Reflections and Fly Fishing

Goodrich Creek on the 101 Ranch

Summer 2011

It was just before dawn in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and it was time to take the ride into town to meet up with a fishing guide for the day trip.  I have peaked an interest in Fly Fishing as the dust settles from my mid-life crisis (I’m 46).  I have always been drawn to the outdoors and especially the mountains and my path in life has left me to play that out for the years to come.  I rounded a corner on HWY 36 heading towards the town of Chester where the little fly shop is located and standing before me is the snow-capped Mt. Lassen.  As the sun rises behind me the mountain begins to glow with the town nesting below.  Mt. Lassen is one of the least visited National Parks of the United States yet offers some of the most diverse and beautiful settings in the world.  The Lake Almanor basin seems to almost be a secret living in the shadows of other more prominent areas such as Lake Tahoe, Montana, Wyoming and other recognized fisheries. 

 The bells ring attached to the door as I plow through.   I’m greeted by my guide Nick, a retired teacher from the Chico area, veteran fly fisherman and guide.  At age 64 Nick quickly teaches me a few things.  First he is in much better shape than I am and second you can see the excitement in his eyes and the smile on his face.   The adventure we are about to embark on changes a man. We pull together the sack lunch a few random beers and head back the way I came from.  We head east towards the town of Westwood, a small lumber mill town minus the actual mill.  Originally established by the Minnesota Red River Lumber Company in the early 1900’s the mill left over 60 years ago leaving behind a quaint small town in need.  We wiz by Westwood and the road quickly opens up to a meadow to both sides of the road.  I have driven this road many times always looking at the surroundings and wonder what’s behind that fence, what’s the story behind that old barn and why aren’t these farms and ranches prospering or maybe they are.  Once I round the next turn my thoughts dissolve and I think about what is in the future.  The first sign that I was about to experience something special is we didn’t round that next corner.  Nick pulled off the road by crossing the oncoming lane and parked in front of gate, a gate that has probably been there fifty years maybe a hundred.  He walked up to the gate, grabbed the rusty old chain, dialed in the code and threw the gates open.  We drove the truck through the metal gate surrounded by log posts headed off with a large beam above us and stopped.  Nick popped back out of the truck like an eighteen year old kid, slammed the gate shut and locked it back up. 

We then entered a new world, a world synonymous with one that you have likely driven by hundreds of times in your travels and never thought twice about it.  I felt the smile on my face begin to take shape.  This is a smile that feels genuine, and I re-learn happiness as we bounce along the dirt road.  The road we are on meanders through a cattle ranch down in a valley meadow with hills to the left right and far ahead of us where the stream must originate from.  I have yet to see the stream but only cattle, fences and tall grasses.  I often ponder the origination of streams and rivers.  How do they begin and what that must look like.  Someday I will study this and help to preserve these systems.  After about the third gate we have to pass through I get a glimpse of the stream up against the left hills populated with pines.  I now see it.  Out of what seemed nowhere a wide meandering stream surrounded by tall grasses working its way through the center of the meadow.  One could pass by the gate studded with logs for a lifetime and never realize the beauty that lies behind them.  I now know the calling to the mountains is to balance an ever more complicated world.  One realizes that this stream has been flowing for hundreds of years maybe thousands.  It’s part of life that doesn’t change then I quickly recall many of these settings that have changed, for the worse by human intervention.  It sparks and burns a mark in my mind.  This experience is what Thoreau speaks about and later Edward Abbey is so passionate about.  The human being needs the outdoors, wilderness in order to survive.  Technology cannot create this and thus I begin to realize the dirt I’m standing on is the pillar we all need. 

Nick pulls up to a small dirt lot the size of two trucks and we pile out of the truck and just stand there gazing at the river not more than twenty feet in front of us.  With the truck engine now silent and out of the cab I realize we are the only ones as far as I can see.  With the gear still at the truck we approach the stream.  I notice Nick is walking very softly through the knee high grass and almost in a hunched position.  I wonder why.  As we come along side of the stream we stop and look in to the stream.  It seems shallow but wide, grasses everywhere you look even into the stream itself.  There is no rock or sand beaches along the stream but only grass all along the edges as far as you can see.  The trout love this.  Its right out of pictures I have seen fishing Montana yet I’m minutes from my summer house in the Sierra Nevada’s of California.  We pause deep in the grass, now up to my belt and pan the stream.  Nick quickly points out the first fish of the day, then another and then another.  I see them!  I study them.  I learn how to read the stream for fish, the shadows, and disturbances in the water, the rises and their behavior.  I also quickly realize why Nick approached the stream like a cat ready to pounce on its prey.  We were hunting.  I never equated fishing with hunting.  It adds another dimension to the experience.  It provides a vehicle to understanding the fish, streams, nature and the surroundings.  The dynamics of a stream teach.  I also realize that my clumsy approach spooks the fish.  They see you!  I was raised fishing; even fly fishing as a young boy.  My father taught me and we fished quite a bit up till my adolescent years then life happened and I became programmed to fit societal demands.  For the rest of my life I will unwind this and play catch up to finding that balance. 

A few quotes from Thoreau keep me in tune.  “I found that by working six weeks a year I could meet all the expenses of living”…”I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion”…and “We should go forth on the shortest walk…in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return”.  I feel fortunate that my childhood involved many cross country trips in a small RV with my family, exposing me to the outdoors and fishing.  An experience like this reminds me of yesterday and how that portion of my past has remained unlike many other experiences.  It suggests to me that experiences as a youngster shape a person and later a person attempts to shape themselves to society…a society for the most part has nothing to offer.  Awareness is a strong armory and the easiest accomplishment is just that.  It’s still early morning and the fish are not active.  This leaves us time to flop down the tailgate and pull our rods and equipment together.  Every time I pull my fly rod and reel out it reminds me of one of the most compulsive and inspirational experiences of my mid-life.

In the late spring of 2009 I headed home from our summer home in Lake Almanor, CA and had a profound thought.  Instead of turning right on the normal path I decided to turn left.  Left took me East instead of West.  East towards Jackson Hole Wyoming.  I think about 600 miles.  I did two things.  First I called my wife Sue to let her know and she was supportive and said do it.  Second I programmed my GPS in my Chevy Avalanche to a Fly Shop in the town of Jackson and proceeded to arrive there in two days.  Stopping at a dive motel half-way there I moved on North through Idaho and into Wyoming.  With a bee line to the shop I arrived, walked in, saw the first kid and said “it’s probably been 30 years since I Fly Fished set me up”.  He took me through the steps and I walked out with a Sage Rod, Lamson Guru Real and a handful of flies.  There is much to this story for another time.  I am reminded every time I pull my gear out that First; I was raised experiencing the outdoors and recalled our visit to Jackson Hole, The Tetons and Yellowstone as a child and Second: My re-visit and experience which will always be recalled by my gear.  I now know why a man’s gear is special.

We pulled our gear together and approached the stream.  As a meadow stream it was quite sloshy near the waters edge.  In fact I spent the entire day knee high in mucky waters with grass constantly smacking my calves.  I think to myself, only once, what a pain and from then on for the next 10 hours never thought about it again.  The next day my legs were raw from the constant grasses against my skin.  This too is a lesson in that my consciousness was somewhere else during the day.  We select a spot and Nick begins to observe my casting. I feel confident in my casting and it comes back fast from what my dad taught me.  The stream originates out of the North and flows south east towards a reservoir called Mountain Meadows.  We begin on the West side of the stream so I am facing East with the water flowing from my left to right.  The flies we use are all provided by Nick and I’m not sure exactly their names but we begin with dry flies and a floating line.  I first re-learn a few important lessons.  Don’t begin casting across the river rather begin along the bank and slowly work your way towards the center and across, never let your line travel in front of your fly which evoked a lesson in mending, let the fly dead drift rather than cause tension or disturbances of the fly.  I begin to see the fish in the stream.  It’s interesting because at first arrival I could not really see much in the stream but as I became more aware and focused it seemed to come alive.  I begin to see the fish, watch their behavior and modify mine in order to be in the best position for catching them. The awareness is a lesson in of itself.  The realization of the focus I was able to maintain for most of the day triggers something.  It’s where I belong; it’s where I am my real self. 

The fish elude us even Nick appears to be just a bit discouraged.  After about two hours of dancing with the fish we decided to change our approach.  Nick decides we add a dropper to our fly.  This is small fly called a nymph that has a small weight to it and hangs below the dry fly we are using.  This allows the insect to get deeper into the water and possibly in front of the fish.  I learn that this tactic resembles an emerging insect from the stream bed to the surface.  I must admit I didn’t think insects did that.  The dry fly still attached acts as a bobber or as fly fisherman calls it an indicator.  Should that indicator dip down below the surface I’m instructed to pull up on my rod and set the hook.  I see that my indicator does in fact drop below the surface many times but to no fish on the other end.  It’s learning the technique and listing to your intuition that makes the difference.  We continue to persevere with the nymph style fishing.  I see the fish swimming up and down stream right in front of me now, I learn to read the shadows on the bottom of the stream which indicates a fish directly above it, and as I work on my casting I begin to see small rises, fish beginning to reach the surface.  It’s near lunch time and I sense a change in the activity of the fish.  As I practice my mending (keeping my line behind the fly as it travels downstream) this by the way is not easy.  A trout can take a fly with so many different behaviors just learning these can make the learning curve steep.  But sure enough this trout made no fuss.  It struck my nymph hard and I immediately pulled up on the rod and hooked my first decent size trout since my child hood.  Many instincts kicked in and proceeded to fight the trout then let him do his thing.  In looking at the fish through the water I’m amazed at the strength of the fight, the determination, and the amount of time it took me to bring it in.  Nick is there by my side, net in hand; practically waste high in the water and a huge smile.  I shift gears and then begin to navigate the fish into the net.  Nick scoops up the fish and now for sure I have caught a fish.  I now realize why the fish fought so hard and I learn a valuable lesson.  Fish appear smaller in the water.  While lying on its side the girth is amazing.  Clearly these trout are fattening up for the winter.  Nick eloquently removes the hook and grasps the fish like it’s his friend.  I think I even heard him talking to the fish.  The bounce in his step and the excitement in his voice resonated with me.  He estimates the size of the fish between 5 and 6 lbs. uses the term “Pig” and begins the release procedure.  I just watch and learn. I’m hooked. 

Its lunch time now and we begin the walk back to the truck for a quick sandwich and re-group for the next stage of fishing.  As we are walking back through the grass making our own trail Nick is quick to point out the grasshoppers shooting off to the left and right as we blaze our own trail.  He said “After lunch we will give hoppers a shot”.  We take a short break cram down a sandwich as we watch the spring feed stream flow by.  I learn that Nick is a retired teacher out of the Chico area which sits below the mountains in the California central valley.  He now resides full time on Lake Almanor and has fished and guided all throughout the West.  It’s clear we are on a mission so we pack up what’s left of our lunch hop in the truck and travel further up stream to give another spot on the stream a shot.  We travel on a dirt road within the fences of this private ranch.  A ranch that has been in operation hundreds of years.  This adds to the experience.  With the world in such disarray I feel the sense of security.  I think again to myself I hope these ranchers are doing ok.  We pass by an A-Frame style cabin and learn from Nick that one can rent the cabin right on the river.  No power. 

Out we pop from the truck rods in hand and begin the approach to the stream.  I immediately notice my approach is different.  I can see the whole picture now.  I remain aware and know that this is the beginning of establishing experience.  I have a long way to go but in an environment like this I will learn fast.  As I approach the waters edge I instantly realize the stream is different.  I’m not quite sure why for the first few seconds but then quickly catch on.  The sun now has passed high noon and begins to inch it’s away across the skyline towards where this secret stream originates.  The afternoon has arrived and the fish are getting hungry.  The bugs also have come from nowhere and perform a show.  The variety of insects is amazing.  Their roles so diverse and specific.  Learning the behavior of these insects, identifying, and emulating them adds to the, now, long list of things to learn.   We select an area of the river that has few sharp “S” turns like you see in the fishing magazines.  I see a few fish rising to the surface but nothing dramatic. 

I am now enamored with the stream and am prepared to conquer everything I need to know in one day. I’m so focused I lose my guide.  Turns out Nick is behind me bending down in the grass.  I thought to myself “Now what is he doing, listening to the grass?” I’ll never learn it all in one day.  Nick pops up out of the grass with a closed fist, approaches the stream and throws something in the water.  I watch it flow downstream.  Suddenly, POW, what seemed like a boulder dropped into the stream from the sky and the object was gone.  I am bewildered and look towards Nick.  “Hoppers will be the fly of choice for the afternoon” he says and then giggles like a kid.  Nick sets me up with the proper fly that be believes resembles the one he just threw into the water and I proceed with my casting. 

It’s into the afternoon now and the fish certainly have shifted gears.  I see fish rising frequently as they inhale their afternoon lunch of insects.  The stream has become clearer to me and I can see the trout racing up and down stream and resting along the bottom waiting for their next meal.  I am intrigued that I can observe the entire feasting process from the bottom of the crystal clear stream to the insect flopping around on the surface to the inevitable splash of the trout slurping up its meal.  My casting get’s stronger and my mending improves.  It’s now just me and the stream and I begin to feel a rhythm. I march up stream in the knee high muck of the grassy bank but this time twenty feet away from the bank so as not to spook the fish.  I see some rises ahead, loop around the area and land up-stream of the family of fish.  I peer into the stream and see them.  It seems that they are still but in fact are swimming against the current in one spot.  Waiting for their prey to come to them.  Trout are known to be lazy.  I begin my casting at about one-o’clock, mend, mend and let the hopper dead drift directly into their path.  I see my hopper pass directly above a trout but no taker.  I strip my line in and try again.  I see the fish working a wide portion of the stream and am determined to flow right into their path once again.  This time my cast feels perfect. I mend in the air a split second before the hopper softly lands on top of the water.  I mend again and the hopper takes front and center into the gauntlet of fish.  I can still see them under the surface.  They spot my hopper, circle once then disappear.  I feed a bit more line to complete the drift and a second trout drops to the bottom, takes a sharp turn and launches towards my fly.  The anticipation becomes a big part of the enjoyment.  A large circle of water appears where my fly once was and I jerk my rod to set the hook.  My fly proceeds to launch directly towards my face, I duck and it continues past me and into the grassy bank behind me.  I look back, look to the stream and then glance over to Nick as he marches my direction.  Ten minutes later the knots are out of my line, leader and tippet and all bodily parts are accounted for.  Nick passes on some valuable information.  First, when setting the hook lift your rod straight up and not back.  Second, it’s a soft approach not a violent snapping of the rod back.  The idea is to hook them in the top of their mouth not to rip their lips off.  This is a catch and release stream and fish with no lips tend not to do very well.  I sense a nick name coming on such as Lip Ripper Willy and hope I am the only one thinking that.  There is no better way to learn a lesson than to be that close to catching a trout fly fishing.  I re-group and look towards the stream. 

The sun has worked it’s way west and now shines behind me as I face south-east working a part of the stream.  This means I can no longer see directly into the water.  I quickly learn that I must depend on observing the activity on the surface.  With it now late afternoon the fish continue to feed before night fall and they aren’t shy about eating.  The rises are stronger, more frequent and even with some splashes.  I work a new hopper because the prior one clearly was gnawed on by my previous attempt.  As the stream flows down it splits into a fork where I would say seventy percent of the water travels down the right fork and the remaining meanders through a smaller fork to the left.   The water in the left fork almost seems still and the natural tendency is to work the water to the right but then I see it.  The insects are comfortable in the slower water, bouncing along like a choreographed display.  I am still upstream of the natural fork as I work a nice run along the bank where the fish love to rest under the grass.  I am fixated on the next spot downstream and notice a rise into the left fork.  I see rises up and down the stream now but I become fascinated with this one area.  Again a circle of water appears about six inches from the last and again.  I realize this is the same fish working this small area for it’s evening meal.  I reel in my line and begin the slow stealth approach to my last spot of the evening.  This element of stalking, of hunting, a fish is new to me and a whole new dimension to fishing…fly fishing.  I look east back upstream as inch along downstream and am embraced by the sun peeking above the mountains of the Sierra Nevada making it’s last appearance before the day comes to an end. 

The mountains appear to be black and the sky a bluish purple tone.  The contrast between land and sky is crisp and clear.  In the foreground a silhouette of a lone fly fisherman.  The sun only captures and reflects off the sweeping fly line as it whips back and forth and on the insects bouncing along the water.  The rest is black and blue-purple.  It’s Nick.  I just met Nick a few hours before but I know this is a silhouette of a man whom continues to follow his passion a passion that came to him as a youth.  One of the few lucky ones that discovered a vehicle to commune with nature, to respect the outdoors and with a smile on his face share it with the rest of us.  I share the mission and enjoy being a pupil again. 

I pan the horizon and lock on to “The Spot”.  I am now rested upstream and across the river of the fork.  I pause and watch as this same fish proceeds to thumb his nose at me by putting on display of rising, rolling and jumping, all within an eight foot diameter.  I’m locked on and begin my casting.  I shoot across the river at about one o’clock so I can let my hopper dead drift right into the path of the target.  I hit it the first time and roll right over the spot.  Nothing.  I cast again and this time forget to mend.  The odd current at the split drags the big bend in my line first through the spot.  I now think I have spooked the fish out of the spot it has been putting a show on for me.  I stop, re-group and pause to watch my target spot.  Fish rise up and down the stream but I am conscious of what I am doing and remain focused on this spot.  Nothing.  The fish is gone.  I decide not to give up.  I think to myself he is still there just hanging on the bottom as I observed earlier in the day.  I cast and cast until I feel confident my presentation is adequate.  I look back and see Nick wrapping up his gear and making the descent towards my position.  Shoot, it’s time to go.  I swing back to my mission and cast.  This time I hit a bit up-stream and let the hopper drift directly towards the point and then flow into the right fork.  Nothing.  Nick is close now.  I inch downstream a few feet and cast again.  This time it feels right.  Understanding Intuition becomes another lesson in fly fishing, in communing with the outdoors.  The line is mended perfectly, the first thing to hit the fork to the left is the hopper, it flows right past the original target but then the current causes the hopper to pause and take the path to the right fork.  It makes the sharp right turn and then I see it.  About ten feet to the right of my hopper a break in the water emerges, not a rise or a jump but a distinctive line against the glassy surface of the stream.  I realize the line in the water is getting longer and headed towards my hopper.  My heart begins to race and I feed more line to help the drift.  I am still not sure what is happening but that quickly changes.  About five feet from my bug a dorsal fin appears.  I am amazed that I can actually see it approaching my line.  The trout is riding the top of the stream in a direct path of my fly.  My heart has now stopped along with my breathing.  The trout plows right into my fly, inhales the food and twists his head.  I can’t believe I can actually see the details.  I prefer to catch the entire fish instead of just the lips so I lift my rod up firmly and set the hook into a fish that I had been stalking for a half hour.  The fight is on.  My nine foot #5 Sage Rod is high in the air while I hold the drag on the reel.  The trout proceeds to work downstream stripping my line down to the backing and I have to walk downstream to keep up with him.  Slowly I work the fish up and down stream with the intermittent screech of the reel as he races off. 

It’s hard to explain the feeling of catch and release fly fishing in such a setting.  One almost feels like you are on the same side as the fish.  It’s a dance, an opportunity, an opportunity for the fish to teach us a lesson, for man to converge with nature.  I realize legitimate sportsmen and women are conservationists.  They understand much more than one would think about the outdoors and wildlife.  The smile is now tattooed on my face forever. Nick comes along side of me and gently directs the fish towards his net.  He scoops the fish up with ease and it comes to a rest in the grass.  We admire the fish and the unique spots that cover the entire body instead of just the upper section.  Nick asks if I would like to release him and I accept.  Were done for the day and wrap up our gear and make the trek back to the truck.  Out come the lawn chairs to relax and remove our boots and down a few beers.  I plunk my butt into the chair lean back and what is in front of me couldn’t be a better way to end a day of fishing.  The sun has set but the sky remains aglow with many shades of blue and purple, the mountains are a black silhouette with a single jagged line of pine trees intersecting with the purple sky.  An outline of the stream meanders through the grass towards us as the purple rises of the fish continues to reflect off the surface.  I’m tempted to give a few more casts another shot but know that it’s best for another day. I realize that  fishing is just a channel to bigger things.

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