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Vintage Fish Story

t's the early Sixties. I'm barely twenty years old, preparing to enter military service, but I've got a couple weeks remaining before I'm signed up. The phone rings. It's Don Kraft, my hunting and fishing buddy. There's excitement in his voice. "Hey, Web. I ran into this guy in town today, Ray Horst. He told me if we want to catch some nice trout, we need to drive up and fish the Mokelumne river between Camanche Reservoir and Pardee Lake."

I knew of Ray Horst. He was an older, excellent fisherman, and he spent much more time engaged in his passion than I'm sure his wife approved of.

The dam at Camanche Lake below Pardee Dam in San Joaquin County, California had just been built. It was in the news, but we were dimly aware of it, at best.

"Why did he say that?" I ask.

"Horst says that when they built Camanche, a bunch of steelhead trout got trapped in the river between Pardee and Camanche. He said almost nobody knows about it yet, and the fishing is unbelievably good."

"Why do you think he told you about it?" I ask. "I wouldn't have told anybody about something like that."

"Well," Don continued, "I don't think he was planning on telling me, but I sort of pulled it out of him."

Painting by Gustave Courbet - 1873, Don Webster, myoutdoorbuddy.com
Painting by Gustave Courbet - 1873

That made sense to me. My pal, Don Kraft had a way of coaxing information out of people. I think he would have gone far had he chosen to join the CIA or the FBI.

Needless to say, we didn't waste much time before springing into action. The next morning found us driving in my little sports car, headed for the canyon between Camanche Reservoir and Pardee Lake.

After finding a place along the top of the canyon to park the car, we assembled our gear and made our way down the steep hillside to the river. It was a beautiful morning with the sun beginning to peek over the skyline at the far end of the canyon. The river was flowing smooth and glassy at a perfect pace. As far as we could tell, we had the entire canyon to ourselves.

"I'm going to hike upstream a few hundred yards and fish my way back to you," Kraft said.

After my pal departed, I dug into my knapsack and took out a jar of salmon eggs. If Ray Horst had mentioned anything about the size of the trout in the river, Don Kraft hadn't remembered in his excitement and surprise at hearing Horst's revelation. As a result, I didn't know what to expect. My rig consisted of a three-piece, 9 foot, South Bend bamboo fly rod and a Pflueger Medalist fly reel. To the best of my recollection, the reel was the Model 1498. I'd removed the fly line from it and filled it with six pound test monofilament.

After slipping a salmon egg on my hook, I walked upstream several yards to the tail end of a magnificent pool. Stripping out enough line from my reel to afford a decent cast, I stepped to the water's edge and gently sailed my terminal gear across the water. I'd clamped two, small splitshot on the line to enable it to take the salmon egg a good depth beneath the surface.

Filled with excitement, my adrenalin pumping, I watched the line as it took the salmon egg through the water, gently swinging toward shore as it neared the end of the drift. In an instant, my rod almost jumped out of my hand as it bent downward in a sharp arc. I watched spellbound as a four pound trout erupted from the river, tailwalking across the surface, shaking its head at the same time. My reel began to sing as the fish made a strong run toward the opposite bank. Using my index finger as a drag on the reel, I applied enough pressure to slowly tire the trout after a few more surging runs. Gently guiding it to the water's edge, I eased the fish on to the gravel, bent down and took hold of its gill cover. Grinning from ear to ear, I admired a strikingly beautiful specimen of a landlocked steelhead trout. It was a hook-jawed male with a wide, red band running the length of its lateral line. When I close my eyes, I can still see it glistening, wet and beautiful with the soft, morning sun shining on it. That kind of memory tends to stay with you.

After extracting the hook from its jaw, I submerged it in the water until I felt it attempting to free itself from my gentle grip, and I watched it swim slowly away, disappearing into the dark green of the river.

It quickly became obvious that these trout in the river were virginal in that they had been exposed to very little or no fishing pressure during their lives. Don Kraft and I would later tally our catch for that first day. Between the two of us, we'd hooked over 60 fish, ranging in size from around two to five pounds. It was the kind of trout fishing experience that comes along very rarely, if ever, no matter where you are fishing.

This brings up an interesting point. As it turned out, the fishing regulations for that particular stretch of river were in the process of being changed, but nothing was in print yet. We discovered this on a later trip down the canyon when we were stopped by a game warden at my car after fishing. We'd been releasing almost all of the trout we landed, but on this particular outing, we'd kept some fish for the smoker. Although he didn't give us a citation, he took six of the ten fish we'd kept, leaving us with two each. The booklet regulations stated a daily bag limit of five trout, but the warden enforced the new regulation that was not in print yet. Although we were not happy about the confusion, we were relieved that we didn't receive a citation.

Although Don Kraft and I didn't tell anyone about the fishing in the canyon, word eventually spread, and before it all ended, people were coming from San Francisco all the way to Redding to fish the canyon. It became a madhouse. The authorities had to employ additional people in order to prevent wholesale slaughter and the stream being fished out.

It was a dream that was relatively short-lived, but a wonderful dream come true, nevertheless. The memories I carry of that unforgettable experience will surely remain with me for the rest of my days.

Don E. Webster has been engaged in a wide variety of outdoor pursuits for over 60 years. His recently published book, Bury Me In My Waders -- An Old Duck Hunter Recalls His Fowl Past, currently ranks among the most popular, best-selling duck hunting books on Amazon Books and Amazon Kindle. His next book, “Double-Ought Buck” a novel, will be available in December. Webster was the recipient of the 2013 Phil Ford Humor Award from the Outdoor Writer’s Association of California for his hilarious description of hunting dogs in his MyOutdoorBuddy column entitled “Canine Comics.” Don's website is donewebster.com  

 

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