November on the Klamath

Night’s silent choir,

Patiently gathered around the roots of trees,

Inside the river’s long bend,

And in the shadows of boulders,

Passing time under morning’s great bridge.

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Across:

The orange of maples.

Ahead:

Paws of a lone bear.

Behind:

Tracks of a fisherman’s boots

Through the damp, grey sand.

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These might be cobblestone dreams

On a lazy afternoon,

But that was October’s rhythm:

Summer’s back porch, shaded

In creaky planks

And sliced tomato gluttons.

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Now, the soft arc of light,

Chilled in air gone stiff and still,

Begging for hunched voices,

That dare not stir old winds,

From behind sedge and willow.

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A conversation,

The groans and gripes of water on rocks,

Goodbyes of frogs and leaves and liquored blackberry sunsets,

The gratitudes of full moon clouds,

A gift of rain.

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Hurry,

The long gaze of night

Will soon turn us to pebble and stone,

Smooth and round, barely colored,

In the fading light.

Part II. Listening to Steelhead.

I cannot counter the edge,

Remarkable, memorable, inexorable

In an odd persistence that wanes in it’s coming.

I cannot shape this space.

Green years, short months and how the day suddenly curves away.

The center is far removed from place and time. Eyes turning to the bright prospects of hard lines on skies.

I cannot yield to grace, as the soft illusions of ease tempt me into the chilled waters.

 

 

Giant Spring Creeks in Afternoon – part I

In mid-afternoon, the wind fails to materialize and the bluff provides a view across an immense, lush underwater garden. The water, lots of it, moves silently through beds of bright green aquatic vegetation. Here and there, fish hold down deep, next to the protective cover of the weed beds, sometimes jockeying for position, but mostly just sitting, almost motionless. Now the river is open and exposed, almost empty looking and untantalizing. Off to the side a small fish noisily splashes after something, a fallen ant, or maybe just the hint of a bug hovering overhead. Except for the splash of that fish, or maybe an upset duck, the water doesn’t make a sound. It just goes about its downhill slide like it always has. How so much moving water can be so silent… Siesta time on a big spring creek.

Summer River

I’m thinking of compiling a bunch of stanzas over the course of the summer, each being a separate evening on the river, and see where it goes. Of course, that begs the question when does summer begin and end!  So here’s an introduction, maybe, followed by a recent evening. We’ll see how this pans out – guess I better spend some time on the water in the evening!

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The smell of river hangs in the trees.

Dangling on the buzzing songs,

Of birds and bugs.

Heaps of them

Appeared just yesterday!

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The days don’t seem long,

But they stretch beyond August now,

What they will soon call the dog days.

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Now, we have frog days,

That linger into this night,

An evening of cricket thickets,

Water noises and screeching night birds.

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A pulsing choir to send us on our way.

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Last night, a sudden and certain pause:
Sprays of lightning danced overhead,
crackling off in every direction.
And the last bit of setting sun,
Spilled golden light underneath everything,
Casting a rainbow over the far bank.
 
May31.
And now the rain, showery waves
Wavering by day, singing lullabies by night
This is the rain you were warned about
Where picnics run and hide
And chefs delight in warm dishes from the hearth.
Sustaining, despite our cries for ice cream
and secret swimming holes at the ends of dirt roads.
 
July 11.
Afternoon hangs on here,
Like a cruel gift of time
For people who never give up.
 
 August 4.
Just for a moment,
Afternoon sneaks in a rattling breeze
Shaking little poems from the leaves
Giggling like children passing secrets
In a playground, just before the bell rings.
 
October 26.
Maybe summer exhales in the evening now,
More likely an afternoon,
When sun and light and water play
For just a while, before it all quiets down
But maybe, just maybe,
Summer might tell one last quiet bedtime story.
 

Just Great Days on the River

Late February, like it always seems to do, ushers in the bitter cold of arctic winter with snow all over. I don’t really recall wrestling with any “decision” this go ’round – I had a gathering to attend and the river happened to be on the way, along with snow, more winter, and the barest hint of spring given away by longer days and the buds of streamside willows. Dropping down into the valley, the horizon is sprawled with black clouds, streaking virga, and the intimate play of morning light across everything: somehow, the nastiest of the weather is not here, only suggested in the vistas of snowclad lowlands and restless looking skies.

The only decision is where. And I replay the fantasy of the long, slow bottom half of the Anderson run where the conditions seem set up for surface feeding fish, easy wading and the good promise of solitude. If not this fantasy then the riffle at the bottom is ever dependable. This is the piece of water that might take me five years to catch a fish in the way that I dream about on long, rainy coast-bound nights. I can always catch fish here, but there’s something about the “situation” that you find yourself catching fish in that makes it somehow intensely, cerebrally satisfying.

Let me jump to the punch line: it was on the minute I approached the water. But wait – even this takes some understanding. You see, these fish don’t give themselves away so easily. Oh sure, you’ll see a fish rise here, maybe there. But just stop. Stop, breathe, listen, look. Then it comes alive. The fish sip in emerging baetis or some other small, olive mayfly with gentle, purposeful, ultra-efficient movements. The biggest fish give themselves away with the flick of a very large tail barely slicing through the surface. Some fish work the edge of the moving water where the flow is easy. More fish delicately nose through the calf-deep shallows of the margins picking off bugs that wash into this forgotten realm. A few caddis take flight, the water is colored pewter with the black clouds painting an electric energy across everything. The fish, the bugs all seem to agree. There is a loud, urgent and anxious rhythm established when the bugs are emerging heavily, the fish are feeding and the weather is vibrating.

So it’s dream fishing – knee deep water, big, spooky trout, but not overly selective. Colorful, rotund rainbows that pull line from reels and make you want to talk in whispers like they might hear your cries of delight. One after the other. Later on, in early afternoon, the caddis emergence kicks in following a brief snow squall. A bald eagle watches from the top of a snag across the river – wondering who this curious critter is, on knees, hunched over in inches of water, casting to snouts and tails with intense abandon. Swaths of sun, rainbow, silver and gold color the scene. The baetis alternate with the caddis and at one point I just step back and watch the parade of bugs littering the water, floating silently down. Tails, snouts, splashes all add to the ongoing rhythm, uninterrupted by a flash of lightning and thunderclap.

I can’t say the “bar has been set” or “this is as good as it gets,” rather, this is the culmination of five years of work, patience and observation. I’ll be back soon, to find myself in an entirely new situation and reveling in the simple fact that it is bound to be different. It’s why I fish – if it were the same every time… well, that would be a different story, I suppose.

The Essence of Fall 2009 – Celebrating Anadromous Fish

purple
Tying steelhead flies provides escape into the fantastically infinite world of intuition, dreams and pure, raw thought. Who invented calendars and watches and such that strive to pull us away from the real, into a place delineated by boundaries and frustration?

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.

Thirty minutes of timeless water

I’m sitting next to the classroom window on the third floor. From this vantage point I can see how the wind is faring. I pretend to pay attention to the instructor, occasionally nodding in agreement at some unheard point of emphasis. By two o’clock, the breeze is waning, the flagging branches of the trees below show moments of stillness. Their branches are laden with white blossoms that seem to shine brighter in the lightening breeze. It looks really warm and green outside now.

The instructor cuts us loose a bit early. It’s one of those moments where the co-workers get ignored as they make plans to gather somewhere for an impromptu end-of-day social hour. “I’m going fishing,” I say as I pass them in a focused trot to the truck. These,too, are the moments when the bathroom urges are forced to wait. Along the way, I also realize there are too many stop signs and stoplights between here and the river. The iced coffee after lunch doesn’t help soothe the urgency of the situation.

Arriving at the little dirt pullout, suiting up is an efficient, well-rehearsed routine. In minutes, I’m crossing the old floodplain and at water’s edge. The breeze still comes in gentle waves. Not the incessant gusts of yesterday. I hope these are the last gasps of something going away for a long, long while.

The bugs come off sporadically. Pale morning duns are readily apparent and the occasional caddis buzz across the water and in the streamside willows. Still, though, after a couple minutes of careful observation no fish are seen. Regardless, this is one of those moments of arrival. Everything’s gone right, I’m on the water; now I can exhale and adapt to the pace of the river. Perhaps there are fish to be seen, but only after slowing down and focusing on the sights and sounds. The water moving by creates a rhythm. I listen for the chops in the rhythm that might indicate a fish. The little boil far downstream, after careful watching, is just the upwelling from a submerged boulder. These things take time to notice.

Two long hours are spent watching and waiting. A couple of fish are seen, but they do not reappear. The sun sinks lower behind the trees. The caddis begin to move away from the trees, gradually venturing farther across the river. The duns float by in the calmer edge water, their upright wings visible in the last rays of sun. As I’m watching I realize the wind has vanished. Somewhere along the way it played itself out unannounced. Then I see the gentle rings downstream along the edge in knee deep water. Then again, a head tips up followed a second later by a gentle tail movement guiding the large fish back down. All this happens with a soft kissing sound. The fish slides upward again, sipping in one of the duns. Towards midstream, another fish grabs a passing bug in a more audible manner, leaving a growing boil to float downstream.

It’s on.

The fish move into the knee deep margin water to softly sip in the drifting duns. They are big fish, given away by that interval of time between seeing a head then a tail as they porpoise up then down. The fish here are extremely spooky, coming into this shallow margin water for the easy pickings. My feet shuffling along the cobble bottom will put them down if not careful. Everything now comes down to a hunched-over whisper. These are the most difficult fish on the river and exactly what I’m after. Unfortunately, the otters decide this is their water to frolick in for the evening. Moving on downstream, near the tail of the run, more fish are working in the calf-deep water – their rises barely visible in this more turbulent shallow water.  

The last light of day begins to fade. The first of summer’s crickets ratchet up their evening song. All of this lasts for maybe thirty minutes. But this is the one half hour that days are spent waiting for.  Tomorrow, I think, will be even better.