fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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reining in water use

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

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

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

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

Faux creek bed and faux fish.

Faux creek bed and faux fish.

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

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

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

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

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


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more on the move: biscuits, rain and what bothers me about Washington’s pseudo state highways

I’ve always found it a bit curious that the bridges and roadways around Duvall are not designed to deal with the amount of rain that can always be expected to fall every year in Washington.

The rain began to fall in earnest that Monday and during the night. By Tuesday, texts and emails were filled with recommendations that we expect long delays or take an even longer detour. But we were on vacation. We didn’t have time to worry about such things.

After a reluctant departure from the Alexis Hotel, we headed east and, since it’s somewhat of a tradition with my brother to always show up with a beer or two in hand, sought what we hoped might be a purveyor of less common brews. With a bit of luck and help from Yelp we stumbled upon Malt & Vine, a nondescript store tucked into the corner of a Redmond shopping center, but boasting probably one of the more extensive and sometimes eclectic selections of different craft beers, ciders, meads, ports, sakes and wines. Twenty taps can dispense a sample of many beers, a few wines and sometimes mead. The bottle count likely nears 1,000.

It was overwhelming in a good way. The free sample of Guinness 1759 Amber Ale in no way swayed our opinion of this place, but sipping beer while perusing beer is nice. So much time was spent just gawking at the variety of adult beverages that we consulted the staff and a local guy, who apparently organizes a local beer fest, for advice. With a few bottles tucked away, there was still time to stop at a nearby Fred Meyer; the superstore above all superstores. One can’t help but admire a place that sells clothing, groceries, guns and heavy gardening equipment under one huge roof.

If you’ve spent time driving around Washington, you’ve learned that many of the four- or even two-lane roads are treated more like state highways. This is particularly true the farther you are from urban areas. Because flooding on the Snoqualmie River had closed NE 124th St. before the Novelty Bridge, our best option to get from Redmond to Duvall was to take Avondale Road NE, then make a left on NE Woodinville-Duvall Road.

Much of the Woodinville-Duvall Road, which crosses the valley through which the Snoqualmie River meanders, is high enough to prevent it from being closed by most flooding. That day it seemed that every one of Duvall’s 7,464 residents was trying to get home via this two-lane road. It might normally take about 10 minutes to get across the valley and into Duvall; this day it took more than an hour, offering a prolonged opportunity to admire the lush greenery that lines nearly every road in Washington State.

(Sadly, floodwaters are no measure a state’s water-wealth. Washington is facing its own drought and, like California and everywhere else, rain runs to the ocean and the issue is snowpack.)

A long drive and long day, but there would be a reward at the end of it all.


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it’s wet all over but not enough

It was a dark and stormy night…more accurately, a morning.

Remember a few weeks ago when California was drier than a cork leg? That ain’t so true anymore, though The Drought is not over by a long stretch.

My drive to work at 0545 yesterday was dark and slow, musically accompanied by pounding rain. Traffic moved at about 40 mph in a 65 mph stretch of highway. Lakes and ponds formed where none had existed for 10 or more years. Later, flooding closed my route home by early afternoon. Flooding also removed the option of a more northerly alternate route.

Arizmendi Bakery's fruitcake, called the drunk uncle of fruitcakes. (Definitely a bounty of brandy.)

Arizmendi Bakery’s fruitcake, called the drunk uncle of fruitcakes. (Definitely made with a bounty of brandy.)

I instead decided to play chauffeur for the afternoon, heading to San Francisco to pick up Karen and meet our son. It took a bit longer than expected as half the signalized intersections along my route were dark, a result of storm-induced flooding. An underground PG&E substation at Post and Stockton streets exploded that morning as a result. Union Square and surrounding neighborhoods were without power well into the evening. Those dark signalized intersections offered abundant evidence that too many of today’s drivers don’t know how to react to a flashing red signal or in-operational traffic signals.

We snacked leisurely, watching waves of rain wash the streets. We also found the Christmas fruitcake I was looking for, then dropped the son at his place and picked up some casual carpoolers. These people had been waiting in the dark, in pouring rain, for 50 minutes. We picked ’em up thinking that it would make for a more rapid trip home in the HOV lane. Based on the lack of traffic — some folks had left work early and others didn’t go to work at all — it was unnecessary. Call it a mitzvah

This morning wasn’t bad except that Hwy 37 WB was closed and the detour through Novato added 20 minutes to my commute. The rain has let up so far today, but we clearly got enough rain to soak the ground and the temporary lakes and ponds are only slowly disappearing.

Through all this, my attention is on the weather radar, hoping to see snow accumulating in the Sierra Nevadas. It’s said we need at least five more storms of this magnitude to remove the specter of another drought year.

I say bring it on.


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on the progeny of planted parents (or, can a wild trout be a good substitute for its native cousin?)

There’s something wonderfully satisfying about the surprising fight-per-ounce ratio of a wild trout that is followed by a revelation of coloration more vivid than man might create. That’s doubly true when the wild fish is native.

There are purists who would dismiss the progeny of planted parents, but earlier this week, Mark Kautz raised an interesting thought about a possible decline of opportunities to catch wild trout on his Northern California Trout blog as the California Department of Fish & Wildlife’s stocking program shifts to triploid trout.

Shelving the wild vs. native fish discussion for a bit, if I can’t chase native trouts, I’m just as happy stalking their wild brethren. Wild trout are the reason I took up fly fishing. There comes a point in every fishing career that you develop an affinity for a style of fishing, or a species, and often both. It can happen unexpectedly and unconsciously.

With me it began on a little creek in the Walker River watershed, with a spinning rod and a size one spotted Panther Martin teardrop. The cookie-cutter planter rainbows are the standard fare downstream, but my recent rediscovery of the benefits of hiking a bit farther than most weekend warriors had convinced me that whacking through dense stands of cottonwood could be worth the effort.

Trout are one species that adhere to the adage that “life will find a way,” and there’s no better example that the wild fish that often can be found upstream of the ruts created by the DFW’s live-haul stocking trucks. That day it was a cast to riffles in the shade of streamside willows that introduced me to a sizeable wild trout, at least by my standards. Until then, my familiarity of trout with parr marks had been limited to fish measuring less than six inches; this one was about twelve inches long. That wild trout was my gateway fish to appreciation of native populations.

As Mark observed, it’s likely that many folks expect to stock their freezers with trout poundage with a value equal to the cost of a fishing license; perhaps by any means necessary and without knowledge of or concern about the toll on wild and/or native trout. Perhaps it’s fed by the illusion of self-sustenance, even if for only a few days each year. It’s just as likely those fish won’t be replaced as the DFW’s triploid trout — chosen in response to a legal action challenging its hatchery and stocking operations — can’t reproduce. In the long-run, this should be a good thing for California’s native fishes. (It should be noted that the California DFW hatchery system has been gearing up production of native fish for selected waters.)

Still, it’s hard not to wonder if meat fishing, especially in a state as populous as California, would decimate populations of wild fish that have gained a foothold where native fish don’t exist. Also, with California’s now minimal sustainable populations of native fish, it could eventually impact native fish without stronger enforcement of regulations. That, or we have to hope, as Mark alluded, that meat fisherman will be more inclined to drive a few miles to grab some steaks than clamber over rocks, descend into a canyon or even walk a few thousand feet upstream.

Thank you, Mark, for the thought-provoking discourse.


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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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ripples without water (or, this drought stinks)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shrinking agricultural employment is affecting school attendance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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