As a principal of a school, I'm given many gifts. I'm able to support teachers in growing their skills, connect with kids, and build a feeling of community at our school. It's truly rewarding work and I love it. However, it's a lot of long hours saturated with stress. Fortunately, I get a good deal of time off to rest and reconnect with nature. Over winter break I took some time out from family obligations and went north on my own. Over the course of two days, I explored some of my favorite rivers and to my delight, they allowed me complete solitude. On one of those rivers, I spent the day being rained on while gliding nymphs through off colored pocket water. The cold weather and damp conditions kept everyone near the fire while I was waist deep, balancing on submerged boulders.
As anticipated, there were plenty of fish to be had. I've fished this particular river for about four years now, mostly solo. There are a few spots that consistently produce fish and they're always rainbows, sometimes big ones. However, this time, I was able to hook up with a nice 19-20" brown that caught me by surprise. Once I landed that big girl, the rest of the day was icing on the cake. I fished slowly, reflecting on the beauty of the river, and took every opportunity to soak in the solitude. Towards the end of the day I explored some new water that had piqued my interest on my last trip. The new water greeted me with good success. I'm not sure about you, but when I'm on my own, I tend to fish the places I know well. The places I know produce fish and that I know few people will be. Sometimes getting away from that routine can be just as, if not more, rewarding. As the sun began to dip behind the pines, I took my last few casts and walked back up the steep dirt trial to my car. With a deep breath and an even deeper sense of contentment, I packed up my fly boxes, broke down my rod, and drove back to the quiet hum of a small mountain town for the evening.
In the past few months I've talked about some of the reasons fishing is such a passion for me. From the complex puzzle trout and moving water present to the beautiful landscapes, and escape from the stresses of every day life, the reasons I fish are many. Most of which are actually pretty hard to articulate in writing, it's something you just have to experience. However, we all know the power of a good friend. A solid fishing buddy is that and so much more.
When I'm on the water, I'm more than happy to spend a few days adventuring on my own. The solitude and silence of being alone in nature is a really great reset button for a self-identified introvert like myself. On the other hand, fishing with a friend or two makes things that much better. Over the years I've fished with quite a few really great people. Some I met in college others through Instagram or at the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club. Regardless of where they've come from, being immersed in nature with a good friend tends to magnify the experience of fooling a tricky brown trout or landing that pig that crushed a 6 inch articulated streamer.
When I'm out on the river with a buddy our approaches vary depending on the water we're fishing. Some days we get to the river and fish "together" giving thumbs up and the occasional hoot or holler from a few holes apart. Other times we're on tiny creeks trading runs and riffles. One of us sneaks up on the fish while the other tries to spot feeding fish. By approaching the river as a team we get to trade tips, advice, flies, and help with the netting or photography of a really nice catch.
Fishing with a friend also gives you time to share stories of fishing adventures past. Long car rides or post river beverages give plenty of time to reminisce about that one pond we'd sneak onto in college, the last trip to Montana, or that rainbow that aired out three times before spitting the hook earlier in the day. This type of comradarie make me enjoy this sport more that I would if I was on the river alone. It's a chance to connect about the happenings of life, push each other to make a cleaner cast, and share in the beauty of the places that fishing takes us.
I'll always appreciate my time on the river alone but sharing the experience with a friend, building relationships, community, and a shared story makes this sport a really special one. I'm not sure if it's just the people I've met through fishing or if it's just anglers in general that seem to be really solid people. We're fortunate to share this great passion and I feel lucky to have friends willing to get out on the river with me. Friends that will fish for 12 hours without hesitation. Friends willing to hike long trails or dip into unknown creeks to chase wild fish. A good fishing buddy is hard to find and even more challenging to replace. I fish because sharing this passion with a friend makes the experience of adventuring through mountains and rivers more memorable.
Get out there and bring your buddy!
The Lower Sac is one of those rivers with ungodly numbers of trout per mile. On a good day, it can be nearly non-stop. The fish that come out of the upper stretches of the river can get huge too! The guide I go with has landed three rainbows over 25 inches this year. All healthy fish with big shoulders. To make it even more fun, the fish fight hard and know how to use the river flows to their advantage. They also eat small bugs, so they're not easy to keep on the line. They're truly amazing trout.
The few times I've fished this river in the past, it's been from a drift boat. Although a drift boat isn't mandatory, it sure makes access easier. It can be an intimidating river on foot. This last weekend, I spent two days up in the Redding area fishing on my own. Since the steelhead rivers were blown out, I took some advice from one of the guys at The Fly Shop and decided to wade fish some sections near Redding.
Upon approaching the river, I wasn't exactly sure where to start. You know that feeling when you have an insurmountable about of work on your desk, or a filthy house to clean? Yeah, that's the feeling. With a little trepidation, I stepped into the river and started throwing drifts in likely holding spots. For some reason I wasn't riding high with confidence about the approach I was taking, but I stuck with it anyways. About 15 minutes into the session, a big (probably just over average for the Lower Sac) rainbow came up and took a look at the dry fly floating over it's head. Just as it was about to take the fly, it quickly retreated to the depths of the run. With that, I knew I was doing something right and my confidence started to move in the right direction. A few minutes later, I was hooked up. Unfortunately, this fish ran left, then right and snapped my 5x within a few seconds. With a huge smile, I kept working the run, knowing I was going to get a good one eventually.
Just then, bugs started coming off the river in earnest. It was time! With a nice long drift, right on the edge of a current seam, a solid fish crushed my dry fly and started running down stream. Wading in the fast current made it difficult to control where the fish was going without breaking off again. Eventually, I was able to get it into some softer water to land it. From there, the flood gates opened and I had a good series of fish that owned me and few more that came to rest in my net. After a several hours of wading in some serious current and landing a solid number of strong wild fish, I made my way to the bank. Once back at the car, I realized it was only 1:00. With Christmas a day away, I reluctantly unlaced the wader boots and packed up for home. I'm regretting the decision to leave early, just a little...
We've all heard the stories surrounding steelhead. Fly fisherman obsessively drawn to winter rivers swollen with rain, cold temperatures made worse by driving rain bordering on sleet, and cast after fish-less cast surrounded by endless wilderness. Until this year, steelhead fishing was a once a year proposition. Something my uncle and I did right before Christmas. Nothing like the steelhead lifestyle I'd read about in books and magazine articles. The authors always seem to describe people hypnotized by the chase of steelhead. Most of the stories had more to do with surviving the elements and keeping warm with fire water than they did with fish.
This season, however, I've begun to more clearly understand the steelhead narrative. It started in October with a seemingly innocuous, unguided, trip to a Northern California steelhead river. My friend Aaron and I spent three full days (sun up to sun down) relentlessly searching for fish. Each run we fished look more likely than the last. By the end of the weekend, we'd hooked and landed two smallish steelhead and I had shattered a rod while setting up my drift. In all, a mildly successful steelhead trip.
Since then, I've been twice more. Each trip becoming more successful than the last. Better river conditions, cleaner drifts, and bigger fish, up the appeal each time. It's never easy, but when you hook one of these fish... there's no turning back. Steelhead give real meaning to the phrase, "The tug, is the drug".
The problem with steelhead fishing though, is that it's highly dependent on weather and river conditions. In my case, most good steelhead rivers are about 5 hours from home, so access isn't exactly easy. Rains bring the rivers up quickly, so planning a trip 2-3 weeks out is a practice in futility. Sometimes, it all comes into place though. When you're lucky you hit the river just as it begins to drop, turning water from chocolate milk brown to steelhead green. That nearly turquoise color sliding by the feet of tall pines and redwoods sets the scene. You hook into a fish and instantly, it runs. Never in a predictable direction. If you're not on your game, you'll have fly line wrapped around your fighting butt and a snapped tippet in the blink of an eye. When you do bring that fish to hand though, it's well worth it. The effort, weather, and unpredictability all drift away when you feel the weight of thousands of years of anadromous evolution in your hands. Whether they're chrome bright with transparent fins or dark green with rosy cheeks, they're a sight to behold. It's enough to have you dreaming about them in your spare time, tying flies late into the night, and forgoing plans with friends when the river conditions are just right.
Steelhead fishing is more than the pursuit of fish. It's about a state of mind. A lifestyle. The fish are a big part of it but it's the search, anticipation, and constant optimism that make it an addiction. The feeling consumes you whether you land fish or not. I use to lament the day that trout season ended but for years to come, it will only be a signal that steelhead fishing is right around the corner.
Fishing, at times, can provide a real challenge. As the old saying goes, "Thats why they call it fishing and not catching." When I first started fly fishing, catching large numbers of fish was my main quest. I wanted to get on the pond or creek and catch as many fish as possible. I'd count each and every one of the fish I landed, backtracking to make sure my count was accurate. As I've grown into the sport, the pursuit of a 30+ fish day isn't as much a draw for me anymore.
Lately I've been much more intrigued with finding big fish or fishing tricky water filled with picky trout. A few of my favorite Northern California spots can be just that. Last weekend, I spent two days trying to get into some larger lake run fish that use this river as important spawning habitat. With a good gravel bottom, deep pools, and dark undercuts, there's a lot of room for big fish to hide and create the next generation.
This time of year, there are usually a good number of trout in the river. However, timing can be a big part of the puzzle. Although I fished hard for two days using a variety of small, winter fly patterns, there either weren't a lot of fish in the system or the cold front had turned them off. Not to mention, the relatively low water levels accompanied by clear water conditions made sneaking up on good sized fish even more difficult.
The challenge of finding big fish and getting them to fall for feathers wrapped around a hook is a huge draw for me. A big enough draw to keep me on a river from sun up to sun down with temperatures as low as six degrees.
Although I didn't land the big fish I was hunting for last weekend, I did have an encounter. An encounter was good enough to keep me coming back for more. My flies drifted with the current on the opposite side of the river, right near the undercut bank. Then, thump, I was hooked up! The fish instantly moved up stream with authority, almost as though he didn't know he was hooked. With a little side pressure applied, he exploded on the surface of the river, then went straight to the bottom and gave a few weighty head shakes. Before long, my size 18 came spitting back across the river. As soon as it had begun, it was over.
As is usually the case, the fight had me both excited and disappointed. I had found a good fish and convinced it to humor me, but in all honesty, I got whooped. That encounter was fuel for the fire though. It kept me out past dark, hands frozen and nose running in the bitter cold. It's times like these. Times when I come close but don't fully feel the satisfaction of landing the big one that makes me love fishing so much. The challenge, the chess match, and the puzzle keep me engaged and wanting more.
We all search for fish for different reasons. Personally, each trip has a slightly different purpose for me. As I mentioned in an earlier post, fishing provides a great opportunity to forget about the stresses of the day-to-day work I do. It gives me time to intently focus on reading water, thinking about fish, and presenting flies in the most natural possible way.
Stress relief is only one of the reasons chasing wild fish matters to me. I was drawn to fishing as a child because of the beautiful, wild places that fish (particularly salmonids) tend to live. These wild places make you feel truly small. Whether you're in the High Sierra, Patagonia, or the massive landscapes of Montana, the search for wild trout will make you feel small.
Earlier this fall a buddy of mine and I met up on one of my favorite Northern California trout rivers. This place is truly wild! Very few people come to fish here. The access is tough, the wading is next to impossible, and the river flows are higher than most feel comfortable with. However, this makes for happy, healthy fish! Over the course of the weekend we spent nearly every sun soaked hour waist deep in the river's cold, nutrient rich waters. The banks of this river are literally choked with vegetation. Once you step foot in the river, you're almost instantly three feet deep, stumbling over bowling ball sized rocks covered in what amounts to grease. Its a challenging river to wade that I don't recommend fishing alone.
While we were there, we stayed in an old abandoned camp ground on the opposite side of the river from the main access road. This led to a weekend without seeing a soul. We had the river to ourselves and it was amazing. The quiet, solitude of the river. The deep, persuasive waters. The strong, healthy wild fish, all made for a weekend where we felt truly immersed in the wild places we love. It's a humbling experience to know the river you're in has the upper hand and that you've got to think about every step you make to avoid serious consequences. It's humbling to be in a river completely surrounded by mountains, trees, osprey, and king fishers. It's fishing in places like this that make me feel truly small. This humbling experience brings perspective to my place on planet earth. We're part of a system that is much, much bigger than we are. It's important for us to recognize that from time to time. We have the potential to have an impact on the resources we use, lets make sure our role has a net positive impact on the wild places we love to fly fish.
Late Fall weather in the Bay Area can be pretty amazing. Even though we're in mid November, the temperatures have held in the mid 60's with bluebird skies. It's far and away my favorite time of year. In an attempt to take advantage of the great weather and get a fly fishing fix, a buddy and I decided to drive up to Sonoma to visit the Leland Ranch Fly Shop. I've been wanting to visit this spot for quite some time now. It's always fun to visit a new fly shop right? Leland started in the heart of San Francisco back in 1985 and has since moved to a much more spacious location just 40 minutes north of the city, in the heart of wine country.
Upon arrival, we realized this was much, much more than just your typical fly shop. The ranch has a beautiful plot of land hosting two small bass ponds, a horse shoe pit, bocce ball court, and a perfect back patio for having a drink and taking in the view. They also host fly casting lessons and design their own line of rods, reels, and lines. Casey, one of Leland's casting instructors, gave us a tour of the shop and grounds. He walked us through the rods and reels they've been producing and took us to the back of the property just as a biplane was taking off from the airport next door.
We spent the rest of the afternoon, working through their different rods and trading fishing stories on the back lawn. From classic glass, to high performance graphite, and spey rods, they pretty much do it all. Although we brought our own rods to cast, we never took them out of the rod tubes. Casey, brought out their classic graphite trout rods and gave us both some really helpful tips using three simple principles (remove slack, pull line, and come to a stop). By focusing on those three techniques, we were able to improve accuracy and keep our loops tight.
After throwing some line on their high performance rods, we broke out their glass rods. The slow action was a ton of fun to cast and I was really impressed with the classic styling they put into the line of rods and reels. Although the rods had no problem shooting line, in my mind, they're perfect for the small streams of the Sierras. They even have a six piece model that would be perfect for backpacking.
With the sun setting, it was time to head back to the city. It was a perfect way to spend an afternoon. Improving our casting, getting to meet the great Leland staff, and testing out some really nice rods. This is the perfect place to bring a friend that's looking for some great fly casting instruction. Better yet, if your significant other is looking for some good instruction (we all know how tough it can be to teach your loved one a new hobby) this is the place to come. Wine tasting, followed by a fly casting lesson and a killer sunset? Yep, this one's on my list of places to come back and visit!
For more on the Leland Ranch Fly Shop, check out their website.
The rain started to come down this past weekend and contrary to what my inner self thought I would do, I bee lined it straight for the trails, bike in tow. I'd been wanting to drive down the coast and check out one of the costal steelhead creeks south of San Francisco, so I threw the bike on top of the car and meandered my way down Highway One.
Once there, I cruised up the valley carved by centuries of rain and creek wanderings. Western Scrub Jays called from redwood canopies and ferns dripped with the day's drizzle. California Newts crawled out from their hiding places in celebration. However, even though we've been getting bits of rain here and there, the creek itself was clearly impacted by the drought.
Riding my bike along the creek, I couldn't help but think of the steelhead runs that've been coming up this creek for centuries. Steelhead, finding gravel that's just right to build redds to lay their eggs. Water moving at just the right speed to keep their eggs healthy and thriving. A process this delicate, requires a healthy, balanced ecosystem. One where parts work in harmony to support and nurture each other. The rain's been a long time coming. The creek was low. There was sediment building up on the creek bottom and the water was moving so slowly it lacked the oxygenating bubbles that adult steelhead, eggs, and alevin depend on. In spots, the creek had grinded to a halt, trickling through the cobbles on its way to the next pool.
In the coming months I plan to check out a few more Central California steelhead creeks. This one's on the top of the list, but not before some significant rains. Ones that will open up the sand bar blocking the creek's connection to the Pacific Ocean. Ones that scour the river bottom, creating space for paired off steelhead to do their dance. Steelhead are resilient, there's not doubt about that. However, a small population like the one inhabiting this creek can be erased with only a few years of drought. Let's all keep our fingers crossed that the rains come fast and strong. The Central California Coast Steelhead could use the water.
As I'm sure many of you know by now, I spend the majority of my time living in the heart of San Francisco. Since I've moved here, I've met a lot of really interesting people. At some point, fishing usually enters into the conversation, and most people ask, "Why do you like fishing so much?" Each time I've found myself responding in a different way. I've given this question a lot of thought in recent weeks and can't seem to nail down a clear answer. There are so many reasons I enjoy the pursuit of wild fish it's hard to boil down into a phrase or word. It's even harder to explain to someone who's never done it before. Over the next few weeks, I'm going to do a series of blog posts that dive a little deeper into this question. I encourage you to join in on the conversation and share your perspective.
Although it's not the most important reason I chase trout, stress relief plays a part in why fishing is so important to me. In college, I remember leaving the stress of school (In retrospect that stress seems so laughable now) behind by tossing my little 2/3wt rod into the back of my truck and driving a few miles to a tiny little pond in front of a hospital. I'd toss small wooly buggers and poppers to eager bluegill. The time away from studies was such a nice way to take a deep breath and recharge for the work ahead.
Last weekend was just about the same. I dipped out of town and spent a few days wading through two of my favorite Northern California rivers. The weekend started with a 6:00 a.m. wake up call from a friend of mine (one of the fishiest guys I know) who wanted to throw streamers at first light. We got on the river just before the sun peaked over the pine trees and spent a few hours meandering through boulders and wading through thick morning fog. We landed a few nice fish and parted ways a few hours later. He went back to his duties as father and husband and I went back to my uncles place to plan for the evening hatch.
The next 24 hours gave me the opportunity to be on the water completely alone, which was exactly what I needed. It gave me time to mentally step away from work, reflect on some bigger life happenings, and overly focus on getting a clean drift for some super picky trout. At the end of the weekend, I was not only rested physically, but was mentally recharged and ready to take on the busy day-to-day life of working in the city. Fishing does that for me. It gives me the room to block things out or the space to really think deeply about where I'm at in life. The calming stress relief that fly fishing can provide is one of the reasons I love getting out on the water, even if it's at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday morning!
Most of my life I've spent chasing trout. From Montana to the Golden Trout Wilderness, I've been on so many trips I can barely keep track of them all at this point. More recently though, I've caught the steelhead bug. My best friend and I had fished for them a handful of times in college and while we were both teaching. As you could imagine, we usually came out empty handed. It wasn't until I took my first guided steelhead trip just over two years ago that I was able to bring one to the net. Last year the bar was raised when I landed a majestic 30' wild winter run fish. Certainly a fish I'll never forget. So, when my friend Aaron suggested that we head out for steelhead without a guide, my expectations were hopeful, yet low. In the end, they're steelhead right? It's not like you're going to land one every time you hit the water.
After a good long drive through Friday evening traffic, we set up our tents in the dark. Exhausted from a long work week I slept like a baby. We were up and out of the campsite before sunrise. In fact, we went the entire weekend without seeing our campsite under the sun. We spent our first day drifting and swinging through every likely run. Exploring new stretches of water and scouring our maps. Unfortunately, we came up empty handed, something I largely expected. Day two was much of the same through the early parts of the morning. Cast after cast, each one with the hopes of feeling the line come tight on a steelhead. There's something about steelhead fishing where I feel like I could get bit on every cast. Mid way through the morning, Aaron was letting his fly swing through the end of a deep run and hooked up on a nice hen steelhead. Needless to say we were both pretty excited to have found a fish! After a mid-day lunch break, we hit the water again and sure enough, I got into a nice little fish. The feeling of landing your first unguided steelhead is pretty amazing, even if the fish wasn't of much size. Knowing we both landed fish made the remainder of the trip icing on the cake.
Back at camp that evening we sat reminiscing about the new water covered, the fish, and the amazing stars surrounding our campsite. It had been quite a day. On the third day of the trip we decided to fish until noon. The scenery was breathtaking and the river had a lot of great water to pic apart. With a broken rod (One I'd bought about 12 years ago) I was able to spend the morning watching. The mountains, turning leaves, and cold water brought a sense of peace to the whole trip for me.
After three days and about 27 hours of fishing, we had two strikes and two fish to show for our work. Some might call that an unsuccessful trip or a waste of time even. I think I speak for both Aaron and I when I say, there aren't many things I'd rather do than spend a weekend standing in a river waving a stick. The solitude, mystery, and optimism that steelhead fishing can bring is an experience I look forward to pursuing more deeply in the coming years. It's less about the fish and more about the lifestyle of pursuing one of the most majestic fish I can think of. If you haven't tried it yet, you're missing out.