Searching for Julie Andrews and trout
Just like bankruptcy and male pattern baldness, autumn arrives two ways here in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada – gradually and then suddenly.
The chinooks start to show up in the Lower Yuba in September, with the leaves still green and summer’s warmth still heavy on the land. They’re at once expected and yet hopelessly out of place here in sunny California – peripatetic piscines quit of their natal waters for the salty vastness, only to return with an arresting poignancy at the onset of sexual maturity.
You can spend day after day fishing the glo-bug hatch behind their redds, picking up steelhead, trout, even a few squawfish, measuring time by the spawned-out carcasses piling up daily in the shallows, not really noticing the passing days in any Julian or Gregorian sense until one day you chance upon a calendar and – Good Lord – it’s Nov. 15 and the general trout season is about to close.
Get me to the North Yuba one more time. Get me to the higher country, the places that lift and lilt. Get me to a meadow where – if I squinted just right and took the smallest pull from that flask, I swear, I only carry during the last few weeks of the season – I might reasonably expect to see Julie Andrews herself, cavorting in a meadow, young again, both of us alive with it, flushed with it, drunk with it, that dizzy nectar, that frolicking sweetness, that unshakable faith that we are all – all of us – somewhere at our core, 16 going on 17.
Also, get me a cold shower and a Post-It note on the computer reminding me to save the Julie Andrews fantasies for the therapist. Sheesh.
Season’s end is a bit of an oddball concept here, amid the bounty of California. Though the general trout season may be closing, there’s always something open, something to fish for.
You don’t even have to go to Putah Creek to do it – the beaches are open, the Delta abounds, and, best of all, on a drizzly November night, if you listen closely and the wind is just right, you can hear the sandbars going out and the steelhead coming in at estuaries up and down the coast.
Still, the finality of season’s end can’t help but send you to a few favorite haunts one last time, if only for the ceremony invested in such an act. Fly fishing is nothing if not a series of personalized rituals made relevant through repetition.
My own fly fishing rituals manifest themselves in simple, fluid ways – the spare beauty of rigging a fly rod, the delicious anticipation preceding the first step into moving water, the tuchus-over-tea-kettle pratfall that accompanies most of my float tube entries and exits.
These minor rites are hardly the stuff of liturgy, but they are all an important part of my own fly fishing experience.
As for the loud guffaws from my fishing partners in response to my usual float tube bumblings, well, that’s one ritual I would gladly trade in for three Hail Marys, two Our Fathers and an easy-entry pontoon boat.
Naturally, there’s much more to this business of rituals than old habits and low comedy. At their essence, all rituals provide a sense of connection, a sense of timeless unity with something larger. When I sit down to eat a stream-side lunch in the rounded declivity of the same perfectly worn boulder I’ve sat on for years – the same boulder to which I will eventually bring my own children – I sit to eat with the earth from which the rock was forged, the water that wore down and the fishermen who have passed here before me.
When I pat my vest pocket and feel the reassuring thump of the leader wallet containing the sundry licenses, punch cards, stamps, and endorsements collected over the years of fishing, it1s clear that I1ve never really left those places and seasons. The smallest events become an affirmation of continuity, a way to find a place between that which has gone before and that which will come next. That1s why it1s important to do things like go fishing on closing day<to observe a small ritual that might shuffle us one step closer to the infinite.
Of course, it1s also important not to let slapping hands with the eternal get in the way of catching a few fish in a favorite spot. For me, the North Yuba is just such a place, a perfectly lovely stream that purls and hurtles its sun-shot way down from Yuba Pass. I would use its name more guardedly, but I think it1s fairly safe from the rampaging hordes, owing in no small part to its relative remoteness, its comparatively smallish fish (though there are larger ones) and its miles and miles of unfettered access, spreading folks out despite their worst intentions. Dropping sharply from the crest of the Sierra, the North Yuba finds itself undammed and untrammeled for some 40-odd miles of canyon country until it collapses into the usual artificial Californian panfish bathtub of Bullard1s Bar Reservoir, rings around the reservoir in low water years, retirees in houseboats cleaving close to the shore.
Picturesque and resplendent, the North Yuba is paralleled for most of its run to Bullard1s Bar by Highway 49 (the Gold Rush Highway), making access as easy, or as difficult, as you want to make it. You can park at a campground and stroll in to fish for planters, or you can scramble down a half mile of steep bank to fish for wild Obows, browns, and<in the higher reaches<brookies, with compromises between these two extremes in overt abundance. It1s an inviting river<gorgeous in many places<whose many moods are a pleasure to investigate.
Autumn, in particular, brings out the North Yuba1s brilliance, oak trees gone orange, and the occasional native dogwood dropping its leaves. The gold miners have mostly left, taking their dredging equipment with them, the white-water enthusiasts are long since gone, and there are only a few hardy souls braving the colder nights in the campgrounds. It1s yours, if you want it, and the fish are only too happy to oblige, an eager sort that will take an attractor dry during the day, letting you stay shut of unseemly strike indicators and that pouch of lead in your vest pocket, the less of which said the better. It1s the kind of place that can make you whole, if only for a moment.
This year1s season-ender was no exception, a solitary excursion into the ineffable, replete with botched casts, wind knots, and the decadent pleasure of 10 minutes seated on a midstream rock to repair my leader with a few well-placed blood knots. Ritual. Sometimes, everything about a few hours on a river is poetic…even the manifest reminder that you1re not now<nor will you ever be<Lefty Kreh.
There were trout, too<beautiful ones, spotted yet liquid, surprisingly muscular as wild trout often are. The last one came at a moment of rare clarity<an anomalous, well-placed buzz hackle landed gently midstream, greeted sharply by a rising rainbow. The hook set, the three weight flexed, and the fish ran crisply in sharp relief through the crystalline waters. It was all right there. It was all right there and for a moment I thought I was touching it, but I wasn1t, really. It1s just a glimpse. It1s just a glimpse of the untouchable<the unknowable<but it1s enough to bring me back. Enough to let me say so long to the North Yuba for a few months and enough to bring me back come spring, openhearted, searching for Julie Andrews wherever she might be.
Sid Heaton lives in Nevada City with his wife, son, and cat. He does not actually have an unhealthy fixation on Julie Andrews, though he does admire her work.
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