Mad River

Mad River


Mad River has its origins in some mystic mountains in Northern California they call the Yolla Bollys. I first came to the Mad not far from these mountains. There was large ranch near the hamlet of Mad River that my parents were interested in buying. I was interested in the fishing and
exploring. It was near the end of a hot summer and all the grassy openings on the hillsides were brilliant gold. In the evenings, deer by the hundreds came to these pastures of heaven. I had never seen so many except down in the Salinas Valley lettuce fields and in the hills around San Luis Obispo. They were everywhere.  Far more than the East Kootenay or even Vancouver Island deer meccas like the Nimpkish Valley or
Copper Canyon in their glory days – even more than the Queen Charlotte Islands. Strangely though, there was a buck’s only law, two points (fork horn they called it) or better. Hordes of hunters flooded the hills and the surviving bucks must have been hard pressed to keep the does happy. The deer in that country were the finest eating anywhere. The first big autumn south easters brought down bushels of acorns in the little oak groves and the deer loved them. We loved the deer.

Bob Ross came up from Salinas in the fall of 1962. We climbed a long way up a ridge overlooking Ruth Lake hoping to shoot an acorn fat little buck. My deer killing days were over by then following an incident on the ranch where I shot jack rabbit in the spine with a .22 that summer and
watched in horror as it did back flips and refused to die. I would have been happy to have Bob shoot a deer however and he was glad to do it. It rained the day before and the morning was perfect – fresh and clean without a trace of the late summer and fall haze that is so common in California. We followed the edge of a gully up from the lake and jumped two big bucks (a big buck there was 120
pounds). It was too brushy for a shot and we weren’t interested in old hide – in – the canyon veterans.  We wanted the guileless young bucks nibbling acorns in the glades. But some kind of justice prevailed. After sneaking up on countless little oak groves then waiting until dusk on the ridge top where we watched the headlights of countless hunters’ vehicles pouring up from the Bay Area, we went home skunked. We had seen many does and fawns but no fat little bucks. Our season was over because it was dangerous to hunt when the hordes were out.

Fishing was fine in that country too. The Upper Mad ran through the ranch and there were several kilometres of beautiful water. I went down often. My favourite spot was a long broken run below the Bull Barn. It was about 100 meters long and one metre deep down the middle. Several big boulders broke the surface and created eddies and ripples – perfect rainbow water. On a late summer day after Bob Ross left, I made a good lunch and hiked down to the Bull Barn with a fly rod. It was a bright afternoon and I wasn’t thinking of catching many fish. I just wanted to be in the cool water throwing a fly. I waded in near the head of the run and fished it hard for half an hour. There was nothing but the odd half hearted rise mostly short of the fly. The boys at the ranch had said that nothing but grasshoppers would catch fish but of course I didn’t believe them. I gathered up a couple of dozen and placed them in my tomato juice jar. I replaced the fly reel with a small spinning reel and put on a hopper on a number eight hook. The boys were right. I took fish after fish on the floating hoppers. They were all beautiful rainbows between twenty five and
thirty five centimetres. I killed ten of the larger ones and took them back to the ranch. That evening the cook turned them into a gourmet feast.

I left that country for a couple years and didn’t see the river again until I moved to Arcata to attend Humboldt State University in 1964.  Before my tenure at Arcata, I had only seen the Mad in the summers. It was mid winter 1965 before I got to the lower the lower river. It was horribly dirty like almost all Northern California rivers running hard with fresh runoff. The soils of the coast south of the glacial influence in Northern Washington State are often deep and unstable compared to those of Coastal British Columbia which tend to be rocky,gravelly and usually well drained. It takes a fair bit of abuse and hard charging run off to get the streams of BC really dirty although there are exceptions like the Chilliwack – Vedder. Not so south of the border and especially in Oregon and Northern California where the valleys are V- shaped and steep with high clay content in the soils. There is usually no snowpack to absorb rain and much of the country has a long history of hard logging. Mass wasting of whole hillsides is not uncommon. The rivers run dirty for most of the winter but the steelhead hold tough. At least they did in those days.

Where BC’s coastal streams are cold distilled water draining gravel, granite and ice, the southern streams drain a richer land. A more sensitive land but one with more gifts of nutrition and warmth. And the southern streams allow the fish much more utilization of their wealth while the
proud BC mountains get in the way of the fish with waterfalls not far upstream. While a BC river may support fish in the hundreds, the California stream of similar size will often support thousands. Many California steelhead are rather small however.

Not long after I got to Arcata, I got a job on the night desk of the Arcata Hotel. There was a strange mix of characters living at the hoteland some of them were steelheaders. Frank Rogers was an avid Mad River steelheader. One frosty December morning we stowed our gear in my 1955 Ford and drove to the river. It was high and dirty but clearing after two dry days with cold nights. Our destination was a huge pool dredged by a gravel company just below the little town of Blue Lake. It was already lined with anglers, mostly bait plunkers and they were hooking an occasional fish. We hiked around the pool checking catches and visiting for awhile. The fish were all fresh run and silver bright. Instead of fishing the main pool with the mob, we walked around to the narrow outlet to intercept the fish as they slipped into the pool. In two hours, we hooked twelve steelhead between three and four kilos and lost many more. We used large pink Spin and Glos in the still somewhat turbid water. Then it was over – the
fish had passed upstream. The sun was falling in the western wine sky and noisy ice rimmed the puddles on the silty gravel as we headed back to the car.


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