Friday, January 30, 2009

Mining for Silver in the Golden State

NOTE: The following story is pure fiction; any similarity to anyone, living or dead, is purely coincidental -- FBW

I swear, I had no idea who Sparse Grey Hackle was when I choose the nom de rock FishBreaksWater way back in 1988. Seriously. Only recently have I realized that the two names share a phonetic similarity; not to worry – I’m positive that my stories will never be mistaken for that guy.

Over the last glorious year, fly fishing, for me, has evolved from a simple mandate of catching trout, into an entirely new pursuit: the “mastering“ of a particular stream (as if such a lofty notion were possible). Here in Los Angeles – my City of Angles – lies an urban anomaly: the Hollywood River (note: the name of the river has been changed to protect the innocent trout). Spray-painted, garbage-strewn, modified and straightened into neat concrete channels, this once-mighty seasonal river is less than a shadow of its former self. No longer do sea-run rainbow trout crowd its deep runs by the thousands; never again will hapless bait anglers catch hundreds of fat, wild trout out of a single pool, posing, mindlessly, with their absurd stringers of death totems. Those days, for better or worse, are long gone.

Or are they?

Several years ago – back in the dark ages when I was still a dyed-in-the-wool spin-fisherman – my buddy “B” and I fished Hollywood River for our very first time. We had heard one or two second-hand stories involving incredible, unlikely trout coming out of this stream, enough to pique our interest to pay the place an early morning visit. We were not disappointed. On that fine December morning, I was lucky enough to catch the first trout: an eleven-inch purple-tinged ‘bow that foolishly fell for a mini-Rapala (with two of the three treble hooks bent back, mind you), and which fought with a ferociousness I’ve yet to forget. Unfortunately, as we all know, one of the pitfalls of spin fishing is the often irreparable damage caused to the fish, and this incident was no exception. I kept the fish for the freezer, carefully packing it into a plastic bag, then into my daypack cooler; “B” soon thereafter caught and released an incredible sixteen-inch gunmetal-blue wild ‘bow out of the same large pool, and we both realized, at that moment, that we were onto something wonderful.

We were so happy, we fell to the gravel bar, weeping, in each other’s arms.

We both felt that, in all likelihood, these were wild fish – the condition of the fins (pristine), the overall coloration (generally steel-silver and purple-blue), and, most importantly, the sheer size and strength, had us both questioning their genetic origins. They most certainly looked nothing like stocked trout -- except for their size.

Largely through “B”’s involvement with CalTrout and the Department of Fish and Game, our experience on the Hollywood River managed to intrigue a local biologist (and fly fisherman), so much so that a fin clipping was requested for genetic testing purposes. I supplied the tissue samples from the specimen I had kept that fine December morning, and, three long years later, the results finally came in:

Based on a single sample, our research suggests that the fish is more closely related to Arroyo Grande O. mykiss than to hatchery O. mykiss. However, the geneticist cautioned that they would need a much larger sample to make a definitive statement of parentage.

So there you have it – the fish appear to have wild origins (again, more samples will be necessary), and may have evolved from a remnant steelhead population left stranded by the development and subsequent industrialization of the Los Angeles basin decades ago.

Could it be that these fish are – impossibly! -- true natives?

I could be full of shit, too; I don’t even know what an Arroyo Grande O. mykiss is.

In spite of this interesting aside, this stream has fascinated me in a way that few others have. This year alone, I have made close to thirty visits (twenty-eight, actually, but who’s counting?), and not once have conditions been even remotely similar. I’ve had great days, so-so days, and several outright humiliations. The place refuses to reveal the unknown answer to an increasingly complex equation, and I remain blissfully obsessed with cracking the code, come high hell or water.

A recent weekend morning found me awakening at the somewhat reasonable fisherman’s hour of 5:00AM; I was on the road by 5:10AM and at the trailhead parking lot by 6:00AM, having moved at a highly efficient pace on the all-but-empty freeways.

The weather was mild and balmy, with wisps of morning mist curling around the hilltops, lending a Chinese woodblock painting feel to the proceedings. I followed a young coyote for a few yards up the trail as she furtively glanced back at me from time to time, eventually disappearing into a maze of chaparral. The stream was flowing at a good pace and appeared to have been stable for at least a few days; I’ve learned that water-level stability can play a major role in the placement of the fish within this drainage, so this was a good sign.

Down I hiked until I reached one of the more funky – and finicky -- pools I’ve grown fond of. I’ve previously written about a morning spent on this pool when something giant took my nymph, made two powerful, slow-motion head-shakes, then snapped my 3X leader like a spider’s web. That memory alone keeps me returning to the scene, hoping to get a second chance at personal redemption.

Long story short and high hopes notwithstanding, I had a tough morning. I tried stripping some weighted cone-head muddlers; I tried what has been by far my most effective pattern this year, the bead-head Prince nymph; I dead-drifted woolly buggers and lifted various nymphs, to no avail. I believe I was the recipient of one solitary strike – and it was probably a rock, at that. I put in a solid two hours or so, both at the pool and over a quarter-mile stretch upstream, then reluctantly decided to call it an early day. It was all of nine o’clock: plenty of time to get home, shower, and futz around in the backyard for the afternoon.

As I walked back to the trailhead, the sun broke over the eastern ridge and began to flood the valley in light. The river transformed itself from shadow to sunshine, and insects began to hum, followed by the incessant chatter of birds. As I rounded a bend, the light splashing brilliantly off of a long ribbon of whitewater caught my eye, and I made a spontaneous decision to postpone my return home and pay a little more attention to the needs of the stream.

Slipping and sliding down the twenty foot embankment, making my way through light brush, working my way toward the white noise, I headed for the water. For the first time this day, I found myself wet wading, carefully stepping my way across two smaller channels to reach what is easily the most productive pool on the stream (extreme credit goes to the one, the only “B” for initially scouting this location and sharing its secrets with me). As I reached the pool and rigged up, I decided to try a classic pheasant tail nymph, size #16, with a little weight above, suspended beneath a puff of indicator yarn, thrown out into the wild currents and left to drift.

It was about this time that the sun crested the ridge above this particular pool, and the light illuminated the water’s surface within a matter of moments, while I endlessly drifted my offering in the frothy broth. Again and again, I cast the line into the whitewater, letting it drift down the torrent for twenty feet or so, then gently lifting at the end of the drift, repeating the cycle of motion yet again. Suddenly, I had an unmistakable strike; then, the realization that I have a fish on my line. SPLASH! The fish went aerial on me, throwing silver sparks in the air and at my feet. Damn, it felt good having a fish on my line once again! After another jump followed by a seriously deep dive, I worked the “coins of morning’s cash about” and eventually found a fifteen-inch gift gracing my net.

From that point on – when the sunlight hit the water – until about an hour later, the place was on fire. I soon hooked into another fine fish, which jumped no less than four times before shaking me loose. Not long thereafter, I found myself wrestling another shining ‘bow into my net.

At this point, I hooked into a rather large fish; the thing hit my nymph like an atom bomb and immediately became airborne; I caught a nice, long look at this silver slab, hanging in mid-air as it was, and, in hindsight, can safely say it was one of the bigger fish I’ve encountered here on the home waters. It then took a furious, deep dive, which caught me totally off-guard, and -- like THAT -- my nymph popped from the fish’s mouth and I was left standing there, limp-lined and grinning. There, on the shank of the PT nymph’s hook, was one solitary scale, about as big around as a dried pea -- my little memento of a love gone horribly wrong.

After that, the action slowed down – a little. I decided to give the pheasant tail a rest, and tied on one of the weighted cone-head muddlers, just for grins. I made a handful of quick strip retrieves, and, on the last one, landed the smallest fish I have ever caught here, a six inch smallmouth bass, of all things. The thing took the muddler literally inches from my feet. I neglected to take a picture of this odd little fish, but, you know, I was after other things. Rainbow-colored things.

Things continued to slow down for another fifteen minutes or so until I hooked into the “catch of the day” on one of the mellowest strike-sets I’ve ever experienced. At the end of a nice, long drift, I was oh-so-slowly lifting my nymph when, as if by magic, my line transformed from a motionless object into something alive and kicking. It was the slowest take ever, I swear; it seemed to take minutes before I could feel the fish solidly on my hook. From that point on, another fine battle ensued as the trout took me into and out of the whitewater, made several manic, deep dives, and even threw in two jumps for the unbelievably low price of one. On at least three occasions, my reel sang the “I’ve got a nice fish on” song as the trout took as much line as it needed at that moment. I was feeling serene, satisfied, and relaxed as I cautiously, persistently played this most exquisite fighter, eventually bringing a sixteen-and-a-half-inch-and-then-some rainbow trout into my waiting net.

Immediately following a cursory mug shot (for posterity, mind you), the fish managed a major power burst and slipped my net like a seasoned con, leaving me holding the keys to the handcuffs.

All told, I had landed three fine trout, lost two more to thrown hooks, and missed a handful of strikes – all on the same PT nymph (the only one in my fly box, gasp!), and all within this seeming one-hour window of opportunity. Throw in the smallmouth bass, plus the fact that the bite was definitely tailing off, and I felt I had earned the right to call it a day.

It was a wonderful return to the Hollywood River, my home waters, a place that I have grown to love above all others. Long may she flow...