May 8, 1999 Mystery Creek
Time: Mid Day
“Dead Man Walking”. “Zombie Fly Fisher”. That was me.
Never let it be said that nymph fishing is not a skill which needs to be practiced, to be perfected. Last week I proved that to myself more than any other time in the recent past. Last week I fished “Mike and Marlo’s” Creek. Not its real name but it’s one of the few places near by where I can go be the only fly fisher. Mike and Marlo are the friends who introduced it to me.
The fishing at “Mike and Marlo’s” is usually one of two things- easy or hard. When the fishing is easy, you can, with the right fly, literally pick up a fish on every cast. When the fishing is hard, you’d swear that the creek was barren of fish. The reason- the DFG irregularly stocks the creek.
When they stock, fishing is good. Every 4th of July I can come here knowing that in a couple of hours I’ll have caught more than my fill of fish. When they don’t stock, fishing is generally poor. “Mike and Marlo’s” Creek is regularly visited by bait fishers who catch their limit of 5 fish and come back the next day for more. In a matter of days the river is literally cleaned out. Most of the surviving fish either hide in difficult lies or make the short trip down stream to the lake. Having the lake nearby is a bonus, large lake spawners swim up the creek in the fall.
I pulled up to the creek about 9am, jumped out of the car and geared up. If fished my 7’9” Tonka Queen “High Quality Bamboo Fish Rod” with a 6x leader and creel by my side. The creel was something I’d never fished with before. It was a X-mas present from my brother and sister in-law a few years back. I never thought I’d have any use for it. With the Stanislaus closed and my Pilipino father in-law laughing at me for always throwing fish back, I’d thought I’d bring home some dinner. “No catch?” he says when I return from a fishing trip. “I threw them back” I say, as he bursts into laughter. Today would be different….I’d hope.
The last time I’d visited the creek it hadn’t been stocked and I had almost gone fishless. I did hook two large (15” and 17”) spawners. They felt the bite of my 3wt and decided they wouldn’t have any part of some fisherman trying to land them on such a wimpy rod. Needless to say, no dinner. A fact my wife remind me of before I left the house.
Regardless, I removed the knife from my back and was now standing with 2 other fisherman outside the second powerhouse. Above the second powerhouse is stretch I fish most. The water tends to stay lower and within a couple of hours I reach the fish hatchery and return to the car fulfilled. The two fisherman I spoke with had fished the upper creek and after a few brews, where planning on fishing the lower. I couldn’t tell how they where fishing but they said they’d caught a few fish in the morning and suspected that the creek had just been planted. Encouraged, I thanked them and headed to a pool where I was always guaranteed fish during a plant.
Most fly fishers hold planted fish in contempt. “Wild fish” are always better they say. I don’t necessarily believe that. In some cases, “wild fish” can be more challenging but in most low pressure streams, catching “wild fish” can be as easy or easier than catching planters. Case in point, I once caught and released over 100 Golden Trout in a single day. All on dry flies.
True, planters shouldn’t be released in rivers with wild trout (most of whom are really generations old planters) due to disease, their lack of fish manners, etc.. In general, I think the whole “Wild Trout” thing is over rated and romanticized. Wild trout are definitely the more beautiful fish but otherwise, fish are fish. They look for the same things in their food sources, that is naturally drifting or acting prey. This point is something that “Mike and Marlo’s” creek is always points out. There is one section of the river where, if you arrive at the right time, you can easily see feeding trout. Best of all, they can’t see you. I like to sit there, sight fish, and watch how the fish react to my presentations.
On the creek I fished where I was confident of picking up fish. Nothing. I moved to where I can usually see planted fish. Nothing. I was now pretty sure that if there was a recent plant, most of the fish had been fished out. I had yet to realize that I was the Zombie Fly Fisher.
I made my way upstream to what was a perfect big fish lie in this small brushy creek. A side current swept between two large rocks into a deep, shaded pool and a small undercut bank. At the tail of the lie was a small wood pile. The fish could feed at the head of the small pool and run under the brush if threatened. I fished behind the rock first, losing a fly in the brush pile. At this point I’d realized that I was having an “off” day. A couple of weeks before I’d been in my front yard, practicing casting under low trees and brush; yet, on this stream I was afraid to place my flies where I knew they needed to go- under the trees next to the shaded bank. Lazy is probably a better way to put it. I wasn’t casting well and just didn’t feel like losing flies. I had 4 Prince nymphs and 4 Krystal Flash on a hook. They had to last all day.
I made my way up to the rock. It was large enough that I could high stick a nymph on the other side and still remain hidden. I simply had to watch my line. I dapped my fly in the water and then watched as my line raced down, then up, then down the pool again before I even thought of setting the hook. “ Talk about your zombies……..” I thought to myself as I finally set the hook on what would be the largest fish of the day.
The pool was basically a large bucket. Rocks and over hanging trees on one end, a brush pile on the other. A rock (with me behind it ) on one side, the bank on the other. It was maybe 2 1/2 feet long, 15 inches wide. I panicked as the fish headed down to the brush pile again. I muscled him and he came within a few inches of the surface…..After I removed my nymph from the tree over head, I moved upstream a couple of feet.
I was now in a tunnel of trees and realized that if today wasn’t going to be a waste of time, I had better wake up and pay attention to what I was doing. This became even more clear when I raised my rod and instantly tangled. A tall person can’t stand erect in this portion of the creek. The trees just wanted to remind me of this fact. Fortunately, I’m short. I took my fly in my hand and with just my leader out of the guides, I made a bow and arrow cast to the bank. The cast fell perfectly 6 inches from the bank. A couple of more casts and I felt a slight tug on my line…..Retrieving my flies from the tree overhead once again, I noticed two bait fishers headed my way.
The bait fishers worked their salmon eggs downstream. I was quite amused as I watched one fall, slip and slide as he made is was toward me. If there is one thing this creek is, it’s slimy. The stream is only probably 4 feet deep at it’s deepest point but I’ve had more close calls wading this stream than any place else. I almost always take a dunking. I have developed the ability to allow my feet to go where they want, while twisting and turning my upper body to keep my balance. In fact, this day, I will not leave the river before stepping on a rock and involuntarily twisting my body 270 degrees to avoid falling in. The bait fisher was not so lucky and narrowly missed hitting his head as he fell.
In time, they made their way to where I was fishing. Striking up a conversation, they BOTH began fishing the same run as me. At one point, we where shoulder to shoulder. One above me and one below me, both with their lines in MY water. Not only that but the they cast below and fished their lines up through and above me. Amused once more, I reeled my line in and watched as they fished through.
I moved upstream to a wider more open area of the creek. Again I fished the shaded side of the creek under some trees. Here I landed my first fish. It was colorless and had the worn scale look that only planters get. Finally, a dinner fish. I became quite distraught when I opened my creel and deposited the fish. At first I had planned not to lock it. It is a wicker creel with one of those little deposit holes at the top. I’d always thought they were just for show. In fact, I was quite skeptical at the whole creel thing. It’s supposed to keep fish fresh by evaporation. I just didn’t see it happening on a hot spring day in the Central Valley.
Almost immediately, the fish turn into the Tasmanian Devil. My creel was flopping everywhere. “I’d better lock this thing”, I thought……”maybe I should have killed the fish first”, I thought…..”How should I have killed it, hit is with a rock? It would probably slip out of my hands and drift down stream. Cut the gills?” I didn’t have a knife and I couldn’t see how that would be more humane.
I continued on and with my the second fish, I became more comfortable with my Mexican Jumping Creel. I quite enjoyed the creel actually. I positioned the second fish’s head at the opening of the hole and simply, let go. “Wow, it actually works!” The flopping was still a bit unnerving.
I fished further up stream and was surprised to be hooking fish where I normally do not. Fishing up through a small riffle, I noticed a fellow knee deep in water with a shovel in his hands. “Maybe he’s laying spawning gravel” I thought. Then I noticed that he seemed to be taking gravel! “What’s this fellow up to?”, I wondered. Seems he was panning for gold! A first for me on this particular stream, but he would not be the last….
I made my way passed the treasure hunter to one of my favorite parts of the stream. It’s my favorite because in the early afternoon, the sun light beams through the trees in such a manner as to allow fishermen to spot fish, with out them spotting you. It’s also where I hooked the 17 inch fish last year. It’s often a great place to watch how fish react to different types of flies. Of course, I've said all this before. Today was no exception.
I spotted a working fish and started to work him. I drifted my fly past him. I must have seen him inhale it a half dozen times before the hook set…For an instant there was tension and then nothing. I drifted the fly past him a couple of more times but he wasn’t about to touch that fly again. Frustrated with my inept nymphing skills, I switched to a dry fly. Once again I watched as the fish inhaled my fly only to have me pull it out of it’s mouth. Amazingly, I never put him down. “Wait ‘till he turns his head” shouted the bait fisher who was working the far bank. The fellow looked suspiciously like the bait man I ran into last fall. “I knew that” I thought to myself. I may have known it, but I wasn't doing it. On the next drift I hesitated before setting the hook….Successes! I released a scrappy 7 inch planter.
Making my way past my bait fishing friend, I fished a riffle that I normally pass up. That seemed to be the pattern today, fishing the shallow water. I successfully hooked two larger fish and now had 4 in the creel, almost a limit. My wife's ridicule of earlier rang in my ear. I wanted to take home a limit. Not a problem I figured as I landed half the fish I hooked today, about 14 fish at that point. I figured I could fish down stream and would at least land the one extra fish I needed.
I made my way back to where I sight fished. The light was different no but I could still make out a fish feeding. On the second drift my line went taught. I hooked into a bigger fish feeding above the one I had targeted. I wasn't about to complain. As I was about to slip this fish into my creel he slipped free of my grip. Drat! I'd have to slip and slide my way downstream until I reached my car.
I never did land another fish; although, I did run into another treasure hunter. This one was digging for gold along the bank.