On the three-hour drive up Interstate 5 to Redding early Tuesday, I kept telling myself that I was just exploring.
The terrain was familiar: Fields of rice, sunflowers and pasture covered the entire expanse of the Sacramento Valley. We could see the silhouettes of the low coastal mountain range on the west, and the more extreme Sierra Nevada range on the east. On our right, the sun was making its lurid ascent, tinted an unnatural orange by the layer of wildfire smoke that’s coated the state for more than a month.
This is where I hunt ducks, but it’s not that time of year. I was heading to Redding to do some fly fishing on the Sacramento River with my boss, Nick.
The addiction of fly fishing had long been a mystery to me. Nick is nuts about it – his office door is covered with pictures of him grasping opalescent, dripping trout. So one day last semester, I asked him if he would take me with him on a fly fishing trip some day.
Nick agreed instantly. Too quickly, in fact. I began to fear that my innocent request was a bit like saying, “Hey, I hear people really love crack, and I’d love to see what the fuss is about. Can I try some?” And you know how addicts are, always eager to drag someone else into the fold.
But I stuck with the plan, and this was the appointed week. “Be at my house at 5:30 a.m.,” Nick told me on Monday.
I was prepared – an open vessel, ready to absorb new knowledge. I really wanted to understand.
Don’t get me wrong; I get hunting addiction. And though fishing isn’t No. 1 with me, I do understand its allure. Nothing wrong with hanging out on a boat, dropping a line in the water and enjoying some beer while waiting for a hit. That halibut fishing last week was pretty sweet.
But what was the draw of this particular method of fishing in which the goal was to come home empty-handed?
See, that’s the part I really don’t get: catch and release. Getting up early, spending money on gear and suffering whatever the elements decide to throw at you seems like a worthwhile endeavor when you combine the spiritual element of participating in nature with the satisfaction of bringing home an ice chest full of whatever.
But doing all that and coming home with nothing to eat? I was struggling with that.
“So,” I asked Nick Tuesday morning as we motored north in his electric blue hybrid Camry. “If I catch any fish, can I keep one or two?”
He considered my question gravely. “I don’t know. We’ll have to ask the guide.”
I evaluated Nick’s tone. It seemed that even asking the question would risk offending the guide, like asking a Catholic priest if he’d like to get married and have babies with me. Wow, this was going to be a lot more difficult than I thought. I’d have to lie low and not be my normal obnoxious self.
Actually, that turned out to be impossible, because I could not stifle some of my observations.
It started at home base, The Fly Shop in Redding, where we would meet our guide, Ernie Denison. I’ve never been in a fly fishing shop before and quite honestly didn’t expect anything much different from any other outdoors store. But I immediately noticed that the main part of the shop’s floor was covered with display cases featuring hundreds – maybe even thousands – of bizarrely named flies. Floating Carcass. Pregnant Scud. Mr. Hankey. The Creature from URANUS.
They were so colorful and interesting I had to go back and extricate my camera from Nick’s trunk to take a few pictures. As I moved around the display cases, all divided into all these tiny boxes holding even tinier flies, I had an epiphany that I blurted out to any man in the store who would listen: “It’s like a bead store!”
They ignored me. Not what they wanted to hear? Too girlie?
I thought I knew what to expect next, too, but I was wrong again.
We all drove down to the South Bonnyview boat ramp where we’d launch Ernie’s drift boat. While the men got ready, putting together rods and tying flies to the lines and such, I waited.
I spotted turkeys in the little oak woodland that surrounded our parking lot. I waited. I sat on a giant hunk of concrete and peered into the oak tree over our head. I waited. I took pictures of Ernie tying tiny flies to fishing line with his impossibly thick and tanned hands. I waited.
There we were, with water no more than 30 feet from us, and we were sitting on land! It was taking forever.
Another epiphany! “This is like a girl getting ready for a date!” I declared. “Very elaborate.”
Ernie glanced up at me – the kind of glance where you don’t move your head, and just raise your eyes skeptically – and I swear I could read his mind. What the hell was Nick doing bringing along an insufferable dingbat like this?
But really, who knew fly fishing would be so … feminine?
Onward. Our plan for the day was to drift downstream. There was no motor on this boat; instead, Ernie – a burly man, and truly a manly man, despite all my snarky observations about fly fishing so far – would power us through the current and the riffles with two sturdy oars.
Having spent my weekends in college drifting down the American River on rafts, something about this venture finally seemed familiar. I find nothing more peaceful than a quiet drift on a Western river – skinny and fast – with little but the sound of rushing water and tumbling riverbed rocks to accompany me on the journey.
We wasted no time getting started, either. Moments after we pushed out, Ernie told me to watch Nick cast and explained what he was doing so I could give it a try next. “I might have to cast for you,” he warned.
Hold the rod with your finger holding the line. Pull out some line. No, the other side of your finger. More line. Throw it back. Let some line slip through your fingers. Now throw it forward. One more time. Keep the line straight upstream from the flies. Take up slack. Take in the line; we’re moving across river.
Man, this was complicated. I loved it.
I was doing a crappy job of casting, but I swear I got a strike within 60 seconds. There was my first hit of crack.
But there was so much to learn. Last week, when halibut hit, my job was to lean forward and reel in, then pull back, lean forward and reel in, then pull back. I tried that Tuesday and instantly learned that leaning forward means losing the trout.
The hooks, you see, are tiny, and the barbs have been crimped, which I think has something to do with the fact that whipping those lines around occasionally causes a hook to become imbedded in a face, and a barbless hook is much easier to remove from your face.
And of course, from the fish, which you inexplicably plan to set free.
I think on my third strike, I’d gotten something the size of a sturgeon. Maybe bigger.
“Twenty feet long!”
“Twenty-five – all three tons of her.”
Due to my rookieness, I lost that one. But it was still like another hit on the crackpipe. I want MORE!
And more would come. They did all day long, in a steady stream. Some, I reeled in, taking a brief moment to revel in their glittery pinkness. Others, I lost, forgetting myself and pointing the tip of the rod down, setting the little bugger free. Or, pulling back too hard when I needed to let them run, snapping the line and forcing Ernie to put down the anchor and set up my line again.
But I was casting better and better, and making fewer and fewer mistakes when I got a strike.
Once I got a big one – definitely picture worthy. And in my high point of the day, I got another one about 60 seconds later. Made me feel downright talented.
But of course, we were throwing all of them back.
Ernie said something about regulations and various stretches of the river. Turns out the regs are complex - click on the picture to see what I mean.
But not everything we reeled in was a hyper-protected trout. At one point, Nick reeled in a sucker fish, one of the more disgusting things I’ve ever seen. I’d already broached the subject of keeping a non-trout fish, and I had to consider quickly whether I wanted this one.
“Where would you put it?” Ernie asked.
“In the ice chest,” I said.
“My clean ice chest?” he responded.
Don’t say it, Holly. Don’t say it!!!
In the end, we tossed him back because I wasn’t sure Boyfriend – Mr. Fish and Seafood Cooking – would want this one. I was, of course, wrong. “Holly,” he said when I called him that night, “bring me anything you get. I’ll eat it.”
See? That’s where I’m coming from.
By the time we ended our day at the Balls Ferry boat ramp, I’d caught – and released – six trout, lost probably three or four more and had a bunch of other strikes I was too lame to get – not a bad day for a beginner. Nick reeled in probably three times as many.
I really, really liked it.
Floating. Casting with great attention to detail. High learning curve. Gorgeous fish. A long day on the water – definitely longer than it would be if you caught your limit and quit.
By the end of the day, I was asking Nick and Ernie how much it would cost to get set up with a basic rod and stuff. I was – pathetic pun intended – hooked.
But I still wasn’t sold on this whole catch-and-release thing. I want to fish where I can keep the little buggers. Hey, Brad Pitt kept them in A River Runs Through It. I remember – I was watching closely. (Man, he’s just irresistible in that movie.)
Nick and Ernie did their best to dissuade me, at one point noting that there was a terrible toxic old mine upstream and that the fish we’d caught that day were probably loaded with mercury and dioxin.
Funny, I hadn’t seen any warnings about that.
But I wasn’t worried about that anymore. I finally understood the magic of fly fishing. All I had to do now was open my wallet and hook up with some catch-and-eat types.
Wanna fly fish in NorCal? Ernie was a fantastic guide who knew the good spots and had skill with the oars, and he was doubly fantastic for putting up with my crap. The Fly Shop, which runs the guide service, is located at 4140 Churn Creek Road in Redding. You can call them at (530) 222-3555. Tell ‘em NorCal Cazadora sent you. Don’t be surprised if they say, “Who?” Ernie’s trying to forget me.
© Holly A. Heyser 2008