greeted the moment I walked in but left alone to ponder a myriad of fly lines. Without counting, I’d guess that between the different brands, types of line and specific applications for each of those lines, I was presented with at least 60 choices.

I nymph a lot and boxes of lines dedicated to this tactic were printed with key words and phrases such as “easy mending,” “extra powerful turnover” and “high flotation tip.” Camouflage lines are neat, but I was hooking fish with the bright green line, so why change?

After just about the right amount of time had gone by, the salesman who had greeted me sauntered up.

“So, have you picked one out yet?”

“No, there’s quite a selection to go through.” I had narrowed my choice to two selections, grabbed the appropriate boxes and asked him directly, “I’ve got this one fly line here. It claims it’ll do everything I want and will slice through the wind for the longest cast possible. The truth is I don’t cast much more than 20 or 30 feet, unless on a lake. That’s the way it is where I fish.”

He didn’t jump into a sales pitch, but instead countered my question. “Where do you fish?”

We ended up discussing streams and rivers in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and exchanged stories as fly fishermen often do. Obviously, this painted a good picture about my line needs. He told me of some of his favorite water and experience in aiding with the development and testing of fly line for one company. I tend to believe that most fly fishermen are pretty honest except when it comes to the fly that’s working that day, but I was a bit suspicious, and steeled myself for the hard sell.

Still I stood there with the two fly lines in each hand, each the same brand I use on my 4 wt. rod. In one hand was the special-purpose, “highly textured” line; in the other was a standard weight-forward line for half the price. “What do you think?” I asked.

He replied, “All you need is this basic line. It’ll do everything you want and even stuff they don’t print on the box. The other line is only what you want when casting into wind.” Then he whispered, “Really, that basic line will do just as well, it just takes a bit more skill.”

I felt a bit embarrassed that he’d recommend the lower-priced line when I had walked in prepared to spend much more. I made up for it with the purchase of some flies, extra tippet, beads and other items for which I don’t have an immediate need, but will eventually use.

I don’t know if this guy is paid on commission or not. Perhaps he’s evidence that there is such a thing as an honest fly fisherman.


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on being a more imaginative fly fisher

There’s a fear that can creep over me in the company of other fly fishermen. Those who know me personally are likely to agree there’s a touch of restraint in my personality. Blending into a crowd is specialty learned during middle school; let’s spin it as a well-honed survival skill. Thankfully, in the years since, I have been able to put myself out there with the backing of friends and colleagues, though I still haven’t totally abandoned my introversion.

It was a recent podcast that made me realize that perhaps that fear coincides with the niggling thought that I may be a lazy fly fisher.

But I will hike to the fish. There was no hesitation last summer to march three miles into high-altitude lakes for brook trout no longer than the spread of my hand. I also tie flies. I built a fly rod. And it’s no problem getting up early to spend the day driving the 240-mile loop that takes me over Tioga Pass and Sonora Pass, alongside high-elevation streams and lakes as well as high-desert rivers.

I still feel a bit unworthy among my fly fishing peers. When others are describing the physical skill it took to lay a dry fly in front of a big trout 40 feet away, across four different currents and through 30 mile-per-hour crosswinds, I have no response. Oh, I’m catching fish to be sure. Just with less effort. It’s called nymphing; often under an indicator or dry fly.

It’s not that I’m apprehensive of trying different techniques. I’ll swing small wet flies, cast dries as far as I can — maybe 20 feet accurately — and chuck streamers when an opportunity presents itself.

Thinking about it, after being hammered by messages in blogs, podcasts and online forums that nymphing is inelegant (it is), too productive to be considered a real challenge and more akin to lure fishing than fly fishing, it occurs to me that nymphing, in fact, requires a bit more creativity than other tactics.

Why?

Nymphing often requires visualizing where your fly is and what its doing; rarely can you see it like a dry fly. It takes some thinking to set the depth at which that bead-head fly might be presented to fish hugging the stream bottom.

Observational skills are much more important. With dry flies you can rely on visual cues. When swinging flies, the take is abrupt and obvious. Nymphing, however, requires keen observation of subtle clues: the movement of the rod tip, the twitch of a strike indicator, even a suspicious flash of color. It takes skill to discern a take from your fly bumping simply into a rock or snag or hanging up on weeds.

What I’m trying to imply is that there’s another level of mental dexterity involved in nymphing and not required of other tactics. All tactics benefit from some knowledge of fish habits, hydrology and entomology and basic situational awareness.

Nymphing, however, requires imagination.

Guess that’s why it works so well for a day dreamer like me.


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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.


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is one California too much, or how do you feel about buying multiple fishing licenses?

Though it’s a remote possibility that the proposal by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper to divide California into six states would make it over the many required hurdles — from gathering signatures of 807,615 registered voters to put the measure on the ballot to final congressional approval — it presents a conundrum for a native Californian.

This is a big state, one of diversity. Every once and a while that diversity bubbles to the surface; one example is the Jefferson state movement that is revisited every decade or so. Boards of supervisors in Modoc and Siskiyou counties, which are near the Oregon border, approved measures in support of the Jefferson state declaration. Tehama County, one county south of Modoc and Siskiyou, has placed a similar measure on the ballot.

California is one of the few places where five major climate types can be in close proximity. From my home, it’s a four-hour drive to the high Sierras, the Humboldt redwoods or the southern coastline. The same goes with fishing: steelhead to the north, Striped bass to the east, trout to the northeast and southeast, saltwater fish to the west.

Setting aside all the pros and cons about and difficulties of creating smaller California state, it raises the possibility, just to fish for trout in place I enjoy, that I’d have to buy three separate licenses. Saltwater fishing could require a fourth. This may be an accepted part of living in smaller states, but not something I look forward to.

One upside might be the possibility that the proposed state I would live in, “North California,” could regain its water rights. I’m sure we’d set a fair price for all that water needed down south.