Friday, June 10, 2011

Hat Creek -Back in my Life

Windmills stand on Hatchet Mountain, as I drop down into the flat volcanic bowl that holds California's two largest spring creeks; Hat Creek and Fall River.  It's been fifteen years at least, since I last fished the public water on Hat Creek. But this strange, late, cold and water-rich spring, it's almost the only place to fish.

Previous years, I'd be tinkering on some small low-elevation mountain stream, chasing the elusive ten-inch brown among seven inch rainbows. I would dash in quickly, hike an hour away from imaginary crowds yet to arrive, catch a trout or two I could define as a trophy by my own standard and drive home, all in one day.

But time and abundance have slowed my step.  Today I need to be somewhere for a while, and why not this old acquaintance of a spring creek.  The salmon flies should be out, the giant, bumbling stoneflies with the hint of hot orange about their bodies.  Twenty year-old memories return; of their gentle touch as they crawled on me; of the big brown that ate the salmon fly I unwittingly knocked into the water, and the boil as he ate the foam-bodied artificial that I'd tied myself.

The town of Burney looks much as I remember it, and Vaughn's Sporting Goods is still selling flies. But there are more empty store fronts I think.  A few miles on, in Johnson's Park, the fly shop looks long gone. Bob Brink ran it, and guided me for the glorious day in a pram on Fall River that confirmed my decision to come to California. After that Dave Brown and his wife Janet had it; dear friends.  But the recession's swept them away too, I guess.

Recent years the reports of Hat Creek haven't been good; a plug of silt moving through the four miles of the Wild Trout Section, and nothing but small trout to be caught. But I'm backing a hunch that those reports only come from the very busy Powerhouse Riffle, and the flat water down to Carbon Bridge. There were always good trout in the faster riffles and runs, down towards the barrier that keeps the rough fish from Lake Britton out of the creek. Trout that were more scattered and harder to locate with a nymph and a bobber. But in May they might charge out from under the overhanging trees for a salmon fly, if it drifted well.

I'd heard that they'd closed the dirt road access into the lower mile and a half, which I'd imagined might keep the crowds down a bit.  In fact you can still drive in to the Power Company land, but only within a couple of hundred yards of the creek.  That's just fine for me, and though there are a few flyfishers around, I'm able to walk in to the bend run where I know there are always fish towards the far bank.  I soon find some salmon flies in the undergrowth along the bank, not a lot, but enough, and active too in the first warm day for a long time.  Sure enough, a small fish tries and fails to eat the giant dry fly, then a good-sized rainbow comes up and smashes it, but is just pricked by the hook.

The day slides on in the pleasant workmanlike rhythm of casting and wading in fast water, but no more fish show.  I end up on the far bank, down towards the barrier, where the water first slows into a walking-pace run.  This run has changed a lot though, and the two logjams that have fetched up in it provide two decent pools down where there was just slow depth before.  In the middle pool there is another guy on the opposite bank, nymphing.  I'd like to try the flow of that pool on my side, and now he's moved upstream a bit into the run, but it still seems right to ask;
"Do you mind if I step in here? I don't want to crowd you."
As you'd hope, he's happy to be asked, and happy to say, no problem.  We strike up a conversation across the stream, and I catch a couple of nice trout on a traditional dry fly of my own making.  He asks about that, and I describe it, and how the fish in this run have always seemed to like traditional dry flies, despite their fussy cousins up in the flat water.  I tell him how to cross to my side of the stream, and by evening we're fishing together. 

I lose one really nice rainbow from the very eye of the top run, which slams a salmon fly dry that seems to be moving downstream way too fast, in the boiling current.  Maybe that's why he's not quite properly hooked. Later, Tom sees a big bug fly past and asks me what it might be.  I don't even really need his description of a thick-bodied dark thing flying in a straight line, I know it's a green drake, and almost dusk is just the time for them.  A couple more provide confirmation, and Tom raises several trout, though none come to hand. Eventually, we walk out across a darkening meadow, two guys who only know they have this odd pastime in common, getting to know each other.

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