fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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coyote, rattlesnake and turkey, oh my! (wild trout too.)

Sean lining up a putt on hole four at Twain Harte Miniature Golf.

Sean lining up a putt on hole four at Twain Harte Miniature Golf.

When it comes to the oldest son, the easiest way to level the playing field is to chase wild trout. While there may be some claim that genetics would ensure that he’d be at least half as good a fly fisherman as his old man, the truth is that there’s no substitute for experience.

The day after our Annual One-Day Tioga/Sonora Pass Tour, we had an agreement to take it easy, meaning no alarms. We were still up and out at a decent hour, though long after the sun had begun to warm things up. This Friday being designated a “Man Day,” our first stop was for convenience store coffee and breakfast. The day would later include miles of dirt roads, a lot of hiking, and a whole heap of fly fishing. Manly stuff indeed.

We were headed northeast to Arnold, cutting across the dry, now golden Sierra Nevada foothills once scoured by ‘49ers. We passed the time during the hour-plus drive with conversation, the usual good-natured ribbing, and a good playlist. The focus of the day was a small freestone stream rumored to be well worth the effort. It could be easily accessed through a state park.

We didn’t want easy.

After inquiring about this stream a few months back, a club member cryptically described in a hushed voice a series of left and right turns leading to a serviceable Forest Service road that eventually crossed Stream X. His tale of the wild trout that lived there was peppered with warnings of fast-moving logging trucks and rattlesnakes.

With the help of a National Forest Service map of the area, I had determined the most likely route. But there’s nothing like local knowledge. We stopped at Ebbetts Pass Sporting Goods for guidance and picked up a few flies from one of the best selections I’ve run across. Bill, owner and long-time resident who’s hunted and fished the area for some 30 years, is always willing to take the time to offer advice. (Based on our conversations, I now have a list of rarely fished and not-so-easily accessed waters.) Bill’s confirmation of our route also included some obfuscation…the first left was after a city limits sign and our destination was near the bridge.

The paved road extended farther than expected. The vegetation here was a bit greener and denser than that around the Family Cabin and a welcome change. Soon enough we were on the dirt road. Not your typical Forest Service road, rather one made more drivable thanks to constant compaction by heavy truck traffic and frequent watering.

It became clear during our pre-fishing ritual — changing into waders and checking rods — that we were in the right place at the right time. Chance would have it that I looked up just in time, over the top the car and through the trees to a bend in the creek about 50 yards away, to catch a glint that could only have been from a jumping fish. An added bonus: it was just us.

Sean was on the stream first and hooked a trout in a small pool. It was about nine inches, and coloration and big parr marks confirmed it as wild. Looking over this stream, it was clear this would be a day of pocket water. At the end of the day, about 75% of the water we’d fish was pocket water and more than 90% of our takes would be on dries.

In typical fashion, we leapfrogged past each other as we headed upstream. Sean lagged behind at one of the better shaded pools in this section. Upstream was a wide, sweeping bend. Trees provided shade on the inside. The outside of the bend must be scoured during heavy runoff, leaving a big field of rounded stones of all sizes. Tire ruts leading down to the stones were left by the logging company’s watering truck and — as evidenced by a pod of obviously stocked trout darkening the center of the bend — a DFW stocking truck. Temptation got the best of me and I got a few planters to take a big stonefly pattern. Sean had since emerged and I moved upstream, only to be halted by a fence extending through the stream and up both banks.

Returning to the bend, Sean and I agreed that, with the two other fishermen who had since arrived, it was suddenly too crowded.

A rainbow trout that's a bit bigger than expected in this small creek.

A rainbow trout that’s a bit bigger than expected in this small creek.

Nice surprise in a small creek.

During my time upstream, the driver of the watering truck had chatted up Sean. While sucking water from a beautiful stream that’s habit for wild trout is uncool, at least the driver offered up details about how to get to a more remote and less-fished section upstream. Following his recommendation, we picked our way down a less-frequented road. This isn’t your graded road, but rather a barren section of forest sprinkled with stones and crisscrossed by fallen branches. The type of road that wouldn’t necessarily require four-wheel drive, but where I would have been thankful to have a bit more ground clearance than offered by my (trusty) Accord.

It was slow going. The road meandered away from the stream and gained elevation before a fork dropped us down to a wood bridge.

Here the character of the stream changes. It’s nearly all pocket water. And skinny.

As expected, the fish were spooky. We didn’t really see the fish; we caught flashes of fast-moving shadows in the periphery of our vision. This is the kind of stream that tests one’s ability to pick out suspect water and adequately present a fly. There might be strikes on your first two drifts. After that, it was time to move on. Thankfully, there was a lot of stream available.

My first cast was to ideal pocket water behind a large boulder. Water tumbled past the boulder into a pool that while not deep, was dark enough to hide fish. That first drift netted a brilliant eight-inch rainbow. This was repeated often as we hiked upstream, with nearly every fish chasing our dry flies.

It’s likely we could’ve spent all day moving upstream. But we did have to pick up a wine club shipment in Murphys, so we headed back to try fishing downstream of the bridge. There were a few spots but it wasn’t too far before the stream enters a canyon narrow enough to encourage a solid risk/reward assessment before continuing.

A not-so-nice surprise.

A not-so-nice surprise.

Sean, who wasn’t aware of my decision, was hiking along a deer trail above the stream while I headed back upstream. There was no scream or shout, and it wasn’t until he caught up with me that I learned of the first rattlesnake sighting of the season. Sean was foolish coolheaded enough to linger long enough to take a photo.

We debated stopping to fish again on the way out but decided otherwise. Our drive back to the highway included sightings of a coyote and turkey. After a stop at Ebbetts to report on our success (suitably suppressing how excellent it really was), it was time for a post-fishing beer. Luckily, Snowshoe Brewing wasn’t more than 15 minutes away.

We completed the day picking up that wine, tasting some of that winery’s products, and grabbing decent-but-not-great burgers at a place adjoining a gas station. Music and banter continued on the drive back, with a promise to keep up the illusion that this really-not-so-secret place was our little secret.

I did outfish the boy. I also whooped him in a game of mini golf. Even so, I think he had a pretty great time.


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(relatively) word-free Friday

Since pictures are worth a thousand words, and it would take many thousands to tell of the adventure and fun enjoyed last week with my brother’s family, below is a gallery of photos that tell the story than I could. The days were filled with swimming at the local lake, visiting a historic gold rush town and panning for gold, more fun — swimming, sliding, diving, building sand castles — at the lake, hiking, mini golf and a trip to Yosemite. Enjoy!

Due to loading issues, the gallery has been moved here.


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Pat and Mark’s (and Derek and Kirk’s) excellent fly fishing adventure (or, part one of a two-part payoff)

Since day one of my fly fishing career, I’ve been a proponent of hiring a guide to get the “lay of the land,” and though unlucky enough to start fly fishing later in life, I started fly fishing when I could afford to hire a few of these professional trout bums. This however, was one of those times that hiring of a guide paid multiple dividends, even after the guiding was over.

The trip in question centered around two goals: get my brother, Mark, who’d fly fished for the first time last year, on waters local to his home in Washington state, and for a second time attempt to get a close up look at west slope cutthroat trout. To make the most of my short visit, I again turned to Derek Young (Emerging Rivers Guide Services) for help. Frankly, I don’t believe it was a coincidence that I hired Derek two years ago for a float down the Yakima River with my father and that Derek was subsequently selected as the 2011 Orvis Endorsed Fly Fishing Guide of the Year. Regardless, Derek fits my expectations of a guide: someone with strong local knowledge and unfettered enthusiasm for both the fishing and the fish; the type of person with whom one can forge a connection in a mutual passion for fly fishing.

No one would have expected in the days leading up to my flight that the Seattle area would experience record-breaking temperatures. My flight into Sea-Tac International that Wednesday morning would afford my first view of the Space Needle. By the time I was standing on the arrivals sidewalk, most the sky was blue and the sun intense enough that the fleece was tucked away.

I had planned my flight to arrive at an hour late enough that beer tasting on the way to my brother’s house would be socially acceptable. We ended up at Elysian Fields for Cuban and Reuben sandwiches (and beer) after a stop at Georgetown Brewing, then visited Black Raven Brewing before unpacking and prepping for fishing the next day. That afternoon, during the usual pre-planning conversation, Derek proposed accommodating our two goals with two half days of fishing.

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Our first look up this Skykomish Tributary.

That’s how my brother and I ended up wet wading a tributary of the Skykomish River with Derek, who had invited friend and all-around good egg Kirk Wener (the man behind the Unaccomplished Angler blog and author/illustrator of the “Olive the Woolly Bugger” books). I’d met Kirk a few years ago in asking that he sign copies of the Olive books for my nephews. Kirk had mentioned the possibility of fishing together sometime on the Snoqualmie Forks, but he’s a busy man and, for lack planning on my part, it never came to pass.

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Mark working a pool on his way downstream.
(Photo copyright © 2012 Derek Young. Used with permission.)

This Skykomish tributary is one of those rivers that immediately impresses with a feeling of remoteness, even though it’s relatively nearby as the crow flies. But we’re not crows, and the desire to get more than a few steps away from the easily accessed and more heavily fished stretches required a bit of leg work. The hike up a hillside, through rain forest and over fallen trees was an effort not made easier by a big breakfast at the Sultan Bakery, but worth the reward — an uncompromised river and view. The drive to our destination on Highway 2 was under scattered clouds, most of which dissipated as the day wore on.

After laying out a game plan, Mark, Derek and I headed upstream. We left Kirk fishing a nice pool that would produce a surprise and the biggest fish of the day (though not a trout). The walk upstream was punctuated with admiration of the beauty of this place and Derek’s insight into what we’d be fishing and where. As agreed, Derek began shadowing and educating Mark while I attempted and occasionally succeeded to get a decent drift.

If you’ve read this blog before, you’d know that my introduction to fly fishing didn’t involve much in the way of dry flies. But since there would be witnesses, I wanted to man up this trip; I’d live or die by the stimulator Derek had selected. Usually I’d like to say my casting was the result of experience and practice, but sometimes I wonder if using a rod at the higher end of the spectrum not only aids one’s casting but also infuses the user with additional confidence. Whatever the case, the Helios 2 (a disguised test rod) was sweet, and more often than not the fly landed near the designated target.

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Dry flies, baby, dry flies…

There was plenty of fishy water and fish where they might be expected. With good fly placement and a bit of luck, some of those fish — small rainbows, or perhaps steelhead progeny — were found. Those who know me might call it playing to one’s strength, but I’ve increasingly come to appreciate small wild trout. On the right rod, they offer a fight that, ounce for ounce, compares favorably to any of their larger brethren, and usually are more than obliging to forgive my poor presentation of a dry fly. The fish in this part of the Skykomish River system didn’t disappoint.

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Derek offering the assist.

It was clear from my occasional glance upstream that Mark was getting the hang of casting. I was even a bit envious of his tight loops. Despite a secret hope that my initial casting instruction had served my brother well, I had to agree with Derek’s appraisal that Mark just might be a “natural.” It was about this time I noticed, about 50 yards downstream, a peculiarly heavy bend in Kirk’s rod.

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Kirk providing photographic evidence of his ‘surprise.’
(Photo copyright © 2012 Derek Young. Used with permission.)

Mark and I fished upstream, leapfrogging each other as we fished suspect pools, riffles and seams. We each landed fish. There was no real competition between us this day, but if there was, it’s clear that Mark’s enjoyment and wonder trumped the number of fish I landed. Then again, I did manage that one really nice fish.

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That nice fish.

The adventure continues next week…


More photos:
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a return to the high country with the folks who raised us, some thirty years later

It turns the tables a bit when it’s the kids introducing parents to new places and experiences and revisiting the familiar after three decades is icing on the cake, though there’s bound to be disagreement in our personal memories.

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Mom and Dad at the cabin, for their first visit.

But easy agreement was found in the beauty of the scenery and shared remembrances during a long drive up and over Tioga Pass, along the shores of Mono Lake, before a return over Sonora Pass.

The parents arrived at the cabin late that Sunday afternoon, and after running an errand that took entirely too long for Dad, dinner was enjoyed and we settled in for the evening. Thankfully, the storm that had dumped snow on the passes had dissipated the day before and the warmth of the sunshine had cleared the roads.

Mom, Dad and I leisurely left Twain Harte with a route in mind but absent any planned stops or timetable. The hillsides leaned more toward gold, but were freckled by islands of still-green grass.

I’ve driven this road many mornings, but saw things a bit differently today since I wasn’t preoccupied with wetting my fly line. Miles rolled by, lubricated by conversation. Soon it was time for a stop to stretch our legs. Though there aren’t many hatcheries that will, in my mind, match the magnificence of the historic Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery visited in my youth, there was something familiar about walking around the Moccasin Creek Hatchery with the folks.

After the excitement of gaining 1,500 feet in elevation over the two miles of the “new” Old Priest Grade, it was all new territory for Mom and Dad as we wound through Big Oak Flat, Groveland, and past Buck Meadows. Highway 120 took us from 2,838 feet at Big Oak Flat to Yosemite National Park’s Big Oak Flat Entrance Station at 4,900 feet. Dad was impressed by the tidiness of the towns and the number of old buildings alongside the roadway, many of which are still in use.

If it wasn’t enough to have fantastic weather, traffic was light. By mid morning we arrived at the entrance station, where the purchase of an annual pass got us across the park border. Words in many foreign languages hung in the cool air, reminding me of the many nature blessings that aren’t more than a day’s drive from home that attract visitors from around the world.

I’ve always throught that the changes in vegetation and terrain grow more dramatic once inside the formal boundaries of Yosemite. Heavy forest yielded to granite, which only seems to yield to water in the form of glaciers, ice and liquid. We pushed on to Olmsted Point, taking obligatory photos, then on to Tenaya Lake. Availing ourselves of the facilities near the lake, I made a mental note that I need to spend more time exploring Tenaya Lake and its surroundings.

There’s a drama that comes with finally emerging from the forest to be presented with the dramatic vista of Tuolumne Meadows, then dropping into the meadow itself. This time I was taken aback by the dramatic change in its appearance compared with that of last spring, when my brother, son and I were on our way to a challenging life-affirming hike to the top of nearby Lembert Dome. Last year the meadows were covered with water. This year, the grass was already the gray-brown of late August.

I had to explain to Dad that the Tuolumne Meadows campground wasn’t open yet when he asked why I was parking alongside the highway. He’d never been here so early in the season. (The campground would open two weeks later, rather early.) Though last June there was snow on the ground and big puddles filled with mosquito larvae, there was nothing of the sort this last week of May. A stroll toward the entrance was accompanied by a bit of debate about the differences between today’s visit and our memories of camping trips more than two decades ago. Regardless of the differences of opinion and any discrepancy in our memories, there was more than enough that was still the same to foster a feeling of familiarity.

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Mom and Dad’s triumphant return after 30-some years.

My worries about the water were confirmed during this walk through the campground when I stopped near the same spot from which I took a photo of Lembert Dome in 2011. Last year, there was no discernable difference between the channels of the Tuolumne River and the river itself, and the water was within two feet of the bottom of the Tuolumne Meadows (Hwy. 120) Bridge. This year, the channel nearest the campground was no more than a foot deep, and the river was barely touching the bridge abutments.

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The three of us at Leavitt Falls Overlook.

The reminiscing was further fueled by the sheer rock walls along the descent from Tioga Pass to Lee Vining. The thought of dropping in at Bodie Mike’s for a barbecue lunch was derailed by Dad’s sudden proposition of stopping at the Tioga Gas Mart — that he didn’t recall seeing before — to grab lunch at the Whoa Nellie Deli. A word of warning: Be careful what you order. It’s all big at Whoa Nellie. The Cowboy Steak Sandwich is not so much as sandwich as it is a steak slapped on a roll.

The easy drive north on Hwy. 395 from Lee Vining was a welcome change after such a big lunch. By the time we arrived to the intersection of Hwys. 395 and 108, the urge to nap had passed. A good thing considering the hairpin curves that would take us from 6,765 feet to 9,623 feet at Sonora Pass. Before our main ascent, the Leavitt Falls overlook offered a last opportunity to stretch our legs before the long trip over the pass. The reduced volume of water coming over the falls was another reminder that it’s going to be a dry year in the Sierra Nevada. We posed for photos, then began the long climb.

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Getting a roadside education at Sonora Pass.

This was undiscovered country for the parents, who never had a reason to travel this road. To my eye, Hwy. 108 over Sonora Pass offers much more dramatic transitions. The road rises faster and the changes in terrain and vegetation follow suit. Surprised to find it open, we stopped at the Donnell Reservoir scenic overlook, with a sweeping over the Stanislaus River canyon and the Central Valley. The road from there is bit less remarkable, winding through heavy forest and passing towns that only seem to be wide spots in road.

It was a long but worthwhile day; one that both revived and created memories.

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textbook fly fishing (when the fish do everything they should)

It didn’t take long after high winds brought an early end to our adventures on Crowley Lake to decide that it was the perfect afternoon to introduce Willy to the wonderfully willing brook trout in an upper section of Rock Creek, just below the lake.

Caddis on Rock Creek.

It was late when we arrived, but nearly magic hour on this wide spot. In a voice hushed for no other reason than wonderment at the beauty of where we were, I described what to expect. Every pool, tailout, rock and bend prompted a memory of a fish that rose to a fly in the seasons before. Colors grew more vivid as I described the 13-inch wild rainbow that surprised me and my 3 wt. rod during the spring a year ago. Willy headed downstream, I went up.

Fall in the eastern Sierras is a feast for the eyes; the low sun filters through the yellow and orange leaves of the quaking aspens, the evergreens seem to take on a darker hue, and through a bleak and gray winter may be nearing, for now the sky is a brilliant blue.

It’s that time of year when small brook trout flame with spawning colors. Willy, a striped bass fisherman of note who’s landed big fish of many species, broadly smiled while cradling one of these gems in his hand; reminded of how fun and beautiful these trout can be.

The numbers of fish we landed was lost in concentration as we targeted specific fish. I’d started with a dry/dropper combination, but soon opted for only a small humpy, for no other reason than the excitement of surface grabs. I’d end up climbing, literally, upstream, targeting small whirlpools tucked between the rocks. Nearly every one gave up a fish.

This time of year just as colorful as the trees…

With the tops of the tree shadows reaching the far side of the creek, we both ventured upstream, where Willy pulled a few fish out of a plunge pool that offers a small, but textbook example of the effect of currents on the drift of a fly, with almost intimate takes from fish less than three feet away.

Thinking we’d already had too much fun, we found our way back to the road, from which Willy could get a good look at the lake. The plunge pool we’d been fishing was the outlet for the lake, and as if an illustration from any good fly fishing book, signs of rising fish dotted what was in essence the tailout for the lake. This was feeding activity that couldn’t be passed up by any fly fisherman.

The wind, accelerating down the canyon, made casting difficult, at least for me, but we both got flies out far enough and every decent presentation earned at least a strike, and a few rainbows were landed.

It has been a textbook day, and the trout did everything they were supposed to do. It’s the best way to learn.

As I figure it, I have a lot more learning to do.


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a blog exclusive you won’t find on my wall

This post brought to you by the photo prompt
Most Un-Frame Worthy Outdoor Photo You Got
from the Outdoor Blogger Network (OBN)

Let’s be clear. Fishing small high-country streams means the trophies taken home are usually limited to skinned knees, a sore back or scratches inflicted by any one or multiple species of vegetation.

Those who ask how the fishing was probably won’t understand that the trip is more than just fishing. It’s fishing that entails a walk that, longer than expected, become a hike; the stalking of trout so skittish its remarkable they aren’t afraid of the bugs they eat; and the creation of memories that draw a fisherman back time after time.

Where I fish, at elevations of 6,000-plus feet in the Sierra Nevadas and often above 8,000 feet, there are incredible opportunities to sink back into forests most notable for the lack of human visitation. In the small creeks and rivers found under lodgepole and western white pines, red firs, mountain hemlock and aspens, wild trout live a hardscrabble life during a summer that rarely lasts more then eight weeks. The small size of these trout truly belies their spirit.

But that’s not why they don’t end up in a framed photo on my wall. These trout are so darn small that holding a fish in one handle while using the other to fiddle with camera’s macro setting invariably results in a photo that’s too fuzzy to be called “arty” of a fish that would be a snack for what’s traditionally deemed a trophy trout.

But since so many of these high-country trout to obligingly rise to any of the customary trout flies, seemingly regardless of size, the outcome of a photo op can be a bit unpredictable.

Unframeable Fish Photo

the photo that shall not be framed

However, the one photo that will never be framed I also hesitate to share in the blogosphere. Because the fish is so small? Because the photo is so blurry? Yes to both questions.

…but mostly because I don’t know what the heck it might be it’s not a trout.

Pikeminnow.Squawfish.Hardhead

From the South Fork of the Tuolumne River: Pikeminnow? Squawfish? Hardhead? Your guess?


P.S. I’ve since upgraded to a better and waterproof camera to compensate for my lack of photographic skill.


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finding fish, but not fishing, close to home

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Fern Silhouette

Muir Woods National Monument in the hills just north of San Francisco could be like someplace near you. That place that’s relatively well-known and frequented by out-of-town visitors, one that you always mean to visit but never set aside the time to do so. The trees of Muir Woods quietly stand in a valley accessed by roads that progressively shrink from a highway to a local boulevard and, finally, a small two-lane country road that twists down the hillsides without the comfort of guard rails. It’s a drive that requires patience. It’s worth finding, however, because this 560-acre national monument encompasses one of last groves of old-growth coast redwoods on the planet, and the only one in the San Francisco Bay area.

It was a gray morning last week when The Wife and I left the rolling hills of home and headed west across the San Pablo Bay Tidal Wetlands and into the hills of the Coast Ranges. The air was cold, the sky hidden by fog, dense and unmoving. The kind of day that suggests you’d be better off nestled by the fireplace with a hot beverage.

Most of the drive was familiar and thus unremarkable, but soon enough we were rising into the hills and the fog. An all-encompassing grayness took the place of what otherwise would have been a sweeping view toward the coast. The fog, but not the chill it lent to the day, was left behind as we descended a number of switchbacks.

The getting there was easy; the parking was problematic. Even on a day like today, parked vehicles were overflowing onto the roadway. Maybe it was karma, or simply superior situational awareness, that opened our eyes to a slot unobserved by half a dozen other drivers at the end of one row.

On a short hike to the park the oak woodlands typical of California’s hills give way to a coniferous forest, dominated by towering Sequoia sempervirens. The paved trail parallels the babbling Redwood Creek, feeding guests toward the obligatory exhibits and gift shop, then the entrance.

Though there’s no escaping the noise of the crowds ignoring scattered signs asking “Quiet, Please,” the silent presence of these redwoods, many seedlings before World War II, can impress. Light filtered first though fog then the thick forest canopy lends a deep blue cast, deepening the greens of California bay laurel, Douglas firs, bigleaf maples, dogwoods, tanoaks, redwood sorrel and countless ferns; horsetail lady, sword, maiden hair, and gold back to name a few. It’s a wonder that such a place exists so close to San Francisco.

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Near Cathedral Grove

A quiet and easy walk took us deeper into the dense grove; wander first closer to then farther away from the creek. Soon I’m getting kink in my neck gazing at the massive trees in aptly named Cathedral Grove. These trees average 800 years old and taper from a thick base to a top that can’t be seen. They have survived fires, storms and man.

The trail leading back out of the grove crosses the clear waters of Redwood Creek, one of the southernmost streams in which coho salmon spawn. This time of year it’s the coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) that will make their way upstream, to be followed by steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss). It’d be dishonest to state that I wasn’t hoping we might be blessed to see fish in the creek.

We were blessed. The trail that would return us to our starting point crosses then parallels the creek four or five feet away from its bank. As we neared a small bend the bed of the creek moved. A coho, at least a good 18 or 20 inches, hovered in a couple feet of water. We watched, shushing the less courteous, as the salmon rested in a small eddy below fallen tree branches. Shortly, it was joined by another, similarly sized fish. After seemingly communicating via body language, the two cohos continued upstream. After a two-year absence, two more coho happened returned to Redwood Creek during our visit.

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Evidence that the Redwood Creek coho salmon may have a future...

Perhaps it was fell-good aspect of being outdoors and seeing nature at work (often despite humans), but lunch at the Muir Woods Trading Co. Café was particularly good. While Karen enjoyed a hot dog of grass-fed beef, I dove into a house special, the “Marin Melt,” which is built on a foundation of some of the most rustic bread I’ve ever met and two smooth locally produced cheeses. Add a bowl of fresh tomato soup, and it’s a lunch made for a cold morning near the coast.

Though there were no fishing rods involved in this trip, the fish were a welcome surprise.

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