Ansul Watrous ready to fish
The mayflies were hatching in Montana, the streams falling and clearing, and the trout, hungry after winter’s privations, were on the bite. But I was headed for San Diego, not a destination where many fly fishermen would choose to spend a week’s vacation.
I live in Washington; a famous trout stream flows a couple of miles from my house. Over long weekends I’ll fish the Deschutes in Oregon, Montana’s Bitterroot, the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene in Idaho. Coming to Southern California to fish had never crossed my mind. But circumstances conspire, and instead of driving east I was flying south, a four-piece travel rod and my pitiful collection of bass flies tucked in my carry-on bag.
As I waited for my bags at the carousel, I noted a couple of huge rod cases and a monster tackle box, tuna lures big as trout visible through its translucent sides.
Fishing is big business in San Diego. The Yellow Pages list 18 tackle-and-bait shops, 29 charter boat operators. The only mention of fly fishing is a small ad for Stroud Tackle. When the shop opened at one the next day, a Saturday, I was there.
Set back from Morena Boulevard, enough to allow parking for several cars, and identified only by an unobtrusive sign on the store front, Stroud’s isn’t easy to find. Although it was only moments after opening, several customers already were discussing purchases with a white-haired, bearded gentleman I took to be the owner. While waiting my turn I examined the store.
Stroud’s salesroom is 20 by 40 feet. Every foot is used. Stuffed fish line the upper walls, below them hang float tubes, fins, and nets. Glass- fronted counters hold rows of gleaming reels, extra spools, coils of brightly colored fly line. Glass-topped cases divided into hundreds of compartments filled with flies sit atop the counters; thousands more flies fill shaliow- drawered cabinets. Racks holding feathers, fur, tinsel, chenille, and the myriad other needs of fly tiers fit into any unused niche. The floor space is dominated by racks of fly rods, beautiful and delicate combinations of high technology and painstaking hand craftsmanship. A bookcase displays fly fishing literature. Professional bass fishermen host Saturday morning TV shows; professional fly fishermen write books. Three times more books have been written about fly fishing than any other sport.
Eileen and Bill Stroud
Finished with his other customers, Bill Stroud turned to me. A self-described “Santa Claus look- alike,” Bill does resemble the jolly old elf, at least to white hair and beard, twinkle in the eye, and gentle friendliness. He’d still need pillows for the stomach, though. He and his wife Eileen escaped to San Diego from lives as insurance underwriters on the East Coast in the late ’60s. “We opened the door here on the first of October 1970, but then I was primarily in the salt water business. I repaired rods and built rods, I repaired reels, sold bait. We slowly gravitated to fly fishing; we’ve done that probably 20 years now. Eileen and I joined the San Diego Fly Fishing fly club in 75 or 76; they only had about 25 or 30 members. They met up at Balboa Park, and most of what they did was compare their fishing tackle with each other and tell each other how great it was. Most members of the club fished out of the area, and they still do. There’s a contingent that fish Lake Cuyamaca or Lake Morena, mostly guys that like to float tub and get together and talk.
“We slowly got more and more involved with the club. Now we’re their headquarters. I was president four different times. We still do all kinds of things for the club, but I don’t get any time to fish with any of these people. We spend all of our time in here.”
He breathed a small sigh and some of the twinkle left his eye. “It’s very confining. I couldn’t walk through that door if I wanted to go fishing. There’s just my wife and myself, and we do our fishing vicariously, through the customers. We’re always here — we open the door at one o’clock, technically, but we’re here at nine o’clock in the morning, and people are coming in and out, we eat lunch on the run, we close at six, most of the time, but not always, because there’s always somebody here at 6:00, sometimes it’s 6:30,7:00,7:30 at night.”
“When somebody had a fishing story to tell,” I asked, “they come to you?”
“Not necessarily. A lot of the information I get is second or thirdhand. Most of the club members don’t tell me a lot of things. Why, I don’t know.”
“Who do they tell them to?”
“Each other,” he said, giving a little shrug. “Give me some advice on fly selection,” I asked. “I brought along a few bass flies, mostly Woolly Buggers and Leaches. What else should I have?”
“Well, those are good, mostly in the smaller sizes, sixes, eights. These lakes have so many different species, the smaller flies will catch trout and pan fish as well as bass. You should have some poppers too. Come over here.” He led me to one of the fly cabinets, pulled out a drawer. The compartments were filled with multihued creations of clipped deer hair; frogs, mice, little fish, and mythical creatures existing only in some fly tier’s mind. “I keep these around, some people swear by them.” He picked up a tiny, almost exact representation of a bluegill. “It looks like it should catch a fish; I suspect it mostly catches fishermen.”
He pulled out the next drawer down. It contained more conventional poppers, brightly painted balsa wood bodies with white rubber legs and feather tails. He rummaged through the drawer, selected a half dozen different flies.
“These should do the job, the bluegill will jump all over them, and you may catch a bass, too.”
“Now that I’ve got all this stuff,” I asked, “where do I go to fish?”
“Best advice I can give you is to go out to Lake Connor tomorrow morning. Every Sunday from 9 to 12 the club gives fly fishing lessons there. They teach casting, show people how to set up their equipment. Somebody will give you some advice on where to fish.”
Fly fishing fly
When I arrived at Lake Connor shortly after nine the next morning, the fly fishermen were gathering. Clumps of gray-haired men, many wearing San Diego Fly Fishing Club baseball caps, strung up fly rods and talked quietly. Others, younger, and mostly men alone, wandered about with the distracted self- effacing air that characterizes an outsider at an in-group gathering. I wandered too, eavesdropping on conversations. Much of the club’s purpose was still about equipment: new rods, reels, lines were displayed and passed about for admiration. All the fishing talk I heard concerned far-off destinations: a recent trip to the Green River in Utah, plans for a summer month in Montana, the possibilities of a long weekend in the Northern Sierras.
About 9:30, a man in a club cap walked over to one of the park tables and said loudly, “If you’ll all listen for a moment... I think everyone’s here, I’d like all the people who are here for lessons to gather around the table.” The different groups parted, although they’d never actually joined. The students, some clutching fly rods they’d obviously never handled before, moved toward the table; the members, their rods now strung with fly lines, went down to the edge of the wind-riffled lake.
A dozen hula hoops, painted white or fluorescent orange, were staggered 20 to 40 feet offshore along a couple hundred feet of bank. The members separated into smaller groups, two or three to a casting position, and began to toss their “flies” (actually clumps of bright pink yarn tied on the ends of leaders). I watched the fly casters and listened with half an ear to the instructor introduce his subject.
“Fly casting is not a natural act,” he said, as his comrades at lakeside proceeded to make it look as natural and comfortable as breathing.
But he was so correct. I’ve never seen a beginner pick up a fly rod and make anything that resembled a decent cast. Natural athletes seem to be the worst, as their repeated failures cause them to try to remedy the problem with sheer strength. The real cure lies in delicacy and timing. “Fly casting” is a misnomer; the term “line casting” more accurately describes the act. The fly, usually a nearly weightless bit of fluff around a hook, would by itself not cast a foot. It is the thick and relatively heavy fly line that is the analog to the spincaster’s lure.
The casters were starting to get their rhythm now, the clumps of yam jumping off the water and following the line in long arches high above the casters’ heads. Just as the line straightens behind an almost vertical rod (novices always bring their rods much too far back), the caster brings the rod forward sharply, a hand movement of less than a foot. For a fraction of a second, nothing happens; the force of the angler’s forward thrust is added to the backward tug of the fly line and stored in the arc of the fly rod. The thrust ends as abruptly as it began, and the rod, now 45 degrees off the vertical, straightens. The line, accelerated by the straightening rod, rolls out above the lake as a smooth hoop that releases its last bit of energy by gently plopping the yam into one of the targets.
The casters trade rods back and forth. Watching them, I can feel more sympathy for the obsession with equipment. I’m obsessed too; it’s impossible to be a serious fly fisherman and not be. A spinning rod is just a rod. Given enough weight and a functional reel, most anyone will chunk a lure into the next county. A bad fly rod, like several I see being tentatively caressed by the students, can make casting nearly impossible. The whippy wand that looks so good being waved back and forth in the sporting goods shop will not store the power needed to drive the line forward. The results are casts that fall to the ground behind you or come across your head so low the fly snags on your ear. A good rod will absorb all the power a caster can exert and will transfer it smoothly into line speed.
All modern fly rods are hollow tubes of longitudinal graphite fibers bonded together by epoxy resins. Graphite because the fibers are extraordinarily stiff for their size and weight, enabling the manufacturers to build very light, thin rods that will store and transfer the power needed to cast a fly. Top-quality rods use graphite fibers that are as much as three times stiffer than those used in cheaper construction, and they’re bonded with the absolute minimum amount of resin. Most of the rods the fly club members were using cost between $300 and $400, good reels start at over a $100, fly line is about $40; the average price of these state- of-the-art outfits is well over 500 bucks. It’s possible to beat this price considerably, but difficult if you’ve had no experience with the sport.
I walked down to where two of the accomplished casters practiced. They were in their late 20s or early 30s, 20 years younger than any of the other casters. We introduced ourselves. The slighter man, his long hair, long beard, and drooping mustache obscuring his features, was Mark Smith; his friend a big, ruggedly handsome sort with an engaging grin, Terry Lutnick. Terry is the immediate past president of the fly club. “We joined several years ago, got totally involved, then I moved up north to Sun City. I went fishing, came home, and got a phone call, ‘You’ve been nominated for president.’ I live an hour and 15 minutes away. I’m the furthest person away in this entire club. Why me?”
I wanted to talk about the fascination with trout. Here I’d come to San Diego prepared to fish for bass, and all I heard was trout talk.
“Yeah,” Terry replied, “it’s always been that way. I’m just as guilty as anyone. There’s hardly any that fish for anything but trout. We’ve got four or five members that fish the salt regularly, a few guys that fish for bass, but everybody runs out to those few lakes that have the trout in them.”
We talked about the recent movie A River Runs through It, supposedly a paean to fly fishing, all noting how poorly the fishing scenes had been done, with close-ups of actors clumsily flailing their rods alternating with long shots of actors’ doubles performing impossibly intricate and overlong casts. “Do you think it’s brought new people to the sport?” I asked
“Oh yeah. Even before the movie, the telephone commercial, the Chevy truck ad on the trout stream, it’s become the ‘in’ thing. I don’t know if it’s good or bad. It’s a sport that draws the people with the money — the lawyers, the doctors. They go out and spend four or five thousand dollars for five days of fishing, have the latest Sage rod, cost over $400, people just buying the experience.”
By now, the lecture portion of the class was over and the students were starting to drift toward the casting positions at the lake’s edge. I’d seen people learning to cast before. What I wanted was to go fishing. The instructor, Ned Sewell, had been pointed out as one who fished a lot locally. As he packed up his materials, I asked where I might go to catch a fish or two.
“A group of us will be going out to Lake Morena on Wednesday; you’re welcome to join us. It’s mostly retired people, we use float tubes and fish for trout, bass, carp. Bring along a lunch; there’s no concession where we fish. Afterwards we’ll usually stop at a restaurant for dinner.” He drew me a map showing how to get to the lake and the area where they would be fishing.
“How about this afternoon? I’ve been in town two days, and I’d like to start fishing. I’ve got waders, but I don’t have a float tube yet.”
“Well, I’d go to Cuyamaca. The fly fishermen usually fish the south end; it’s shallow enough to wade and the boats don’t bother you. We were up there last week and one of the members caught 60 bluegill before he stopped counting. You might hook a bass, too.”
Another map was produced, and I left Lake Connor with the promise to meet Ned and his friends on Wednesday.
I’ve spent a number of vacations in San Diego but have never ventured much east of El Cajon, imagining the land beyond there a flat, featureless desert stretching to the distant Sierras. It was a pleasant surprise, as I climbed past Alpine and turned onto the narrow road that twists through the hills toward Cuyamaca, to be in rolling, wooded country that reminded me of the east slope of the Rockies in Montana.
Several hours after leaving Lake Connor, I eased into the water at the south end of Lake Cuyamaca. I tied on one of the poppers Bill Stroud sold me and started casting. The lake was shallow. Fifty feet from shore it wasn’t much over knee deep, and weeds grew thick all the way to the surface. I spent more time cleaning weeds from my bug than fishing. After an hour of fruitless casting and weed-cleaning, I moved down the west shore to a less overgrown area. Walking along the bank, I came upon a fellow fly fisherman sitting under a tree. I’d been fishing the right place, he assured me, but “they’re not biting yet, probably be another couple of hours.
I was impressed by his patience, but preferring to kill the time fishing, I continued another 200 yards up the west bank. Here the weeds extended only 20 feet and I was up to my waist at 30 feet out. The popper had produced no action, and I had lost confidence in it. I tied on an olive-colored Woolly Bugger, a subsurface fly that, while not being an exact replica of any specific creature, vaguely represents a number of natural fish foods. I tossed the first cast toward the middle of the lake, gave it a couple of seconds to sink, and twitched it several inches. There was an angry boil where the fly had entered the water, and I hooked what felt to be a substantial fish. The fight was sullen rather than spectacular, the fish yielding ground grudgingly but not taking out much line, and in under a minute I grasped him by his lower lip and hoisted him from the water. It was a largemouth bass, maybe a bit over two pounds — not a trophy by any means, but my own personal best.
Encouraged by success, I repeated my first cast. And repeated it again, and again, and tried variants of it. Ail fruitless. While my fishing hadn’t done much for the fish, it had attracted the attention of the other fishermen. I heard a little boy ask his father, “Daddy, what’s that man doing?”
“He’s fishing with a fly.”
There was a pause.
“Daddy, how’s he get it on the hook?”
Another father was explaining the intricacies of wading. “You see, he’d got on these rubber pants....”
The lake was fall of rental boats. Many fathers had decided it was time to teach the kid to fish. Some seemed serious about fishing, but more typical was the boat — the little Suzuki outboard buzzing furiously — that zigzagged toward me, the grade school operator swinging the motor from side to side, almost dipping the gunwales at each turn. Two or three of his contemporaries were flinging lures and reeling them frantically in. The father sat in the middle seat drinking a beer and occasionally shouting at the helmsman, “Go left!” The boat lurched 90 degrees to the left. “Right now, straighten it out!” Another 90-degree turn. They missed me by 20 feet; I had to jerk my line out of the way, however Another solitary gentleman was having problems with his Suzuki. It wouldn’t troll slowly enough to suit him. He’d idle it down as far as it would go, get his line out, and the motor would cough and die. I first noticed him because of his shouted “Shit!” at one of these deaths. He’d tug at the starter cord, but invariably before the motor would start, his trolling gear would have settled into the weeds at the bottom of the lake and he’d have to untangle it. The whole process did not noticeably improve his disposition. The simple “Shit!” was replaced by more rococo expressions. By the end of the afternoon I could hear him far across the lake beating on the motor cowling, screaming at the top of his lungs, “You dirty cocksucking sonofabitch! Start, you motherfucker!"
I eventually tired of the nonproductive bass fishing and turned to face the shore.' Up a narrow channel between the weeds there was a small swirl. I tossed the fly into the spreading ripples. Before it had sunk an inch, there was another swirl and a sharp tug. It was an eight-inch bluegill, a scrappy little fish, and it would be tasty too. I slipped him on my stringer, feeling that perhaps I could fulfill my promise of a fish dinner. During the next couple of hours I worked my way up the shoreline, catching a bluegill every few casts, my mind settling into the Zen-like concentration on the Now that good fishing brings.
I hadn’t fished for bluegills since I was ten. A friend and I had discovered a “secret” bluegill pond, a small gravel pit hidden behind much larger pits that were annually stocked with trout. The trout were mostly gone after Opening Day, but the bluegills were there all summer. A piece of worm on a hook, a bobber a couple of feet above, the bobber would bounce and quiver gently, tiny ripples would spread from it. Timing was important. A jerk at the first twitch would send the hook and chewed-upon worm flying over my head; wait too long and the fish would nibble the hook bare.
Toward the end of the summer, my friend found a fishtrap in the family’s barn, an illegal relic of the Depression. His grandfather had used it to feed the family during hard times. We baited it with stolen bacon and threw it in our pond one evening. When we pulled it out the next morning, it was filled with fish: a score of bluegills, several small bass, and in the very bottom an evil-looking five-pound catfish.
We paraded our trophy home in triumph and carried it about town to show our friends. It must have been disposed of quietly by one of our mothers, because I remember nothing of eating it, but it changed our perception of the pond. The little bluegills lost their allure, and we dredged the bottom with increasingly nasty chunks of homemade “stink bait.” We never caught another catfish, and by the next summer I’d become a trout fisherman. Many years later I went back to the pond, but the bluegills were gone, probably frozen out in a hard winter; nevertheless, it was they and that little pond that had made me into a fisherman.
I left Cuyamaca with a stringer full of bluegills, later filleted, rolled in cornmeal, and fried to a golden brown. They were crunchy and sweet.
A "No Fishing" sign
Monday morning I was out early, looking for a float tube. Float tubes represent the ultimate in miniaturization of boats. In its simplest form merely a truck inner tube with a sling seat in the middle, the tubes have evolved into sophisticated fishing systems. Inflatable backrests, necessary both for comfort and as safety flotation, are now standard. Pockets to hold gear and a mesh apron across the fisherman’s lap for a dry working area are found on all but the cheapest. The fisherman, clad in waterproof waders, sits inside the tube and propels himself with swim fins. They make an excellent fishing platform, the sole drawback is their lack of mobility; two miles per hour is top speed, and maintaining that for any length of time introduces you to muscles you were previously unaware of.
I found my tube at Oshman’s in the Gross- mont Mall. Oshman’s has recently expanded its fly fishing department, obviously expecting increase in local interest in the sport. For exactly $100 I got a tube and a set of fins. Waders would have been about another hundred; I brought a pair with me.
The clerk explained San Diego’s system of lake closures to me. All the municipal lakes are open on weekends. On weekdays, only one or two lakes are open, giving the fish in the others a rest from anglers’ assaults. Mondays, only Lake Miramar is open.
Miramar looked more like what I had imagined a San Diego lake to be. Surrounded by rolling sagebrush hills, those to the south and east crowned with multi-story condos, its convoluted shoreline was ringed by a paved exercise path. Every few minutes an ear-shattering roar announced the arrival or departure of an unmuffled military jet from nearby Miramar Naval Air Station.
I put the tube in the water at the far end of the parking lot and paddled across the lake to a narrow inlet that looked bassy. An hour later, I was paying more attention to the in-line skaters in tight Spandex on the exercise path than to my futile fishing. None of the other fishermen that I could see were catching anything either.
Nonfishermen, on hearing of my devotion to the sport, frequently say, “You must have so much patience, I could never sit there and wait for a fish to bite.” In actuality. I’m notably impatient and have always marveled myself at the worm- dunkers’ stoicism.
Fly fishing gives me something to occupy my time between fish. There’s first the cast: placement is all important, the hula-hoops at Lake Connor were good practice; when fishing a dry fly to a rising trout, the target is more the size of a teacup. Overpower the cast by a couple of ounces of force and the fly is driven to the water with a splash, almost certain to spook a fish gently sipping mayflies, but just what you want to imitate a foolish grasshopper plopping into the water. Sometimes the leader should fall arrow straight; at others, lie in loose curls, allowing the fly to move with the currents without the drag of the fly line. I can be happy with casting play if I get a fish every hour or so, if they’re big fish I can go two. But much more than that, on a lake or stream with no rising fish, and I’ve used up all my tricks.
Given some fish rising, or bulging as they take something just below, or even flashing a quick white wink as they turn to take a bug far beneath the surface, I can spend hours puzzling through my fly boxes to find the fly that matches the insect the fish are eating. Sometimes I don’t succeed and the fish continue to munch their preferred diet as my fly floats by them like a wallflower at the ball. More frequently, I’ll have partial success and manage to fool the smaller, stupider fish. The real thrill is having the biggest, wariest fish of the bunch confidently shoulder aside the small fry to grab my perfect imitation. The fact that it doesn’t happen all the time — even after 40 years of practice — is what keeps me coming back.
I’d only managed to stick it out at Miramar for two hours and could feel more sympathy for the trout-obsessed fly club members. Bass, particularly big bass, rarely eat insects the way trout will, and their apparent preference for things like chartreuse metal-flake plastic worms makes fly selection a lot less interesting than when fishing for trout, who are often picky to the point of eating not just a specific insect, but a particular stage in the life cycle of the insect. When I’m trout fishing, I’ll have nearly a thousand flies, several hundred different patterns, in my vest. My one box of bass flies, 30 or 40, had been deemed by the fly-club members to be adequate for any bassing situation. My experience so far indicated that when they weren’t biting, they weren’t biting on anything, and changing flies and presentation had stopped to inspire hope.
The Complete Guide to California Fishing says, “You want fish? You get fish. Lake Morena may be the most consistent producer of bass in California....”
Ned Sewell had said the fly club would gather at the “Honor Camp” at Lake Morena. I’d imagined institutional barracks, rough-looking adolescent boys lounging on the dusty stoops, on their “honor” not to riot or escape or mug fishermen. Actuality was an unmanned box on a post, a signboard of instructions, and a stack of forms for campers and fishermen to fill out and put in the box with the appropriate fee.
I’d misunderstood Ned’s other directions too, and I turned the wrong way at the Porta Potties. I bounced the rental down some roads that Dollar wouldn’t have liked the look of, until, at the end of a narrow peninsula, I ran into a couple of fishermen. They were members of the fly dub, and while they hadn’t been to Morena for a year, they were sure this was where the club usually met. Deciding we were merely the first arrivals, we put our tubes in the water and went fishing. The others paddled out into the main body of the lake and trolled for trout; I elected to fish the shoreline shallows for the fabled bass. Two hours later, no one had caught a fish, and no other fishermen had arrived.
I learned later that the fly club had turned right at the Porta Potties. Ned had clearly shown it on his map; the beautiful day and my exultation upon arriving at the lake had hurried my checking it. The fly club also had a lousy day; the only fish caught was an eight-pound carp. Of the dinner conversation, I heard nothing, but a fish- less day producing sprightly talk seemed unlikely.
Fishless days are not uncommon; I do a couple every year, always trying to think of it as a learning experience, usually with little success. Two in a row were too much to bear, so I headed back down 1-8 to Cuyamaca and the reliable bluegills.
John Kasten and class, Lake Murray
Two fly fishermen were casting in the shallows at the south end as I drove up. I launched the tube at the boat dock a half mile uplake and fished a nymph along the edge of the deep weed beds as I finned slowly in their direction. My failures at Miramar and Morena had dispirited me. One take, even a planted eight-inch rainbow, would have changed my mood. As it was, my uninspired fishing produced uninspired results.
It took a little over an hour to fish down the weed beds. I stopped where I’d fished Sunday and confirmed that the bluegills were still there, still eager for the damselfly nymph. Every few minutes I glanced at the fly fishermen. They were in the same place, standing in knee-deep water, their tubes encircling their legs like ignored bathtub toys. I paddled up just as one caught and released a smallish bluegill.
“You guys doing any good?” I asked.
“That was the first one.”
I was impressed. Two man-hours spent in the relentless quest for a solitary bluegill exhibited the sort of patience a Zen master would be proud of.
The fishermen were Bob and Larry. Bob had been fly fishing for a couple of years, Larry only one, but he caught the first fish. They were fishing much as I had, several days earlier, casting small poppers tight to the impenetrable shoreline weeds and catching more weeds than fish, but I must have brought them luck, for a few minutes later. Bob got the second and then the third fish of the day.
I left Bob and Larry and paddled back up the lake to my personal “honey hole.” A half-hour later I had a dinner’s worth of fish on my stringer.
Thursday it rained. Gusty winds scudded low clouds into San Diego. I stayed home, read a detective novel, and when I tired of that wandered to the liquor store for a paper.
Amid the sober grey of the L.A. Times, the Union-Tribune, the New York Times, the bright colors of the Fishing and Hunting News stood out. “Royal Star Shines with Huge Tuna” was the headline. Twenty-four fish over 200 pounds, one man had three of those plus three others over a hundred. What do you do with a thousand pounds of tuna? Does he have a pantry piled to the ceiling with tuna cans? This is hunter gathering of an entirely different proportion than my stringer of bluegills.
The News is a national paper, published in regional editions. A typical headline in its Northwest edition was “Banks [Lakel Belts Out Big ’Bows.” The resemblance to a tabloid is more than cosmetic. The veracity of many of its stories is on a par with the Enquirer or the Star, fishless days rarely grace its pages, and its sources are charter captains and resort operators, hardly unbiased reporters. But it did offer news of the current fishing in San Diego, so I bought a copy and took it home in the hopes of finding better luck.
The only mention of fly fishing was contained on page 32, a full page on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake. In Idaho. The technique articles focused on fishing Slug-Gos, a fat piece of plastic disturbingly reminiscent of a slimy garden pest, and color selection of plastic worms, pump- kin/green/red with blue flake being seen as particularly desirable. The front of the second section offered a possibility: “Bassing’s Ready to Boom at Sutherland.” The copy read, “At an elevation of over 2000 feet, Sutherland warms up later in the spring. While other lakes were seeing spring fishing decline, Sutherland was just getting started. Sutherland is a seasonal late-bloomer.”
The story featured a map of the lake with orange circles indicating crappie/bluegill areas, yellow shading for bass hangouts. Narrow arms looked to be ideal float tube water. It would be open on Friday after a four-day rest.
I got lost in Ramona, following what I thought was Highway 76 but which turned out to be one of those uniquely Californian roads that appear to go somewhere and then suddenly broaden into a suburban boulevard through a raw earth development and abruptly end at a turnaround.
The real road climbs out of Ramona’s valley; at the crest of the hills a small sign indicates Sutherland to the left. The one-lane track snakes down a steep hillside; boys who could have been from my Lake Morena “Honor Camp" scythed the brown grass from its edges, sweating under the midday sun.
The lake was created by a dam erected just below the joining of Bloomdale and Santa Ys- abel Creeks. The water backs up their narrow canyons, creating an unlikely oasis in a barren landscape. A few cows grazing the narrow fringe of green along the water’s edge were the only signs of life as I paddled up Santa Ysabel Arm. The arm had been outlined in yellow and overladen with orange circles on the map; I was ready for the “Bassing to Boom.”
An hour later, the bloom had gone off the boom. If there were fish present, they weren’t interested in what I was offering. I pulled out my fly boxes, looking for something to restore my faith, give me that willing suspension of disbelief necessary to sustain a fisherman on a slow day. Lost in the bottom of one box, left behind when I’d cleaned out the trout files, I found a ragged Sculpin.
It was a fly with a history. I tied it with my portable fly-tying kit on a long-ago trip to the Bow River in Alberta. The river had been high and muddy; the grasshoppers and mayflies that had worked so well on previous floats were producing nothing. I put on the only Sculpin I had, a fly tied after reading an article in a fishing magazine. On the first cast, a huge brown trout took it, went straight across the river in a series of jumps, and broke me off. The rest of the five-day float we caught fish, lost Sculpins, and scrounged for feathers and fur along the banks. In the evenings, by the light of a Coleman lantern, we tied up flies to lose the next day. This one was the sole remnant. Back home I had a box full of better imitations; this concoction of melted goose feathers and deer hair plucked from rose thorns I’d kept more for sentimental value than any practical fishing use.
Sculpins are bullheads, terrifically ugly miniature catfish that are, along with bluegills, favorite little-boy prey. Fly fishing nicety would never allow one to cast a “bullhead,” so, just as the bass fisherman’s “crawdad” becomes a “crayfish imitation,” the lowly bullhead has been elevated.
I pitched the fly up close to a tangle of half- submerged brush. It landed with a splash, its lead- wrapped core sinking it swiftly. Before I could start the retrieve there was an underwater flash and the line straightened. I struck hard and a big large- mouth boiled from the water, shaking his head to dislodge the fly. He dived back toward the brush and I snubbed him with as much force as the leader could stand, the fly rod bending double with the strain. Retreat to its sanctuary denied, the fish ran for the open lake. I let it take line more easily in that safer direction, only applying palm pressure to the exposed rim of the reel when it attempted another dash into the brush. The fight was over in a couple of minutes; it felt like more a case of the fish realizing the hopelessness of its position than of it tiring.
The fish was close to four pounds, its mouth large enough to hold my fist, its bulky body too wide to span with two hands. I eased the hook from the gristle at the side of its mouth and watched it swim away, slowly at first as if testing to see if it was actually free and then disappearing with a quick and powerful thrust of its tail. (Fly fishermen release most of their catch. In trout country, a fish is rarely kept. This etiquette has migrated only recently to bass fishing.)
The next cast was a little too close to the brush, and the fly hooked a stick far beneath the surface. Try as I might, I couldn’t dislodge it, and I had to break it off.
I tried several other flies, all unsuccessfully, before giving up. Whether my singular fish was due to the old Sculpin or simply luck would remain an unsolved fishing mystery.
Saturday was to be my last day in San Diego. I was tired of fishing. I headed for Stroud’s Tackle at one o’clock with the hopes of talkative fishermen telling entertaining tales.
The shop was busy when I arrived. Bill Stroud was selling a customer a new reel and line; Eileen was showing rods to a young couple. In the back room, men were drinking coffee and watching a fishing video. I wandered about, marveling again at so much merchandise displayed in the tiny space, trying to look like the type of person a fisherman would tell stories to.
Finally, one of the men from the back room group came up to the front to help Eileen find something. In jeans, a plaid shirt, and with an untrimmed beard, he would not have looked out of place in a Northwest lumber camp. His name was Guy Muto. Now an archeology prof at UCSD, Guy had spent most of his professional life in remote areas of the Northwest doing archaeological surveys of areas soon to be covered by the reservoirs of hydroelectric dams — “Selling my soul to the river killers.”
He was not impressed with where I had been fishing thus far. “Been talking with the members of the San Diego Trout Club, huh?” he said when I told him of my trips to Cuyamaca and Morena.
“There’s good bass fishing around here, but those aren’t the places to go,” he said.
“Tell me where then,” I countered.
“You drive a BMW? Drink Perrier?” Reassured that I usually drove an old Chev, preferred Canadian lager, and promised to keep the secret, he agreed to divulge. “I usually fish small ponds. Most of them are private, some you have to get permission, people are usually pretty good about it.”
“How about a place where I won’t have to ask?”
He thought for a moment. “You a member of AAA?”
“Too bad, their maps are the only ones that show the ponds. Well, I can tell you how to get to a place where you can ask for directions.” Eileen Stroud produced a road atlas and Guy pointed out a small dot at the intersection of thin grey roads. “Once you get there, there’ll be someone who knows about the ponds.”
I had trouble just getting to the dot. I stopped at several gas stations, and while people had heard of the place, no one was quite sure how to get there. Eventually I found it by crisscrossing the area in which it had to be.
The town consisted of a store, a gas station, and the largest structure, a real estate office with a sign saying, “STOP HERE, INFORMATION AND FREE MAPS.” It was a slow day for real estate. I was the only prospective customer, and the broker greeted me eagerly at the door. His face fell upon learning that I only wanted information and free maps.
“No, I don’t know of any ponds around here,” he said. I was walking out when one of the women in the office stopped me. “I’ve seen some ponds,” she said. She got a free map and located only a couple of miles from the office a pond.
“There’s another one, further up that canyon, but I’m not sure where.”
The pond sat in a hollow off the side of the canyon road. About 100 feet wide and 200 feet long, it was thickly fringed with cattails. The only access point was a ten-foot-wide beach at the end of the steep trail down from the road. Two men and a boy occupied the beach. The men were in their mid-20s, lean, dirty, and unshaven. They exuded a dangerousness that may have come more from my viewings of Deliverance than themselves. As I walked up, one of them reeled in his spinner, removed a bit of weed, and cast it back up along the cattails.
“You doing any good?” I asked him.
“Nah, nothin’,” he replied. “This place is either on or off. Today it’s off.”
The other fisherman reeled in. He was fishing a four-inch-long night crawler. He inspected it briefly, adjusted it on the hook, and cast it back into the pond. We all stared meditatively at his motionless bobber.
The worm fisherman removed a pack of cigarettes from the rolled sleeve of his T-shirt; a crude tattoo of a dagger dripping blood trailed down his arm.
“I hear there’s another pond further up the canyon somewhere,” I finally ventured.
After a lengthy pause, the worm fisherman allowed, “Yeah, but you need a boat to fish it.” “I’ve got a float tube, would that work?”
His face tightened and he looked at me for the first time.
“That’d do it all right. What kinda rig you goin’ ta use?”
I considered lying. Revealing myself as an effete fly fisherman might ruin our newfound rapport. But truth won out.
“I thought I’d try flies.”
“Oh yeah, flies work good up there,” he said, setting his pole in a forked stick and turning to his tackle box. “I usually use a Muddler Minnow.” He plucked a fly box from the tangle of rubber worms, bobbers, and bass lures, opened it to show me a neat row of Muddlers. He stroked the flies the way one might pet a favorite cat and tenderly lifted out a vivid Royal Coachman. “Sometimes they go real good for these too. Crappies like ’em. There’s some big crappie in that pond, real slabs.
Fly fishing vest and rod
I was stunned. Here he was, the cutting edge of the fly-fishing revolution, a country-boy worm- dunker as enthralled by the pursuit as I am. And all I asked were directions.
It wasn’t far. A couple of miles, a couple of left turns onto smaller roads. “The pond’s kinda hidden from the road. There’s trees all around it except for the one hole, so go slow and watch for it.”
The pond was a beauty. Two or three times longer than the first but almost as narrow, protected by its shoreline trees and the shallow canyon, its surface mirrored the scattered cumulus. Up the long side next to the road, the row of trees and the thick band of cattails separating the trees from the pond ran in a straight line paralleling the road. At the far end, the pond necked down, the ruins of an old dam partially enclosing an area highly recommended by my friend. The shoreline opposite the road was intricately convoluted. Twenty or more tiny bays and inlets, fringed by cattails, carved back into the trees. A muskrat, its mouth full of trailing weed, swam up one, its wake spreading a “V” across half the pond.
I fished up the road side, casting a Woolly Bugger up close to the reeds and twitching it back out. By the time I’d reached the remains of the dam, I’d still failed to interest a fish.
At the dam site, rotting timbers and piles of brush obstructed the water. I thought of wallsized bass lurking in underwater caverns and carefully probed every opening with the fly. After half an hour, I gave up. I tied on the same white popper that had been so unsuccessful at Cuyamaca, thinking to perhaps attract a crappie.
I cast it up to the end of a little inlet, waited for the ripples to subside, and popped it with a tug of the line. A quick swirl and the popper was gone. I jerked more from surprise than any fisherman cunning. It was a largemouth, not a big one, but enough to restore my confidence in the pond’s possibilities.
For the next couple of hours I finned slowly up the indented shore, attracting a bass every few casts. A few were larger than the first, but none spectacularly so, and after a while I stopped expecting them to be much bigger.
As the shadows lengthened, bullfrogs began a basso serenade from the cattails. The muskrat continued his weed gathering, apparently undisturbed by my slow-moving tube. The line soared but in graceful loops, and the popper landed with a gentle splash. I wasn't thinking about Montana.