Friday, March 13, 2009

Return Engagement

Round about twelve, fourteen years ago, I backpacked into quite a few local canyons, sometimes ultra-light spin-fishing, other times bringing no gear at all, content to merely observe the resident trout, and to splash about in sunshine and solitude.

In one particularly delightful sylvan sanctuary I once saw the one of the biggest local trout I had ever seen. I remember it like it was yesterday...

It was a late April Saturday morning, and our beloved San Gabriels were alive with wildflowers, honey bees, deer, rattlesnakes, coyote, bobcats, birds, and countless other living, wild creatures. A warm spring breeze greeted me at the trailhead, like the breath of the mountain herself. Heaven.

Having hiked down, down, DOWN into the canyon very early that morning – by dawn’s first golden light – I had quickly established a stealth camp and replenished my energy reserves, wolfing down trail mix and granola bars, enjoying the sweet filtered stream water (flowing nicely – NICELY! -- with her springtime bounty).

With a day’s worth of exploring ahead of me, and no fishing gear along for this particular trip, I intended to enjoy a leisurely morning safe within the cool confines of the creek, splashing around in shallow pools and walking among riffles and runs – often doubled-over to avoid overhanging branches and streamside growth.

Hoping to spot trout.

I’ll never forget the pool. You know the one. There’s a small tributary on the east – EAST, I tell you – side of the main stream, a feisty little thing full of froth and fury, which feeds a veritable swimming pool, a sparkling, oxygen-clear reservoir that shimmers like a mirage under the spring-green alders. A true pool, an emerald gem, a prime lie.

Trout habitat.

As I approached the pool from upstream, I saw it: an alarmingly large black torpedo which quickly dashed -- frankly, the words “quickly dashed” do not do justice to the speed with which that trout moved -- from the base of the pool, immediately taking cover under a flat, circular boulder that sat at the upper edge of the pool, directly next to the two-foot inlet waterfall that churned the cold waters into ice-blue fury.

I was astounded. “That was a big fish”, I told myself, somewhat understating the situation.

Sometimes having no wrist watch, no schedule to adhere to, can be a good thing. I made myself comfortable on the flat circular rock and decided to out-wait the fish. I figured I could do worse things on a Saturday morning than relaxing on a nice smooth boulder alongside a beautiful stream with a large wild trout lying virtually under my feet, sight unseen.

The brook continued to babble watery nonsense; I continued to listen.

The thing with having no timepiece is, sometimes you lose track of the hours. One could conceivably doze off, perhaps for so long that one might miss seeing the fish as it leaves the safety of the lair and resumes feeding in the shallow outlet, eventually disappearing under an embankment before you arise. Or, on the other hand (hand, as in hands on a clock, as in the passage of time), one might lose track of the actual time spent waiting for the trout to appear, so much so that one begins to have doubts as to the fish’s very existence.

Either way, you eventually leave the pool for other sparkling passages, for other fish to fry (so to speak), but you never, ever forget that dark torpedo; your brain never, ever forgets the adrenaline rush that accompanies such a sighting.

You never forget these things.

I was young and full of energy then, full of enthusiasm for my local wilderness and my secret trout populations. And, with the torpedo very much in mind, I found myself back at the pool – you know the one – the following weekend, the first weekend of

May: the month of possibilities. The month that can’t quite let April go, but isn’t quite ready for June just yet.

Tiny blue wildflowers – I called them San Gabriel Blues, but they have a more common name which I can’t recall at the moment – decorated the trail where last week there were none. Transition in progress. Shaggy red cedars provided welcome shade from the brash spring sun. Water called to me as I wound my way down the switchbacking trail and into the riparian canyon below.

Same stealth campsite, same routine: rest, relax, refresh.

The eastside – EAST, I tell you -- feeder stream was a little smaller, a little less feisty, this weekend. Spring travels fast in these arid landscapes. But the pool was still there, shimmering like a diamond a few dozen yards below me, as I stood, observing, as yet unseen by the torpedo feeding in the shallows.

Forgive me, my fellow fly fishermen, for I have, in a past life, donned the spinning rod and bail-style reel overflowing with two-pound test line, languidly tossing the smallest lures money could buy -- barbs crimped and trebles snipped -- side-arm style, aiming the dazzling engagement rings under willows, into alder thickets, behind boulders, hoping to attract trout.

Such were my intentions this fine May morning. Forgive me, my brothers and sisters.

Okay, there’s a big rock at the head of the pool. If I’m quiet and stay low, I can walk right along the west bank of the stream, and the big rock will shield me from the torpedo. I know she’s there. She has to be.

Splish. Splash. One watery step at a time. My back hurts but I’m almost to the rock. I haven’t even seen the surface of the swimming pool yet; I don’t dare. She’ll see me, and she’ll dash under the rock and I’ll never see her again this day, sure as sugar.

I’m there. I still can’t see the torpedo pool; I’m safe behind the big grey boulder, and if I so much as let a fraction of my sun-hat into view, she’ll spook. Mustn’t have that now.

I’m already rigged up and ready to cast; in fact, I rigged up at breakfast, double-checking my double clinch knot, sharpening the single barbless hook that I’ve attached to the ½” Red Devil spoon (deadly on these small streams, I’ve learned -- at times, anyway).

I’ve only got once chance, one cast. My heart is racing. “Let’s go”, I tell myself, unhooking the lure from the foam handle of the telescoping spinning rod, the one I bought at Target for $9.99 (plus tax). I used to pride myself on my ragtag gear. I’ve gotten over that.

I draw the rod backward, simultaneously lifting the bail, freeing up the line, then make a sharp forward cast, effortlessly tossing the lure twenty feet or so, at what I am imagining is the bottom of the swimming pool. I still can’t see; I’m still in hiding.

I crank the reel, snapping the bail shut, securing the line. I’m shaking. I begin a slow retrieve; too slow, I think to myself. I crank a little faster, then stop. “Let it sink.” I retrieve again, this time faster, and, suddenly, like that, I’m into trout.

I can’t believe the weight of this thing; it’s like trying to reel in a Boeing. Being careful not to tumble over the inlet waterfall, I stand up, exposing myself to the pool, just in time to see a fat, colorful fourteen inch wild rainbow trout dancing in mid-air. I’ve got her!

Now the hard part. I can’t bring her in from where I’m standing; she’s too fat, too heavy, to risk hauling her up two feet on this light line. I’m convinced she’s securely hooked; if that head-shaking jump didn’t free the hook, nothing will short of letting her dive. Mustn’t let her dive.

I carefully make my way around the big sheltering boulder – the boulder that made catching this fish possible; thank you boulder, I love you boulder, please marry me boulder – eventually reaching the poolside proper.

There she is, waiting for me, shining like a rainbow diamond. The biggest fish I’ve ever caught, let alone seen, in all of the San Gabriels. It’s like a taste of the late 1800’s, when Pasadena gentlemen-fly fishers would catch hundreds of sixteen-inch wild rainbow trout out of a single pool, except it’s only one. That fact makes her even more treasured to me.

I gently grasp the heaving beauty – what a healthy, gorgeous fish, and heavy! – and, using my hemostats, remove the single hook lure from her upper jaw, freeing the fish. I hold her steady in the shallows with one hand, grasping for my camera with the other. I revive the monster trout and she begins to show signs of recovery. She makes s-curve motions that my clumsy fingers can barely control.

Gratefully, and with as much respect as I can muster, I thank the creator of the universe and release the torpedo back into the pool. She darts in the direction of the circular rock and disappears into the silver shadows.

Please forgive me for holding this awesome 'bow by the jaw -- I was young and stupid back then (now I'm just stupid).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Quest for SoCal Brown Trout

I was recently involved in a moderately strenuous – don’t be fooled by the word “moderately” (famous last words!) – backpack undertaken by my buddy Krudler and yours truly to a hard-to-reach, seldom visited section of a local watershed.

This particular stream is one I have avoided for years, mainly because it seems to draw a lot of attention from fly anglers in our area. It’s by no means an unknown fishery, yet it remains (apparently) pristine due to the difficult access (4.5 miles one way, 2,000’+ elevation loss/gain, about a 3 hour walk each way no matter how you slice it). Regardless, I was highly anticipating visiting this water for the first time, not-so-secretly hoping to achieve a personal goal – catching and releasing my first Southern California brown trout.

After an ungodly early departure (4:15AM), I had a leisurely, traffic-free drive during prime sunrise time, enjoying the ever-changing light as it illuminated the local mountains in shades of orange, amber and rust. The sweet morning scent of “scotch broom” (an invasive plant, mind you) perfumed the air, occasionally mixed with essence of pine; birds went about their business as they always do. A hearty breakfast at a local mountain coffee shop had me fueled-up and ready to begin the adventure, and soon Krudler and I made our rendezvous at the trailhead, both of us about fifteen minutes ahead of schedule – which meant an extra fifteen minutes of fishing (every moment counts)!

For this trip I was going fairly ultra-light (at least as ultra-light as my modest budget can afford); the weather was forecast as being hot, hot, hot, so, in lieu of a sleeping bag, I packed a small fleece blanket; I also left my canister gas stove at home, opting instead for a classic old school Esbit cooking set-up (solid fuel cubes). A swath of mosquito netting and a small plastic sheet would suffice for shelter. The combined weight of these items reduced my normal pack weight by about eight pounds, and I felt confident that I could endure the trip with a minimum of discomfort while retaining a few luxury items (ie. bourbon, CD player, swim trunks). I also packed, for the first time, my 6’6” 3WT Diamondglass rod; at two pieces, it’s a bit bulky, but I managed to secure it to my pack and was later delighted that I had brought it – it was the perfect rod for this tight little stream.

There’s not a lot to say about the hike down except that it’s long and non-stop, not much shade, overgrown in places, no water at all, with stunning views out over the flat-lands. Stupidly, I forgot to re-tighten my boot laces when setting out (a tip: if you’re about to embark on a long downhill hike, always tie your boots as tightly as possible to minimize your toes smashing into the boot tip), so my feet took a bit of a beating on the way down, although I wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary until later that evening. Krudler and I enjoyed the fresh morning air and the forever views, talking about trout strategy and anything else that came to mind, and soon enough – after one short rest break – we could hear the stream not too far below.

Upon reaching the stream (at about 9:00AM), we were greeted by an unusual sight: in the pool at the trail crossing I spooked what looked like a small rainbow trout swimming on its side. “That looks rather strange,” I thought, and for a moment I was confused until I realized that what I had seen was actually a brown trout with a dead ‘bow in its jaws – Duraflame(tm)! The sighting encouraged us to no end, and with renewed vigor we hiked the remaining half-mile to our planned base camp alongside a gorgeous little tributary. The site – shaded by oak, maple, alder and pine – had a small fire pit and a makeshift rock table complete with “chairs”. It was flat, close to the tributary, and had a great view of the surrounding canyon – a great place to spend a weekend.

It didn’t take long for us to get our day-packs together and rig up for our prime objective: fly fishing (what else?). We decided to spend this first day exploring upstream, the planned objective being an almost-impassable waterfall a mile or so up the canyon, one with a massive pool at its base. Starting at the Duraflame(tm) Pool, we began dealing with the task at hand, each of us experiencing that unique mindset that first accompanies hitting a stream: what should I tie on first? Are there risers? Where are the prime lies? What are these fish feeding on? Do I have everything?

I was extremely lucky in choosing a small (#14) olive bead-head woolly bugger as my first fly, as I caught and released three ‘bows and a small brown within the first half hour of fishing. As excited as I was with “my first Southern California brown”, the largest bow – about 11” or so – really stoked my fires. It was taken out of a nice frothy plunge pool and tried exceptionally hard to make me look bad by jumping and running directly at me. However, after a few tense – but highly enjoyable – moments, I brought this classic SoCal ‘bow into my waiting net:

Flush with this early success, little did I know it would be literally hours before I got into my next trout. The action seemingly stopped dead at around 11:00AM or so -- typical summer behavior for these hardy canyon survivors – so Krudler and I tag-teamed our way upstream, enjoying the day and spotting fish for one another. One long pool we approached had what looked like a dozen or more fat trout holding in the tail-out; a massive boulder created the bottom of the pool, making a perfect stealth position to target the pod. Krudler gave me first shot at the pool, but my casting skills – getting better but still rudimentary – were such that I was unable to make a viable presentation. Krudler took up position, made one perfect cast, and pulled out this nice brown, taken on a #16 red humpy if I’m not mistaken:

The rest of the afternoon was spent in this delightful fashion, each of us getting into fish slowly but consistently. As the afternoon wore on, we tended to switch to dry flies as browns were on the rise; many splashes were induced, some actually resulting in netted fish. As classic pool after classic pool were revealed, we took turns making presentations, spooking monsters, laughing at our foibles and grinning at our successes. Throughout the warm afternoon, thunder clouds threatened rain (it actually sprinkled for a few muggy moments), but the cloud cover made the heat tolerable, and the wet-wading kept us cool.

A typical scenario went like this: we’d spot the tail-out of a nice pool upstream, many of them protected by a head-high plunge one could easily hide behind. We’d sneak up to the tail-out then to the rocks, now eye-level with the upstream pool. If you were careful, you could poke your head above the rocks and see a trout feeding only a couple of feet away, unaware of your deceptive intentions. Looking behind you to see if there was casting room – there often wasn’t – you’d lob your dry fly over your head, gently landing it a few feet upstream of the fish you’d targeted. Then – my favorite part! – you’d watch the buoyant, brilliant fly drift towards you, right in line with the trout. If you were lucky, you’d witness the fish lazily rise to inhale the fly, quickly submerging before realizing it was hooked. After a nice reel-singing fight, you’d land something like this:

We eventually made it up to the near-impassable waterfall with its remarkable pool, and spent a good half-hour working the crystal clear deep-green waters. A more beautiful sight you’re not likely to see, but I have been warned with penalty of death should I post a photo of it here. Although the pool was clearly loaded with some very fine trout, only Krudler managed to land anything, a nice 9” range ‘bow with classic colors.

We soon headed back to base camp, relaxed for a while, set-up for the evening, then proceeded to enjoy a fantastically fun twilight hour catching small, exceptionally dark-colored trout from the sparkling Tolkein-esque pools of the tributary. I hit the first pool and nailed a ‘bow on my first cast; Krudler did the same on the second pool. Third pool, I repeated the process, and on the fourth pool, Krudler again nailed a ‘bow on the first cast. On the fifth pool the pressure was on, and I blew it by catching a fish on my third cast (gasp). It was just a ridiculously good time, “anti-fishing” for these small, aggressive, gorgeous trout, the polar opposites of the relative beasts in the main stream not far below.

My dinner was delayed by the exceptionally slow time the Esbit took to heat my water – a failed experiment, for sure. While cooking, I tended to my suddenly-sore toes, patiently waiting for dinner; eventually my meal was cooked, and we enjoyed a drowsy evening fireside, sharing a little bourbon and recalling the events of the day. We both hit the sack around 10:00PM, a canopy of sparkling stars twinkling overhead, a mild breeze cooling the canyon, the white-noise of the stream lulling us to sleep. We slept soundly until the ridiculous hour of 9:30AM the next morning – a luxury afforded by the shady campsite.

Awakening appropriately sore and tired, we consumed our respective breakfasts and eagerly gathered our day-packs and gear together for another day’s fishing. The plan was to let the heat of the day pass while we fished, tackling the long, steep hike out of the canyon at around 4:30PM or so, leaving the better part of the day free to explore downstream.

We basically fished alone for most of the day, each of us working various stretches of excellent looking water. I “discovered” an enchanting, tiny unnamed tributary, and hiked up it a short length when I stumbled upon this gorgeous waterfall and pool:

In the pool, clearly visible to my disbelieving eyes, was what had to have been a 16” rainbow trout. As I crouched behind a rock, voyeuristically, the monster trout chased two smaller trout away from the tail-out, then saw me and spooked under the falls. For the 1,001st time this trip, I found myself saying “Awww d-a-m-n!” as the fish took deep cover. This trout had the most pronounced red slash I have ever seen on a fish, incidentally; the thing was absolutely incredible. Undaunted, I repeatedly tossed my red humpy into the foamy water, in the general direction of where I saw the monster ‘bow dart, again and again. After about ten drifts, to my astonishment, I watched the big ‘bow break water and inhale my fly – and the fight of my life was on!

The monster took me on a personal guided tour of the pool, trying to saw me off under a sharp edge, jumping enthusiastically into the heart of the falls, stripping line from my reel when she decided to take me deep, etc. etc. ad infinitum. However, this was not to be my day; during a crucial moment, my knot failed and I found myself, fishless and fly-challenged, standing under blue skies, alone with my defeat. Opportunity lost!

Leaving the tributary, I found this dead mouse on a rocky ledge, hence the title of my report:

Nearby was a jawbone I was unable to identify, obviously unrelated to the dead mouse:

Later that morning, back on the main stream, I again lost a fish due to knot failure, this time on a #12 black bead-head woolly bugger. I had lost my magnifying glasses the day before and, apparently, I can’t tie a clinch knot without ‘em to save my life. However, I managed to tie on a #16 stonefly nymph and enjoyed a few mind-clearing moments of drifting the thing around and around the pool, when I was suddenly hit by a severe strike – fish on! After an absolutely hellacious battle, I managed to net my “fish of the trip”, a classic “strawberries and cream” ‘bow that was easily 14”. As I revived the fish and reached for my camera, she made a last-ditch effort for freedom and managed to turn my net sideways with her weight and slip free. Heartbroken and ecstatic at the same time, I watched her torpedo back into the safety of the pool, happy for the chance to have connected with such a gorgeous specimen.

As the afternoon slipped away, I found myself looking at my watch – well, cell phone, actually – keeping track of the time. Having only a few moments to spare, I carefully worked my way up to a nice pool and began my presentation, this time a #18 black ant with an orange parachute, the first ant pattern I tried on this trip. Immediately upon hitting the water, the ant was inhaled by a nice-sized brown trout that made a habit of diving deep into the rocks; many times, I thought my tippet had hung up, only to be carefully worked free. The persistence of the brown was admirable, and, eventually, I brought this fish to my net:

I moved on to another pool and repeated the process; once again, the ant was instantly inhaled, and another, nicer brown trout took me into the rocks time and again; after an immensely enjoyable battle, I landed my largest brown of the trip:

With that, I headed back to camp and arrived mere moments before Krudler, who’d had himself a fine day as well. We broke camp, ate lunch, filtered water, and said our goodbyes to our weekend retreat, intent on tackling the long, steep hike out. We took our time walking, with me taking very slow, deliberate steps, making the ascent one step at a time. Sure, it’s a long, steep haul, but if approached with the right mindset, it’s not that bad. After one short rest break, we made it to the once-distant crest and were back at our cars by 7:00PM, in plenty of time to get home at a decent hour. Chalk up another successful Black Diamond adventure.

For me, this trip was a milestone in a few ways. As mentioned above, I’ve been itching to catch my first Southern California brown trout, which I did (I ended up with a total of five brown trout netted this trip). I also broke the “hundredth fish caught this year” mark (for some reason, I am keeping track of every fish I net during this, my first full year of fly fishing), so that was kind of cool. If I incur a 10% fish mortality rate, then this year I’ve most likely killed ten trout (after the fact) and released ninety to live another day. I can live with that, I think. I also downsized my backpacking gear considerably and survived, comfortably, with the exception of the relative failure of the Esbit stove.

Lastly, I’ve been excited to fish this stream for some time now, and it wildly exceeded my expectations, hands down.