Nick and Michael pulled out of L.A. facing a rain storm in Friday afternoon traffic, around six o’clock in the evening. It was an inauspicious beginning to their fishing trip on the Kern River. Nick had wanted to go much earlier in the day, thinking they might get some fishing in on the river before it got dark. Michael’s house was not easy to find, and the traffic near his neighborhood was bad in the middle of weekend get-away traffic. Michael had offered to use his car, but when Nick said they could take his, Michael was only too happy to leave his at home. But he had work to finish until late that afternoon, and Nick acquiesced to the idea of a late departure. In a fit of pique, he’d smoked a cigar in the car on the way up to the river. Cigars and fishing are the only bad habits Nick had left; and he felt that fishing at least was not really a bad habit.
They talked about themselves on the way up to the river from Los Angeles, each telling his own life experiences. Nick had never fished with Michael before. Michael hailed from Indiana, Nick from Kentucky. They had both had their first fly fishing experiences with Bluegill in farm ponds and sloughs filled with water too warm to support trout. They had both drifted west at similar times in their lives, for different reasons, and found themselves in California with all its trappings. “I didn’t come to California for the fishing. I came for the girls.” Michael told Nick. “Oh yeah, man. I damn sure didn’t come to California for the trout.” Nick chuckled. In those days neither of them, it seemed, were interested in fishing as much as girls.
Nick was anxious to show this part of the river to Michael, the part Merle Haggard sang about. Located in the very southern end of the Sierra, it flows into the San Joaquin Valley near Bakersfield from a place called the Greenhorn Mountains. The river is a drainage for much of the snow melt from the Sierra Nevada mountains.
He explained to Michael that the Kern is a “freestone” stream; it comes down fast. Stories told by the old timers claim that it is the most rapidly descending river in the United States, and its drama includes the loss of more than 242 lives since they started keeping records in 1968. The river is dangerous. Nick thought about the previous summer, when three people lost their lives on it within one week. Michael didn’t say anything as they passed the sign that told them the number of deaths on the river, and Nick wondered at his taciturn nature.
Maybe, Nick thought, it was that drama, the dynamic unrelenting power of the river with its huge boulders and water as hard as the rock itself, that first attracted him to the Kern. From a distance it didn’t look overpowering, but when he got closer, the river showed itself as a mighty stream, the kind of western trout stream he had dreamed about as a boy.
Sometimes he would fish places on the river that he knew would not produce a take; although he knew there were no fish in those spots, and floating a fly through all that white water was just a waste of time. But he couldn’t resist. He would tell himself “Oldtimers who have been fishing much longer than I have know there are fish where most of us don't think any should be. They catch 'em in those spots.”
“Just casting the line into that water; that's the act of faith” he told Michael as they made their way up to the river. Michael listened, but did not answer. Nick couldn’t tell if he was boring him, but suspected that he might be, and so decided to shut up, and let the scenery entertain them.
The river spoke to Nick, and he hoped he could get Michael to hear that sound.
They drove out of Bakersfield, rolling past golden fields and the sudden appearance of dark green orange groves that contrast starkly with the dried blond grassland and the fragrance of orange blossoms that fills the air with a heavy sweet perfume as the scudding clouds break for a moment, letting the soft autumn sunlight accent the color of the scene.
A two lane road took them into the narrow canyon as abruptly as the sound of a gunshot. Both sides of the canyon rose up quickly away from the river as they entered it. The sheer rock walls on both sides of the canyon showed grass, golden in the autumn, and speckled everywhere with dark volcanic rock. White water appears in the river almost immediately, cascading in every direction over large grey and white granite boulders. Sometimes it's low, but there is always water, precious water splashing down from the lake for the farms downstream in the dry valley that will take the whole river in summer.
The river's banks are green here, thick with Sycamore, Oak, Cottonwood and Willows. Spring and summer bring cotton bolls from the trees, floating on the breeze. “Smallmouth bass make this section of the river home, but not trout. It's too warm for them here”, Nick explained as they drove alongside it. “Smallmouth?”, Michael asked. He seemed to perk up. “Yeah, smallmouth. I’ve never caught one, but they tell me they are real fighters.” “You’ve never caught one?” Michael asked. “Man, you don’t know what you’ve been missing. We should make a date to come up here and catch some of those bad boys.”
The sun was setting, and the rain had returned. Night brought them into Kernville in the middle of a downpour. They were glad to get inside the motel room. The room was large, with two comfortable beds, and no leaks in the roof. Not cozy, but comfortable. Nick got into bed almost immediately. As he lay there, he told Michael "Tomorrow will be a better day". Michael said “What was wrong with today?” He seemed happy to be there, and Nick was too tired to respond.
They chatted a bit, still getting to know each other. Soon though, both grew tired enough to turn out the lights and go to sleep.
Nick dreamed that night of the times when he was out in the middle of the river where he knew no fish would be, because he could not resist that scene.
The river no longer talked to him now, no longer whispered quietly. It screamed at him with a white noise that frightened him and awakened an old memory of a time long ago, like the sound of a jet taking off from a runway on a small island far away, while he stood there, waiting for the plane to stop shaking the ground with its deafening roar. He tried to ignore the fear as he stood and cast his line in that treacherous white roar, concentrating on getting a tight loop on each cast, putting his fly just where he wanted it, sunlight bouncing off the silver water droplets dancing around him, knee deep in fast white water risking a cold swim in his single minded pursuit of the fish, a bigger fish, a stronger fish, conjuring in his mind all that is a wild western trout river, sprawling wide and flat, thinking of a time when rivers flowed freely and there were plenty of fish to be taken, when a wild river wasn't a rare thing and was uncrowded, waiting for the roar of the jet to fade as the fish took his fly.
Morning brought bright sunlight. The front had moved through and Nick felt sure the fishing would be good due to the weather change. In spite of Nick’s thinking, the early part of the day was cold, and the fishing poor. He felt frustrated because he hadn’t been able to find fish for his friend.
Michael told him “I’m just not a trout fisherman”. Nick wanted to prove him wrong, but it wasn’t going well. He pointed out some pocket water that looked interesting. From past trips Nick knew that there would be fish in this section of the river, but he also knew that they could be very shy. He’d spent some time on that water with nothing to show for it.
They put on their waders, set up their rods, and tied on the first fly of the day. Nick hadn't looked under any rocks, and had only seen some rises from a distance; he had no idea whether the fly he’d tied on would work, and fully expected that he might have to change it quickly. This ritual of putting on waders, setting up rods and tying on flies always taxed Nick’s patience. He was glad Michael had gotten his equipment together before he had.
They began a careful trek through the pocket water. Nick had taken an unintended swimming trip here some years back.
Even though Michael was not a beginner, Nick felt compelled to check all the variables with him. He hoped he was not being too overbearing with Michael, but he was determined to get Michael to catch some fish.
"Stand here, Michael" Nick said. He moved over to the part of the stream where Nick was standing. “Ok, where ya want me to cast?” Michael responded. "Put your fly right over there" Nick pointed. "Now let it drift in the current down to them". "Mend your line, Michael. Don’t let the fly drag". “Ok, ok, I”m on it.”
After several minutes of no rises, Nick pulled out his go-to fly for the Kern, handed it to Michael, and said "Here, tie this fly on". He began to quiz Michael as if he were a beginner. "How much leader you fishin’?" "What size tippet?" Nick asked. Michael answered each of his questions. He seemed to be anxious to do what Nick suggested.
Michael soon lost Nick’s fly. "Ok, ok, don’t worry about it; I’ll find another" Nick told him, trying to hide my disappointment.
"Get the slack out of your line between your finger and the stripping guide" Nick told him.
The fly drifted downstream, barely concealing its falsity by the way it drifted on the surface. Suddenly, a splash over the fly, water droplets everywhere; the line began to cut quickly through the water, first this way, then that, tossing up a tiny wake. "Fish on" he shouted. "Oh thank God" Nick said to himself. As he watched Michael, Nick saw that something upstream had caught his attention.
"Michael, look at the fish; stop looking up the river, you’re catching a goddamn fish here." Again, Michael said nothing.
“Be in the moment”, Nick thought. “Nothing else matters but the fish”.
Michael’s rod bent, and the fish rocketed out of the water, revealing himself for a brief moment, pink and silver sides shining in the morning sun, desperately shaking, trying to free itself from the thing in its mouth. Then back in the water and off again, swimming upstream, looking for the slack that would loosen the hook and set it free.
Nick was as excited as Michael was, and hoped he was having a good time, but couldn’t figure any way to get the idea across to him.
He came to the river not knowing if he could show Michael how to fish it. There are times when the fish simply will not cooperate. Now they were both catching fish, and Nick was happy that today was not one of those days.
As a boy, he had begun his fly fishing career with a cheap rod, reel and line. He knew it was a fly rod because it was the longest rod in the rack. After the most elementary practice casting it, he had taken his new prized possession off to the nearest farm pond. It was spring in Kentucky, a time when the whole world seemed to explode with life. Flowers were in bloom, the earth has thawed from the long winter frost, the mares and foals romped in the pastures and everything seemed to be filled with life. The smell in the air was so sweet that it made him glad to be alive. It was at those times that Nick knew that the world was a good place.
And the Bluegill were on their nests. Almost every cast netted a fish. No need to set the hook; they were voracious in their attempt to get the bug away from their nest. Brightly colored and incredibly feisty, they were every boy's dream. "Pound for Pound Bluegill are the fightingest fish in North America" he remembered.
When he was a boy, Nick always went fishing with his good friend, George. Together, they had discovered a swamp near the Ohio river. It was about three feet deep, and filled up every year when the river overflowed its banks. They explored the water hyacinth and cypress that stood defiantly in the water. And they knew, could sense as only small boys exploring the earth can, that there were fish in there. The fish never showed themselves, they just knew.
Now, Nick mostly fishes by himself. He thinks it strange that he never feels alone while doing it. The river is his friend now. It speaks to him. He has a conversation with it, like he used to talk to his friend when they were kids. Sometimes, if he has paid attention, the fishing goes very well.
© James Webb, 2010
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