Friday, July 22, 2011

Whiskeytown, Meth Addicts and Hexagenia Mayflies

This strange, water-rich year in California, it's hard to find anywhere to fish. There's hardly a river that isn't bank high, roaring, churning silty water 'going to waste' as the old water barons and politicians might have said.  But in the uplands near the coast, forest duff is soaking up the extra snow-melt that will sustain juvenile salmon and steelhead through a hot summer, in the pools and runs between the ferns and coltsfoot of a little tributary.  Good fishing for migratory fish in two or three years may be our reward for a trout season that's two months late already.

Many lakes I might fish are still frozen, or at least their roads are switchbacks over unmelted snowbanks, passable only to intrepid jeep drivers who enjoy proving they can winch themselves anywhere, even if it does take them five hours to get there.  I will tackle these near ski-able roads soon with a pair of hiking boots, but for this trip, it's a lower-elevation reservoir that's destination.  We're going camping at Whiskeytown Lake, a big, attractive lake close to the Central Valley heat of Redding, which is often the second hottest place in the state after Death Valley.  It's a long drive, made less dull by the chance to try and identify almost twenty peaks with snow still on them in late June, rather than waiting the usual two hours for the twin volcano shapes of Lassen and Shasta to appear, wearing their garlands of snow. Then, not long after you turn off I-5, you're there, at a Federal Recreation Area. 

We pull off at the excellent visitor center and enjoy the wildflower plantings and the cool of the indoor exhibits and map displays. The rangers are really helpful, and guide us to the best waterfalls to hike and see - three small streams feed the lake and all three have spectacular falls this year.  Outside again, I find a sign listing the many sport fish in the lake. 'Rainbows and brown trout. - Huh!'  I resist the temptation to add 'Who knew', for the wife knew, she knows that I knew, and I know that... never mind, you get the picture: It's a family camping trip, right?

The drive to the trailhead for Brandy Creek falls passes some great roadside wildflower displays, yellow Canyon Sunflower and the best-looking drifts of blue Foothill Penstemon I've ever seen.  Rachel, aged seven, is a trooper on the hike to the falls, enjoys using a scavenged stick as a hiking staff, just like her daddy.  She stops at every little rill of water running across the trail, to dip in her hands and 'freshen up', splashing the chilled snowmelt onto her face.  We get there eventually, but I can see fishing opportunities getting tight.  But the falls are magnificent, and I encourage us on to see all three, the top falls making that truly worthwhile.  Two curtains of water divide around a rock at the lip and fall over fissured and fractured brown rock in sparkling sheets of crinkled flow.  It may only fall thirty-some feet, but add in the other two; a powerful whitewater chute into a deep pool, then a stair-stepping slalom ride down forty feet or more, and you've got a waterfall royal flush.

The campground is busy, but we manage a nice site with enough tree cover to shade a giant tent.  I didn't quite intend to buy such a big tent last year, but I needed one for a trip the next day, and Big Five Sporting Goods didn't have the one I'd selected, after telling me they did.  So I bought the next size up - it was only two feet bigger in one dimension, and three feet along the other, so how was I to know it would be big enough for a game of five-a-side soccer inside? Well, at least it stays cool longer, I can delude myself.

From just down the hill comes the sound of music, loud but quite clear, as if someone were actually playing, not the usual boom-box cacophony.  As I stroll down the slope to the bathroom, there are two guys in their forties offloading a gleaming GMC SUV.  The stereo is theirs, a real one with separate speakers, playing eighties progressive rock.  When I return the slightly younger man, who seems to own the SUV and all the many pieces of equipment they've set up, is wrestling with a big-screen TV he's trying to rig on the tailgate. I'm not kidding, a real TV at least the width of the vehicle, with a separate DVD player.

The bathroom contains another surprise; several giant mayflies sit in a row at the top of the wall above the mirrors, a couple more near to the door.  I've never seen Hexagenia duns or spinners close up before, and now I'm looking at both, with plenty of time to study them. My wife will probably accuse me of reading the sports pages, but these aquatic insects are way more interesting.  They're pale in color, but then they're not. They manage to be both creamy-tan and yellow-olive at the same time, like an artist's trick with layered colors.  Some duns are slightly darker and smaller, and they seem more olive. Others are larger and more yellow, particularly in the wings. The fly fishing could be interesting here!

After dinner, there is just time to launch a float tube and see who's eating these giant maylies.  I have a scant hour and a half, but it still seems too early, too bright.  No fish can be seen rising, but it is windy. I've launched near the top of the lake at the first easy access, just west of the campground.  There are shallows here, and the depth of the original creek channel further out.  Then, just as I start to paddle out, I see the first dun pop to the surface. Like a magicican producing a brightly-colored scarf, a blob of yellow pushes up through the gray-green water, then a moment later a huge mayfly unfolds itself into a tiny child's sailboat, scudding gently across the water in this sheltered bay.  Before I get out to look at it up close, somebody eats it in a commotion. 

The wind picks up and a few more bugs drift out more quickly into the chop thirty yards out; some vanish in splashy rises, while two others seem to be almost sipped in. Clearly these are better fish. But there aren't many bugs at all, and I only feel that I actually covered one or two rising fish. Both did slash at the fly, but I suspect they were both smaller rough fish of some kind, chubs or the like. Instead of dropping near dusk, like it ought to, the wind continues to build and all but kills the hatch.  I can only think that I may have been a few weeks early too, June 18th.  But this lake and this hatch should be followed up on: There are huge spotted bass here too, according to a young semi-pro angler I meet the next day, who lives right next to Clear Lake, but does his pleasure fishing here!

Later that night, heading to the bathroom to clean my teeth, I walk past the campsite with the stereo. My wife tells me a woman and another guy showed up earlier and there was very loud arguing down there. Now there are three National Park Police officers talking to big-screen TV boy and his pal.  The lead officer is a youngish asian-american guy, who is clearly doing a wonderful job of getting at the problem; 'So, tell me again what they stole from you'. Then later (not really eavesdropping from the bathroom) I hear TV boy say 'She's wanted for methamphetamine.'  And now it all falls into place; the obsessional neatness of the campsite, the need for constant stimulation with stereo and TV.  I really don't want it to seem that I'm trivializing the illness that is addiction, but it sure explains a lot now.  I'm also aware that I'm watching a master investigator cum therapist, in this young officer: Finally; 'So, you don't have a firearm actually with you do you? I'd hate there to be any shooting in this campground.'  I'm sure someone's getting searched pretty soon, and I'm also sure these officers earn their money. The next time you feel like complaining about overpaid federal workers, remember, certainly not all. And remember what many of them may be protecting you from.

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