Monday, August 24, 2009


We chose an olive E/C caddis, our go-to fly, a fly that drew at least a dozen hard strikes from wild rainbows during our trip to the Ishi Wilderness a couple of weeks ago. On that trip, my niece Kennedy was really getting the feel for casting and her dead-drift presentation was nearly perfect. The sudden strikes startled her, though, or made her laugh so much she either didn’t think to set the hook or she snatched the fly away from the fish’s eager mouth—much like her uncle does.

On this trip, we were fishing the edge of a Desolation Wilderness lake we’d backpacked to and we could clearly see the fingerlings schooling around sunken logs and sedges. We spotted an occasional three-inch lunker so we decided to cast a fly. “We’re going to need a really small hook,” Kennedy said, leaning in to study the open fly box with me. That's the main reason we chose the olive caddis. It was simply the smallest fly we brought along.

When her younger brother, Riley, caught his first fish on a dry fly he launched the little creature through the air and onto the granite slab behind him. Kennedy was going to be more cautious when she had a fish on, she said, and she was. Despite being photographed while suspended in midair, the little fish was returned safely to the water. Actually, the fish in the photograph was the second fish she had on the hook. The first fish on was eaten right before her eyes by a bigger fish: a true National Geographic moment.

Kennedy was thrilled to catch her first fish and considered the fingerling an excellent starter fish. I was thrilled by everything associated with the moment: the five mile, uphill hike she handled like a trooper; her ability to pitch her own tent and help me and her Auntie Kathy establish a comfortable camp; and her willingness to pump water and tend to other camp chores. But I was especially thrilled by her genuine excitement over the four weight outfit I put together for her before the trip.

Kennedy and I consulted several times during what she believed was a hypothetical selection process. We decided a four weight rod around eight feet in length would be just right for the kind of streams we fish on our backpacking trips. My friend Larry had recently loaned me his copy of Lefty Kreh’s Presenting the Fly so I was under his influence and chose a rod Lefty designed. Jason Hartwick helped me match the right line to the rod and loaded it onto a reel that had been waiting in the fishing closet at home for some action. “Is this a surprise?” he asked, eyes smiling, when I told him the rod was for my niece.

After her first fish, we walked along the lake watching for signs of active feeding. Ducks flushed and grumbled. The afternoon turned into evening. The wind picked up and we tied on a slightly bigger fly, a yellow humpy, hoping to draw out a bigger fish. We also wanted a chance at seeing the fly on the darkening water.

Kennedy’s second fish of the day and her life was bigger, that’s a fact, but it was little more than bait itself. Two fish on a new fly rod was more than enough for us to declare victory, though, and I suggested we head back to camp and help with supper. I smiled when she asked for one more cast, then one more, and another.

Walking toward camp in the dark, Kennedy twitched and wiggled her new rod, getting to known its personality. “Uncle Shawn,” she said, “I think this is going to be my lucky fly rod.”

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Anchor Point Fly Fishing's Adrian Psuty swinging home waters.

A wild steelhead caught and released right here in river city (Photo by Adrian Psuty).

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Bill Baird was an Outdoorsman. Born in Pine Valley, Oregon, in 1913, he began fishing and hunting to help feed his rural family when he was still a boy. This way of life suited him and he could tell story after story about the deer, the pheasants, the trout, and the salmon that sustained and nourished him both physically and metaphysically.

During his last years in the field with us, Bill tried to get into the spirit of catch-and-release. Kill-and-eat remained his mantra, but he indulged our younger-generation ethics graciously. He knew, far better than us, I'm sure, that times had changed. Bill died at 93 and he is the reason I started to fly fish.

One time when Bill was down from Idaho to visit his son, Larry, he pulled me aside to express a concern. "I'm worried about my boy. He's not going fishing nearly enough." Larry is my friend. He was also my professor and a professional colleague. Larry had asked me if I was interested in fly fishing many times over the years but I wasn't quite ready for the quiet sport.

Then there I was in Larry's kitchen with Bill. "Take my boy fishing," he said. "He needs it." How could I refuse?

Ten years later, Larry and I are experiencing a particularly, even by our standards, unproductive day of fishing on the Lower Yuba. Flows are high and it's hard to tell where a fish might lie, especially a feeding fish. I suggest we rerig to fast-sinking polyleaders and strip streamers, and Larry agrees. Rerigging also offers us the chance to pull a couple of river-cold Black Butte Porters out of our stash spot. We sit down on the cobbled bank.

A pair of nesting Osprey call out. The sky goes from clouds to sun then back to clouds. There's a light sprinkle of rain. And the sound a river makes. You know the sound.

Larry chooses a "pimp" from his streamer box, a fly Jason Hartwick turned us on to earlier this year. We try to come up with a tagline for an ad. Lines like, "my pimp swings for steelhead," and other boyish things. The beer goes down smoothly.

Thanks, Bill, for bringing me to this moment on a river with your boy.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


After getting shut-out yet again on the Lower Yuba, I admire the moonrise with fisher-lawyer David Abelson. Dave asks me a question taken straight from my poem, Asked A Philosophical Question While Fishing Off Paradise Beach:

"Any luck?"

I answer with the poem's last lines:

"How to answer? In a world of achievement, I have no fish."

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


There’s nothing quite so fun as fishing with kids. Especially, I’ll assert, my niece and nephew. Kennedy and Riley are thirteen and ten years old, respectively, and a day on a river with them is a mixture of earnest dry-fly presentations into tight shadows under bay trees, and joyous Huck Finn explorations. Invariably, after proving his prowess by landing a fish, Riley lures his Auntie Kathy away on a river scramble. Last weekend, the rugged and storied country in and along Mill Creek, in the Ishi Wilderness, nurtured our collective spirit of adventure. But first, let me try to discourage you from exploring this backcountry treasure that I’d really rather keep to myself.

Rattlesnakes. Twenty-five miles of dirt roads that climb up and down river canyon walls. Black bears. No cell-phone reception. Mountain lions. Not a single drive-through espresso stand after you leave Chico. More rattlesnakes. A vile-smelling pit toilet at a primitive campground with no potable water. Still with me? Fine. Then I’ll mention Mill Creek still supports salmon and steelhead runs, and a hearty resident rainbow trout population. These are wild, native fish in wild country that took a dry fly aggressively. E/C Caddis, Elk Hair Caddis, and the Yellow Humpy all drew strikes.

Mill Creek drains snowmelt from Mt. Lassen to the Sacramento River and on to the Pacific Ocean. Volcanic terrain, the canyons are deep V cuts. At some points it’s over a thousand feet from rim to riverbed. For at least four thousand years it was home to the people known as the Yahi, a sub-tribe of the Yana. They were hill people who followed seasonal routines and rituals that depended on gathering acorns to make a flour and a soup, and the annual return of the salmon. These great fish were taken with two-pronged, wooden harpoons and nets, then dried, smoked and stored in woven baskets to sustain the Yahi through the long, harsh winter. The Forty-niners actually called the Yahi the Mill Creeks, and the two cultures collided with disastrous consequences—for the Yahi.

But Mill Creek itself still teems with life. The salmon still come in on the high water of the spring runoff then hold in the creek’s deep pools throughout the summer. On our next summer visit, we’re bringing swim goggles. If we make it back to Mill Creek this fall, we may get to see the salmon spawn—the end of their lifecycle and the beginning of the next generation.

Mill Creek runs through the federally-designated Ishi Wilderness, named for the last surviving Yahi, a man many of us learned about as kids in school: “the last wild Indian.” You may recall that Ishi walked out of that wilderness in 1911 and, fortunately, into the care of University of California anthropologists and linguists. His name literally means “man” in his native language. A Yahi’s real name is sacred and secret.

Even when their population was at its greatest number, the Yahi people traveled no father north than Mt. Lassen, which they did each summer, a distance of four "sleeps" as Ishi described it. They favored the creek canyons of the hill country and avoided the lowlands along the Sacramento River. When Ishi walked out of the wilderness, he walked, literally, out of the Stone Age and into the Industrial Age. Starving, near death, painfully lonely, he walked out of his known canyon world and into an unknown world as a last resort.

I brought Theodora Kroeber’s book, Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America (University of California Press, 1961), along with us on our trip. As I mentioned in a previous post here at These Rivers I’ve always been fascinated with survival stories. Ishi’s is one of the most intriguing and intense survival stories I’ve ever read.

Take a look at the picture of Riley again, smiling and relaxed at the edge of that deep pool. And remember Riley is ten years old. At ten years old, Ishi and a mere handful of surviving Yahi entered a thirty-five-year period they called The Long Concealment. They were, Kroeber wrote, “a macrocosmic nation victimized by the common killers: invasion, war, famine, and intolerance.” The massacre at Kingsley Cave—where thirty-three Yahi men, woman and children were murdered and scalped—and the kidnapping of several young Yahi led the vigilantes to believe they’d “wiped out the Indians.”

In fact, the few surviving Yahi became elusive to the point of invisibility. They jumped from rock to rock so they would leave no footprints behind, traveled at night in the creeks, or crawled on all fours under chaparral thickets a deer would find impossible to negotiate. They retreated into the harshest reaches of Deer Creek and Mill Creek canyons, ultimately establishing a completely camouflaged village on a cliff-shelf that was once a grizzly bear’s den. At this point only four Yahi remained in existence: Ishi, his mother, a sister, and an old man.

Their village was stumbled upon by surveyors in 1908, flushing its inhabitants like wild game. They ransacked the village, showing Ishi’s mother, who was dying and unable to flee, faint to no concern. Ishi returned to his mother when the intruders left but she died soon after. He never saw the old man or his sister again. Ishi was alone in the wilderness for three more years.

Before I travel into remote country like this, I inspect my pickup’s spare tire and make sure my jack’s on board. I bring an extra battery and ten gallons of water. I toss in all the odd-flavored Cliff Bars I’ve never quite felt like eating. If I had to, I know I could put on my rucksack and simply walk out over the course of a day or two. The point is, though, I feel the weight of the solitude in places like this as soon as I start planning my trip. I can’t begin to imagine the psychic weight Ishi felt during his three years of isolation.

There’s a photograph in Kroeber’s book that shows Ishi swimming in Deer Creek. He’s returned home with a team of anthropologists to demonstrate his lost way of life for them. His smile looks genuine and expresses a delight in the body. He is free, perhaps, for the first time in his life in his own country. Free to swim under the midday sun like Kennedy, Riley, Kathy, and me.