Saturday, May 30, 2009

Thoughts on trash fish and fishermen

Last week, I took a couple of fellows out to teach them how to flyfish, and then ditched them to hit a hot spot just downstream in my kayak. The guys were perfectly okay with my leaving, and were focusing hard on just how to wear their flies and line, which means they have become quite accomplished flyfishermen, if I am any standard for the sport.

And so, after a bit of teaching and observing, I left them to flail the water at a nice tailout, jumped into my kayak and headed downstream after what had become a near-mythic creature in my life: American shad.

At the put-in on a nice stretch of the American River, I slipped past a group of shad fishermen cooking under a canopy, with full gas grill, ice chests of beverages, and conversations about darts and flies, rods, and the general gripes about work and/or not finding work. Shad fishermen, like most fishermen, are a rough lot, out to be themselves fully on the river. I passed trailers attached to trucks, and a drift boat coming in and one going out. And I noted, yet again, my surprise at the completely different experience with shad fishermen here from salmon fishermen.

I'll be blunt: Salmon fishermen are mean and not at all fun to fish around. "Combat fishing" is the term used to describe the lines of folks along the stretches where salmon come to spawn or stack up before heading further upstream. People rarely talk outside of their little cliques, they push and jockey for spots, and they grudgingly pull in their lines to give room, often with grumbles, at the "fish on!" holler from one lucky enough to hook into a beautiful chinook. They usually end the fight with the fish by dragging it up onto the bank, filleting it then and there, and throwing the carcass back into the water. To beat all, many folks in boats floating the deeper holes along the river tend to employ quite a bit of jigging action to their fishing...

I have fished for salmon along central California rivers for ten years, and although I am devastated by the crash in population, I am a tad relieved that I won't have to snuggle up to the crowds along the river.

So it was a shock when, Memorial Day Monday, I walked along the crowded shoreline and noted rows of shad fishermen, at times much closer to each other than salmon fishermen would have tolerated, talking rough but jovially to each other. I asked about the run, and was given very specific advice, "get right in between those two boats at the channel down there." When I showed up with my fly rod, nobody cared. One boat even pushed over and invited me in.

My luck that day was not with the fish, though I saw one man pull fish after fish up to his boat and gingerly remove them without letting them leave the water. I was there for food, but I was very appreciative of his respect. When I got back to my car, it had been broken into and my radio stolen (I thought for a second I was back in 1992), but I know it wasn't a shad fisherman who did it.

So Wednesday night I was more eager than ever to get out on the river. After setting up the fellas, I jumped in my boat.

I did mention that this fish had reached near-mythical proportions in my mind. Years ago, a fellow flyfisherman had told me that folks go out after shad here, although a "trash fish" for food, because they were the freshwater tarpon. They fought unlike any other fish in the river, he explained, a distant look in his eye. We never were able to get out after them. A couple of years later, when I had bought my first really nice fly rod, I hit the water with another veteran, who explained that these fish would tail walk, throw your fly, run your line completely out. They were amazing fish. However, that day it rained frozen rain upon us, and in his first cast trying out my new rod, it snapped just inches above the grip... so again, no fish.

Last year, I picked up John McPhee's book, "Founding Fish", and again read about the power and grace of this fish. But something more was there, too. The very name of the fish, Alossa sappidissima, means "most savory herring." McPhee had opened up a new world to me - this was an eating fish of unsurpassed taste! Recipe after recipe included in his book sealed the deal for me, but I had missed the run yet again!

This year, I was bound and determined to get out on the river.

New fish always pose the problem of confidence. I know when I hit the river for trout up in the Sierras that I will catch something. I'm pretty sure about my bass and bluegill spots. But, even worse than trying new places, new fish pose many questions, and if you aren't catching fish, then you don't know which to tweak - method, depth, fly? Is it the spot? Is the boat bothering them? Am I right over them instead of upstream? My first casts had this anxious feeling about them, but I had tried the one cure that had worked in the past, a trip to Bill Kiene's fly shop for great advice and a confidence boost. They had also given me a tip I'd have never thought up: A two nymph rig.

Just as I started to get nervous, I felt a good, solid, double tapping on my line. I set the hook, but missed. That's okay. I re-cast, the same amount of line, and within a minute a tap again. I set fast, and fish on! Only, this fish fought like no other fish I'd caught here, not even stripers. It ripped my line out, and I new it was going to break me off, but it stayed on. It ran every which way. It shook like a chinook. I imagined for an instant a giant steelhead, but I couldn't imagine anything going from zero to sixty as quickly as did this fish. After a few minutes, I thought: Alright, time to bring this in. I'd employ my tried-and-true rod technique to thoroughly confuse the fish, and net it quickly. This involves turning the rod parrallel and just above the water, perpendicular to the fish, then when I feel it turn, flipping my rod the other direction, keeping it perpendicular to the fish. Usually, I can have a trout lolling on the surface and in my net within a minute.

I flipped my rod, perpendicular to how I felt the fish on, and also keeping him perpendicular to the river flow. It didn't budge; in fact, if felt like it was tied to the river, like it owned the river. I immediately thought of a barndoor halibut, planing in the current. Then I was worried, and my confidence left me. The legend of the shad made flesh, and I a mere mortal. I thought, alright, I'll let this fish run its course.

Five minutes or so later, I landed my first American shad, a buck of about 2-3 pounds. I was elated, and shaken, but the most amazing part was yet to happen to me. As I pulled the fish in, I saw it: It was an ocean fish, here in my river! Iridescent blues, greens, and a silver like you see on mackerel or anchovies or other beautiful ocean fish. I thought of lines from a Mary Oliver poem: the slow pouring off of rainbows.

I pulled his gills and placed him in the floor of my kayak, took a breath and thanked. And I cast again.


Bob J said...

I have looked at the McPhee book a couple times (I'm a McPhee fan) and wondered about it. Do you recommend it? Nice story Josh!!

Josh said...

I do recommend it, although it reads at times like a guy's fishing journal. I think he decided to write a book that allowed him to fly all over the place and fish, the bastard. I want that job.