fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


1 Comment

a tacky fly box, almost what I need

So this week my news feed coughed up an item about a Kickstarter campaign to fund the development of newfangled Tacky Fly Boxes.

Reading the Tacky Fly Boxes vision statement it seemed to me that it’s not fly retention that’s my problem; it’s retention of the entire box. The entire box should be coated in tacky stuff.

About seven years ago I stumbled upon a stretch of river that wasn’t more than 30 minutes away from the cabin by road, but in the early trout season offered an opportunity to fish in solitude. It’s an area deep within a canyon where dogwood and pines filter the sunlight. Only occasionally is the shade is broken by shafts of light, lending an emerald-green cast to the air. The river is lined by boulders much of its length here, and stepping from rock to rock is necessary.

The excitement that comes with discovering new water was amplified by the willing rainbows. It was the kind of catching that’s so good you purposely slow down to savor each cast, hookset and fish itself. But this was my early days of fly fishing. I hadn’t yet acquired any habits or routines.

A sampling of our likely weapons of choice.

At $1 or more each, they add up.

The plan that day was to fish one river in the morning and another in the afternoon. When I arrived at the second river I reached into my vest pocket, unzipped and now empty. No fly box. It’d be a lie to say there was no panic. To those who say fly fishing really isn’t that expensive, try losing an almost full fly box. Buying a few flies at a time doesn’t seem like much; add them up and it can be tidy sum.

After only a short internal debate I headed back to the first river. It should have been a futile search. More than likely, the fly box was about five miles downstream by now.

Retracing my steps, on the last boulder, nestled in moss, was my fly box.

I’ve adopted on-the-water rituals since then. I have lost a net to some trees while hiking through thick bush. One rod’s been broken. That fly box, however, was the one lost item that made me question taking up this hobby.

I didn’t give up. It’s all been downhill ever since.

Advertisements


Leave a comment

is anybody home?

The excuses could include the fact that it’s the holiday season, it’s too doggone cold and that the general trout season is closed. Simply, I’ve been busy. Funny thing, though, is that I’m okay with not fly fishing for a while.

It struck me this week how I often remain oblivious to many of the changes in my life. It’s nothing I’m concerned about, and actually pleasant to know that our now kid-less life is evolving into an adventure.

The world is full of books, blogs and articles addressing what one might or should do when the next is inevitably empty. Free time can become something to be filled. Rooms may remain vacant and unused. Hours or days can be occupied reading those books, blogs and articles, or that time can be devoted to doing something that’s enjoyed.

Our time has been spent exploring, taking on a new hobby, re purposing space throughout the house; most of the time doing so together. Last fall’s adventure discovering new places not too far from the cabin will hopefully become part of all of our future visits. One new(ish) hobby is target shooting, something that hearkens back to my growing up years, but has grown to encompass a refinement of skills. Karen took up a new course of study a while ago; I’m exploring — more formally — certain interests, including Javascript and creative writing. I hope to get out on the motorcycle a bit more.

Sure, I turned 50 this year, but like many birthdays it was like every day of my life so far; marked by subtle transition rather than a sudden transformation.

The preceding years were largely artificially constrained by scheduling imposed by schooling, not something I resent, but impactful nonetheless.

Now, I’m looking forwards to more closely following the rhythms of nature.


1 Comment

no longer just fair-weather fishing

I’d never thought of myself as a fair-weather fisherman until last month. The truth is that the timing of my fishing trips — most of which take place within a few hours drive of our cabin in the Sierra foothills — is more often dictated by the level of water and the appetites of the trout in it. There are plenty of sources for information that will give you an idea of what might be expected when you get where you’re going, but usually doesn’t match up with the reality of being there.

Last month I had left the cabin on an outing that began like any other early-morning trip over Sonora Pass. I left before sunrise, the roads were vacant and it was about 40 degrees F. The general idea was to visit previously unvisited areas of a nearby watershed, with no specific plan in mind.

The elevation of the cabin is about 3,600 feet, where autumn is generally makes its presence known in a pleasant manner. Leaves are beginning to change and there’s a nip in the air. Short sleeves are still comfortable most of the now shorter daylight hours.

The temperature fell as I began to climb toward the pass, and blotches of yellows and reds more frequently peeked out from behind the evergreens. By the time I arrived at Kennedy Meadows (elevation 6,700 feet), it was about half an hour past sunrise, but in the shadows of this piñon-juniper forest, it was 27 degrees. In 10 more miles I climbed another 3,000 feet, emerged from the tree line, and the temperature would rise about 25 degrees.

I have a fondness for the high country — because its beauty is one of stark contrasts, in some ways harsh but fragile in others, with dwarfed pines scrapping out an existence against a background of granite — and this dramatic variation in temperatures is one of the most observable influences on that beauty. The simple expansion of water as it becomes ice slowly breaks down granite. The melting of that ice, and snow, as well as a general weathering of the landscape, breaks that granite into pieces that, through weather and the activities of insects and animals, can be mixed with decomposed plant matter to create a thin and rocky soil. It’s truly amazing that such infertile soil supports numerous conifers of all shapes and sizes.

The descent on the east side of the mountains leads down to the high desert, where desolation of this shrubland is interrupted by strings of trees, usually aspens in the canyons and pines elsewhere, following the course of the rivers and streams of the Walker watershed. The sun gathers strength here, but this morning its power would be contested by a layer of cold air that had established a foothold during the night.

River-Side Ice

River-side ice at 26 degrees that morning.

There’s always that time, between emerging from the artificial environmental cocoon of a vehicle and before the cold really starts to bite, that the air temperature never seems that cold. When I pulled alongside likely looking water, it was 26 degrees. I had given serious consideration to the idea it would be chilly, but now worried I hadn’t considered it seriously enough.

So with the thought that I had come too far and retreat wasn’t an option, I began the layering that I hoped would suffice. This was comprised of fleece pants under the waders, a wind-proof wading jacket over a fleece sweatshirt that was on top of my long sleeve shirt, and a well-worn, wide-brim canvas hat. Later I’d realize that my fingerless fishing gloves would have been a welcome addition.

As long as I kept moving, I avoided the long shadows that persisted as the sun hung low along its autumnal path. The water was 58 degrees, at the low end at which trout will be active, so I didn’t linger too long in one spot and moved frequently to cover as much water as possible.

This was an entirely new experience. My breath hung in the air, lingering as puffs of white. Skim ice crunched underfoot. My guides iced up within fifteen minutes. It was cold. So cold that I almost — almost — hoped that wouldn’t have to plunge my hand into the water to unhook a fish.

I would leave this first spot about an hour later, skunked but feeling that for that brief time, more than ever, that I couldn’t escape being part of nature.


2 Comments

practicing for retirement

From the start, we knew it’d require a different mindset. Not since our honeymoon 10½ years ago had Karen and I spent more than three or four days at the cabin. Eight days, however, clearly presented an opportunity for adventure; exploration at our own pace.

Potty-Mouth Wine

Potty-Mouth Wine

I did spend a couple of days fishing, but our destinations most days were only decided the evening before and sometimes only that morning. Our internal alarm clocks — or at least mine — meant I was up by oh-dark-thirty every morning, but that left plenty of time for a full breakfast if desired.

More than anything, we wandered; around town (Twain Harte) and through hill and dale. The higher elevations were colored by fall foliage while below 2,000 feet the grass of the oak woodlands was a pale gold.

Our day-long loop through Copperopolis, Angles Camp and Columbia took us through these distinctly different habitats, past the Sierra Conservation Center (aka prison) and over the very low New Melones Reservoir. In all my years in the area, never has New Melones looked less like a lake and more like a canyon than it did last week.

A map won’t tell you that Copperopolis has something of a split personality. The “real” Copperopolis — near Reeds Turnpike — was established in the 1860s and is a bit unique in that it was founded near a copper mine, not gold. But just north, near Hwy 4, is what looks like a Hollywood set plopped down in the middle of nowhere. It reminded me of the town of Lago, in High Plains Drifter; without the red, of course.

The buildings in Copperopolis Town Square tap historical architectural design of the mid and late 1800s, with retail shops and restaurants surrounding a small park with a gazebo, landscaped fountain and flag pole. Allowing for the fact that we were visiting on a Wednesday, during the fall, it was still quite vacant. It’s clearly designed with a pedestrian focus, including park benches, stone masonry walls and faux old-fashioned gas lamp posts. It was a nice enough place for a leisurely walk, with a stop for a root beer float in an old-style ice cream parlor.

The town square is nice enough, but peeking behind the curtain — actually one block off the main street — reveals paved streets complete with sidewalks and lightposts but devoid of homes; just dirt lots. While folks there will tell you Copperopolis Town Square is a phased development, I couldn’t help but wonder if these vacant lots were remnants of the recession. After all, developer Castle & Cooke did break ground on Copperopolis Town Square in April 2006.

Our loosely outlined plan was to stop in Angels Camp and Columbia before returning to the cabin. One suggestion: Don’t visit Angels Camp on a Wednesday; it seems as if half the businesses were closed.

The drive from Angels Camp to Columbia was interrupted, however, by my sudden veering on to Red Hill Road near Vallecito. During the summer I met a young man dispensing tastes at Mammoth Brewing Co. and learned in the course of conversation that his family owned Twisted Oak Winery. He was taking a break from the wine business to learn about beer, and after I mentioned the cabin in Twain Harte, he suggested a stop at the Twisted Oak tasting room in Murphys. I didn’t know the winery was in Vallecito until I saw the sign.

It was clear this was a place where the folks didn’t take themselves too seriously; the posted speed limit on the driveway is 9 mph. One wine label says it all: “*%#&@!” (described as a potty-mouth Rhone-style red blend). It’s a friendly place, and laughter pairs well with wine, so we lingered, bought some wine then headed on down the road.

We covered about 80 miles that day, agreeing to expand the circumference of our exploration the next time we can take the time to slow down.

It became clear we were enjoying ourselves and spending our time wisely when my sister emailed to ask if we had retired and not told her.

Not yet. But it sure was nice to spend a week acting as if we have.


2 Comments

on the Rim Fire (and why it might be better find other places to fish, for now, and let nature heal, undisturbed)

It was long ago decided that this blog was to be guided by a few simple rules; that it would be family focused and friendly, devoid of rants or advice, and mostly my space to write about the misadventures of my life.

Today, however, things are bit somber.

CalFire Rim Fire Incident Report

CalFire Rim Fire Incident Report

California’s fire season is shaping up to be one of historic proportions. The Rim Fire still raging near Yosemite Valley is one of 11 major fires currently burning in our bone-dry state. Those are only “major” fires. During the last few weeks, about 150 fires were sparked by lightning strikes. CalFire figures show that through the middle of August, 4,715 separate fires have burned the state — beating by a wide margin the historical annual average since 2008 of 3,000 fires. The Rim Fire is now the largest fire in the recorded history of the Sierra Nevada and, as of today, the 5th largest wildfire in California’s history.

In this moment, all eyes are understandably on the immediate danger to lives and property. Prayers are being said for the firefighters. This is devastation on an unimaginable scale.

As a fly fisherman, I can’t help but ask questions about the long-term impact on the many streams and rivers now stripped of bankside vegetation, and the fish in their waters. The extent of ecological damage won’t be understood for a long time. The intensity of the blaze — flames reportedly reached 100 to 200 feet as they shot up canyons — left nothing behind. While the Groveland Ranger District of the Stanislaus National Forest, the area predominately affected by the Rim Fire, has gone through cycles of intense wildfires, those fires have burned only small areas. (Decades of fire suppression and logging can be blamed.) Conjecture is that the Rim Fire, however, may have denuded up to a 1,000 acres.

The northern edge of the Rim Fire crossed the Clavey River, one of the longest undammed rivers in the Sierra Nevada, a designated wild and scenic river, and home to native coastal rainbow trout. The fire burned along extended stretches of the South and Middle Fork of the Tuolumne River as well as Cherry Creek, all waters known for fishing, whether stocked or wild fish. Many other but lesser known streams, streams I’ve found wild populations of trout, also fall within the boundaries of the Rim Fire.

The Clavey River

The Clavey River

Relatively little is known about the effect of fire on fish populations. An admittedly hasty search of the Internet offers some insight. It’s clear that the effects of fire on fish populations can be complex, with dependency on the length of the event, size of the habitat, the home range of the fish, specialization of spawning habitats and the type of fish. Of course, most studies cite salmonid fishes (trout, salmon, chars, freshwater whitefishes and grayling) as the taxonomic group slowest to recover after a fire.

That said, the effect of fire on native salmonid populations can be highly variable, with extinctions observed in some isolated small headwater streams, but a quick rebound when a species’ home range extends to multiple tributaries within a single watershed.

In affected rivers, streams and lakes, fires can most notably affect water temperature and water chemistry as well as the local invertebrates, amphibians and fish. No longer shaded by trees and brush, water temperature can rise, reducing the solubility of dissolved oxygen. Absorption of ash can increase the water’s pH and impact nutrient levels in aquatic systems. Studies document five- to 60-fold increases in phosphate, nitrate, and ammonium concentrations in streams affected by fires that have swept through larger watersheds. Conditions in these waters returned to normal with a few weeks, but were later impacted by rain flushing additional ash and soil through the watershed.

It’s likely that the smallest streams will have most dramatically impacted by the fire. Though most people dance around the issue, this has been another drought year for California, and water levels are so low that any longish exposure to the fire may have “cooked” many of those small streams.

Nature, however, can be resilient; as long as we don’t get in the way. Anyone who’s visited Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument can attest to that.

A beetle native to the Sierras, which has infrared receptors allowing it to detect fire, could be first on scene to feast on the blackened trees. They, in turn, will draw birds. New growth will sprout, creating forage for small mammals and, eventually, deer and bears.

It just takes time. Though it may not look the same.

For a while, though, many Tuolumne County fisheries will probably be best left alone.


2 Comments

hiking through history

We snuck out of the Bay Area on the Thursday a week ago for long weekend, planning to cram a bit of everything into the time we had.

Railroad ties at the West Side Rail Grade trail head.

Railroad ties at the West Side Rail Grade trail head.

In a new spirit of exploring unknown parts of familiar territory, we ended up on the West Side Rail Grade the next morning. The trail — really a former narrow-gauge railbed — begins on Buchanan Road in Tuolumne City and is carved into the hillside above the North Fork Tuolumne River, on the north side of the canyon. It was christened in 1898 as the Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valley Railroad under the ownership of the West Side Lumber Co., which used narrow-gauge railroads in the Sierra Nevada Mountains until the 1960s. The HH&YV was primarily employed to haul fresh-cut logs from the sugar pine forests of eastern Tuolumne County to the West Side Lumber Mill in Tuolumne City.

The trailhead is just outside of town, and the first 100 yards are marked by decomposing railroad ties that look like worn steps. After that, most of the trail is exposed, which left us to bake in a remarkably hot morning sun. There are a couple places where benches and tables allow for a break in the shade, and a sprinkling of poison oak along the trail encourages one to stick to the well-worn path.

Though I’m not a history buff, per se, it’s a pleasant surprise to find remains of history in situ. About a mile down the trail we came across long portions of ties and rails, with the trail occasionally shifting from one side of the tracks to the other.

Rails of the Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valley Railroad.

Rails of the Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valley Railroad.

The grade slopes gently downward, at least for as far as we hiked, and it would be a great place to break in some new boots. Had we continued the full 4½-plus miles, we could have soaked our toes in the North Fork of the Tuolumne River, near Basin Creek. (I originally discovered part of the West Side Rail trail while exploring Forest Service land above Long Barn, and while fishing an upstream portion of the Tuolumne, but have since determined that was another section of the trail that stretches from Hull Creek to the Clavey River, that that’s another hike for another time.)

Hot and happy dog.

Hot and happy dog.

We met a few folks along the way: an overachiever who was jogging uphill and a few women who walk it almost every day, one of whom had made a dramatic move from the northern California coastal town of Bolinas to the much drier Sierra foothills.

With the full heat of the sun soon approaching, we left the exploration of a last blind curve for another time, and headed back. This day we had the dog with us and I don’t know if it was he or I who was panting more in the heat.

I have a feeling, though, that we’ll see more of this trail in the spring.

 

 


4 Comments

respite from curveballs

Sometimes life just throws a curveball. Two weeks ago it felt like every curveball was followed by another.

So, I abandoned the original plans to sandwich a cabin visit with the sister and family between two full days of fishing and just go with the flow.

That meant the two-and-a-half hour drive to Twain Harte stretched out to about four, interrupted by a longer than usual stop at Bass Pro.

It also took longer than usual to coax that first trout to take a fly in a nearby stream.

Back at the cabin, I whiled away some time reading and generally taking it easy.

The sister, her husband and two sons taller than most everyone pulled in about noon Friday. Soon enough we were beating the heat at Twain Harte Lake. A visit to the cabin is a mixed blessing during hot weather; the lake offers respite, complete with an old-school snack shack with burgers, fries, milkshakes and snow cones. The cabin, however, and despite a lack of insulation, seems to retain all the heat of the day well into the evening.

The nephews goaded their parents into the usual swim to a platform near the center of the lake, then a swim to “The Rock.” Then back. I admired their energy from shore, dipping my feet in the water and reading. The afternoon was completed with a visit to the snack shack.

Normally the only overexertion on my vacations entails scrambling over boulders and under downed trees in search of trouts that sometimes aren’t there. Saturday I opted for an easy, sure thing, fishing a well-stocked creek that’s often pounded by the put-and-take crowd. This day I’d be alone for well into four hours, targeting specific fish and trying to coax dry-fly takes.

I found my cabin mates finishing up the breakfast clean up when I returned about mid-morning. They planned to hit the local disc golf course, and I figured I’d lug my camera along. I’ve come to realize that I don’t have a lot of hero shots of myself during fishing, hiking, motorcycling, etc., so I’m trying to step in to take a few photos for folks when I can.

The boys pondering Luci's shot. Missed by that much.

The boys pondering Luci’s shot. Missed by that much.

This disc golf course is purely a volunteer effort that gets some financial support from the local community, and it’s nice to see younger folks join in the creation of something positive. The course winds its way through a now fallow traditional golf course, over an irrigation ditch and under a flume.

My nephew Nicholas plays Ultimate Frisbee and might be expected to be the odds-on favorite, and while Tom, his father, will deny his intense completive streak, it quickly became clear that the rest of us were there to, pretty much, watch a one-on-one match. On the fourth basket (hole) another player gave us another disc, allowing me to participate. Like the amateur I am, there was a lot of wasted effort spent on power when form was more important. I later learned that my arm isn’t as young as it used to be. There was no use keeping track of my score; I was always one stroke behind Tom or Nick. And where either of them could curve a Frisbee around an obstacle, my choice was limited to going straight through if I could or give it a very wide berth. The competition would end with Tom winning by a stroke. I believe Tom also won our game of mini golf that evening.

The afternoon was again spent on the beach, with swimming, conversation, tossing of the Frisbee and a return to the snack shack.

Proving that there’s not competiveness in their family, Tom and Nick returned to the disc golf course the morning before our departure for a grudge friendly rematch. Nick recovered some dignity with a win.

This short trip was a welcome, unscripted getaway.