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).

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