Friday, June 17, 2016

Central Cali Surf Perch Stars in Our Eyes and Sand in our Teeth

It has been a few days since I last posted. Sharon and I made it out of Nevada and over to the coast of California without incident. We've been through Paso Robles, over to Morro Bay and now back to Paso for a few days before heading back to the Pacific Ocean at Cayucos.

If you're wondering- but probably aren't.... -why I haven't written it's because I have been concentrating on the Morro Bay magazine story. For some reason when I'm working on one of these stories everything else goes out the window. More experienced writers may know how to get around it but being a bit of a neophyte it's still an issue. Anyway our first run out to the ocean went pretty well, salt scum on everything and excessive dust not withstanding. I can't remember the last time I had sand in my teeth for 2 days straight, but I'll get to that later.

When we pulled into Morro Bay we couldn't have asked for better weather or a more picturesque scene. The sky was mostly clear with a few scattered clouds on the horizon, the ocean a beautiful aquamarine and being visible from almost everywhere in the area, monolithic Morro Rock made for a tremendous natural point of reference. The dunes between our campground and the beach are covered with ice plants and several other flowering ground covers that I can't identify.

Early on in our first walk on the beach Sunday afternoon we were both amazed at the number of sand dollars on the beach. Other places we've been finding a sand dollar is a treat or as is the case in Panama City Beach almost a rarity to find one intact. When I spotted the first one it was pretty thrilling so I picked it up, then another and another until I had a veritable sand dollar fortune which being the philanthropic guy that I am I ended up leaving my fortune on the beach for someone more needy than myself. Seriously you could fill a tote sack with all the sand dollars on the Morro Strand State Beach in a single afternoon. It was good to see things like that still exist somewhere in the world.

I haven't seen that many sea birds in a small space in quite a while. There are enough that the locals hold a bird festival every year. There are Sand Pipers, Great Egrets, Little Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Tri-color Great Blue Herons, Green Herons, Ospreys, Cormorants, White Pelicans, Brown Pelicans and the venerable Sea Gulls not to mention all the land based birds. One of the most entertaining are the pelicans. They hunt the ocean breakers just off shore by gliding along in front of the breaker just before it rolls over. This apparently gives them a view into the water as they cruise along wings outstretched peering in looking for fish and suddenly they dive into the wave like a crashing surfer. As the wave rolls on in the Pelican bobs to the surface swallowing its catch before taking off to do it over again. The other amusing behavior is when they cruise along on the wind outside the breakers at about 30 feet over the ocean then suddenly dive in after a fish in the blink of an eye. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta eat.

There's a song by the band STYX titled Nothing Ever Goes as Planned. While the title is not exactly accurate it does depict the nature of life as it seems when big plans are in the works. The plan was to come in and take the beach by storm, capture a memory card full of photos, catch a pot load of surf perch and be done with it all in the blink of an eye. Well...................

As it turns out fishing in the Pacific Ocean, specifically the central California coast, is a bit more fickle than fishing in the Gulf of Mexico which is where all my saltwater fishing experience lies. There is much more to consider than tides and the overall weather. There is a reason surfers like this part of the coast, it has REALLY BIG waves created by really strong winds. After a morning of scouting, and a few hours fishing on the second day I thought it was all down hill from there. That's when I got a chance to sit down and get a really good look at with a slightly better understanding of what it's like out there. With no available information about the surf fishing around Morro Bay I had been relying on the information available for counties north and south of San Luis Obispo County. As it turns out the surf is almost nothing like those other location in terms of the character. While fly casters in other locations seldom go out in swells of 3 feet or greater the fly casters around Morro Bay consider the best conditions to be swells of 3 to 6 or even 7 feet! That's brutal water that can hurt or drown you.

Being brave and, as Sharon points out some times, not too bright I adopted the local attitude.....that is until the wind set in. That's also when we hunkered down except when we had to go out. With sustained winds at close to 30 mph sand blows like a dust storm in west Texas. Sand in your teeth, hair, eyes and every other conceivable place on your body, in your vehicle does not make for a pleasant time especially when you need to take photographs for a magazine. Needless to say it did NOT go as planned.

On the upside it didn't go all bad either. The first morning out I hooked-up on a pair of what I think were surf perch but didn't land them. I also met a local that shared a lot of valuable information including the trick to landing fish in the violent surf hydraulics. Instinctively as a trout fisherman the rod goes up when a fish is on. Turns out this is absolutely the wrong thing to do when fishing in the surf. According to my new friend the proper technique is to put the rod ti[p down in the water, strip like hell and back onto the beach as fast as possible otherwise the hydraulic surge of the surf creates slack and the surf perch is gone. I learned that lesson the hard way.

As I write this a few things just occurred to me. I wonder if the editor knew that the surf is so much more volatile than other parts of the the west coast when he gave me the task of checking it out. If he did is that a vote of confidence or is he trying to bump me off? Either way the story is all but in the bag. We're heading back out that way after the weekend with stars in our eyes. The plan again is to finish getting photos and catch a few perch.......that is if we don't end up with sand in our teeth.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Delusions and Salvation Desert Trout Part 3

Leaving Pyramid Lake after fruitless hours of casting and retrieving purple crystal buggers on the South Nets Beach I headed for town to check into my hotel and prepare for work. The overnight reservation had been made by my employer for the next two weeks. Tired and wind beaten I had made no attempt to recover from the two day drive out of Fort Worth. The two weeks ahead would serve as an on the job interview at what was and still is by some considered to be the premier taxidermy studio in the country. I needed rest, food and to be out of the elements.

After all these years I don't remember which hotel/casino it was I walked into still a bit dazed and confused from the drive out and my unproductive day on the water. Growing up as southern Protestant doesn't prepare a young man for the atmosphere of a downtown Reno casino/hotel. It's not that I hadn't seen my share of sin and debauchery it's just that as a southern Protestant we're taught to do it in private so we've got something to be ashamed of come Sunday morning.

I hadn't seen that much smoke in one room since my post high school, rock & roll pot and keg party days. Though we had our share of mind altering drink and substances we never had hookers hovering around the bar or those clanging slot machines. We knew the wandering ladies of our parties and confined our gambling to poker the best we knew it then. My wanton days of high immorality were long gone by 1994. I had spent years trying to remove myself from such scenes of open immorality. I thought I had seen it all; my delusions of worldliness were shattered. It was all I could do not to turn around and walk out. The only reason I pressed through to the lobby and the check-in counter was pride and fishing. If I turned and ran now it would be in defeat and there would never be another chance to fish Pyramid Lake, the real reason the journey had been made in the first place.

After checking into what still remains the most dismal room I've ever slept in I called Sharon to let her know all was well. There was no mention of the scene downstairs. Why would any sane man mention that scene to his wife? I had no intention of partaking in any of it but there's never an occasion when mentioning such things is a good idea.  Luckily exhaustion had caught up so sleeping was not a problem.

Work was a rude awakening. Working alone in my little garage shop didn’t prepare me for the magnitude of what I walked into on Monday morning. It was all overwhelming and completely different from what I had experienced working in other small shops around D/FW. These guys were world class and the learning curve was extremely steep. By the end of the first week I had been openly insulted by the boss, laughed at by a couple other taxidermists and taken as an apprentice by another. I learned later it was all a part of the process to weed out those with a weak constitution and test egos. I was really ready to hit the lake come Saturday morning but I was also way behind that learning curve, trying to get the grasp of everything that was being thrown at me and wanting to finish the Mule Deer mount I was working on.

By lunch time the Mule Deer mount was pinned and drying.

During the week I had secured better housing arrangements. No more hotel/casino nights. Two nights there were more than enough. I stopped by for a change of clothes and my daily call home before heading back out to the lake to try again. I had also acquired the proper fast-sinking shooting head, running line, backing and a new reel spool along with an expanded set of flies.

All week I had been making inquiries about where to fish for the best chance of encountering trout without the crowds that gathered on the North and South Nets Beaches. The word was the area near the pyramid would be my best bet. The drive took me a different route than that of the week before. Once you leave I-80 at Wadsworth the landscape takes on a surreal, foreboding character. Once again I found the thrill of the unknown creeping up my spine like the fear before jumping off a high cliff into a lake. The one little voice in my head was telling me one thing while the other pushed me forward.

The town of Nixon on the south end of the lake offered no comfort just more unfamiliarity and an uncaring mood. On subsequent trips up to this side of the lake my view of Nixon changed drastically. The small reservation town fits the landscape perfectly. What started out as foreboding and unfamiliar became comforting and eventually moving as time spent on and around the lake mounted. It was to become my solace, the only thing that could sooth me in the absence of Sharon. Whether it was just the landscape, the fishing or both I still can’t say even today 24 years later.

Driving north of Nixon the NV-447 winds up onto a natural promontory over the lake. For just a moment I could see almost the entire length of it. It had not occurred to me the week before how large the lake is. What I thought from that vantage point was the pyramid turned out to be Anaho Island, a much larger rock formation just south of the pyramid. It finally dawned on me as I made the turn off of NV-447 toward the pyramid and trout island. Bouncing along the dirt road an almost overwhelming feeling of solitary insignificance took over. I had never been confronted with such a landscape. After making the arduous drive across the southwest on I-40, down to Las Vegas then up along US-95 it seemed the further this journey took me the smaller I felt. Driving along what was once the bottom of an ancient sea can do that if you let it and I let. There was no way to fight it so rather than struggle I decided to roll with it.

I stopped adjacent to Anaho Island in sight of what I knew now to be the namesake pyramid shaped rock formation to take it all in. Pelicans and sea gulls circled Anaho, both on the ground and in the air. The stark landscape in shades of white, grey and rust contrasted against the azure blue of the lake’s surface was moving and frankly a bit frightening all at the same time. The lack of human presence was palpable in a way that a storm cloud in the distance makes its presence known whether it’s coming your way or not. I thought about how work was going and what an awakening it had been to how little I actually knew about the work I was doing.

Off in the distance I saw a vehicle parked by the lake. It looked to be a pickup and I could just make out a fisherman standing in the water casting. Despite the fact I had made the trek to this side of the lake to escape the crowds I was suddenly drawn to be near a human. I restarted the truck and went off to find the road that led to where my immediate salvation lied.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Dazed and Confused- Desert Trout Part 2

When the alarm went off I couldn't find it. The nightstand had been moved and the sound of the alarm wasn't right. Nothing was right not the bed, the walls, the curtains.......nothing! I started to panic just as it all came back to me.

I was in a small mobile home at the Crosby Lodge on Pyramid Lake. My first coherent thought was "How did they come up with lodge?"

Okay it wasn't much but the group of mobile homes they call a lodge saved my ass from sleeping in my truck in freezing February weather somewhere around Reno after the long drive out. To top it all off I had been able to get the last available one for the night "and only for one night because a party is coming in there tomorrow." is what I was told when I checked in and paid at the bar.

My next thought was how could my stomach make that much noise? I had pulled in after the grill closed and had a pair of beers for nourishment before turning in. Maybe that on a completely empty stomach had contributed to my confused state. It was early enough that the sun was still well behind the hills on the east side of the lake but the sky had started to glow.

By the time I showered and packed back into the truck the grill had opened up. Finally solid food. I found a pay phone at the general store and called Sharon collect to let her know I had made it safely. It was a really crappy connection which made for an unsatisfying conversation. Conversations under these circumstances are okay at best but this one left me feeling empty. The closing thought was I would give her a call when I went to town later and checked into my hotel. A hotel that had been arranged by the man I would be working for the next two weeks.

With the better part of a day to kill it was time to fish. That was my ulterior motive for making this trip after all. There was a possibility that it could turn into a full-time job but the voice in my head told me the only reason I would take it is if the fishing panned out.

The lake and surrounding area is part of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Reservation. Like most reservations at first glance it doesn't look like much but when you take the time to get a deep look it's quite beautiful in a unique way. The hills around the lake are all but barren with minimal scrub brush. In full daylight the colors and nuance are a complete wash with little interest. What I came to find later is that sunrise and sunset hours are the best time to visually take in the reservation. The bright green lichen on the exposed rock faces glow in the morning sunlight. If you catch it just right the hills facing east just south of Sutcliffe turn a brilliant aquamarine just for a moment as the sun peaks over the eastern hills at first light.

I got a permit, a few flies and some direction on where to go at the general store. "North Nets Beach" the lady behind the counter told me, "that's where they been getting them lately". Following here directions I made my way out onto the hard sand beach along with several other vehicles. There were fishermen standing a ways out from the water's edge on ladders. What the hell? I pulled up and just watched for a while. They all used the same method. They would cast out as far as possible then wait a long time, counting down then start stripping the line in slowly on short strips. Presently one of them hooked up. He backed down off the ladder and fought the fish into his net standing in waist deep water next to his ladder. I couldn't see how big it was from my vantage point but I could see he released it, got back on his ladder and went to casting. Man was I confused about the ladder.

I rigged up the only decent fly rod I owned at the time with a floating line and a 3 foot sink-tip. From what I had been able to gather on the fishing here fly anglers would cast out sinking lines with a pair of wooly bugger style flies and strip, cast and strip, cast and strip. It didn't take too long to get the use of the ladder. Trying to make booming distance casts and keeping 60 feet of line in the air to wind up for the final shoot was tiring. The backcast tends to tail off and smack the water behind the caster drastically slowing the line speed. Stepping up two or three rungs on an aluminum ladder gives the caster the added height to keep the backcast out of the water and achieve a little more distance by getting more line in the air on the false casts.

I fished hard for around four hours with not a single strike. Others around me had landed multiple trout. While I was loading up to head into town a local stopped by to ask how I did. With no good news to report he asked to see my rig. After examining it he explained the rig that everyone else was using. What I really needed was a fast sinking shooting head and running line to go with the brilliant purple flies I had purchased that morning. he said he wasn't sure what the setup would cost. He had purchased his several years prior and the cost would surely have gone up. He directed me to the Reno Fly Shop where they would have everything I need including a spare spool for my Orvis Battenkill reel.

This came as disheartening news given that I had driven all the way from Texas to didn't even have the right fishing equipment. This was not turning out like it did in my head weeks before when I had cooked up this little plan. The best I could hope for is that things would get better once I got to town.