Sunday, December 19, 2010


(Photo: Kennedy Tanaka)

When the river's running at 30,000 cubic feet per second, gather your wife and her best friend, your niece and her best friend, get in the car and drive through the rain for two hours to the de Young Museum.

Take some time to stand in front of Robert Motherwell's "At Five in the Afternoon" and tell your turning-fifteen-years-old niece and her just-turned-fifteen-years-old best friend who Federico Garcia Lorca was and talk about the language of abstract expressionism.

Tell them that Lorca's poem, "The Goring and the Death," inspired Motherwell and that the poem foreshadowed Lorca's own execution at the hands of the fascists during the Spanish Civil War.

Then listen to them explain the relationship between the white background like the sand of a bull ring and the black shapes like death in the painting; how the thick black columns seem to be crushing the round black shapes. Listen, and learn something.

Friday, December 3, 2010


For the past several days I walked and waded a gem of a coastal river. I'd arrived ahead of the steelhead but that didn't keep me from exploring the sandbars and side-streams, nor from experiencing the changes in the river's smell and taste, its rise and fall, caused by changes in the ocean tide --- an experience quite different from those I have on the inland rivers I regularly search for steelhead.

On this trip, I satisfied a long-standing desire to swing a steelhead fly in the fog and shadows of a redwood forest. Half a dozen feisty smolt harassed my fly and let me know there was new life in the river; that there was another generation gathering size and strength in preparation for a journey to the sea.

Despite everything my reasoning mind knows about the decline of steelhead populations on this river, and with the image of the clear-cut forest I'd wandered into fresh in my mind, I felt hopeful in the way I always do when I'm in touch with the primordial.

When I wasn't exploring the river I was reading Visions from San Francisco Bay, a collection of essays written by Czeslaw Milosz, a Nobel Prize-winning poet whose writing and thinking influence my own writing and thinking. The book was a gift from Jim DenBoer, another award-winning poet who also influences my writing and thinking.

On the morning I took the photograph above, as the sun burned through the fog, I walked and waded and thought about some lines by Milosz that were almost haunting me:

"The last spiritual remnants of the epoch of the steam engine are already disintegrating and dying out; man has found himself before something still unnamed, and though his consciousness lags behind general transformations, he does perceive that everything now happening to our entire species is enormous, ominous, and perhaps ultimate."

A logging truck banged down the rutted road above and behind me. When the truck stopped at the locked gate that bars the public from private timber land, I listened to its diesel engine idle, its door creak open. The door slammed shut and the truck banged off into a landscape that absorbed its sound.

Right then, a smolt bit at the wings on my wet fly, each attack sending a shiver of its life-force up the fly line and into my hand.

A merganzer surfaced nearby and I thought for a moment that a big fish was in the river with me. The fish duck, as they're sometimes called, shook his beak and spiky, feathered Mohawk in my direction and disappeared back into the water.

In that moment, the river's current felt eternal.

Friday, November 19, 2010


My friend Richard is balancing the scales against cynicism at his blog

He and his wife Maria believe in community and have been actively involved in making the place they live a good place to live.

At his blog, Richard reports on the many pleasant encounters he has with the people who share the open space on Signal Hill with him: an engineer who keeps a kite in his car "just in case I come across a breezy hilltop on my lunch hour"; a Long Beach artist out for an early morning walk who describes her work with monoprints as "a fascination with process, how I might push the medium I'm using in new, interesting ways"; a cyclist with whom he exchanges a smile and encouragement as they they puff their way uphill, "Good goin'," "You, too."

I thought of Richard when I was looking at mushrooms along the American River Parkway last week. A man out walking his dogs stopped to admire the mushrooms with me and told me he'd gone on-line and learned there are 136 species of mushrooms, two of which are poisonous.

He described with enthusiasm the restoration project we were in the process of enjoying, how well the willows had grown, and the different methods that were used to keep the beavers from chewing them up when they were tender saplings. He was a wealth of information on the health of the annual salmon run based on first-hand observations of fish swimming upstream to spawn, and their corpses floating downstream afterwards.

Yes, I've had my share of unpleasant encounters along the parkway -- walking into drug deals, dealing with drunks, and I'll never forget the guy who blew up a pile of river rocks with a can of black powder -- but, on balance, I am pleased to report the majority of my encounters are pleasant. The vast majority.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Wednesday, November 3, 2010


When I fish with my nephew he says things like, "Uncle Shawn, we should get a machete." And I say, "I'll bet we can get one at the Army Surplus store."

I say, "Maybe we should go to Alaska when you're sixteen." And he says, "What about the bears?" I say, "We may need to carry shotguns." Two weeks later, he says, "Maybe you should show me how to point a shotgun before we go to Alaska."

Two years later we're emptying a rusty Folgers can of rusty nuts and bolts on the workbench. He tears off a piece of masking tape and wraps it around the can. With a black Sharpie he writes: "Alascan." His idea.

He puts the money he earned mowing our lawn in the can and I add a twenty, to "prime the pump," I say. "Like priming the lawn mower," he says. "Yeah, like that."

(Photo: June Clark)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Sunday, October 3, 2010


"To look at the river made of time and water
And remember that time is another river,
To know that we are lost like the river
And that faces dissolve like water."

This is a stanza from the poem "Ars Poetica." It was written by Argentina's visionary writer, Jorge Luis Borges, and translated from the Spanish by W.S. Merwin. I've been reading Poems of the Night, a new selection of Borges's poems from Penguin Books (2010), and I took the book along with me to Lees Ferry last week.

My mother and my brother joined me there to celebrate my father's 75th birthday. It would have been impossible not to think about time when celebrating a milestone birthday, but add to that the presence of the millions-of-years-old rock the river's relentless current has exposed. And then the presence of the dam that brings us suddenly back to our own brief moment in geologic time.

During this trip, Borges's "Someone" became a favorite poem. I personally enjoyed the "mysterious happiness" he describes while on the river with my parents and my brother. Again, the translator is Merwin.


A man worn down by time,
a man who does not even expect death
(the proofs of death are statistics
and everyone runs the risk
of being the first immortal),
a man who has learned to express thanks
for the day's alms:
sleep, routine, the taste of water,
an unsuspected etymology,
a Latin or Saxon verse,
the memory of a woman who left him
thirty years ago now
whom he can call to mind without bitterness,
a man who is aware that the present
is both future and oblivion,
a man who has betrayed
and has been betrayed,
may feel suddenly, when crossing the street,
a mysterious happiness
not coming from the side of hope
but but from an ancient innocence,
from his own root or from some diffused god.

He knows better than to look at it closely,
for there are reasons more terrible than tigers
which will prove to him
that wretchedness is his duty,
but he accepts humbly
this felicity, this glimmer.

Perhaps in death when the dust
is dust, we will be forever
this undecipherable root,
from which will grow forever,
serene or horrible,
our solitary heaven or hell.

And, yes, we caught lots of fish.

(Final Photo: Trent Pittard)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"This should keep you going for a while."

Halfpounders are back in the river here in Sacramento and I've managed to move a few. As for landing fish, I'm doing exceptionally well with smolt.

The few adult fish I've made contact with have kept me going, though, kept me watching my line swing across the current when my mind starts wandering after memories of steelhead past. Like the fish in the photo, above, caught at about this time last year.

Lately, I've been thinking about the similarities between submitting my poems for publication and chasing after steelhead. Success in both arts requires equal amounts of stubbornness and patience. On top of whole-hearted enthusiasm.

While I didn't connect with a steelhead last week, my manuscript of poems, Standing in the River, was announced the winner of Tebot Bach's 2010 Clockwise Chapbook competition.

When I shared the good news with my friend and poetry mentor, Susan Kelly-DeWitt, she had a great line: "This should keep you going for a while."

Publishing poetry is like swinging for steelhead, where landing one nice fish can keep a guy going for another 1,000 casts.

(Photo: Adrian Psuty)

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Roy Scheider famously delivered that line after seeing the shark for the first time in the movie Jaws. I muttered a variation on that line this morning, on the banks of the American. "I need a bigger fly rod," is what I said.

Friends had told me tales about the striped bass that migrate into the river to spawn in the summer. Tall tales, I thought, about adult ducks being slurped underwater, down into the predator's maw.

It's possible, I thought. My field guide to Sacramento's Outdoor World says some stripers can reach 70 pounds. Big Mo is what one of my friends calls that fish, the mythical fish that gets him up before first light and out the door with a 10 weight rod. The guide book also says most stripers weigh less than ten pounds and, until this morning, stripers hadn't captured my imagination.

The steelhead is the fish that gets me out before dawn -- with a six weight spey rod in my hand on fall mornings. On this particular fall morning I was walking downstream, shadowing two does and two fawns on the river's other bank. Lost in that moment, I rounded the bend on a brushy island just as a fisherman connected with a steelhead.

The silver fish leaped into the air and tore across the deep pool. I joined the fisherman in shouts of marvel and wonder at the half-pounder's athleticism and positioned myself up and above him to get a good look down into the pool.

That's when I saw Mo. That's when I knew I needed a bigger fly rod.

Mo's gray shape came up from the depths of the pool and attacked the steelhead. It was like watching a shark. The fisherman's pole bent in half and he asked me if I saw what he just saw.

The fisherman didn't surrender the steelhead. He hung on as the steelhead twisted free of the striper and ran downstream, trying to escape the pool. But the steelhead was unable to escape the hook and the line and when the fisherman turned him back toward the edge of the pool that dark shape reappeared and struck again. The steelhead disappeared behind the striper's jaws.

The fishing pole folded over and the fisherman slid down the bank and ankle deep into the river. He held on, determined not to lose "his" steelhead to the striper. Eventually, he was able to move both fish closer to the bank.

When that striper moved into shallower water, when he was within two or three feet of the surface, he saw us and simply released the steelhead. He vanished under the cloak of deep water.

Tomorrow morning, in the dark, on the tailgate of my pickup, I'll rig the biggest rod I have, an eight weight, and tie the biggest clouser minnow in my streamer box to the strongest-test Maxima I have; and I'll mutter to myself, "I need a bigger fly rod."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Saturday, August 28, 2010


Sharing last light in Oak Creek Canyon with my father.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


There's a line in Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It" that I enjoyed thinking about last week. It comes at the end of the scene where Norman bails his brother Paul, and Paul's girlfriend, out of jail. On their way out the desk sergeant says, "Maybe you should all go fishing."

Neither my brother nor I had to bail the other out of jail last week but there was still plenty of metaphoric resonance in that line. Like everyone, we've had our share of trials and tribulations. We've done our best to help each other through them -- with the inevitable mixed results. Which reminds me of another line from Maclean's book that stayed with me. He quoted his brother as saying, "maybe what he likes is somebody trying to help him."

Last week, Trent drove up from the valley heat and joined me on my writing retreat at the family cabin. He helped me trouble-shoot Lonely Dell, the new screenplay I'm working on. Then we ate a couple of burgers in Flagstaff and fished the evening rise on Oak Creek. Trent caught the only fish of the day on his trusty mosquito pattern.

Being the older brother, I tend to think of myself as the one who takes the other fishing. While watching Trent fish, though, I realized the dynamic changed somewhere along our lives' timelines. Now that Trent's pushing forty, and I've pushed past fifty, it's hard to tell who is taking whom fishing.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


My plan was to drive down Oak Creek Canyon and see if I could connect with a wild brown trout.

I'm in Flagstaff again this summer to recharge my creative well --- to paraphrase Hemingway. It is suffering from an overdraft. Hanging out in and around the family cabin, and fly fishing Oak Creek, are some of the ways I recharge that well.

As is so often the case when I'm here, first light woke me. Actually, it was the morning air that got my attention and lured me out of a deep sleep. I climbed down the ladder from the loft and put the percolator on the propane burner.

We keep ground coffee in a silver can labeled "tea." I had loaded the can with Late for the Train's North Rim blend. Beyond French Roast, they describe it as Volcanic, like Flagstaff's geology.

While I waited for the water to boil and the coffee to perc, I picked up a copy of a new book I brought along to read on this trip, Shedding Skins. It is an anthology of four contemporary Sioux poets.

The morning passed as I read poems and drank coffee on the porch. The sun rose and warmed the meadow. The aspen and ponderosa pine and bunch grass transpired and the air became pleasantly humid.

When I read a line by Steve Pacheco, the first line of his poem, "The Lower Sioux Rez: Three Scenes," a trickle of creative water started to refill the well.

"I feel I owe something to the blue jays for their loyalty."

Sunday, August 1, 2010


(Photo: Kennedy Tanaka)

I finally renewed my lapsed Trout Unlimited membership; put the check in the mail. But that doesn't mean I wasn't doing my part until then. Money is just one way of helping out. Another way to help preserve our streams and rivers is to take a kid fishing. Educate the next generation.

This way of helping is my personal favorite. Especially when those kids are my niece and nephew. And it's not just because they like to eat french fries and hot wings, or that we work the morning paper's crossword puzzle during the drive. They are genuinely fascinated with the whole of nature. Watching and listening to them make connections in their minds about the connectedness of ecosystems thrills me.

Actually, fishing with these kids doesn't qualify as volunteering my time at all. I'll send my membership renewal check to TU on time next year.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Volunteer. You'll meet amazing people. Most recently, they were students from three El Dorado County high schools participating in the first-ever Young Environmental Writers and Storytellers program. YEWS for short. Here's their mission statement.

"To create a dynamic and self-sustaining environmental education program for El Dorado County high school students, enrich the quality and availability of rural environmental news, and celebrate El Dorado's unique natural heritage through good storytelling and new media."

The program was conceived by two soon-to-be-legendary foothill residents, Emily Underwood and Shawn Dunkley. The program is cosponsored by Family Connections El Dorado and the inaugural weekend was hosted by the Mother Lode River Center.

My role was to help out during the poetry hike, with fellow volunteers Moira Magneson and Alexa Mergen. In the photograph above, we're enjoying some much-needed shade and fresh cherries. And writing about the sense of taste.

I left the workshop invigorated and inspired. Our future is in good hands. But that doesn't mean the next generation can't use our help. To learn more about the Young Environmental Writers and Storytellers of El Dorado program, and to find out how you can pitch in, follow the link to their website.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


(Photo: Kathy Pittard)

My neighborhood celebrates the Fourth of July with a brunch followed by a parade. Bands play on front lawns. Young families push their kids in strollers. Dogs tag along. Even the fire department joins in on the fun by sending an engine to lead the happy throng. Last night, the occasional firework boomed or whistled. Roman candles will light the street tonight. So why am I feeling so restless?

After the parade, I jumped in my truck and went out to check on the river, driving my usual circuit that gives me up- and downstream views from our town's bridges. The flows are wadable again, somewhere around 4,000 cfs, and the spot I like to bushwhack my way down to looked pretty good for shad and maybe stripers. There wasn't a fisherman in sight. So why wasn't I excited? Over a beer at my local dive I realized the reason why.

There are no steelhead in the river. And I miss those migratory fish. The feeling I have today reminds me of something my rugby coach used to pull on us now and then, back in college. For a couple of days we'd play nothing but basketball and soccer. We liked the break at first, enjoyed playing other games that were similar but different. Pretty soon, though, we were trying to make these games a little more like rugby. By the third day we were demanding to play rugby again and our practices were transformed from tedium to pure joy.

Last weekend, my brother and I were in Burbank pitching "Junk Sick," the screenplay we wrote together. It's a horror story set in a detox facility. Writing the script required lots of research into the nature of addiction. So I have to ask myself: When did I become a steelhead junky? And when will I get my next fix?

Thursday, June 17, 2010


Conversations, lately, have ranged from the catastrophic impacts of pumping a million gallons of oil, daily, into the Gulf of Mexico, to the inevitability of nuclear warfare. Thinking about the destruction we human beings are capable of inflicting on ourselves can lead a guy to despair. Which is why I took the 3 weight rod, the one I bought for my young nephew, and went to "the mountains to get their good tidings."

The rivers are running fast with snowmelt, so I ambled along a creek that passes quietly through an alpine meadow. Lush grasses and colorful lupine are part of our late spring, along with crouching behind a tree stump to watch a trout rise and take a Cutter Caddis. John Muir's promise was fulfilled. "Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees."

That doesn't mean I completely forgot about our troubled world. Being neither a fatalist nor a believer in miracles myself, Jack London's advice came to me again and again over the course of the day. "Dig moved more mountains than faith ever dreamed of." Come on, folks, let's pick up our shovels and dig.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Flows of 8000 cfs are keeping the walk and wade fisherman off the river. Myself among them. As the days of not fishing tallied up, I came to realize I miss the friends I fish with as much as I miss the fishing.

So I called my buddy Larry yesterday and met him for a beer and a dog at Onespeed, down the street. This morning, my buddy David and I met for coffee and omelets at Nopalito's. We talked about the flows on the American and the fishing on the small streams in the Sierra, quick with snowmelt.

Hanging out with friends over food and drink is the next best thing to fishing with them. Naturally, road trips are in the works.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


In the morning, before I could see, I listened.
The West’s fragrance rose off the ebbing tide.

A chorus of sea-gulls gathered on a thick raft of sea-kelp
inside the offshore reef.

A young buck’s hoof-beats paused on the bluff-trail.
Quail rustled the bunch grass.

There was more—

Gray whales rolled southward, along migratory songlines,
to calve in Baja’s warm lagoons,

pelicans rode the bluff-winds northward,
toward the mouth of the Gualala,

where salmon schooled in the river’s slack water
before pressing upstream to spawn.

And when first light broke the East’s dark silence,
it was the tolling of an ancient bell.

(My poem, "What I Didn't See," was first published in Susussurus: The Sacramento City College Literary Journal)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

DownStream Fly Fishing 2010

"Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do."

I had the opportunity to contemplate this quote, by the legendary college-basketball coach John Wooden, all day yesterday. It was written on the backs of the t-shirts everyone was wearing at the 4th annual DownStream fly fishing event.

DownStream fly fishing's Program Director, Ryan Miller, describes the program like this: "DownStream fly fishing was created as part of a movement to inspire people with Down Syndrome to try fly fishing. It is my hope that through fly fishing, people with Down Syndrome can improve coordination, fine tune motor skills, boost social skills and attain a sense of accomplishment while having fun. Additionally, my goal is to include family members in order to promote family activities in an outdoor environment." All these goals and more were met yesterday.

You can read more about the history of the program at Downstream's blog, and how Ryan's brother, Mark, helped inspire the program. They'll be posting pics and will tell you all about yesterday's event at the blog, so I'll just say a few, quick words, about the highlights of my day.

What a joy it was to watch kids with Down Syndrome "do what they can," with gusto! I've never given more high-fives or enjoyed landing a fish more than I did with the kids at this event. Also inspiring were the young volunteers who netted fish and co-fished, for lack of a more artful word, for and with the participants. And I was especially tickled to hear the young angler I was co-fishing with repeat this fly fisher's mantra to his mother: "One more cast."

The kids went from station to station, making art, tying flies, learning to cast, and fishing. Actually, there was one more station, manned by my friend, Adrian Psuty, and me. The bugs station. But midges and mayflies in an aquarium were no competition with the fishing station and pretty soon, we were all fishing. Which was a good thing, as Adrian is an exceptional casting teacher and has a real knack with kids.

Which brings me to my favorite recurring experience of the day. Time after time, I watched the kids track Ryan down with something exciting and urgent to say to him. No matter how busy he was coordinating the event, he stopped what he was doing and completely engaged the young person. The extent to which the kids truly enjoyed him, and he them, was obvious. And it was obvious that the day was, as Ryan told the volunteers first thing in the morning, all about the kids.

This morning, I've been reflecting on yesterday's event. Coincidentally, "The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing," a collection of essays written by Thomas McGuane, caught my eye on the bookshelf. I pulled it down a thumbed through it.

In his introduction, McGuane "suggests what fishing ought to be about: using the ceremony of our sport and passion to arouse greater reverberations within ourselves." I'm still reverberating from the 2010 DownStream fly fishing event.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Quinton Duval crossed over to another shore last week. He was a hell of a guy and a hell of a poet. Here's one of my favorite Quinton Duval poems, from Joe's Rain (Cedar House Books 2005).


It's a walleye, the guy on TV says.
Last time it was a catfish
that filled the boat with violet light.
They let that go.
But they keep the walleye for lunch.
I can foresee the filet knife nick
open the silver muscle
at the tail, and the clean slide
down to the gills.
Then the campfire on the bank,
smoke, grease muttering in the pan,
the applause the fish makes
in the black bottom of the skillet.
We have ourselves huddled over
open coals turning fish or meat,
talking, smoking, drinking
out of green bottles something
bottomless and pale. When you leave,
when you must fall into your night sleep
on a distant shoreline filled with camp smoke,
raise your arm, please. Let the others
know it's the same whatever shore
we land on in the end.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Ever since I started writing a screenplay about the grown son of a legendary steelhead fisherman, I’ve been able to convince myself that a daily trip to the river to swing a run or two is essential research. During this winter’s steelhead spawning run I found myself doing more research than writing, though, and I realized that I needed to pick up the pace—on the writing side of the equation.

Whether it was some Muse with a twisted sense of humor or a literal Freudian slip, I managed to tweak everything below my shinbone while tele-skiing on the last weekend in March. As a result, April was my most productive month of writing since Thanksgiving—when the first of the winter-run fish start swimming upstream toward Sacramento, and I start going down to the river to greet them.

Despite being sidelined, April still had its fair share of research-related activities. I reread my dog-eared copy of Dec Hogan’s A Passion for Steelhead (Wild Rivers Press) and, while conducting research at my local fly shop, I saw an announcement for a one-day, on-river, steelhead-fishing seminar taped to the cash register. Taught by Dec Hogan himself.

Dec Hogan qualifies as a legendary steelhead fisherman. Among his many innovations, he pioneered two-handed casting techniques during a fourteen-year career guiding Pacific Northwest rivers. The price of the seminar seemed more than reasonable when I thought about how important this research would be for writing my story. I could tune my ear for dialogue while hearing, first-hand, Hogan’s stories about the Pacific Northwest’s epic steelhead rivers.

As it turned out, Hogan is every bit as gracious and gregarious as the fictional character I’d created for my story. And a gifted teacher. There were two things, in particular, that he explained, and demonstrated, that improved my casting technique immediately—and significantly. The first, and most important, is slow down. The other is: things that start bad, end bad.

If you’ve read Hogan’s book you already know “slow down” is the most likely solution to any casting problem. This advice applies not only to casting but also to presenting the fly to the fish. While Hogan offers this advice again and again in his book, there’s nothing like a hands-on experience to truly get the message.

In my case, hands-on came in the form of a head wind. A head wind so strong that I thought it might undermine the value of the class. Instead, it made the day even more valuable for me. Hogan convinced me that I could use the headwind to help form my D-loop and load my spey rod. Which it did.

He also convinced me I could make a normal forward stroke. I didn’t have to add additional speed or muscle to the forward cast to account for the wind. Instead, the basic principles of the forward cast applied more than ever. Accelerate to a stop, activating the lower hand—like you would a double-haul—at just the right moment. The result was a tight loop that cut through the wind. I am a believer.

Hogan’s second adage—things that start bad, end bad—solved a problem I was having with my single-spey cast. My D-loop wasn’t forming well and I was muscling my forward cast. Hogan worked the problem backwards with me. He said the problem is usually in the step before what appears to be the problem.

In my case, the problem wasn’t with my secondary lift, or anything associated with forming the D-loop. The problem was in the previous step—I was initiating my cast too fast (see “slow down,” above). Hogan asked me to make my initial lift of the rod tip as slowly as possible, and to raise the rod tip a little bit higher and toward the riverbank. My “D-Loop problem” was solved.

If you get a chance to spend a day on a river with Dec Hogan, take it. It will be some of the best research you’ve ever conducted.

Monday, April 26, 2010


(Photo by Kennedy Tanaka)

Yesterday was Opening Day of the trout fishing season in the Sierra. It was also Closing Day of the alpine ski season at the resort where my wife and I spend many winter Sundays skiing with our niece and nephew. I guess it’s Transition Day for the four of us.

Closing Day came complete with a young man wearing nothing but a speedo swimsuit and a snowburned-strawberry on his pale-skinned hip; skiers in cartoon-character costumes that included my personal favorite, the Tasmanian Devil; a three-piece classic-rock band cranking out songs that triggered flashbacks to dances in my high school gym; and a parking lot full of tailgate barbeques.

As much fun as all of this is, my favorite part of Transition Day is checking out the creek below the meadow with the kids. Actually, we keep track of it all winter. We enjoy aerial vantages from the chairlift and mountain ridges, and ground-level inspections at the end of a ski day. In the dead of winter we watched a midge hatch above several brook trout that simply looked too cold to care. At least that’s how it looked to us.

The creek looked especially cold yesterday. When we’re fishing, we bring along a thermometer but I didn’t think to bring one along on Transition Day. We found out just how cold the water felt, though, by taking turns taking underwater snapshots with our point-and-shoot camera. This is an entirely new way for us to explore the creek. Stick your hand in the water, click the shutter, pull your nearly-numb hand out of the water, then view the image on the screen to see what’s going on in there.

This is the same creek we splash around in during summer backpacking trips. This is the creek where my nephew caught his first trout on a dry fly; where I woke early one brisk morning and spotted my niece already up and sitting on a stump beside our fly rods—patiently waiting for me to roll out of my warm sleeping bag. This creek is the place where the idea of what a watershed is took concrete, physical shape in their minds. “Uncle Shawn, is this the same water we skied on in the winter?” I couldn’t have been prouder.

These watershed moments with the kids are especially important to me. I want them to understand their watershed—this most essential part of where they live. By getting out and moving through the landscape with them, across the four seasons, I feel like we’re providing a vital element of their education. And fly fishing adds so much to this experience. Words like caddis and brookie are part of their vocabulary—along with alder, Pygmy Nuthatch, and black bear.

Fly fishing is not only a way to learn about the lives and habits of the various fish that inhabit the watershed’s ecosystem, it is also an effective way to learn about the bugs that share the land-and-waterscape. Engaging these creatures through the science of fly fishing is a way to get a hands-on understanding of the food chain. Eventually, creatures that start out in one’s mind as nothing more than fish food become exciting beings in their own right.

On Closing Day of the ski season, we gathered around a barbeque in the parking lot with the kids and three delightful friends. We grilled asparagus and prawns and sausages while telling stories and bad jokes. The kids enjoyed the fact that they’re collecting their own stories to tell—stories from their own experiences in the watershed. Stories about long hikes, tricky stream crossings, wild trout, and things that go bump in the night.

While talking with my friends I came to realize how much it matters to me that my niece and nephew can pitch a tent, catch a fish, start a fire—that they’re starting to understand the map and compass. There’s a fundamental confidence about themselves in relationship to the world that I can see in the way they move.

One of the things Trout Unlimited asks its members to do is take a kid fishing. I whole-heartedly agree. And I’ll offer this corollary: Take a kid outside. As John Muir put it: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world."

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Last week, I had the good fortune to meet Cameron Scott via the world wide web. Cameron is a fly fisher and a poet and he wrote to say there's more than a few of us fisher-poets out there. You can read some of Cameron's poems in the Tailgate section of The Fly Fish Journal. You'll also find poems by fisher-poets Greg Keeler and Jon Anderson. The Tailgate Section is worth a look. It's loaded with good photos and good writing.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Chinook Salmon spawn only once. Born in freshwater streams and rivers, they migrate to the sea to mature. Those who survive struggle back upstream to reproduce, then die.


Corpses line the riverbanks.
A mass grave cloaked in tule fog,
scavenged by one stiff-legged heron
and a noisy murder of crows.

Thrashing in the riffles
below the railroad bridge,
a red male, fasting since he left the sea,
swims his journey's final reach—
hump-backed, hook-jawed—
to gravel beds where he began.

Pilgrim, wanderer, prodigal son.
Spreading seed in childhood waters:
a deathbed offering to a god unknown.

("Odysseus" was first published in Rattlesnake Review, Issue #2.)

Saturday, April 3, 2010


(Photo: Jennifer Simpson)

Like so many good plans this one was hatched over Spanish reds and tapas. Most Tuesday nights, I talk poetry and fly fishing with my friend, and fellow fisher-poet, Danyen Powell. Jennifer tends the bar and introduces us to combinations of wine and food that fuel our imaginations. Before the night is over, someone comes up with a good idea.

The winter steelhead run was coming to a close and that night’s good idea was to get out and swing a few runs. I’d regaled Dan and Jennifer about the pleasures of swinging streamers for steelhead and the reward that comes from a well-presented fly. “The grab,” as people call it. And the smash and grab that it sometimes is.

I wanted Dan to have the best possible experience so I touched bases with my friend Adrian Psuty. He runs Anchor Point Fly Fishing and is the person responsible for teaching me how to swing for steelhead. Adrian and his wife, Teresa, are avid fly fishers and spey casters. Between the two of them they were able to make a decent spey caster out of me, too. It’s been months since I’ve hooked myself in an ear lobe.

My big question for Adrian was how to rig Dan’s rod. He recommended a Scandi head, a slow-sinking polyleader, and eighteen inches or so of tippet attached to a relatively-light fly. Dan would be two-handed casting with my switch rod so Adrian suggested the river-left run below the Sunrise footbridge to allow ample room for backcasting—while Dan got the hang of it—then jump in the truck and move downstream to a river-right run that’s always offered productive fishing for us. The slow-sinking polyleader would be perfect for the tailout on that run.

Dan swung by my house in the early morning dark and we were in the river at first light. I couldn’t have ordered up a better scenario: fog on the water, honking geese, and a flow that allowed Dan to really get the feel of a fly swung under tension. A conversion experience was in the making.

Dan immediately liked this style of fishing—for the same reasons I do. There’s a rhythm in the casting, mending, swinging, stripping in line, stepping downstream, and casting again. Swinging requires—and allows—a relaxed attentiveness that let’s the fly-fisher enjoy the smell of nervous water, the first rays of light angling through the water column, the blue heron on the gravel bar that holds his wings open wide to dry in that cool breeze that blows east to west every morning. When Dan looked upstream and gave me a thumbs-up I wished I’d remembered my camera.

We finished swinging our first run right about the time other fisherman were showing up so we hoofed it back to the truck and drove to a downstream access point. This is one of the delightful aspects of fishing our urban river. Driving across town in wet waders. And I always enjoy leap-frogging the drift boat that floated right on top of the run I was fishing upstream.

Backcasting on the next run was tricky so I coached Dan through the C spey so he could move his anchor point upstream, then forward cast right-handed over his left shoulder—cack-handed. He picked it up almost immediately and a learning theory took form in my mind. Dan logged hours in a martial arts dojo while he was growing up and there’s a way of learning a dojo teaches. Students watch their instructor demonstrate a movement and then they try to imitate it. Dan had been picking up the basics of the C spey and forming a D-loop during our first run—just by watching me out of the corner of his eye.

All of which led to Dan casting well, mending well, and swinging well as we approached the sweet spot of the run. Since I was fishing with a heavier sink tip and fly than he was, I fished the deeper, upper section of the run and warned Dan not to set the hook when a steelhead grabs. “You need to be patient,” I was jabbering, when a fish hit my fly, turned, and ran. Dan and I both hooted in surprise. Then I raised my rod too soon—proving the point I had just been making. My steelhead was gone.

Dan waded out into the run to swing the tailout. I climbed up on the riverbank to watch for the tell-tale white flash of a steelhead opening its mouth. Dan had already found his rhythm: Casting, mending, swinging, letting the fly dangle at the end of the swing, stripping in line, stepping downstream, and casting again. I couldn’t help but think about how cool it would be if Dan connected with a fish as his fly swung slow and sweet into the sweetest spot of the run.

“Hey, Shawn,” Dan said. “I have a fish on.” Dan landed that steelhead.

The next Tuesday night Jennifer listened to our story and introduced us to a new red just in from Spain and a duck-and-spinach tapa that was, perhaps, the best-tasting tapa I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. We were on the verge of another brilliant idea. “Wagner would love swinging for steelhead,” Dan said. “He likes being on the move.” The three of us fished for trout on the Little Truckee and the Truckee last summer and had one hell of a good time.

Time was running out on the winter steelhead run so I hauled out my pocket calendar while Dan consulted the electronic calendar on his iPhone. We found a couple of mornings that could work for us and Dan called Wagner from the bar. Another fine plan was hatched.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


"Perhaps fishing is, for me, only an excuse to be near rivers. If so, I'm glad I thought of it." Roderick L. Haig-Brown.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Years ago, I ate lunch in a little village on the shores of Sun Moon Lake on the island of Taiwan. There were four of us dining and, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't understand the waiter's recommendation. "Fish three ways," he kept repeating in broken English. "But there are four of us," I kept responding. "You will like," he said and walked away.

Fish were caught fresh in the lake each day and awaited their demise in large, glass tanks the patrons were invited to inspect. The waiter selected a fish he thought was the right size to feed the four of us and brought it to our table "three ways." "Three ways" meant our fish was prepared three ways: deep-fried, stir-fried, and broiled. The meal was delicious. And the phrase stuck with me.

It came to mind when I was fishing for steelhead on Friday morning. There were three of us on the same run on the river and we were each fishing a different way. One fellow was bouncing an egg pattern off the bottom. The other was bouncing an egg-sucking leech off the bottom then letting it swing. I was swinging a Pimp, a buggery-pattern Jason Hartwick turned me onto during last winter's run. We were fishing three ways.

As the fog lifted and the rain started coming down I had another fish three ways experience. First, a bright buck rose out of the water nearly beside me. He seemed to walk across the water on his tail. His gills and cheeks burned red as he made his way upstream toward the spawning beds. Minutes later, I spotted a steelhead swimming downstream, heading back toward the salt. Its purple back porpoised through the riffles. And then I had a fish on.

It was a solid grab that made my heart jump. I let the fish take line. A leap and a twist revealed it was a youngster and when I brought it to hand I was happy to see the adipose fin of a wild fish.

Within minutes I'd seen a fish making its way upstream to spawn, another heading downstream after spawning, and, finally, I held the next generation in my hands. I released him, hoping I'd done no harm and, when the time was right, he would make his way to the sea. And come back again.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


My friend calls the scene below the Nimbus Hatchery "trout fishing in America." I fished there for the first time this past week. From the bluff, where this picture was taken, scores of steelhead trout can be sighted over the course of a day: travel-scarred fish holding in gravel depressions; hens flashing their silver sides when building redds; larger bucks chasing smaller bucks away from the hens and the redds they want to claim as their own. The entire spawning drama can be observed.

This is the end of their journey from the salt-water ocean to the brackish tidal marsh to the fresh-water river of their origin. For these steelhead, and the salmon who were here just weeks before them, the journey ends at the base of a dam. I worry for these fish.

Denied access to more than 125 miles of upstream spawning habitat by the dam, they depend on the 25 miles of river access left to them and a multi-million dollar hatchery for their survival. Their fate also hangs on how much water we choose to release into the river from the dam, and when it is released. Changes in flow can leave their redds high and dry or blow them out. Basically, they depend upon the kindness of strangers.

An interpretive sign on the bluff above the river shows an artist's rendering of what the river would have looked like not just before the dam, but before hydraulic mining and urban pollution, before the Gold Rush. In the painting, a black bears ambles down to the riverbank to feast on the migratory fish. Like you, I've seen photographs and video of grizzly bears feasting on salmon and sea-run trout in wild places like Alaska.

As I try to imagine bears on the banks of the Lower American, I realize the scene below me is a human variation on a theme. Like bears, the fisherman congregate at a slot the fish must squeeze through in order to get to either the river's last gravel beds or the hatchery. A narrows.

I watch as a hearty steelhead pulses through the narrows, through a gauntlet of lures and flies chucked and cast from the river bank, and disappears into the darkness of the deeper water.

Then a salmon, mottled and dark, rises up from those depths. He fins into the shallows. I watch as he noses into the current and swims behind an angler standing no more than shin-deep in the river. The spawned-out fish rolls onto his side and dies. His pectoral fin seems to reach up into the air in a final gesture of surrender.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


(Photo: Trent Pittard)

Sometimes the most memorable moments of a fishing trip aren't about catching a fish. The other day I sent a text message to my brother, Trent, telling him I was heading to the Lower Yuba to chase steelhead. He sent me a cell phone pic to remind me of our last trip there together.

Look closely and you can see a person sitting on the roof of the Jeep he drowned below the Highway 20 bridge. Trent and I called in a rescue. What a fiasco.

Monday, January 4, 2010


I met my friend Adrian at 6 am and we started fishing at first light. Adrian put an end to his American River slump by landing a wild fish. His first of the new year. My slump, unfortunately, remains unbroken. The last solid grab I experienced was just before Thanksgiving. It is not for lack of trying.

In so many ways, swinging for steelhead is like writing poems. When I don't connect with a steelhead after a few weeks of trying I start to wonder if I'll ever catch another one of those wild beauties. The same kind of feeling settles on my heart, and in my gut, when I haven't written a poem to completion for a while. Well, it was a good run, I tell myself. Be grateful for the poems you got. Treasure them. Write prose. Fish with an indicator.

The fact is I'll wake early tomorrow and try again. I'll try to catch a wild steelhead on a swung fly, steal some fire from the gods with my pen. These are things I do. Just do. No new year's resolutions are required.