fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)

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the fishing that led to appreciating that good beer

I didn’t know it then, but that confidence mentioned in words written about a week ago would be tested on the first full day of Trout Season 2011, even if high water narrowed our possible venue down to two or three choices where we knew the fish should be willing to play. At least that’s what we thought.

Sean's Angels Creek Rainbow

Sean's hands make this nicely colored rainbow from Angels Creek seem smaller than it actually is. At least that's what he says...

There’s a balance that comes with fishing the week after Opening Day. The fact that most of the water known to hold trout was given a rude awakening on Opening Day is offset by wide-open access. So, although I’m not one to linger long after opening my eyes in the morning, this morning there was no frantic rush to get out the door.

The night before we had decided to head to “Hatchery Creek.” While well stocked with rainbows (and occasionally brook trout), it also can offer kokanee in the spring and a few elusive browns in the fall. We had been warned, however, about the aforementioned grumbling on Opening Day from anglers who couldn’t find the fish maintained that DFG had cut back on its stocking.

The easy accessibility of this creek — as well as the everyday responsibilities of life — quickly fades as we descend the banks of this creek. No matter the origin of these trout, soon they would occupy all our thoughts and become our obsession for most of the day.

The creek, actually more a short tailwater before it dumps into a lake, is high. Maybe higher than I’ve ever seen it, and it takes more than a moment or two to identify familiar landmarks. Sean and I wonder out loud if high flows during the winter had scoured the creek. Together we remember a productive pool that two years ago was shaded by a now absent tree. A few of the old channels seem to have disappeared; new channels slowly reveal themselves. It’s hard to tell, but even a few boulders seem to occupy new positions.

With more of a series of grunts than conversation, it’s agreed that I’ll head slightly downstream to a long, fast, shallow run that’s always been good to me. The current here is too fast for dry flies. Nymphs work well, but most of the fun starts on the swing. It’s the first place I threw out a wet fly, and the first place that a trout took that soft hackle wet fly, one I had tied with a sparse blue-thread body and partridge hackle. After a few casts, the fish reveal themselves. It’s a cookie-cutter rainbow, but a welcome sign that all’s once again good with the world, at least in this brief moment in my part of the world.

Sean wandered upstream to another run, where water tumbled over rocks into a deeper run that ends in front of a boulder. It’s one of those hot spots favored by trout and deep enough to require at least one heavier fly.

After half an hour or so and three trout to the net and about the same for Sean, I ventured upstream, peering into pools and undercuts where I’d usually be able to sight fish. Seeing no fish sign, I checked in with Sean and headed downstream again. Going farther downstream requires care. Trees hug the banks and blackberry bushes are so prolific that thorny, tippet snatching blackberry vines hang overhead. There’s no overhead casting here. Line management is limited to side-arm casts, lobbing or simply dropping flies and letting the current take them to the fishy spots.

There’s one very fishy spot that requires that last tactic. Water bubbles over a creek-wide riffle before dropping into a wide area marked by granite boulders big enough to disrupt the current and create a pocket, a holding lie, for trout, yet small enough to allow the nearby current to flow fast enough, delivering bugs to waiting fish.

I dropped my flies — a size 18 AP Nymph and a size 22 glass bead chironomid pattern — just below the riffle. One drift, a second, then a third.

I’ve found that occasionally a subtle pause, perhaps no more than a second, perhaps a bit longer, can suggest that there’s a larger fish is at the end of the line. This was one of those times. I set the hook. My line paused. It vibrated faintly in the current. Then it was out of the pocket, through the riffles and around an upstream boulder faster than I could follow. But I would never see the fish. The same could be said for my home-tied fly.

The rest of the day, Sean and I would explore the lower reaches of this creek, finding a pool where, he’d been told, trout can often be found. We did find fish there.

This creek widens and gains speed closer to its mouth, reminding me more of a freestone river in the Eastern Sierra. Nice brown trout water, except it’s not home to many browns. There was fishing along the way but no more catching.

I can’t say whether it was the exertion of hiking, the full day of fishing or just plain thirst, but the dinner and the beer that came with it that night tasted awfully good.



chasing frog balls*

Met with a lack of success in finding frog balls during my Opening Day fly fishing trip, I was back at the cabin this past weekend, this time with The Wife, hoping to track down the elusive and delectable pickled morsels.

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Who said frogs have no style?

We first found these little globes of goodness a couple of years ago at a wine tasting room in the Sierra Nevada foothills. That’s how we found ourselves near the little town of Angels Camp. Perhaps you know it better as “…the ancient mining camp of Angel’s,” or as the setting for “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

What better place or time to find frog balls than at the Calaveras County Fair & Jumping Frog Jubilee?

The Calaveras County Fair is a relatively small affair, condensed into a few buildings, with the obligatory display of hit-and-miss engines powering pumps. One powered an old wash tub. Filling space in one of the buildings was the regular complement of vendors hawking their goods, some unique, some tasty and a few suspiciously smacking of snake oil. Other buildings housed the winning entries in horticulture, art and photography, as well as a display of locally produced wines. Our visit was flavored by the requisite fair food: corn dogs and cotton candy.

Most surprising was the entertainment value of the jumping frog competition. Since 1928, and inspired by Mark Twain’s story, frog jumping is a serious sport in Angels Camp. After all, there are rules:

Frog Requirements
1. Must be at least four inches (4”) from nose to tail.
2. Must begin jump with all four (4) feet, including toes, on the eight inch (8”) launch pad.
3. No substitutions.
4. Evidence of jumping the same frog twice will result in disqualification and forfeiture of prizes.

Jump Measuring
1. The distance will be measured on the third jump in a straight line from the center of the pad to the tail of the frog. A walk or skip is counted as a jump.
2. If a frog jumps into the Jockey or the Jockey’s equipment, the frog will be disqualified.
3. If a frog jumps into other people or other people’s equipment on the stage, the Jockey may allow a re-jump or take the mark.
4. During the jump only the person jockeying the frog may move ahead of the launching pad.
5. Frog catchers shall be on the right– or left-hand corners of the stage and cannot move until the frog has finished jumping.
6. The jump must occur within one (1) minute from start to finish. A one-minute clock will start when the Announcer announces the Jockey’s name. If the jump is not completed within one (1) minute the horn will sound and the frog will be disqualified.
7. Touching the frog after it leaves the pad is cause for immediate disqualification.
8. All marks are final. Any interference by a participant or team member may be cause for disqualification.”

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Fun with frogs.

An amusing kids’ competition is held to the side of the main stage, with all kids encouraged to kiss their frogs for good luck. Most precious was the look on the younger kids’ faces when their frogs took flight.

On the main stage, however, the competition was serious. Veteran “frog jockeys” competed alongside youngsters. Organized teams competed for top honors, including a trophy at least three feet tall and cash prize of $750. A frog that beats the world record of 21’ 5¾” can earn $5,000 worth of greenbacks for the jockey.

We ended up spending more time than expected watching folks flail their arms, hoot, holler and jump in an effort to motive their amphibian friends. (Not to worry, these athlete frogs, after just about 30 seconds of competitive effort, are pampered at a frog spa under the main stage.)

This year’s winner was a frog named “4Peat,” jockeyed by Michael Wright of Team Bozos. 4Peat’s three jumps totaled 19′ 1”.

The Running Man Frog

With his impression of the the "running man," this frog gained inches fast.

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This frog showed style...or just showed off...with a mid-air pirouette.

Alas, we were not to find frog balls. Not at the fair, not in local stores. It seems that the purveyor of these spherical snacks pushed prices a bit too high for the retailers we talked with. It was still a good time.

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*No, they’re not real frog balls. They’re pickled Brussels sprouts. The story goes that the man who would make these delicious orbs needed a name for his product. His little sister, when served the vegetable at about six years old, decided that the odd green things on her dinner plate were green like a frog and round like a meatball, thus “frog balls.”


start of the 2011 trout season: working out the kinks

From what I hear and experienced, it might just be a good thing if you missed the Trout Opener this year. At least on the east and west slopes of the central Sierra Nevada mountains.

No one’s outright said as much, but reports from the Eastern Sierra suggest that crowds may have been there but the fish weren’t. One particularly likeable report: “Bait slingers and trollers failed miserably on Opening Day weekend and 100,000 lives were spared!”

Bass from the Shadows

One small bass from the shadows of a small pond.

The same seemed to be true in our neck of the woods. A California DFG hatchery worker I’ve talked with over the years told of anglers grumbling that fish were nowhere to be found, despite the usual numbers being planted. (More interesting parts of that conversation will come in a future post.)

Not all went as we planned, but arriving in the Sierra foothills in the aftermath of Opening Day put Sean and me in a good position to fish and explore in relative solitude. Months of neglecting necessary fly fishing skills were soon forgotten and muscle memory was gradually regained.

Arriving before Sean and after opening the cabin for the season (thankful that pipes hadn’t burst during the long winter) it was time work out the kinks on the convenient Lyons Canal. Just behind town, it’s more accurately Section 4 of the Main Tuolumne Canal of the Lyons Reservoir Planning Unit. Built in the mid 1850s, it’s part of a network of canals — estimated to total 60 miles — that crisscross Tuolumne County. Though peppered with flumes and concrete in some sections, parts of it have been reclaimed by Mother Nature and now resemble a small stream carved into the rolling hills.

Like many moving waters, walking a short distance away from easily accessed sections is worth the little effort required. Stocked with rainbows, the canal is also home to a now wild population of brown trout.

Hopeful that the most important tool in my fly fishing arsenal — confidence — wasn’t lacking, I tested likely cut banks, boulders and shaded water.

Despite the lack of wildness of the surroundings — homes and a roadway are a short distance away — these brown trout are wild enough to scatter at the shadow of a rod or a less-than-light footfall. This requires casts well upstream of your position, with the best casts placing the fly no more than a few inches from the bank.

My first fish darted out from a surprisingly deep undercut four feet in front of me; eating a standard red Copper John nymph and barreling downstream into faster water. Nicer still, this was probably one of the biggest browns I’ve pulled out of the canal. It looked healthy, even happy.

Brown Trout from Lyons Canal

Another brown from the canal…they do like hugging those banks.

Six browns of various sizes came to the net that afternoon, all seeming to eye me with what might be described as familiarity bred by a near certainty that we’ve met before. Thankfully, most are small enough to be released by freezer-stocking folks hunting the bigger, stocked rainbows.

Perhaps it’s a reflection of the intervening off-season troutless months, but the brown trout this year seemed feistier and their spots brighter than I remember.

I finished up the day, with long shadows creeping between shafts of the setting sun, tossing streamers into a pond on long-fallow golf course. Decent sized bass cruised the banks, but in such small water quickly disappeared into the weeds. A few of their offspring were fooled with streamers and trailing nymphs; the biggest was about eleven inches.

As the sun fell behind the tips of the pines, it felt good to have worked the rustiness out of my cast and rediscover the confidence that had been in hibernation.