Doug called on a Friday afternoon to propose a three-day trip to The Creek. "I realize it's short notice," he said, "but I was sure I was going to have to work this weekend, and then all of a sudden things cleared up. Pete's welcome, too. We could pack in tomorrow afternoon and come back out Monday."
I thought about it and about the various good reasons there were for not going. My wife and I were expected at a dinner party Saturday evening. My son, Pete, 19, was getting ready to leave in a few days for his sophomore year at college, and I had obligations all my own—something to read, something to write, a couple of months of accumulated yard-work, a leaky roof that needed patching before it rained. "Sure," I said. "We can do it."
There were at least two good reasons for agreeing to the trip. In my experience, well-planned outdoor excursions are seldom the most productive or enjoyable ones. In fact, it seems that the more time you spend preparing for something, the more likely you are to have it ruined by flood or blizzard, a mass migration of game or a hunger strike by fish. When you simply pack up and go on short notice, things have a way of working out beautifully, even though there's at least an even chance you'll forget a sleeping bag or a can opener, matches or a change of underwear.
But the best reason for going on this particular outing was that The Creek offers what could very well be, when all aspects are carefully considered, the best trout fishing in America.
May 16, 1982
Late the next afternoon Doug, Pete and I were grinding and bouncing along an extremely rough, barely discernible trail in a 30-year-old Jeep. All of us sat in front, our backpacks and fly rods wedged into the seat behind us. With each mile Doug drove eastward the hills were steeper, the draws rockier, the dust thicker.
"At least the old thing's still running, even if it doesn't have springs," I said after bouncing three feet into the air when we hit a large rock.
"Just so the engine doesn't die," Doug said, almost screaming to be heard above its whine. "If it does, we probably won't get it started again for an hour. Sometimes the brakes go out, too. And gas leaks onto the manifold these days. I don't know that much about it, but it seems possible the engine could catch fire that way. See the deer?"
I saw them—four does beneath an oak on a hillside—and I was willing to change the subject, too. "They're almost tame," I said. "They don't see many people out there."
"None at all," Pete said. "They really don't see any, do they?"
We took the Jeep as far as it would go and then carried our packs and fishing rods another 30 minutes down a steep canyon wall. We could hear the sound of moving water, that lovely, muted roar, long before we reached The Creek. When you have fishing on your mind, there is no finer sound than that.
"I want trout for dinner," Doug said. "I hope we make it."
It was close. When we hit level ground at last—which felt strange, like land to a sailor—and fought our way through some brush to the sandy beach that would be our campsite, it was dark enough so that bats were swooping and darting over the stream.
We threw down our packs and rigged our rods in a hurry. It had been two weeks since I'd last fished, and I knew I should tie on a new tippet. By now the blood knot that attached the six-pound Maxima to the end of the leader had undoubtedly weakened to one-pound-test or even less. But it was too dark. I had difficulty simply threading the leader through the rod guides and tying on a large wet fly—a maribou muddler—with a turl knot.
If I'd been thinking, I would have realized that it was dark enough to break off the bottom sections of the tapered leader and tie the fly to 10- or even 12-pound-test, because the fish wouldn't see the heavier line in the dark water. Unfortunately, what I should have done didn't occur to me until, on my third or fourth short cast to the head of the campsite pool—a long, smooth stretch below a waterfall at a bend in The Creek—I hooked a fish that felt as heavy as a salmon.
It acted like a salmon, too. Pete who had been a little slower rigging up, was on the bank in back of me when the fish struck. "Bring it in," he said. "That's dinner."
"I can't bring it in," I said. "It's huge."
The trout was strong and running deep; it took a lot of line off the reel, and in a hurry. I had thought quickly enough to loosen the drag, and the fish finally stopped and held at the tail of the pool, 20 yards below us. It took several minutes to work the trout slowly and carefully to within 10 feet of the bank, but just as I thought it was ready to let me lead it all the way in, it turned and ran back down again. This time I followed it partway and finally eased it into shallow water, up near the surface.
"Look at it!" Pete said.
"I'll never land it. Not on this leader," I said.
But with Pete's help I did. We cornered the rainbow in a foot of water over sand, scooped it up and tossed it, thrashing, onto the bank. It was some trout. We didn't measure or weigh it, so instead of guessing how long it was or how many pounds it weighed, I'll say only that it was easily large enough to satisfy three hungry men for dinner. We wrapped it in foil and broiled it in the glowing embers at the edge of the campfire. We embellished the meal with fresh peaches and white wine.
After dinner we talked for a couple of hours, mostly speculating about the next day's fishing. Doug also told us of some recent experiences with local wildlife—wild pigs, rattlesnakes, a resident cougar—that he'd had at or near this very campsite.
And we talked of horses, Hawaii, the San Francisco Giants. Finally there was a lengthy discussion—not an argument—concerning vegetarianism, although none of us practices it. "I can understand eating vegetables for health," Doug said as the talk was winding down. "That makes sense. But I can't understand people who say they're vegetarians for moral reasons. It's too complicated. That trout we ate tonight. By killing it we saved at least a thousand grasshoppers. Who's to say whether grasshoppers or trout are really more important in the total scheme of things?"
"I think it has to be an individual choice," Pete said.
We wisely let it go at that, and all of us slept well. I awakened only once during the night, at about 2 or 3 a.m., and for a few minutes I lay on my back and watched the billion stars in the slice of black, moonless sky visible between the canyon walls that towered above us.
All the next day it was grasshoppers and trout again, but the real things, not theoretical subject matter. After a breakfast of raisin bread and Tang, Doug headed downstream, and Pete and I went up.
To claim that The Creek offers trout fishing as good as or better than that found anywhere in the U.S. may sound rather extravagant, so I'll try to explain.
First of all. The Creek isn't what most people would call a creek at all. Small river would be more accurate. Some of the pools are more than 15 feet deep, and these pools, usually 50 to 100 yards apart, are connected by wide, shallow riffles over gravel or by smoothly flowing runs, deeper and narrower than the riffles, cut through volcanic bedrock. The largest trout tend to be beneath submerged ledges in the deepest pools, but good trout can be found almost anywhere, and, if you're willing to wade, to climb an occasional cliff and to swim when absolutely necessary, you can cover every likely-looking holding spot with a fly. I believe that if 100 serious fly-fishermen ascended to heaven and each were granted permission to design a stream of his own, most of them would come up with something very much like The Creek.
The rainbow trout in it rise well, and they are extremely large. Doug, who has fished there more than anyone, claims to have seen some more than 30 inches long. I believe him. They thrive in the cold, food-rich waters, and they fight like the wild creatures they are.
Best of all, The Creek is remote and unknown, which of course is what accounts for the number and size of the fish in it. It's difficult to get used to having such a place to yourself. That morning with Pete, every time he and I rounded a bend I found myself expecting to see another party of anglers. All we saw, though, were hawks and herons, quail and deer, so we were casting flies to fish that hadn't seen an artificial in weeks or months or years, if ever. We used large grasshopper imitations that came fairly close to matching the hoppers that were thick along the brushy banks, though I think any fly of roughly the right size would have worked as well.
We fished upstream, taking turns at the pools as they came, also covering the likeliest-looking pocket water between pools, hooking and releasing trout to 18 inches nearly everywhere.
About half a mile from camp, around 11 in the morning, I climbed a 20-foot cliff over a deep pool below a long, shallow riffle. Pete waded as far as he could up a narrow gravel bar at the tail of the pool and then began to make short casts over the deeper water. My spot was perfect to watch from, nearly straight above the best-looking water, the sun behind me illuminating every rock and pebble on the stream bottom.
Pete hooked and released a couple of fair-size trout with his short casts and then, on his first cast over the heart of the pool, two huge trout came up for his fly at once. Most of the large trout in The Creek rise slowly for a fly and suck it in calmly. These two, which appeared from beneath a wide ledge directly below me the instant the fly touched the water, raced for it, shooting upward for it so forcefully that each broke the surface with a vicious slash. Pete jerked back on the rod instinctively. But both fish had missed the fly.
"Did you see them?" I asked stupidly.
"Are you kidding?"
He did, several times, but neither fish moved. "How big were they?" Pete called up to me when he'd given up.
I hesitated. "Big," I said. I thought about it. When you're looking down at fish, as I had been, they appear smaller than they are.
"Well, one was quite a bit bigger than the other, and I'd guess the smaller one was 20 inches."
We killed one large trout for dinner, and Doug, who had done well downstream, brought back one of his own. He had also found half a dozen arrowheads—small, intricately carved bird points—in front of a cave on the north bank.
Once again we discussed fishing by the fire, which we fed with small logs of scrub oak. We all agreed that the trout came up most recklessly between 10 o'clock and two. Before 10, there were few if any grasshoppers on the water. After two, the trout were too gorged to bother coming up often. "I killed my fish just before two," Doug told us, "and it was so full of grasshoppers that the stomach looked like a rubber balloon stuffed with coat hangers."
We went to bed a little earlier than the night before and got up a little earlier to fish again. Though the fishing wasn't at its best before 10, it was good enough.
But Pete and I were careful to time it so that we arrived at the home of the two large trout at about 10:30, hoping that their appetites had been whetted by a bug or two by then, but that they still had plenty of room in their stomachs for more.
Pete tried for them again, and I climbed the cliff to watch.
"See anything?" he called up to me after he had waded carefully out, but before he began to cast.
"No. But they're sure to be here, under that ledge."
"It seems impossible to catch fish when you try for certain ones. It never works."
"It might here. Forget about the bottom end. Put it right out over where they came up yesterday."
False-casting, the orange line snaking smoothly back and forth in a tight loop, he worked out 30 feet of line, and then dropped the fly gently to the barely riffled surface of the pool. One of the trout, the larger, came up as hard as it had the day before, slashing through the surface, even showing its tail, and throwing rainbow spray a yard. But it missed the fly, and Pete, who had set the hook into nothing and yanked it away, swore.
"Put it right back," I said.
He did, three times, and got no reward for his effort. I could see that he was resigned to failure when he stripped off another yard of line and lackadaisically cast again. The second trout came up slowly to meet the fly, open mouth showing white when it was halfway there. Without disturbing the surface it sucked the fly in and started down. Then it felt the hook.
For the next few minutes that pool was a busy place. The trout did everything a trout can do. I knew that it was well hooked, though, and that all Pete had to do was take his time. He did, and landed a rainbow slightly more than 20 inches long and as big around at the middle as a well-inflated football. I know the length because I measured the fish carefully against my rod before we released it. I was also certain that the trout Pete missed was at least four and possibly six inches longer than the one he landed.
We headed upstream, figuring we'd try for the monster on our way back to camp that afternoon. At least a mile above camp, farther than we had gone the day before, we found an Indian cave at a sharp bend in the stream. The opening was cut into the base of a steep cliff about 50 yards up a gentle slope from the water. We spent half an hour looking through it. The ceiling had been blackened by years of campfire smoke, and no less than a dozen grinding bowls were scattered about on the dusty floor. In a corner, partially covered with dust, I found a small, perfectly shaped mortar and left it there, beside one of the bowls. I expect to find it where I left it next time we fish The Creek.
Above the cave we found a long, fairly shallow pool—no more than six feet deep at the middle—with 25 or 30 good-size trout in it. They were out there in the slowly moving current like a school of oversize sardines, and I dropped a fly over the bunch of them. The one that got there first was another 20-incher, the image of Pete's.
In the long riffle above that pool, Pete hooked a fish that ran hard downstream, stripping his reel down to the backing before the line broke.
Just minutes later, in a narrow gorge so deep that we couldn't see the bottom through the smooth, clear water, I hooked into something huge. The way the sun was hitting the water there, I didn't see the trout when it struck, and it went straight to the bottom and held, the way a large male salmon often will. For five minutes I put on all the pressure that six-pound-test can take, but it was a standoff. The hook finally pulled away.
The action was non-stop the rest of the day. We didn't raise the huge one Pete had missed—it was well past two o'clock when we passed there again—but that was nothing to complain about. It's nice to know that it's still there, in the same pool or another one near it, putting on another inch, another pound or two for the coming season.
We slept late the last morning, and before we packed out, Pete decided to try the campsite pool once again. "We've probably been bothering that spot a little too often," I told him, but only 10 minutes later Pete was back, wearing the unmistakable smile of a successful fisherman.
"I just cast the fly out and let it hang there, over by the cliff, and all of a sudden the fish was on. I didn't even see it take the hook. It ran all over the pool, like the one you got there the night we arrived. It was just as big, too," he said excitedly.
Then it was home—the steep climb out of the canyon, along the rocky ridge, past pines and sun-baked oaks to the Jeep. It started. Secretly I'd been hoping it wouldn't. I don't think any of us wanted to leave. Not yet, anyway. The fishing, the camping, the weather, the companionship and conversation—everything had worked out wonderfully. But the old Jeep started and carried us out of the real world, back to the one created by men.
You say you're tired of the fished-out, hatchery-loaded streams of 20th-century America? That you'd like to try The Creek yourself? Cast for that huge trout that eluded us and others like it? All right. In writing about the place I suppose I'm obliged to divulge its location. So, take a map of the Western U.S. Begin at Portland, Ore. and draw a line from there eastward to Pocatello, Idaho. Next, continue the line south to Goldfield, Nev. and then back to Pismo Beach, Calif. Use the Pacific Coast itself as a western border, and somewhere in there is The Creek. I swear it.