Thursday, July 2, 2009


My friend June and I enjoyed the last day of her namesake month skating caddis flies from dusk until dark. We knew right where to be because I’d run into Jeff Putnam on the river, earlier in the day. He said the shad were taking caddis off the surface the night before—upstream a ways. Jeff spends about as much time as anyone on the American River—where he guides and teaches all aspects of fly fishing—so I knew the intelligence was legit. He was kind enough to point out the very fly in my fly box that the fish were taking.

Naturally, that fly was sold out at the fly shop when I swung by for more, but while I was there I got word that the flows might be increased that night by as much as 1,500 cubic feet per second. About forty percent. Now was the time to get out on the river. When I relayed this information to June she borrowed a line from California surf-culture: “we gotta do a go-out.”

Once again we marveled that we were standing in a river, watching a sunset while the swallows fed on a caddis hatch, mere minutes from our urban homes. After it was too dark to fish, we lingered in the park drinking Black Butte Porter. I enjoyed another pull on the stub of a cigar that’s traveled in my fishing vest since January. We wondered what the river would look like the next day if the releases were made. I told June I’d do some crop-checking and let her know.

Crop-checking is a venerable tradition practiced by the farmers in my family—back in North Dakota. On any given day someone might get a notion to check on the soybeans in a neighbor’s field. Or wonder if the wheat is ripening on the farms closer to the Red River. Everyone not pinned down at the moment will cram into a pickup and hit the section road, stirring up dust while surveying the land. That’s what I did this morning.

My route took me over the H Street Bridge for a look upstream, up Fair Oaks Boulevard to the Watt Avenue Bridge for a look downstream, and onto highway 50 to the Howe Avenue Bridge for another look upstream. The circuit ended back where it started at the H Street Bridge for the downstream angle along the golf course. From there, I could check my go-to landmark, Duckshit Island.

You won’t find that name on a map but I haven’t been able to call it anything else since the time I half-swam, half-crawled out of the current and onto its sand and gravel safety. That was the first time I flooded my waders. Actually, Canada Geese did the dirty work but I like the sound of duckshit. It resonates on my poet’s ear.

I decided I wanted a longer look at the river than passing over it at thirty miles per hour allowed so I parked my truck and walked out on the bridge. The river was running high and fast. I watched the water, which this ecosystem will so desperately need during the coming fall and winter to support spawning salmon and steelhead, flow copiously over Duckshit Island. I muttered to myself: All that water flowing south on the first day of July.

My years working in environmental planning and policy taught me that any conversation about allocating water—or using any natural resource—is inherently complex. Driving home, I wondered why it is, though, that we still seem so unaware of how interconnected we all are in this great web of life. Then I pulled into my driveway, where I was confronted with my own role in taking a precious resource away from the lives that depend upon it. Lush lawns as far as my eye could see.