This past week I took a trip to the Lost Coast to fish some of my favorite coastal water. There’s something magical about those rivers. Their color-modulating blue-green waters, old growth trees covered in moss, perfect swing runs and spell binding ocean sunsets make me long for endless days of winter. Not to mention, a dime bright winter steelhead caught mere miles from the sea is a reward all in itself.
Sadly, this trip was cut very short. As I lay dreaming of mist lingering above beryl waters and fish yet to be caught, my rig was being burglarized. Discovering that every bit of steelhead gear I owned, hip pack, dry bag, waders and all, had been plundered away in the night was heart rending. It was less about the possessions, than the sentimental value many of them held for me. Items handed down from my dad over the years, my first spey rod that Bill Lowe taught me how to cast with, all the hand-tied flies I’d spent hours carefully crafting; the sense of violation was staggering. Not to mention, as a guide, some were also tools of my livelihood.
I’ve rarely used Facebook as a platform to vent, but seeing red, I took to social media and proclaimed my fury. It had been enough for me to simply rant to the great unknown of the interweb that I was furious. Frankly, I was taken aback by the number of comments my post generated. So many friends and acquaintances in the fly fishing community reached out to me, offering to help in any way they could. Mike, the proprietor of the Eureka Fly Shop, upon hearing what happened, even helped me get a few of my items back when a nefarious character came into the shop trying to peddle a couple of my stolen reels.
What I had witnessed was a community of fly fishers rallying to a comrade in distress. On one hand, the violation of having my property stolen shook my faith in the good nature of people. However, the kind gestures of so many in our small, but tight knit community restored it. I still choose to see the glass half full and keep on smiling. I would like to thank everyone who has ever lent a hand to a fellow fisher in need. Your goodwill and generous spirit help make the sport of fly fishing truly remarkable and cathartic.
With my first camping trip of the spring/summer season, it occurred to me that steelhead season is officially over. Aside from swinging streamers from time to time, I’ve pretty much hung up the two-handed rod until steelhead season is here again. My first season wielding a spey rod was a huge success and I will be anxiously waiting to whip it out again. While the weather was fickle and didn’t always cooperate, I still got a huge amount of satisfaction being out on the water and learning how to cast a two-handed rig.
I had the immense pleasure of learning casting techniques from Bill Lowe, Travis Johnson, and Simon Gawesworth. While no where near perfect, my casting has improved by leaps and bounds since that first time I struggled to assemble that awkwardly long, 13 foot rod. I even caught that first, addictive fish on the swing.
As some of you may know, the legendary Bill Lowe recently passed away. Bill was my first spey casting instructor. That first lesson with Bill was what inspired me to keep practicing and improving. With a laid back attitude and epic sense of humor, Bill taught me more than just casting; he emphasized the joys of simply being out on the water, fishing. A lesson I will never cease to forget. Thank you Bill for being such an inspiration, you are honored in each Snap T and swing of the fly.
A trip up to Oregon to fish the Sandy with my Dad and take a class from world-record spey caster Travis Johnson was another highlight of this season. What a beautiful river! A deep emerald green and full of perfect swing runs. We didn’t catch any fish, but spending the time with my Dad and passing on my spey addiction was an experience of a lifetime. Travis was a great teacher and had may useful insights into steelhead fishing and life. I’m hoping that this will become an annual trip I can enjoy with my Dad.
Finally this spring, I closed out the spey season with Spey Day on the American river. This was an afternoon filled with testing out different Sage and Redington model spey and switch rods, demoing a wide range of RIO’s Scandi and Skagit lines, and epic tutorials by Simon Gawesworth, Bill Lowe and Mike McCune. With all this info, my brain was forming new neural paths at an alarming rate and laughter was always on the tip of my tongue. I was in some pretty legendary company, and I am grateful to be invited. I learned so much in a single day, met heroes and made new friends. The perfect way to close out the spey season. The only question I have left is, “Is it winter yet?”
Well it’s been a while, and I must say that I haven’t done nearly enough fishing in the past few months. Firstly, let me apologize for the absence; just because my fishing time has been lacking doesn’t mean I can’t entertain with written prose on all topics fly fishing. Rest assured, I am back with nose to the grindstone and I’ll be adding new content on a regular basis again. To get the ball rolling, here’s a bit of an update on what I’ve been up to.
At the beginning of the new year, my wanderlust got the best of me (again) and I decided move to the North Coast near Redwood Creek so I could be minutes away from fishing where fresh, hot, chromey steelhead are the reward. Just as I began to settle into the rustic cabin a few miles away from the coast, the Department of Fish and Wildlife made the right choice and closed many of the coastal streams due to low water levels.
While I was ecstatic that the fish wouldn’t have to deal with the stress angling can inflict with such low flows, a tiny fissure in my heart started to form. I was desperately missing the pre-dawn bustle of waders, coffee and the promise of another day on the river. I immersed myself in my other passions; surfing, hiking, yoga and running but still the fissure in my heart refused to mend. I spent many days wandering around the lush green redwoods, abandoned sea shores and steep waves immersed and awed by the breathtaking beauty, but it couldn’t replace the days spent with a rod in my hand and Marlee in tow on the river.
One morning, running along the beach it hit me. I could try my hand at surf fishing. The only downside to awesome winter surfing conditions are the big waves, epic, exhilarating and terrifying for riding; not so ideal for fishing in the surf. I was under equipped with the wrong line and half the time my fly was washed to shore with the beach break. Still, it felt amazing to be out amidst the crashing waves casting a fly rod again. Oh how I had missed the flex and load of the rod; the zing of the line speed.
As with all types of fishing, the weather doesn’t always cooperate. I often have to stop myself from wading out into waves far too big for fishing, but ocean fly fishing is still a viable escape into a world that soothes my soul and quiets my mind. With the winter swells slowly dying down for the spring, I look forward to conquering the surf not only on my board, but also with my fly rod.
Stay tuned for part two of the update; my adventures as I delve deeper into the grasps of two handed fly fishing.
In October, I moved up to Douglas City, into a place right on the river. My goal: to discover the hidden secrets of the Trinity River. I devoted many of my first days to driving along the water and discovering spots I hadn’t fished before. Just me, my rods and my dog Marlee. We hiked up and down along the river; trudging through thick brush, steep ravines and bear poop; nymphing and swinging flies.
I must admit that getting back into the rythym of steelhead fishing was a bit of an adjustment. The summer offered up such an abundance of beautiful fish; but now it was time to switch gears. Steelhead are elusive, and there will be days, even weeks were you may not catch anything. Dues well worth paying; the tug of a steelhead is the most addictive drug of all.
October drew to a close; and I must admit that towards the end of the month I was spending more time working, than on the river. Fly fishing is not a cheap habit to support.
While flashes of chrome flashed through my dreams, none had yet come to fruition at the end of my line. Already the beginning of November, I finally had an entire day off; I was ready to hit the water hard. With no rain to encourage an abundance of fresh fish up the river and no boat, my best chance to catch a steelhead was by covering lots of water and being the first out and the last in.
After making sure I was set for an early morning, I was in the mood for a beer. I decided to head down and check out the local bar a few miles down the road. The Diggins is a divey mountain bar. It was like walking into my favorite bar in Boulder Creek along the San Lorenzo River.
As I sipped a cold one, I noticed a couple of guys who had to be fly fishermen. The attire is usually a dead giveaway. Never one to miss an opportunity to talk fish, I decided to ask them how the river was fishing.
“Hey, you’re that gal gone fishin’ chick from Truckee, right?” Whoa. That’s never happened before. The fly fishing industry is such a small little world. Turns out, I ran into the Kennedy brothers; both kick-ass local guides who grew up in the Mammoth area; both experts on many northern California rivers, not to mention Alaska and parts of Russia. Not only did they clue me in on some awesome spots to check out, but they also had lots of fishing stories to tell.
With an early morning start on the river beckoning me, I thanked Kris and Greg for the fishing tips and colorful stories, then headed home. Little did I know, the next day would be one I will remember for the rest of my life.
A pre-dawn alarm, lots of warm layers of clothing and a coffee later, I waded out into the cold, rushing water. I spent the morning swinging flies on a mid-section of the river.
The result was a few little taps and four smolt, but nothing substantial. Throughout the day, as I moved from spot to spot, I intermittently switched from swinging flies on my two-handed rod and nymphing with my single-hand rod, depending on the run.
Driving to the last spot I would fish for the day, I reflected on how lucky I was to spend the whole day on the water. The towering peaks of the Trinity Alps in the distance and the warm autumn colors of the trees embraced me. I was in my element, reveling in the primitive solitude I’ve come to crave.
After a daring wade across some fast water, I reached the final stop on my day of fishing. It’s a beautiful run that just begs to be fished on the swing. I checked the fly at the end of my line, and launched a double spey cast to the other side of the river.
I luxuriated in the steady tug of my fly swinging across the current. A few steps downstream, and I made another cast, then another. My next cast, just short enough to miss being caught in some low overhanging branches, swung a few feet out into the current and then I felt it. Not the small tap of a curious smolt, but an electrifying grab, promising something bigger.
Resisting the urge to lift my rod tip and set the hook, I waited. Two seconds later, my reel exploded into action; its high-pitched scream sent a jolt of adrenaline though my body and goosebumps rose on my arms. Reality seemed to shift into slow motion. Each turn, jump and run that fish made is forever engrained in my mind.
By the end of the fight, I could hardly believe that I had done it. Swimming in my net was the first adult steelhead I had caught on the swing. Chasing that fish downstream there had been moments I was sure I would lose her. My legs were shaking from the excitement and I couldn’t stop the wild cry of victory that escaped my lips.
Never in my life has anything made me feel the way catching that fish did. It was nothing short of a life-altering experience. Better than sex, booze, riding my first wave, chocolate or any drug I’ve ever experienced.
I’d always heard the elitist hype about swinging for steelhead, but I suppose it takes catching your first fish using this method to understand the euphoria. Not to say that I’ll give up my single-handed rod and nymphing; some water is fished better that way. All I know is that there is no going back; I can never forget this feeling. I will be chasing steelhead on the swing for the entirety of my life.
OH, THE PLACES YOU’LL GO!
|You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And
you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll
decide where to go.
|You’ll get mixed up,
of course, as you already know.
You’ll get mixed up with
many strange birds as you go.
So be sure when you step.
Step with care and great
tact and remember that
Life’s A Great Balancing Act.
|And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)Dr. Seuss
As I drive back into town from my long journey, I look around at the familiar sights. There is nothing quite like a California sunset. It’s not quite dark as I drive through town, so I head down the the river across the street from my childhood home and take a walk. I notice small things that have changed since I was here over two months ago; the long grass is tall and I can run my fingers through it as I walk, the flows are lower and the water is warmer. A bit of the bank here and there has given way to erosion as well. But mostly it has stayed the same; an ever constant in my life.
I sit on the bank and just watch the river that nurtured me and taught me so much in my early days of fishing. So much was accomplished here, so many things learned. Lessons that had taken me on the journey of a lifetime. As I soak in the orange and pink sunset and then the moonlight, I reflect on the places I had been all summer, the great people I met, the time I spent flying solo and what I had learned about myself.
On my own for the majority of the trip, I enjoyed a quiet bliss that is impossible to explain, but easy to regonize in others. There were also moments that I was terrifed of the unknown and isolated by my singularity. But cliche as it sounds, the more I fished and explored, the more muted these feelings became and were replaced by a silent calmness and acceptance of living in the present.
Always a challenge for me to not dwell on the past or worry about the future; fly fishing has taught me to rule these faults and enjoy the moment of each cast and fish at the end of my line. Before I embarked on this trip, I had expected to catch tons of fish and meet wonderful people. I wouldn’t have imagined that I would be one of those people I became acquainted with among the streams and mountains.
With my return to the real world and responsibility, I have found that the calmness starts to slip away, first slowly and then in a rushing tide. My arrival back home signaled to me that it was time to start another adventure. Now it is time for me to find a new place in the world. Leaving much of my old life behind, this fall and winter I go in search of steelhead and a place where I can fish every day and even surf ocasionally; return to the wild places that sooth my spirit.
Whew! Steelhead season has come to a close on the San Lorenzo River. I sit here shaking my head and wonder how it all went by so quickly. Only 266 days until the start of next season. Trips to rivers further north are still an option, but the lack of rain has me turning my eye toward trout, mountain streams, and dry flies.
Actually, I find myself itching to cast something lighter than the streamers, attractor patterns, and eggs I’ve been throwing for the past few months. Being a small river with no room to back cast, roll casting has been the seasonal special on the San Lorenzo. It has been too long since I last threw a nice loop. And really, it has been TOO long. I recently demoed a rod at a show; holy moly, was it ugly. It seems that roll casting and hucking weighty flies all season has left me with a few bad habits. I’m pretty sure I saw my dad visibly cringe while he wondered what happen to the lovely loops he taught me to cast. Tangling the line at a casting pond in front of a bunch of people……NICE. My face was probably as red as my shirt! I’d like to say that it was equipment failure, but it was a Red Truck rod; basically perfection in the form of a fly rod. Yup, this one was 100% operator error.
While my pride took a bit of a hit from this incident, it reminded me to be mindful of my form. Its one thing to know better, and it’s another to actually do better. I’ve started frequenting the local park with my dog and rod in tow. He enjoys chasing the feather at the end of my line while I enjoy practicing my casting. Since I don’t have a river close by I can fish after work in the evenings (yet…more on this soon), this is as close as I can get to a post-work fish. It is a great way to unwind and I find it rather cathartic. As long as you don’t mind a few sidelong glances from other park goers (if I had a dollar for every time people jestingly asked what I was fishing for…), this is an excellent way to put some polish on your casting. You can even bring hula hoops for some target practice.
Over the past few weeks, I have found myself swamped at work; I’ve had to get my fishing fix by tying flies late into the evening and going through the memory reel of some of my favorite fishing trips. My most recent trip to the Trinity River is one I have been revisiting, A LOT.
It’s quite a process; initially I gaze off into the distance, my eyes begin to glaze over, and then I am transported.
It’s late fall and there is a chill in the air, the forecast for the weekend in the Trinity Alps is scattered showers with a chance of snow. With a paycheck burning a hole in my pocket and two other fishing comrades also chomping at the bit to fish away the weekend, it is decided: we will brave the cold, camp out on the river and hunt steelies. It’s already evening, but we decide to drive through the night and set up camp late, this way we can start fishing at first light. Tents, sleeping bags and other camping necessities are packed into my well-used and well-loved Subaru, (the official mode of transportation for most of my fishing adventures). A quick stop for groceries, and we begin the 4 hour drive north on interstate 5. The long drive gives us plenty of time to debate indicator or no indicator, forecast who will catch the trophy chromer, and of course talk a lot of BS and heckle each other.
2am: finally we have arrived. An almost full moon reflects off the river and casts an eerie light upon the landscape. A camp fire is built to keep away the cold while we make camp. More importantly, the rods are brought out and set up, to lie in wait for a quick start in the morning. With the sound of the river gurgling and the bright night sky, everyone is too excited to sleep. Jack Daniels decides to makes an appearance along with fish stories and friendly banter. Eventually, the laughter dies down and a quiet contemplation of the fishing to come sets in.
Dawn breaks and my eyes pop open: after a rushed cup of coffee and breakfast, the fishing begins. The four of us (Joshua, Dustin, myself, and my dog Marlee) venture up the river. The view alone is worth the drive. The fall colors are vibrant and the sun has popped out from behind the dense morning fog. The sound of the running river with the occasional spawning salmon jumping is music to my ears. As I cast away the day, I catch one steelhead, but lose him before he is landed. Despite not landing a fish, the day is far from a failure. I silently thank the river for a perfect day of fishing.
Dustin catches the fish of the day, a gorgeous steelie. Joshua hooks into a huge spawning salmon. Around the campfire, we all bear satisfied grins while reliving the days’ fishing adventures. Even Marlee grunts with contentment as he enjoys the warmth of the fire.
The next day is more of the same, a perfect day of fishing. As the sun begins to set behind the tree-covered mountains, the time has come to say good bye to the Trinity river. I make a promise to myself that I will come back here again; as if I could possibly keep myself away.
Meanwhile in the real world…… “Leslie? Earth to Leslie….?!” Oh right. I am jolted back to reality from “mind fishing.” Sigh. The post-it notes on my desk are calling my name. I’m beyond tempted to leave a note and play hookie the rest of the day.
This past Wednesday I had the opportunity to fish the San Lorenzo River for the first time. The SLR is a smaller coastal river that until recent years was not very productive to fish. Like many of our coastal rivers, the San Lorenzo’s Steelhead and Coho Salmon population fell victim to threats such as pollution, over-damming, and over fishing. In 1960 there was a population of over 30,000 fish in the river; however by 1970 there were only 1,000 fish remaining. In an effort to rehabilitate the once popular fishery, the California Department of Fish and Game designated the river catch-and-release only in 1984. They also limited fishing access from December 1st through March 7th, and only on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Clearly, the action taken by DFG is working; the rivers’ fish population appears to be making a successful recovery. Two friends of mine are locals and have been fishing the river for the past four seasons. They tell me that the fishing has improved immensely since they started fishing it, four years ago. Although I don’t have previous years to compare to, I’m apt to agree. The fishing was ample and the river was stunning.
In the morning my local San Lorenzo guru, Joshua, and I fished “the gorge,” which is part of the lower section of the river between Santa Cruz and Felton. This section of the river is set in a steep canyon, full of looming redwoods and giant boulders. It is by far the most dazzling section of this river. It’s a steep hike down (never an easy feat in waders), so I was surprised at the number of fishermen we encountered on this section of the river. While we didn’t have any luck during the morning, a few bait fishermen we met along the way had landed a handful of moderate-sized steelies.
As afternoon rolled around, we moved further upstream to a section of the river near Ben Lomond. I had been nymphing using a glo-bug egg pattern in the morning, so with the change of location I also decided to switch flies. I tied on a teal and black streamer; made a roll cast out to the center of a deep pool; and intermittently stripped my line in. Success, fish on! Changing my tactics had payed off. It was along this stretch that I caught two coastal rainbow trout. The first was a 16 inch trout that was well on its way to becoming a gorgeous steelhead. The second was a tiny trout about 8 inches in size. While not giant chromers, these fish put up a great fight for their size, and landing them made me grin like a mad woman.
As the season progresses I’m sure the fishing will become even more productive as the area gets more rain. I’m looking forward to many more trips, and a ton more fish. I forgot my camera on this trip so please excuse the lack of photos, but not to worry, I will be making almost weekly trips here; there will be photos and fish tales galore.