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Fly fishing San Diego's coastal canyons

When the fly slaps the water

Fishing for bass in San Diego approaches religion; if you don't pursue it, there are dark questions regarding your claims as a genuine local sportsman.
  • Fishing for bass in San Diego approaches religion; if you don't pursue it, there are dark questions regarding your claims as a genuine local sportsman.
  • Image by Craig Carlson

Fly-fishing in San Diego becomes with time, if you love fly-fishing, more and more improvisatory. This year, when winter Santa Anas threw my garden all out of whack, the hose seemed more like a fly rod than it ever had before, the precocious flowers more like fish.

The moment I hooked a fish, my first-ever San Diego bass on the fly, I did in fact see the strike, that queer, wiggly muddler disappearing against a flash of lime-green.

The moment I hooked a fish, my first-ever San Diego bass on the fly, I did in fact see the strike, that queer, wiggly muddler disappearing against a flash of lime-green.

A buddy and I went exploring in Penasquitos Canyon and found some creek water big enough to hold bass: brown, murky, rain swollen, confined to brush and tight quarters that would bedevil any back-casting. We poked around, peering into pools, and at sunset met a father and two youngsters carrying spinning gear and a Ziploc baggie holding three half-pound largemouths. The canyon seemed greener than anything, greener than the hillsides that seemed to shadow every inch of it, greener than the tomato fields aligned atop the mesas. The coyotes came alive, and the bittersweet yapping drifted over the canyon floor until dark.

Fishing for bass in San Diego approaches religion; if you don't pursue it, there are dark questions regarding your claims as a genuine local sportsman. We are talking about world-record territory, rivaled only in Florida. Nevertheless, as a fly-fisherman, I see bass fishing as being as arcane as, say, falconry. I am quite aware that there are anglers around who get bass to rise to the fly. But it can be awfully hard to find them, especially through the smoke screen of Magnumlite Hungry Stiks, ball-bearing plug casters, swivel-seat powerboats, electronic fish finders, and other popular accouterments deemed essential by both Pro-Tourney and weekend bassmasters alike.

You sit at your simple fly-tying vise, suspended between fur and feather, and you recognize your lack of auxiliary support. Nor do you retain the guidance of that rich literature enjoyed by trout fishermen, which, if allowed to run to extremes, will have you tying dozens upon dozens of life-imitating flies, a number proportionate to the volumes of grandiloquent prose of trout writing at its worst. For some reason or another, bass fishing has failed to inspire the angler — and his contemplative bent — to reflect wholeheartedly upon the voodoo of the sport.

Perhaps it has something to do with the victim's peculiarly predacious nature. Feed for bass can include worms, snails, crawdads, leeches, salamanders, small rodents, other bass, and (reportedly) ducklings. Sport aside, the best way to catch bass, and just about any fish, is to attach something live and wiggly to a hook on a line, cast, and wait for nature to take her course.

Still, this is no place to argue the virtues of fly-fishing, which, extolled from the purist’s point of view, nauseate folks all over. I need only mention that the natural development of any fisherman, except possibly the big-game fisherman, is towards fly-fishing, and that this development is intrinsic if fishing is ever to mean anything more than the killing of fish.

The bass fly, however, is in fact a rather ignoble creation. Unlike the delicate precision of trout flies, or the graceful simplicity of saltwater streamers, bass flies are plump, indecorous, and, at times, obscene. I don't know how you’d go about representing a young mallard; but you see just about everything else tried. Given the proper temperament, one could probably get his name affixed to a pattern for lowland hummingbirds. And it wouldn’t really matter if such a fly caught fish. Considered in toto, bass fishermen belong to that category of sportsmen who will try anything once, and stop at nothing.

I tied up a handful of rough, nondescript bugs, and by dawn the following weekend my buddy and I were double-timing it up the canyon. It should be noted that fly-fishermen have a thing about crowds. Put two strangers on the same stretch of water, chances are they’ll avoid each other like vacationing counterspies. Rising in the middle of the night, only to be beaten to the local reservoir by a line of cars equaling those at a Chargers game, the fly-fisherman may well lapse in fraternity altogether. More than once I’ve turned back home to pore over the out-of-state property ads in the Union classifieds, the coffee in my Aladdin thermos still hot.

The alternative to crowds, short of sinking your life savings in a private East County bass pond, is to find yourself a backwater hollow, accessible only on foot. For obvious reasons. I’m not providing maps of Penasquitos Canyon, nor of San Elijo Lagoon, the Olivenhain drainage, the top-secret ponds of certain popular golf courses. Yet even if I did pinpoint these and other classified bass holes, I doubt it would start a stampede. Bass fishermen will drive for hours to reach this week’s promised waters, and they’ll crisscross the lake, burning fuel like water-skiers. But when it comes right down to it, bass fishermen are about as active as bridge players. Given the choice, they prefer a sedentary approach, casting from the seat of their pants.

By sunrise we were deep in the canyon, passing rods from side to side as one hand and then the other demanded warming in a pocket. There was frost in all of the low spots; on the rise to the north. Black Angus stood grazing in the sunlight, looking like boulders of coal. Up ahead a great blue heron rose from the grass, then settled aloft in the leafless sycamores. We could hear the telltale screeching of a red-shouldered hawk. It wasn't exactly Marlboro Country, and we were a long way from any honest-to-god, blue-ribbon fly grounds. But we were going fishing, almost in our back yard, and we had a notion the neighborhood fish would hit flies.

We reached the pools and strung up our rods. In minutes, without any words of parting, we were off playing our own private games. Casting within shouting distance of one another, we might as well have been in separate time zones.

Sometime later, my buddy and I sat powwowing above the creek. We were both empty-handed. At this point in a fish hunt, after all of your hunches have fallen flat, there’s that traditional tendency to reach for the flask — or, in some recent circles, to roll a number. We weren’t that discouraged. Nonetheless, we hadn’t seen a fish, and our talk had the slightly desperate tone of two motorists inspecting a fender-bender, both of their vehicles uninsured. Well, what do we do now?

If you're a fly-fisherman, you first give your flies the once-over. Is your woolly leech woolly enough? Your inch worm a fraction long? Then you begin to wonder about your casting, or, in the vernacular, presentation. Was my line turning over, the leader straightening? Was the fly slapping the water? Was my pickup, alas, shoddy?

From there, you are but a step away from falling into the pitiful fretting of very many learned fly-fishermen. With a tradition that was already well established in 1486, when Dame Juliana Bemers’s first descriptions of gear and methods were printed in England, the sport of fly-fishing, and all of its vagaries, has been parlayed into a sort of common consciousness. The difficulties of fooling brown trout in the clear, gentle chalk streams of southern England are somehow the same as those of catching little largemouth bass in a dinky San Diego creek. So you can go to the well until you're blue in the face, trying to recall someone else’s solution to the problem at hand. Or — and the advice is entirely sound — you can take a brief stroll and thank the skies that you’re able to get outdoors, and then go ahead and just keep wetting a line.

We moved up the canyon, swinging wide around the first stands of oak, and then lost the creek to cottonwood bramble. We backtracked to the last open pool. Now the sun was square on the water, the shadows of morning tucked under the banks; the pool lay as quite as stone. We got down on our knees and crept to the water, through reeds right up to our necks.

I found some casting room and tied on a new fly, a Marabou muddler that looked like a cross between a salamander and a hippie. I tossed it to the head of the pool.

There were two tiny falls there, and I let one drown the fly. Then I worked the line in, picked up the leader, and I shot a cast into the heart of the pool.

The fly sank quickly, a strategy of some note. At the turn of the century, fishing a fly underwater was considered not only ineffectual but also illegitimate. So strong was this moral code that a certain G.E.M. Skues, who fathered the method, was forced to resign his rod on Hampshire's famous Itchen river, after having held it for forty-five years. In the end Skues won, albeit posthumously. Today, any argument between fishing the fly on or below the surface seems as dated as questions in basketball regarding the relative merits of the jump shot and the set shot. Nevertheless, every fly-fisherman agrees that seeing a fish strike the fly atop the water is the champagne of the sport, and anything else will always seem second best.

But you do what you must. And at the moment I hooked a fish, my first-ever San Diego bass on the fly, I did in fact see the strike, that queer, wiggly muddler disappearing against a flash of lime-green. That the fly had vanished inside the bass seemed all the more remarkable on landing the fish. It was a small one; I’ve surf-cast with flies practically as big as that fish. Yet there it was, a bass and a fly, and the hook was set solid as any I’ve seen.

I freed the fly and released the bass. My buddy gave a little hoot. I watched him switch over to a muddler of his own, and he started to work his fly back and forth through the air, eyeing the pool with relief. “Well,” he said, “I guess they’re here!”

You come full circle, making of fly-fishing what nothing else in your life can ever quite offer. Beyond the intangibles of sport, which are no small part of human psychology, fly-fishing affords one the pleasure of learning, learning that is never complete and that never smacks of our practical hankerings for success, status, and love.

With the one bass under my belt, and others that day that followed, I set myself to a new problem: bringing a bass home alive. In the back yard of my home there’s a pond, cement lined, which harbors a fascinating cross section of freshwater life. Some years my buddy brings tadpoles he collects from a vernal pool near his work place, and we toss them in with the mosquito fish, aquatic snails, and whatnot, their growth into frogs dependent upon the Reiter of proliferative vegetation. Once, my landlord’s son introduced a pair of bluegill, but a neighbor’s cat got to them. Still, it’s a good little pond, surrounded by ferns and succulents and masses of spring snowdrops, and for some time now, we'd been thinking a bass would fit in well.

It should be mentioned that the transport of live freshwater game fish in California is wholly illegal. That remains the business of the department of fish and game, the same organization that helped decimate many populations of native trout by planting hatchery-reared exotics in streams and rivers. On the other hand, places like San Diego owe much of their freshwater sportfishing to species brought in from afar, and no right-thinking angler would have it any other way. Just as there is nobody, in the big picture, native to San Diego, there is no such thing here as a native bass.

I returned the next evening to Penasquitos, hiking alone under gray winter skies. I was late to start with, Sunday chores what they are, and by the time I reached the lower pools, with rod and a five-gallon bucket, I was close to losing the day. But a knoll there was dressed in a shooting-star bloom, more pronounced than the morning before, and if nothing else, it felt like spring.

I went right back to the top little pool, and in no time at all I had my bass. I put it in the bucket, along with plenty of creek water. Now was when I should have made directly for home. Yet I liked the way that bass had hit, in a part of the pool where before we’d found nothing; and like fishermen everywhere who have just caught a fish, I wasn't quite ready to call it a day.

I picked up another bass, gave it back to the creek. Our pond what it is, my intentions were far from initiating a stocking program of my own. Moving downstream and laboring some with the bucket, I went pot-shotting from pool to pool, the fly like a die in a one-die crap game. It wasn’t a very thorough effort. But in a tight little hole below a sweet little fall, I got hit again; and for the first time on the creek, I watched the long rod really bend. It turned out, later, to be something short of a lunker. A long way short. Still, it was a decent bass, half again as big as the one in the bucket, and I was tempted to keep it. No I wasn't.

There's a point reached in every fly-fishing career where the angler kills very few fish. Those he does kill, usually for private reasons, become part of his memory, in the same way, in youthful times, one retained past lovers. If a fisherman takes life in finding his pleasure, it is reasonable to ask of him that he learn as much from each killing as he reasonably can.

I released the fish and finally started for home. The bass in the bucket still seemed in good shape, but right away I could see I wasn't going to get anywhere lugging five gallons of water. I tried pouring some out. My bass jumped, landing in a tuft of grass. Well after dark, and still deep in the canyon, I was kicking myself for that hour of twilight casting. Three or four miles is a long haul with a bucket of water, even half a bucket. At the same time, from a fish’s point of view, sloshing around in a couple of gallons of water is nothing short of a pistolwhipping.

I couldn’t walk fast enough. By the time I reached the foot of the canyon, I was stopping every hundred yards or so to pass the bucket from one hand to the other. Sometimes I reached down inside it, and now my bass hardly moved at all. I spotted the herd of Black Angus, ghostly against the hillside, and the damp night air smelled of manure. Frogs were croaking a death march, and I was thinking, “If this little fish dies, I eat it. It will be the saddest meal of my life."

I got to my car and raced for home, forgoing the usual swing by Roberto’s taco shop and sweating like a hound. I made the old Ford go. From the driveway I hollered at my girlfriend, and I had her hold a flashlight over the pond. I brought the bucket into the light and tipped it down; the bass slid out and into the pond, like a wet sock. But in the morning it was all right. I found the bass lying quietly under the moss, and it seemed the mosquito fish were holding to the shallows. My buddy came by, and for kicks we tossed in a couple of worm salamanders.

I’m thinking about naming my bass. I’ve never had a mind to name my chickens, which, on all counts, would only be asking for heartaches. And I certainly don’t want to feel for a fish as I do our pet cat. But maybe I just will go ahead and name it. If it makes it through the next Santa Ana, I’m going to call it Trout.

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