walking in his footsteps
“My dad brought me trout fishing here every summer when I was a kid. I’ve been back every year since.” The voice was that of a skinny, leathery-looking rancher-cowboy with slightly graying hair who had just come out of the woods right where I was about to enter.
She put down the wicker basket she was carrying and her fly rod, put her two dogs in the bed of her beat-up truck, opened a cooler with some sandwich food, and sat in the truck door.
I had previously decided that as beautiful as this creek was, there were too many people camping, fishing, dirt bike riding, and just hanging around and I was going to leave or hike the creek right here where the road left the creek and It formed a deep canyon that jutted into the desert. I figured a couple miles of walking would scare off most of these other people and be enough of a challenge to keep all but the hardiest of them.
As I put on my boots to do just that for the remaining hours of the night, a vision emerges from the trees of what I would have expected a fly fisherman to look like 40 years ago. He wasn’t wearing wellies, just blue jeans to protect his legs from the rough California bushes and wellies. He had two small dogs trailing him, a 45 colt tethered to his side and a classic wicker basket hanging low to his side ensuring the presence of no small amount of fish. He had the face of someone who had spent most of his life outdoors, and at sixty-two he looked fit enough to walk wherever he wanted.
He had that upright posture that comes from always working outdoors, and a face and hands that befit that life. Years of fishing had shown him what he needed and what he didn’t. On hot summer days like this one, he certainly didn’t need wellington boots. The coolness of the spring-fed stream on his legs was a welcome relief from the heat he felt as he walked upriver on clear California summer days.
It was six in the evening and I thought I would fish up the river for a couple of hours and then go for a walk.
Joe had that handsome Central California ranch drawl in his voice with a mix of intensity, intimacy, and self-assurance. You could tell that the day at the creek was the kind of day he could cherish over and over again.
When he told me that he had gone to the canyon at seven in the morning and had just left, I reviewed my decision to spend just a couple of hours here. The review was partly prompted by my periodic glances at his basket and I assumed he was ignorant of the five fish limit in this stream or had some very large trout in there. Given his fishing life on this creek, I leaned towards some latitude on the question of how many fish he would take home, but when he opened the basket to put the fish in the cooler, I was surprised by the size of the trout. he was taking out. There were only five fish, but each beautiful native rainbow was the length of your forearm.
He was now convinced that this might well be the place to spend the whole of the next day, for he recounted how he went upstream and did not start fishing until he saw footprints. He went on to point to some holes that were a few miles up the river with big trout and the abundance of wildlife in this canyon including bears. This explained the pistol strapped to his side and made me consider the same platform.
He talked about how fishing had changed over the years and was open with me about what he fished with. When I asked him if he had any dry fly fish, he just said, “I only fish with nymphs.” He said it with the confidence of someone who’s been doing this for years, and I realized I was only four years his junior and could have made the determined decision to dry fly fish whenever possible around the same time as he. the decision not to. I made my decision by comparing the thrill of a fish rising to take a well-presented fly from the surface and its visual adrenaline rush it produces to the other pick, which was such a subtle take that without a taunt line it could be indistinguishable from hitting a rock. while he moved underwater. For me there was no comparison; one embodied everything that was important and visceral about fly fishing and the other was just another way of fishing, albeit more of them.
Now, it’s true that something like eighty percent of a fish’s diet consists of nymphs and the insects that lie below the surface of the water, but this didn’t matter to me compared to the thrill of catching a fish in the surface.
I thought about how a more pragmatic thinker might come to the opposite conclusion when looking at the question of how more fish could be caught. Joe struck me as gentle, confident, and down to earth.
The next morning, as I entered the canyon upriver trying to distinguish his footsteps from the others on the shore, I realized that I was following in the footsteps of someone who had been doing this for over fifty years. As expected, it only took about a mile of fishing upriver for all the other tracks to disappear except Joe’s and his dogs.
My insistence on dry fly fishing whenever possible has left me many days without a fish, but the huge wild native rainbow that hit my fly in the first big hole I hit reassured me that wasn’t going to happen today.
Some of my best fly-fishing memories are days with a good friend who enjoys the sport as much as I do, making our way down a small stream taking turns fishing. We would each throw until we caught one and then the other would catch up until we caught one. There’s an intimacy and camaraderie to this approach to fly fishing that I can’t get any other way.
I felt that camaraderie with Joe this morning as I walked up the creek in just his tracks. It seemed that every time he decided to cross the creek to get a better angle on the next hole, there would be his footprints, having made the same decision as me.
I couldn’t help but wonder, when I caught a pretty rainbow in a deep pond, if Joe got lucky in the same spot. I loved the idea that we were two very different styles of anglers who actually did a lot of thinking. That we were two very different kinds of worlds enjoying the solitude, beauty, and excitement that only this kind of “five mile upriver hike” can offer.
I thought about this as I sat down to lunch and minutes later a deer came out of the woods about fifty feet upstream from me. It was one of those rare lucky moments that happened just because I was sitting perfectly still, downstream but downwind, and wearing sunglasses that hid my eyes. I stood perfectly still for the next ten minutes as he nervously drank from the stream, ate rushes from the bank, drank more, and finally slowly made his way back into the woods as quietly as he had left. A beautiful white tailed deer was the best lunch companion one could ask for.
The day got hotter and drier and I forced myself to keep drinking as I went upstream, but the puddles got bigger just as Joe had promised, and the fish got bigger and wilder, too.
I always see wildlife when hiking along a creek, but today it seemed like an endless parade of nature’s best. At each step I was presented with a little piece of the river or the field in which I found myself. Frogs, snakes, quail, hawks, eagles and deer tracks, bobcats and raccoons let me know that I was never completely alone in this beautiful solitude.
As I hooked my fifth fish that rivaled Joe’s biggest, I looked over my shoulder to see if Joe would nod and decided it wasn’t just the heat that was driving me to do this, but the feeling of making this trip. with the guy she just had. I met but felt as connected as anyone I have ever fished with.
After a long, hot hike, I turned my last beautiful pool into a bathtub. Glad I wore shorts today, I dove into the frozen Spring Fed creek. A noticeable gasp came as I realized just how cold this water really was. I took off my shirt and used it to dry myself and wondered how many times Joe had done the same thing.
I realized that the steps I had taken were the result of a lifetime of Joe’s experiences like mine today, and today they were both of us.