Snapshot. Water drops off the edge of the roof, landing on the outer edge of the sidewalk. Cars crawl through the streets, head lights and red lights lighting up the drizzly, downtown evening. People huddle in doorways and under the overhanging eaves. Old faces and new faces move along. At the donut shop, a young lady plays guitar out front, hoping for a lucky dollar or two. Everywhere a steady choir of water wrapping up a cool November evening: car wheels whisking along the wet pavement, drops from the roof, the wet buzz of a northern California small town Friday night. The ice cream shop bustles with customers. Pumpkin perhaps, or honey vanilla lavendar maybe. Decisions are made across counters and over cafe menus. In dark doorways others huddle, maybe not so fortunate and wondering what decisions they might have left. A fellow staggers out of the bar under one of the dripping edges, oblivious for awhile until his cigarette is hit squarely and extinguished. Time for another drink, it’s still early.
We move about among the others, wondering if this is our place, or maybe our one chance. Down the crowded sidewalk, we’ll stop trying to figure it out. Not long after, the drizzle turns to rain and the gutters push it all somewhere. We hurry back to the car and leave this town behind.
By my reckoning, we sit almost smack dab in the middle of Autumn, 2009. By the calendar’s telling, it began on September 21 and ends on December 21. Tonite, the moon wanes a week from full and pokes through showery clouds. The storm wet us down last night enough to raise the northern rivers a bit, but nothing of any appreciable runoff. Maybe in a utopian climate, fall would steadily evolve from summer’s drizzle into warm, light rains punctuated with the occasional heavier shower at night. These would be the Chinook rains where the rivers would raise slightly, allowing early fish to enter the coastal rivers. The rains would continue on and off, in a gentle, easy fashion, and we would say this is fall, regardless of the day or week or month; the time of passing rains. Chinook would find the lower rivers fresh and dependable generation after generation. Heavier rains would kick in around Thanksgiving and an early winter would set in. By Christmas, the rivers would all be swollen and open to the wanderings of steelhead and winter Chinook for several months. But it’s too easy to describe the ideal and, rather, fall seems to be a time of change with persistent bouts of summer hanging on and weather that remains uncommitted, or hesitant, maybe.
I am always intrigued by some of the reports from the early 1900s of fishable runs of Eel River fish showing in late August. Did the rains start earlier back then? Did the greater abundance of fish back then simply give way to earlier fish? In the 1930s, for example, Clark van Fleet wrote of fishing steelhead on the lower Eel in September following freshets that raise the river a bit – something almost unheard of these days. Newspaper reports hint at fishing for Chinook at the Van Duzen confluence in late August. Certainly, less aggraded rivers back then would likely have meant more surface water available in late summer, so maybe rainfall was not as essential for early fish as it is today. Still, though, the thought of rains routinely setting in during September on the coast is almost deliteful, if not disturbing to know those times have passed.
Now, here in early November, we can sit on the porch listening to the light shower dance down on the roof and dream of rivers and fish while the full moon lights a canvas of broken clouds. We can dream of those years when the rains come gentle and easy, guiding our way through a season like so many before. Instead we are left to guess and hope. Then again, maybe this is the essence of fall; a time of hope mixed with the turmoils of change. The frustrating part is that I could have told you September 21st was just as much Autumnal as is today. Interesting to note that December 21 marks the date of some of the more significant storms to pummel the north coast since records began. But even then, on the shortest day of the year, Autumn is everywhere. Then again, I could find you a Chinook in that same river, September, October, November or December. And they know, despite their chances early or late, that they will get it right. Now, relieve me of the bondage of this absurb notion of time so that I might better know the essence of this season.
Dark, quiet mornings linger almost to lunchtime before bright skies appear from nowhere. Here in the valley, this is late October in any year. A couple of rainstorms have put things in their place – the valley on its way into winter’s rest. A handpainted sign in front of the garden advertises free pumpkins and the tomato vines hang with rotting fruit still clinging fast. Out on the gravel bar, the water has dropped down nearly to summer levels showing a fresh stain of silt running along the edge from a good rain two weeks prior. In the foggy morning the river carries on with a soft murmering. Pumpkin-colored maple leaves hang over the water, waiting to test a soft breeze that might stir in the afternoon.
The mornings are always hard going now – soft grabs in the shadowed water make me wish I’d stop tying these flies with such damned long hackles. They just nip at the wispy trailing fibers – frustrating teases that come far too seldomly. The pass through campbell run is rhythmic and routine, maybe a bit impatient, since the best water always seems two steps below. I move down to fish the opposite side of the tee-pee and nab a feisty half-pounder right off, then get the one long, slow pull down deep – then nothing.
2:00pm. Move to new water. Lowermost North-South. This run above the big bend at the bottom of the valley usually always holds a fish or two. The bright sun now shows the clear water sliding over the riffle at the bottom of middle North-South. I pause a minute to watch for moving fish. Nothing. Crossing is the usual half float, tip-toe dance down and across. I arrive at the lower run with fish showing up and down. Salmon porpoising – some bright, some dark. Steelhead splashing in the fast water. Sweet. By early afternoon the river is chattering away.
This is a long run and can consume the better part of an afternoon if fished thoroughly. But the sweet spot is about the size of a car. Sure enough they soft-grab the swung fly and cannot hold on. Again and again, before it shuts off. I leave the run to fish one more bit in this section that nearly always proves reliable and come up with a hatchery fish of maybe two pounds that tears into the backing before giving up and coming to hand. I move up to finish at upper North-South as the evening shadows creep across the water. Everything has gone quiet now. Evening here in late October is a subtle transition. Wood smoke filters down across the field in the still, heavy air. The pasture across the way bathes in honey colored light. And along the way, the river has returned to its shadowy mutterings.
Up the road, above town, the river takes a hard turn leaving the road in a long, tight meander. A pullout reveals a little hidden trail that follows the ridge out then dives down onto the gravel bar at the far end of the river’s big turn. Far away from the occasional passing car, a cool morning offers up the last little bits of summer, sparkling in the trees. The place I go not because I want to boast of the fish I catch, but the place where a quiet day can be had.
Here are the stories (summarized) that the old men down at the corner bar tell of the weather here on the coast.
Summer: Fog rolls in and out. When the fog is out the sea breeze kicks in fresh and brisk. Sometimes the fog lays along the coast for days – not a ground fog, instead a low ceiling that hides the sun – an important distinction. A few times over the summer, the fog’s ebb and flow will vanish, the wind will disappear. The day will start warm and end warm. The sea will be greasy flat. This is when the boats run long distances searching for tuna. The local farmer’s market swells through the summer – reaching a crescendo into the early fall.
Fall: The best time of year. The fog starts to get more playful. It comes in lower, rolling across the bottoms like a wave swallowing everything up. But it lapses, steamy warm days are most likely now. Then the first rains come and settle the dust and the warm sun returns. Maybe it will be a warm rain – sun – rain in a perfect march that lasts for weeks, though the fall rains seem to come later now. Regardless, the sun’s angle now starts to cast everything in honey-colored light. Clouds, sunsets, wet, dry and the first south winds keep everything in play. Mushrooms start to show in the woods, rivers are refreshed. Summer’s fruits and vegetables are still to be had.
Winter: Big winds, long rains and chilly mornings hide some of the best days of the year: well-lit celebrations after days of rain – maybe even warm then. After the big storm, maybe a day or two of showery weather – rain-sun-rainbow-rain-sun – moving through the days – the temperate rainforest at work.
Spring: First really warm days. Showers, sneaky storms and attempts at summer. Time to step outside and stretch and yawn – birds start singing in the mornings outside the window. Things transition to summer when the Swainson’s thrush sings in the bushes.