Recalling a memorable fisherman at California’s Rock Creek Lake
Gary Williams Copyright 2014, May not be reproduced without specific written permission
This is how I see myself when fishing. Here I”m standing in the San Juan River, in Colorado.
My childhood friend Steve and I were fishing along the west shore of Rock Creek Lake, on the east side of California’s High Sierra Mountains. It was a sunny, windy August afternoon. We were eager to use our fly rods and newly purchased float tubes, but having been blown off the lake the previous day, knew better than to try it a second time. Instead, we decided to fish from the shore, experimenting with a new type of artificial bait called “Mouse Tails” that was recommended by a local shop. So here we were, fishing the lazy way, with rods resting on rocks, hands in pockets, just enjoying the High Sierra scenery and the last of summer’s warmth.
This is how others see me when I’m fishing. The stream is in the Mammoth Lakes region of California.
About 40 feet from us, a fisherman and his wife walked down a trail that led to the shore. They were carrying several rods, a shiny new tackle box and other gear. People who fish the shore of popular lakes like Rock Creek are usually friendly, chatty types, but this couple was staring straight ahead at the deep blue waters they were about to challenge.
She was probably in her early 70’s, standing about 5’6”, thin and pale, with straight gray hair cut short, wearing a button-up light blue sweater and sky blue slacks. The man was of like age and appeared to be all fisherman. He was, in fact, the living image of what a well-dressed fisherman should look like … if dressed by a high-end retailer like Orvis. Standing maybe 5’9”, his square jaw and determined gaze were shaded from the sun by a new looking wide-brimmed, light tan fishing hat. On his trim frame he wore matching light tan waders with matching wading boots. On his chest was a matching light tan fishing vest to which was added more color than found on the Generals at a Russian military parade. But this man wasn’t wearing medals and battle ribbons. His display was made of rows of shiny gold, silver, red, green, and multi-colored fishing lures, many of which were nearly as large as the fish in Rock Creek Lake. I’ve never seen anything like it. If clothing can be a mixed metaphor, this was it; combining a fly fisherman’s vest with outlandishly large spinning lures. The purists in these two worlds, fly and spin fishing, mix as well as oil and water.
Steve and I watched in silence as the stylish newcomer rigged a spinning rod with a bobber and a fluorescent green blob of power bait. The bait was almost as large as the bobber, which hung about a foot above it. Normally, bait is small enough that a fish can get its mouth over it, and it hangs three to four feet below the bobber. This was going to be interesting.
Along the shore where Orvis Man was standing the water was shallow, no more than a couple of feet deep. But out 15 to 20 feet, there was a sharp drop. Beyond was dark, blue-black water and the promise of rainbow trout.
Most fishermen would cast from shore, but with bait and bobber ready, Orvis Man waded slowly, stiff-legged into the water, splashing a wake right to the edge of the drop off and alerting any fish within a mile that he was coming. There he stopped, looked right and left, and gave a mighty cast straight ahead. Plop! His line hit the water about four feet in front of him. Was this Tim Conway or Mr. Bean doing a takeoff on fishing? It was hilarious!
Trying not to laugh, and thus embarrass this couple, I turned and walked back to check my rod. I don’t think Orvis Man could hear my snort or see my shoulders shaking as I turned away. Really, I tried to hold it in.
Orvis Man looked down at the line floating near his wader-clad feet, shot us a swift glance, stood there a minute as if deciding what to do, then began backing toward the shore, where his wife was standing with blank face and straight back. The woman was so stiff and still, she looked like she’d been planted. With each step back he pulled line off his reel, apparently not knowing that if he left the bail open it would unspool on its own as he retreated to shore.
Once back on dry land, he put the rod on the sandy beach and propped it up with a stick. That immediately pulled the line into the shallow water, where it continued to float toward him. He didn’t seem to notice. His wife moved over to stand closer to the fishing rod, remaining as rigid as before. Next, Orvis Man rigged a second rod and once again carried another huge blob of power bait stiff-legged into the water. There he gave another mighty cast. This time the line smacked down with a splash about 10 feet from him. Again he stood there like he didn’t know what to do next. He looked at us. He turned back and looked at his wife. He stared at the water.
Normally, we would be friendly and talk with newcomers, but – confession time – Steve and I were now giggling and making whispered wisecracks about this obvious newbie in the expensive get-up. Surely he knew we were laughing at his efforts. Guilt kept me from making eye contact with Orvis Man.
Now in our 60’s, Steve and I have fished with flies, lures and bait since we were children. We have plenty of gear, but have not given in to catalog-style fishing uniforms. I wear denim pants, cotton shirts, and a baseball cap. My sun glasses are not the Oakleys that most well-heeled fishermen and their guides wear. All of my bait and lure fishing tackle is in a small bag that clips around my waist. Most of what I need fits in a 6” x 4” plastic box divided into multiple squares. It holds lures, split shot, sliding weights, and hooks. My fly fishing tackle is also in a compact bag. Steve shows a similar lack of commitment to the fishing uniform of the day, though I like to continually remind him that he favors part of the uniform; his favorite fishing shirt is the multi-pocket, vented-back type that every fishing guide in the world wears. He compensates by keeping the sun off his head with a wide-banded woven straw hat that looks like it came from a rice paddy. Our aversion to the uniform of the day is reverse snobbery and we know it.
Back to Orvis Man. After wading out and casting yet again, he was standing near the precipice, where the shallow shelf meets the deep blue water. After a couple of minutes with no bite, he became impatient, reeled in his bait glop and stiffly marched back to shore. There he said something to his wife, put down the spinning rig and picked up a fly rod equipped with the most brilliant fluorescent green line I have ever seen. Clearly, someone had a thing for bright green when this guy was buying his equipment.
By now Steve and I had given up watching circumspectly. We were flat out staring. We knew fly rod and Orvis Man were going to make the trip to Rock Creek Lake memorable. We’d had a blast fishing from float tubes the day before and were bummed that high winds on our favorite lakes were now forcing us to find a relatively sheltered spot on this shore. Manners be hanged, this was going to make up for being blown off our preferred fishing lakes.
Fly rod in hand, back went Orvis Man, one stiff leg in front of the other, sloshing his way even father into the lake than before, far enough that we both held our breath, sure he was going to drop out of sight on each next step.
Neither Steve nor I claim to be experts with a fly rod, but we both know that casting one well, even when on dry ground and with nothing behind you, takes practice. Orvis Man was now standing waist deep, which put the entire lake behind him to serve as a casting obstacle. On top of that, his first cast showed that it was probably the first time he’d ever tried to use his new rod. He pulled off 60 or 70 feet of line in large loops and held them in his left hand. This is way more line than a newbie should be trying to cast. Next, he threw his rod back with a jerk as he looked over his right shoulder. This meant he could watch as the line laid out on the water behind him. Satisfied with what he saw, he yanked his arm forward, catching his hat with the fly.
Unable to hold the extra line, the rod, his hat and unhook himself, he splashed back to shore, where his wife set him free. The only reason Steve and I were not rolling on the ground at this point is that we are kind and highly sophisticated men who would never do anything to mock another fellow traveler. We were also busy bringing in trout that were too dumb to be spooked by the commotion near us, trout that were still interested in the silly looking Mouse Tails. When I say “silly looking,” picture a large white salmon egg attached to a pink worm’s body. Seriously, who figures out that fish will go for such a thing? Yet they do.
Anyway, back to Orvis Man. Freed of his hook, he waded back into the water to do battle once again, lures clanking on his chest and fly rod at ready. Up to his arm pits in cold High Sierra water, he whipped his rod all the way back and down behind him and side-armed it forward. The line slapped the water behind him, this time missing him as it came forward and landed to the right of his feet. Frustration was beginning to show on his face. Back and forth Orvis Man whipped the rod, splashing the line in front, to the side and behind him. Amazingly, he was missing himself.
At this point, having gone from snicker to stunned fascination to overwhelming pity, I leaned over to Steve as he pulled in yet another nice trout and said: “Maybe I should go over and show him how to cast?” Steve’s response was: “No, don’t embarrass him in front of his wife.” That was probably good advice, but no one wants to watch a puppy being tortured, and this pup was torturing himself right before our eyes.
A normal fly cast starts with the rod tip aiming down. You pull back quickly to 2 o’clock, pause briefly until the line straightens out behind you and the rod loads up, then cast forward to 10. Dropping the rod back to 3 or 4 o’clock, as Orvis Man was doing, is a recipe for disaster, especially when standing in water up to his waist. He proved the point by next snagging the fly on the back of his fishing vest. Once again, Orvis Man splashed back to shore so his wife could unhook him. Then she resumed the statue-like pose, hands folded in front of her.
That second snag seemed to take something out of Orvis Man. He went back to the giant blop of power bait and bobber setup, though never leaving it in the water for more than a minute or two. As my Grandfather used to tell me when he and I fished this very same section of the High Sierra, “You’ve got to leave your line in the water if you want to catch a fish.” I wanted to impart at least that bit of borrowed wisdom to Orvis Man. Unfortunately, he removed the opportunity by marching back to shore, back ram-rod straight and eyes forward. There the couple gathered up their gear and headed toward the parking area.
About an hour or so later the sun was slipping below the highest mountain peaks and Steve and I walked back to our car. On the way we gave a stringer of fish to a group of campers who were making trout tacos. They were delighted with the gift, offering to share their meal with us, but we declined and continued on. As we were putting our rods in the car, I looked across the parking lot and saw Orvis Man leaning against his white Hyundai, pulling off his waders. He saw me and quickly turned away.
Steve was still kidding me for feeling bad about Orvis Man’s fishing ineptitude when we pulled into the town of Mammoth Lakes, about 20 miles north of Rock Creek Lake, and headed for Perry’s Italian restaurant. We no sooner dropped into a booth when I looked right and saw – you guessed it – Orvis Man and his wife. They were directly across the restaurant from us. Were they ordering fish? I don’t know. We were still avoiding eye contact.