Winter, Spring and Fall, 64-65

Winter, Spring and Fall, 64-65

In the Great Flood of 1964, the Eel River was five miles wide at Ferndale. It carried uprooted houses, redwoods, cattle, chickens, bridges and even a few humans that had dared to invade its floodway in times of peace. In that soggy December, some sixty inches of rain had halted the long truce and the Eel had reclaimed its floodplain with a vengeance that should have fooled no one but surprised everyone. There were more than a few fresh graves in Humboldt County that year because people had forgotten that this was a river and rivers write their own laws that are not to be trifled with. The laws are always well written on the face of the land but we seldom read them.

Deane Swickard and I came up to Humboldt County about a month after the Great Flood.  Nearly all the rivers north of the Russian were still quite high and devastation was everywhere. We were anxious to try some steelhead fishing but most rivers remained out of shape well into spring. The ground was still supersaturated in most areas.

One exception was the North Fork of the Smith River near Crescent City. The stream drains rocky, thin soil country and had cleared by mid-February. Deane and I drove up from Arcata one cloudy and mild afternoon. The Smith supports California’s largest Chinook (they call them Kings) and steelhead and we were eager to see if we could hook a steelhead. The beautiful old Klamath River Bridge was gone and we crossed the great river on a makeshift ferry. It was still high and wild. The main Smith was not much better and we supposed we might be out of luck but when we reached the North Fork, we were relieved to find it running crystal clear and not too high.  It looked much like a typical British Columbia coastal stream – fast boulder riffles and scattered pools with canyons and increasing gradient upstream. We fished up to the Stony Creek fishing boundary without a touch then hiked into the canyon to see if we could spot some steelhead in the deep pools. It was rough going because the walls were steep and the rock was soft and sometimes broke away beneath us. I took a dangerous fall at one point and landed on a tiny sand beach instead of nearby boulders after falling free for some five metres. In some places, the high water mark was at least six metres above the present river level. Huckleberry bushes were draped with salmon eggs that had washed out of the gravel. We finally came to a big pool and Deane, who was a short distance ahead of me, signalled fish. I caught up with him and was amazed to see thirty or forty steelhead fanned out near the bottom end of the pool. There was a monster fish among them. It looked like a blue fin tuna and had a red stripe on its side that looked to be a foot wide. Although the river was closed here, I couldn’t resist a few casts toward the big fish. We were about ten metres above the pool and could watch the progress of my little red sponge lure in the clear water. I cast well upstream of the fish but they all bolted upstream into deep water
when the lure approached. I kept casting without much hope but finally a few fish started drifting back with the lure; watching but not taking. Suddenly the big fish came out of nowhere and grabbed the lure. We could see the white of the inside of his mouth as he grabbed it and started shaking his head. He was gone before I even felt him. I was too stunned to set the hook. That was enough for us. On the way back we met a warden at Stony Creek who reminded us of the closure. “Just looking” we said.

Later that spring we took a trip up the Trinity River to look for steelhead in the canyons around New River and rainbows in the reservoir behind Trinity Dam. Jim Baer was coming up from the Bay Area to fish with us. We intended to meet him at Lewiston but got sidetracked and missed him by a day. We missed the steelhead too but the canyon pools were loaded with steelhead parr and pre-smolts newly emerged from their winter habitat. There were hundreds in every pool and they attacked our bait without mercy. This was surely one of the great steelhead rivers of the
west. We moved up to the lake and caught a few rainbows around the creek mouths. They were early spawners from thirty to thirty five centimetres and well worth catching on one of the first warm days of spring. But the missed steelhead lingered in our minds and I resolved to get back to the Trinity. I never did.

I spent the summer in Nelson and didn’t get back to Arcata until September. A big run of Chinooks entered the Eel River in October and provided some of the finest fishing of my life. The river that had been five miles wide the previous Christmas was now running bare bones low and the salmon were unable to pass above the first big tidal pools near Fernbridge. The uppermost of these pools were crammed with Chinooks waiting for the rain so they could pass over the broad shallow riffles below Fortuna. The rain was a long time coming. Deane Swickard, Frank Deckert, Rich Lamb and I went to the river several times a week for a month more. At first, we fished with trout tackle hoping to catch small salmon or half pounder steelhead. That was not to be. Over the first few days I hooked at least ten fish and they were all huge. There was simply no chance of
landing these brutes without a rod with lots of backbone and a reel with at least two hundred metres of heavy line. I scraped the bottom of my bank account and purchased a heavy duty nine foot rod and large saltwater spinning reel with three hundred yards of seventeen pound test line. I would have bought heavier line but fairly long casts were required.

It was another week before I we got back to the river and a healthy storm had dropped an inch or more of rain on the watershed. I was afraid the fish may have moved upstream but as we rolled down the hill into Fernbridge, the cars on the river bar told us the fish were still holding in the estuary. We joined the throng and hooked fish almost immediately. It was a three ring circus. There were anglers by the hundreds on both banks and boat fishermen anchored in the middle. Everyone was hooking fish but few were landing them. There were about five fish on the beach and one was a great hog of a salmon at least forty pounds. The first few fish I hooked tore down the long pool for some fifty metres, thrashed hard on the surface for awhile then sulked before taking off again. The fish were just too big to handle and it was next to impossible to get them in. The hooks eventually wore loose even though people were using barbed treble hooks. They found other ways to get off as well. Once I played a fish for thirty minutes only to lose it in the anchor rope of two boneheads who drifted their boat directly in front of meand dropped anchor while the fish thrashed beside them. I lost another when it raced across the pool and picked up a tangle of lines from anglers on the opposite bank. Another time I played a fish for ten minutes only to discover I was hooked to it by a snarl of broken lines. It may have been the fish I lost earlier. My broken line was soon among them. These fish were simply too big and powerful to be landed with much success by shore casters. To reach them, one needed a fairly flexible rod and a reel loaded with fairly light line. Besides, I doubt if you could have horsed those fish with a broomstick, the hooks would have bent and pulled out. This is what made the experience unforgettable: large, wild fish with the odds well on their side. The fish were writing, acting and directing this play. Full freedom, full spirit and full artistic latitude. No dragging lead balls, giant hooks and baling wire line.

The afternoon turned to dusk and most fishermen had left by the time I hooked another fish. He struck hard and nearly jolted my arms from their sockets. The reel screamed in tortured bursts as the fish raced downstream in a series of crashing leaps. Perhaps this one will tire sooner and I will land it I thought. The light was fading fast and the fish was now running more of less at leisure after the first frenzy. I lost my hopeful optimism. Half an hour later, it was dark and nothing had changed but the fish was still on. Five anglers were left. They all stopped fishing and watched. One man drove his car to the water’s edge so I could see a little of what was happening. This seemed to sap the fish’s spirit and it began to roll on the surface – a sign of desperation in big Chinooks but a move that often results in freedom. At this point I applied all the pressure
I could in like desperation. The fish swam to my feet then made a couple of feeble little runs before coming to the surface and turning on its side,
completely exhausted. I beached it in shallow water then kicked and wrestled it onto the bar: a perfect thirty pound female. I stared at the beautiful body in the fresh moonlight before I took her home. It would be a very long time before I wanted to catch a big salmon again

Leave a Reply