This is a bad, wrongly focused photo of a beautiful fish. Chrome bright, fresh in – this American River Steelhead, born of hatchery. She took the fly a rod and a half length from me in one and a half feet of water; above her silvery frame, misty fog floated across the cold water’s surface. First cast! Incredible, and yet, as I wright this I wish I hadn’t taken the extra time to set up for the photo, what must have felt like an eternity to a creature filled with fear. Should I, or shouldn’t I…that thought raced through my head. God, she is so bright. I need her image for my Blog, for promotion.
My camera bag was ten feet behind me, laying on the bank. Dam! I stripped a bunch of line off the spool, like a treacherous spider extruding sticky silk as it moves through the air, I retreat to my gear bag, leaving the fish to hang in the river. If it comes off… it comes off. I dig out my Canon from my bag; sling the camera strap around my neck and run to the water’s edge, simultaneously realling in, retreave the slack to see if the fish is still there. Unfortunately, it is. I real and pull this lovely fish( now tired) towards me. This is so stupidly awkward, so selfishly uncaring. I pull her to me but not so shallowly that she can not breath… reach for her tail and hold her against her will. Clumsily, I press off several photos, unhook her( one more shot) and let her go. She seems strong as she races away to her watery home in the depths of a river’s current. None the less, My excitement has been replaced by a fullness of shame. I will not do this again. I tell myself that, when by myself, I shall show a little more caring and not suspend another steelhead like a puppet on a string.
I smell it long before I see it , the mush of salmon flesh rotting afloat in the river’s eddy, and hundreds more of them expired, their muscle melting onto stones. The stench curls my lip and flares the nose. I gag. And I am happy.
I am happy simply because I am alive, because I am fishing, and I am grateful for all this death before me. It is a good auspicious, ancient death, a healthy passing of so many lives of the salmon run. Winter is here, finally, splendidly dressed in her etherial gown of grey sky. Pearls of rain fall reflective (as so am I), falling, falling through the swaying skeletal fingers – the branches of naked trees, and the bony rib cages of salmon spent, but still giving…
Kevin Mather, the swingen machine
Swinging a fly taught me the basics of fly casting. I learned how to efficiently , effortlessly lift the line off the water without splashing. I watch a lot of beginners ripping the line from the surface. It took me a while to realize that I was working too hard. I learned to slowly lift my rod tip up from the water. As I lifted, the line would begin to slide towards me as it began smoothly breaking free of the surface tension.Up, up my line would lift, and I would continue lifting until only my leader was attached to the surface. It was then that I would gradually excellerate the lift with a short, sudden burst of speed to free the fly, sending it up behind me. The leader is much thinner than the fly line and has less surface stick and created less water pickup, thus less splash.
I learned the importance of timing, that is, how long I wait for the line to straighten out on it’s journey befor moving the rod in the opposite direction…less time for a short cast, and wait longer for a longer cast. I learned how to adjust the amount of energy required to send the cast with speed sufficient to maintain a specific path behind or in front of me. I lost flies. Lots of them because I did not pay attention to the path of the loop. I sent a$1.75 plus tax to dangle out of reach in a bush or tree one to many times. You don’t just cast backward and forwards. There is a back cast. There is a forward cast. Send each cast to one point in the air on this planet. You must think, ware does this fly need to go to stay out of trouble ? Ware does the back cast need to go to line up the forward presentation cast to the fish? If you want the fly to travel forward on a downward angle towards the waters’ surface, than you dam well better first send your back cast up! You can’t go down if you are not up. Remember. The fly line goes in the direction of the moving rod tip. There is a pause between cast. You get to rest while waiting for the loop to straighten. this doesn’t mean you go to sleep. Fly fishing is an active sport, it requires strategy while leaving room for spontaneity.
photo of me by, Bill Kiene
Half pounders, I cut my fly fishing teeth on them. I am not talking about some greasy ground up beef paddy between two tastless buns hanging on some golden arches.What’s a half pounder? That is the very question I asked Bill Kiene of Kiene’s Fly shop more than 17 years ago. I was a new-be fresh out of college and wanting to reunite with fishing and the passion of my teenage years as an angler back in the Detroit area. What are half pounders? They are adolescent steelhead swimming into the American River here in Sacramento. There is a small run of them in March and April but the main run of them occurs late July through October. It is possible to catch a half pounder any month of the year. They enter the valley river shed to feed one more time before heading out through the Golden Gate and into the Pacific. After a few years they return in the late autumn and winter as adults to spawn. How do I catch them? Thus started my life as a steel header. These 12 to 20 inch silver bullets were my first Love.
My techniques for catching this gilled anadramouse drug have developed over the years. Way back in the beginning, I asked Bill, how do I fish for them? It was late August. He walked me over to the fly selection and grabbed a half dozen of some fly. What is this??? Brindle bugs size # 10. What do I do with them? Tie them onto a 10 ft. 3x leader and swing them. Swing them? Just what do you mean? Cast the fly quartering down stream, make a mend up river to slow down the swing and try not to break the fish off when it hits. If you do not hook up, then make another cast a little longer, and then a little longer ; cast further out successively until you no longer can control the cast. Then take 3 or 4 steps down stream and then cast again ,short first, and then further and further. Keep moving. The rest is history for me. The fish were in, lots of them. I broke most of them off and landed a few. I was hooked…
I just finished standing over the hot stove, reducing my neighbors gift of orange and yellow pear tomatoes into a concentrated sauce of evaporated juice-essence, a mingling of curry, cardamon pods, and honey bubbling with a little bit of sweet chili paste thrown in for good, spicy measure. It takes time to create a delicious sauce. One must take raw ingredients and create a dancing reduction of flavors. For some reason, this makes me think of this evening spent wading the waters of the American River.
I went to nature’s cup-board in search of summer steelhead, but the shelves were bare. .. not a grab, bump, pull, nor nip. This was par for the course for me these last weeks. The river would throw me a bone from time to time but, for the most part, the grocery store was closed. Okay. If you can’t have fresh ingredients then make a stew. And so, instead of catching, I started thinking… I left the river not with the pull of a surprised fish but instead , I went away with the reminder that catching fish, relative to this human being, has nothing to do with serious life or death consequences. I will not starve if my hook doesn’t find bone and flesh. I am not an Eskimo of the brutal, uncompromising North who must feed his wife and children with fresh blood and blubber because the nearest super market is thousands of miles away over the frozen tundra.
I fish because I love to submerse my being in the wetness of water, and observe the unfolding of a fly line’s beautiful oval.. I might have been a famous water polo player, inventor of the hangman’s’ knot, Christopher Columbus, captain of the tv episode, “The Most Deadly Catch”, or St. John The Baptist. But no. I simply am a recreational fisherman. Sure, I too am a professional who pays his rent and buys plastic covered USDA chickens with the earnings of an instructor and fishing guide. Hell. I simply love to fish… feel the pressure of a trillion acres of a mountain’s melting pushing against my legs. The water’s onrushing power reduces this fragile recipe of the flesh and blood of my being into a reveling bowl of ephemeral stimuli. My feet dig into the gravel of life in search of a foothold, for a sense of balance. I am a indentured space filling with sensation. Fishing is a place-setting of spoon, fork, and knife along side a banquet ware the main course is a dish of today. I can only hope for the desert of tomorrows. Bon appatit.
Sam Yee with his reward
One can never be sure what a river will offer up to you while on your quest for cold blooded fin. I have landed beer cans with crayfish claws waving in my face; once reeled in a slimy braw, T-shirts, and even some guys BVD. It’s amazing what attaches itself to 27 feet of lead core line beneath the chilly suburban depths of this valley’s river shed. The worst thing I ever found while fishing on the American River was a ten year old hispanic boy face down on the river bottom. Last summer I found an expensive snow white stetson hat about 15 feet down below the surface, peacefully resting on the sand. I anchored just below it and dived in. It fits my head perfectly though it is a bit of a mismatch for my personality. That same day I saw something floating on the surface and motored over to find a half shell of a coconut. Neatly arranged in this little tropical raft was an offering of incense, a red rose, nuts and a 5 dollar bill. I photographed it, added a dollar and sent it on its way to the ocean. What’s next???????