There’s not much that can substitute for local knowledge. That point was driven home over the weekend when my fishing plans went all pear-shaped.
I had planned to go fish the McCloud for the season closer, but got concerned the winter storm warning would shut the pass I needed to cross and generally prevent getting there, as well as maybe resulting in the three of us having a pretty rough day on the water.
The plan was altered. We decided to float the Lower Sac instead. Weather looked decent and so we made a go of it.
Here’s the thing… while I’ve fished that river many, many times, I don’t fish it often. This was my first day on that river this year. I know it enough to have a “Plan A” but not well enough to have a “Plan B.”
Plan A didn’t work. We managed ONE FISH between the three of us (I caught it in the first hour and we didn’t touch a fish after that). It was my buddy John’s first time getting skunked on a float trip on that river in 20 years.
Our guide sucked. I was our guide.
If I had fished the river 40 times this year, I bet I’d have had a better idea where to set up the raft at those flows and what flies we should have cycled through. But… well… that’s not the life I have. The opportunity cost of living the good and fulfilling life I have in this place is losing that local knowledge. Maybe we still would have headed to the Mac if I was more in touch with what was happening or maybe we would have had a better third or fourth option.
My friend Shane was guiding a slightly lower section of river on that same day. They boated just shy of 20 fish. Shane knows the river. That’s the difference between knowing a place and having a casual acquaintance with it.
It was good to share the water with friends, but I refuse to say the fishing was good and the catching was bad, because every time someone says that a trout loses its spots.
My buddy Shane just sent me a picture of his big Geet from Christmas. I think he’s still there, but he managed to send me a picture of him, smile stretching ear to ear, holding up a big GT. Pretty cool to see. Very happy for him.
It was a year ago I was in Christmas Island with him and I was looking for my own GTs. I caught a small one (a giant trevally the size of a small trevally), I lost a mid-sized GT to the coral at the Korean Wreck and I cast at and failed to catch a big one.
That last fish I can recall pretty well even now.
It was the last day and we were on our last flat. The light was fading and the water reflected a silvery gray making it almost impossible to peer into the water even a few feet ahead of us. I thought the guide was just running out the clock and I didn’t blame him. We’d been looking for GTs and we never seemed to quite be where the fish were. He’d put in a good shift, but we just hadn’t done it.
Then the guide points.
A fast moving bulge of water, 80-90 feet out, heading our way, pushing water like a snow plow. I made a good cast in front and beyond the fish so I’d pull the fly in front of its nose. The guide was in my ear yelling “FASTER! FASTER!” and I was stripping as fast as my top gear could manage. I swept the rod to add some speed as I’ve done from time to time with cudas and you could see the fish light up on the fly. He was close and you could see the open mouth and see the eye and the water sheeting over his back.
In my mind I was thinking “THIS IS IT! LAST FLAT! LAST DAY and damnit, it is going to HAPPEN!”
Except it didn’t. The fish saw us and just turned off and away and that was the end of it. I was just left there shaking, wondering how this crescendo somehow managed to fall flat. I had seen the fish in my hands, but it had only been in my imagination, a brief projection of what success and joy would feel like.
Shane had that look on his face today in that picture. It isn’t a great quality picture (he’s going to send better pics when he gets a chance as he’s still there), but you get the point, don’t you? Victory. Success. A dream realized.
I have a boat now. It isn’t going to see much, if any, saltwater, and it won’t see a bonefish ever. It takes a lot of effort to put together… yes… put together, and then take apart. But, it’s a boat. I’ve made it to 45 without having a boat and you’d be well within your rights to say I don’t have one now. It’s rolled up in my garage at the moment and in pieces.
It’s a raft. A 13 foot raft with a fishing frame. I call it the green goddess. I don’t have a trailer. I have to strap the frame to the roof of the car in pieces and the rest has to make it into the back of the Highlander. I’ve managed to get it out twice now. Once on a shakedown cruise with a couple buddies and once with my dad and a buddy. Fish were caught. I stayed on the oars. We did a short drift I’ve done probably a couple dozen times in my life, but had only rowed once on my own before now.
It was hoped I’d get my dad out in this and maybe it will happen. His reactions have slowed, his casts have gotten shorter. It was hard for him to get to the lane or stay in the lane. He missed fish and his back hurt, but he got in the boat and out of the boat without injury, which maybe is what victory looks like at this point.
The drive from here to Redding to float the Lower Sac is about three hours and it is about an hour to assemble the raft and about 5-6 hours to fish. Then an hour to break-down and three more to get home, where I have to unpack the frame, at the very least, so some tweaker or opportunistic scavenger doesn’t make off with the aluminum tubing. Long days. Maybe I’ll learn the Yuba, which would reduce the drive by an hour each way, but the Lower Sac and her rainbows of unreasonable size are closer to my home waters and, to the extent I know anything, they are what I know.
I’m contemplating taking my daughter down the S. Fork of the Snake this summer, or at least doing a couple drifts out there with her. Kind of depends what girl I have at that moment, which is hard to predict. She’ll be 13 and sometimes hates being in the car (that’s about a 900 miles roadtrip, so…) and other times she’ll barely talk to me and others she’s still my girl who wants to fish and hang with her dad and look for snakes and frogs. I don’t know what planning looks like for a fishing trip with a 13 year old. These are the known unknowns.
I also need to get my 5.75 year old boy out in the raft. Maybe in the flat water of San Leandro Bay, right by our house. I haven’t figured that out yet, but I will.
So, don’t call me Captain just yet, but I have a raft and a frame and I’m figuring out how to use it… where everything goes, what needs to be tighter, what needs to be left at home. Hoping I see a lot of water in the green goddess and that I get to share that water with my friends and family until I tear a shoulder loose or get a bulging disk.
It’s been hard to get up to my old rivers and childhood home. Life is just full of obligations and plans. Two of the last three weekends I did manage to make the trek. One trip with the whole crew and once with just my daughter and myself. We got to hang out with my old man, which was a very good thing to do, and, of course, we went fishing.
The first trip I had a goal of getting both kids into fish. We went up to the South Fork of the Upper Sacramento River and I managed to get the boy his first trout.
I also managed to get the girl fishing, although her fish didn’t come until the next day.
The boy helped land a larger fish the second day and he told me we were a team, so it was kind of his fish too. It was pretty interesting to see his competitive juices flow when it came to beating his sister. Haven’t seen that before, but I guess he’s growing up. He wanted to point out “our” fish was bigger that his sissy’s.
The next trip the girl and I put in a good 6 hours (maybe her longest fishing day ever), although we were down a rod, as I fell hard and broke one about 5 minutes after getting to the water.
Beautiful water up there, including a trip to Mossbrae Falls. The girl again managed to get a fish on the board and had several other grabs. It was a good trip and she said she had a good time.
The girl is just growing up pretty fast at this point. She still will spend time on the water with her dad, which is great and I won’t complain about. She’s no longer such a little girl though. Just found a picture of her at 2.5 with her first fish. How time flies.
It had been a while since I brok a rod until these last two trips… where I managed to go 2/2 on trips/rods broken. So, I’ll be trying out some warranties.
I do miss the rivers up there and I do miss seeing my dad up in his natural habitat. We’ll see if I can carve some more time out and get up there a bit more. Seems difficult, but I’ll try.
Now, don’t get me wrong. You CAN catch milkfish the hard way. In fact, in our group a guy named Barry did just that. He went 2/3 on milkfish down at the Korean Wreck. He caught them on algae flies. It’s an impressive feat.
That’s not how I caught milkfish in Christmas Island though. How I caught milkfish in Christmas Island would make a fly-only purist want to puke a little. Luckily, I’ve moved away from purity in my fishing and have, largely, adopted a “Is it fun?” approach.
Milkfish are fun.
When the tuna boats are anchored off London, Christmas Island, you can go and catch milkfish. First, you stop by one of the giant fish processing boats to get some small fish in a burlap sack. Then you anchor up to one of the ships and your guides start ripping the fish apart with their hands, throwing chunks of chum into the water. Seconds later the water around your boat is full of milkfish and various types of trevally (mostly blues, some golden and deep, deep down, maybe some giants).
Simply get your algae or flesh fly near the chum and see if the milks eat. If you let your fly sink too low it is fare for the Bluefins. If you get a milkfish to make a mistake and eat your fly (mostly, they’ll avoid it… like, 99% of the time, they’ll avoid it), well, hold on. Milkies pull and they pull hard and often straight down (although they also jump). Lines get tangled and rod arms get a bit worn out.
Milkies are built for speed and strength and it really shows. Odd looking fish, but, ya know… after they strip off a bunch of line they get much more adorable.
We got our share of milkfish and the guides kept every single one. They take these fish home to feed their families. There is no C&R when it comes to milkfish.
If you’ve ever fished in the back country in Christmas Island, you will have seen the roughly 100,000,0000,000,000 young milkfish milling around and looking a bit like bonefish on the flats in the back.
Some of the other fishing hanging around aren’t so bad either…
This particular bit of fishing isn’t for those who aren’t up for feeling at least a tiny bit dirty. It was a great time and the highlight of the day.
If the boats are in and you find yourself on Christmas Island, go get some milkies. If you have a pulse and aren’t a pretentious pain in the keister, you should have a good time.
GTs, Geets, Giant Trevally. Everyone wants to know about the GTs of Christmas Island. Everyone who goes there wants to catch one. They are undeniably special and when you look at all the species in a place like Christmas Island, the GT stands out, in relief, and your finger keeps finding them on the page.
Yes, I saw some big geets in Xmas. The first one was at the Korean Wreck when a good fish (40#? more?) smashed a bonefish I had just released about 8 feet from where I stood as I was looking the other way. This was right on the shore. Scared the hell out of me (and the guide too). It gave me an impression of just how impressive these fish are and underscored just how precarious is the life of a bonefish.
Later that day the guide took me out to one last spot and in a couple of minutes found me a small GT on shore patrol. One cast, a couple strips and he was on. Not a big fish, but a GT. It pulled hard, very hard, and I could imagine what this fish multiplied would feel like.
A mini Geet
Another, about the same size, came by about 2 minutes after releasing the first fish. Didn’t have my act together enough to get a cast in.
The next day I was out at the Wreck again and the first fish we saw was a GT with it’s back out of the water. It wandered off into the breakers and we followed. I put some long bomb casts out into that area just where the breakers do their breaking, but I wasn’t getting any love. The guide told me to reel in and so I put out another cast and was putting the line back on the reel when something kind of magical happened.
You’ve seen when the face of a wave becomes a window into what is below the wave? As I reeled in a wave came rolling in and when the face of the wave was in full view I could see my bait fish imitation clearly and I could also see the GT come up and eat it. It was like watching it all happen on a high-def screen.
Here’s where I made my GT mistake. When you get a GT in this sort of environment you CAN NOT LET IT RUN. Just where those waves were breaking is a drop off and along the drop off there is pretty much nothing but a bazillion coral heads waiting to snag your line or your tippet and to free that fish from you. You are supposed to immediately crank down your drag and not give one god damned inch to that fish (if possible).
The fish was off the edge in a heartbeat and threw the first wrap against the coral a split second after that. I could still feel the fish pulling, but I knew it was in danger. I walked out a bit further to see if I could get it unattached and could see the line come back toward me and wrap on another bit of coral. There, about 20 feet from me, right at the edge of the drop, I could actually see the GT. He wasn’t huge, maybe 20 pounds (25?), and he was still attached. I walked out a little bit more and picked up the fly line winding from the point it was wrapped to my left to the spot it was wrapped in front of me. That bit of added tension did it. The leader cut on the coral. The fish was free.
Fast forward to the last day and the last flat. I was still without a big GT. I don’t think one was actually landed on the trip. Largest might have been about the size I had lost to the coral, but the 40 and 50 and 60 pounders, or those elusive 90 pounders were all un-landed. One guy had lost his whole fly line on a GT when trolling and there were other anglers with other good shots, but nothing in the books. I was fishing with one of the top guides, TK, and we were walking a flat not far from a GT highway. The sky was grey and the light was flat and diffused. I couldn’t see anything in the water at all.
At this point I started to wonder if TK was just riding out the last minutes of the trip. I couldn’t imagine you could walk out on a flat like this and find a GT without being able to see in the water. Part of me was also telling me to trust my guide. He was very much searching the water, not going for a stroll. He knew the water and the fish, I didn’t. I should just trust him, right?
With time running out and the 10 weight primed in my hands TK pointed at a fast moving bulge of water headed more or less in our direction. “GT!” It was a short cast, maybe 30 feet. I cast ahead of the fish, just beyond his path and when TK told me to strip, I stripped like mad. The fish reacted, veered toward the fly and it all seemed like it was going to happen.
“How perfect?” I thought. “Here I am on the last day, on the last flat, and I have this monster GT chasing down my fly in two feet of water and this will be the crowning moment of this trip. You can’t write a better story!”
Except… the fish then exploded and altered course in a direction distinctly not toward the fly. Maybe it didn’t like the fly. Maybe it didn’t like the strip. Maybe it saw us. I don’t know, but I watched the massive shape displacing a lot of water quickly fade from view.
I had the shot. I had a good shot presented by a guide who knew his water and knew his fish and it just didn’t happen.
We walked a bit more, maybe 10 minutes, to the edge of the flat where the boat would pick us up. TK turned to me and said, simply, “Maybe next time.”
I have been to NOLA a lot over the last 16 months or so. My average is about once a month, all for work, and the trips are packed pretty full of meetings with a quick return flight. In on Tuesday afternoon, meetings Wednesday, meetings Thursday and then the last flight out of MSY that evening (7:40 PM gets me into OAK at about midnight). Not a lot of time for fishing in that mix.
I did get out last December with guide Ron Ratliff for a half-day. That was my first trip for reds in Louisiana and it was pretty awesome.
Part of the work crew, doing work at the conference in NOLA.
This year I had a big conference in NOLA (#KidneyWeek2017), so I was going to be around for a while. On top of that, my wife had a conference in Indianapolis. So… I had a day in play to find another fishing opportunity.
Guides were pretty booked, it is prime time after all, so, I called upon the power of the internet and asked if anyone wanted to split a boat with me. I got a response fairly quickly from James who said he had ~20 guys coming from Alabama to DIY it, an annual gathering, from kayaks. He could get a kayak for me if I was interested. It was an experience I couldn’t pass up, so I took him up on the offer.
The group had two houses rented about a 2 hour drive from New Orleans. After the exhibit booth and flooring was pack up I hit the road. I managed to get down in time to steal some of their dinner (I brought rolls though). I met the crew, saw the kayak I’d be fishing out of, got attacked by mosquitos, had a couple of beers and managed to harass all the white trout under the dock lights (which was more fun than was reasonable).
A bit of serendipity next, as my friend Peter from Copenhagen happened to ALSO be right where I was going. After leaving the AL crew, I made my way over to where he was staying with Jesse and Brody. We put some additional hurt on some white trout and caught up a bit.
The next morning I got back to the Alabama crew an hour later than intended, because, see… the clocks changed and my alarm got me up at 5:45, which was more like 6:45 the day before… so… I was both late and on-time. After breakfast, we headed off.
Heading off was short-lived, as I left my rod at the house and we had to return to get it, because I’m sometimes forgetful. This would be a fast trip were it not for the obvious speed traps and the ever vigilant police (sheriffs?).
Now, the only time I’ve ever fished out of a kayak was in Maui a couple years ago, and that was a peddle kayak and you didn’t have to stand up in the thing (I mostly got out to fish, although we did throw some spinning gear sitting down and trolled some flies). Turns out you DO need to stand up in these kayaks, at least when you get where the fish are. I was… not steady. I have a high center of gravity and a lot of other excuses if you are interested, but man… I just felt like I was going to fall in pretty much every time I stood up for the first couple of hours.
Amazed I’m not falling in. Photo credit James Eubank
While there were about 18 guys, only four of us took to the trucks to hit different water. It was James, Ben, Drew and me. We launched and paddled out over some open water to some islands not far away. James and I went one way, Drew and Ben the other.
I need to point out I was just plain lucky on conditions. The wind in the morning was non-existent. In saltwater fishing I just expect there to be wind, sometimes a lot of it, sometimes too much of it, but very seldom is there none. That’s what we had when we started the day. The fishing gods were smiling down on my. Thanks buddies.
Within minutes of reaching the first island I immediately saw some sheepshead, but was way too close and WAY too unsteady to get a shot in at them. It took me a while to figure out where everything needed to go. How do I get my rod ready? Where do I put the paddle when I reach for the rod? How do I do all of this without flipping over and sinking to my waist in the muck? I had questions and it was going to be a trial-and-error kind of day.
One of my favorite sayings is “Sucking at something is the first step to becoming good at that thing.” I was at the first step toward kayak fishing greatness, very much in the sense of that quote.
I soon started seeing redfish, but I was not all put together yet and the fish would either be gone by the time I got sorted out or the kayak would have drifted on top of them when I was ready to cast. I’m glad I took my spinning rod out of my gear bag because it would have been really, really tempting to just sit down and fling things without risking tipping over and feeling foolish. Sometimes it feels like we can live our lives in a pretty much constant quest not to be embarrassed. Glad I took the chance.
I found a little cut out of the main channel that had some identifiable redfish in it. There was also something sticking out of the water in the middle of this side pocket which I took to be a log. As I got the kayak in the side pocket the log started slowly swimming out. It was a bull red. It was just massive. Biggest red I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. I was going the wrong way by the time I realized what it was. No casts were made at it and I’m sure that salty old beast was way too smart for my novice redfishing skills (and meager kayak fishing skills).
Out in the main channel and in some slightly deeper water I was seeing fish-sign. I cast at it and was tight to a fish. This was to be my first ever speckled trout. A decent fish and nice to feel the tug of something to compensate for my feelings of inadequacy in the kayak.
That there is a crappy, gopro picture of my first speckled trout.
Soon thereafter I got on the redfish board. As I was paddling along a mangrove edge I saw water pushing, coming toward me. I could see the shapes of several fish, moving deliberately. I managed to get the rod ready (minor miracle), to get the cast made (also minor miracle), before they were on top of me. They were REALLY close when they ate, but ate they did. I was tight to my first DIY redfish.
My first DIY redfish
It was a nice fish. I was feeling pretty good after that. I had picked up a red on my first day really fishing out of a kayak and my first day DIYing for redfish and I was dry.
This whole time James was working up the other side of the cut from me and he was getting into fish as well. He’s been doing this a while and never looked like he was about to go in the drink. James was a pleasure to fish with and I’d do it again.
This is now one of the longer posts on the whole blog, so I’ll pause here and put up Part II in a day or two, which will include the story of James catching a redfish with his bare hands (no kidding).
On a side note… thanks guys. The Alabama group welcomed me in straight away, made me feel comfortable, lent me their gear, let me snag a couple beers and fed me and, overall, were just a solid group of guys. It reminds me of the Northern California Fly Fishing Message Board Bashes we used to have, way back in the day. Nice to have a fishing crew.
Many, many years ago I spend a season guiding. I only guided that one season as life kind of happened in the off-seasons and by the next Spring I had a steady job I was interested in and that was that. I enjoyed guiding, although I was still learning and I certainly took more away from the experience than others likely got from me. In any job you have a learning curve and I was still on that curve when my career took a different direction.
Still, there were a couple of really awesome moments in my short time guiding. I was reading The Alaska Chronicles (by Miles Nolte) last night (yeah, I’m late to this party, but I’m enjoying the book), and it got me thinking about the successes and failures in my own guiding. One story comes to mind and here it is.
A lot of people might have heard of Hat Creek. It is a Spring Creek in a land of Free Stones. It is located in the North East part of California, about an hour from Redding and about an hour from Lassen National Park. It meanders through a landscape that sees forest and something akin to plains, almost like the landscape around the Madison in Montana, just a bit smaller in scale.
Hat Creek, like a lot of the rivers in California, is interrupted by power houses. It has been significantly altered to suit human demands. The section of Hat Creek that most people think of is below Power House 2 where the river emerges from the power house, makes a 90 degree turn and goes over a riffle that might be 30 yards long before taking on the smooth, even, slick and difficult flat water section that looks like what you tend to think of as a spring creek.
The riffle is a really interesting place, or at least it was back then (about 1999 is when I was guiding there). The fish live in the flat water but cycle in and out of the riffle to feed. It is one of the very few places in California where success does not depend on covering water. You can find a place and stay put. The fish come to you. If you have your weight set right, you just cast out, 15 feet or so, again and again and again and eventually, you catch a trout.
It is also one of the few places in California where 15 people can fly fish on the same piece of water at the same time. You get two rows of people, one on the near side of the riffle, the other on the far side of the riffle. So long as no one goes and walks through the riffle and screws up the circulation of fish, everyone can catch fish.
This was a favorite spot for guides from the lodge I worked at. You could get someone dialed in with their indicator casting without worrying about anyone falling in. You could work a group of anglers and have everyone within 30 feet of one another. You could station someone who was maybe a bit older or unsteady and they could stay put and catch fish. You might spend the morning on the Hat and then head off to the Pit or a creek somewhere or maybe even the Lower McCloud. Mid-week, the riffle usually wouldn’t have too many folks on it and since it was about 10-15 minutes from the lodge, it was a frequent stop.
As summer wore on you’d start to see a trico hatch and spinner fall on the Hat and that could offer a couple hours of decent dry fly fishing, although with size 20 spinner, a bit hard for some folks to see. The spinner fall was hit or miss. Sometimes it just didn’t seem to happen, others it got going pretty strong (for a CA river, I’ve seen spinner falls other places and ours never seemed to rise to epic levels).
One the morning I’m thinking of I had three clients, one more than is generally a good idea, but it was a father, son and the son’s friend. The son and his friend were 13-14, well behaved, good sports. That morning the spinner fall was a bit light and the fish weren’t really grabby.
I noticed on the edge of the current there were little fish, I mean, really little fish, throwing themselves at the light spinners with reckless abandon. These three inch troutlets would fling themselves at the #20 spinners, cartwheeling out of the water.
While I had the father and son keeping after the sporadic rise, I decided to do something different with the son’s friend. I put him downstream a little bit and changed his #20 trico spinner for a sparse black leach in a #8 or so. I told him to cast out, quartering downstream and let the fly swing into the seam and then I wanted him to slowly twitch the streamer back up stream.
Now, I had never tried this myself. I had never seen another angler do this. None of the other guides at the lodge told me this is something they had tried. I had no reason to expect this to work, but I just thought “If I were a big brown trout and I were looking for a good meal, those little trout don’t seem to be very on-guard right now.”
It worked. Five minutes after I got the kid sorted out he had a strong pull and was fast to a good fish. I helped him land what turned out to be an 18″ brown trout, which for Hat Creek is both rare (It is about 95% rainbows) and a really good fish.
It would have maybe been better if I had the dad or his son land the biggest fish of their trip, but it was such a low percentage shot, I didn’t want to risk it with the guy who was actually paying for the trip.
I miss being that connected to a bit of water where I even have hunches about things that might work. You lose that when you become an infrequent visitor instead of a daily visitor.
It was a highlight from my year on the water. I had a couple other moments of guiding success, maybe more than a couple, but that life was short lived for me. I hang on to those moments.
I went out for stripers again on Sunday, fishing pretty much the same tide as I did on Saturday. This is a game I am still trying to figure out. I have a hunch about ideal tides and a notion about what role the wind might play, but these are guessed at things.
The fishing was slower. I caught less than half as many fish, not including a snagged ray that I thought was a monster striper for a few minutes. I don’t know why it was slower, although I do have half a guess.
At one point, I had a gut feeling that the fishing was done and that there would be no more fish caught. I knew it, but had no reason for knowing. The water here is opaque. You can’t see the fish and they don’t give themselves away. It isn’t like bonefishing where you can damn well see the fish are gone and it isn’t like what I imagine striper fishing to be on the East Coast when you might actually see feeding fish. This SF Bay striper fishing for me at this point is just all gut feelings, limited personal history and vague ideas.
I kept fishing though. I wanted to see if my gut feeling would be proven true. I wanted to test it a bit. I put another 100 casts in and had not one fish, not one grab. I fished it the same way I had fished it for the previous hour and a half with opposite results.
Sometimes, you just know.
I remember other days like that on other bits of water. I had one day on the Upper Sacramento when I had all day to fish, but 30 minutes on the water and I knew I wouldn’t catch a fish that day and I didn’t. This is water I normally do very, very well on, but there was a gut feeling I had that the fish weren’t going to eat.
I don’t know how that sort of information gets transmitted or by what, but it does get received and understood by the angler.
Sometimes the water talks to us and sometimes we understand.