Opening Dog-Days

Opening day has many different connotations. It marks the turn of a new season, the chance for new beginnings. Opening day generates its own excitement, despite often falling in shoulder season with subpar conditions. Of course, opening day also marks a return from extended leave. Most of us are rusty on opening day. The grit shakes from our gear, which may or may not have been properly maintained in the off-season. We grease our reels, our skis, our creaky joints. We welcome the new season with eager anticipation.

On this particular opening day, I found myself in the lift line at Northstar after driving up from San Francisco that morning. On what would have been my second run of the day, the lift attendant kindly informed me that my particular season pass was no good here on Saturday. I was promptly escorted out of line.

“How did they even let you up here?,” the liftie from Colorado questioned me. I ask myself these sorts of questions all the time, dreading imminent exposure as an imposter. I privately rehearsed pleas, dreams, schemes, bargains, curses. Is this how the successor to the mother of all ski seasons should start? False start, five yard penalty, repeat opening day. Figures. I briefly contemplated hiking up the hill on my own; I did bring my skins. But there’s so little coverage… Instead, I called an audible. “Say, isn’t the Little Truckee River is a stone’s throw from here? Whelp, see ya later – I’m going fishin!”

And so at the dawn of ski season and not even a week past the official close of the fishing season, I fled the scene and traded my bibs back in for my waders. The start of one season or another may be widely agreed upon on a calendrical basis, but such lines are not so clearly drawn in the real world.

Well, no matter! What do I care if there’s snow on the ground, I thought, I’m going fishing. The Little Truckee is open year-round, anyway. I hopped in the car and found myself drifting semi-controlled around blind turns, nearly into incoming traffic on a steep icy road down the highlands. I crossed myself and made a vow to take extra care driving this season. I always think of myself as an extremely competent driver in adverse conditions, but a couple close calls on the first ice of the season will quickly remind one to take it easy. Cautiously racing against daylight drawing down, I made my way to the Stampede Reservoir Dam.

I had questioned the liftie about local fishing. “That sounds a hell of a lot better than what I’m doing right now,” he moaned. Sounds like it’s gonna be a long season, bucko. This fellow gave me a string of countrified directions – “take a left at the railroad bridge, just pass the big ponderosa, go uphill, pull over before the telephone pole” etc, etc. It may have sunk in, I don’t really remember. Trying to recall the litany of maneuvers, I just drove.

The Little Truckee River is exquisite. I learned that the best fishing can be found where the Little Truckee meanders through flat expansive tailwater meadows below the Stampede Reservoir Dam before siphoning through the steeper slot canyon and spitting out into Boca Reservoir below.

There was one other man suiting up at the trailhead, a half step ahead, waders on. It’s funny, when I’m the only person suiting up at the river, I will take all the time in the world. I will practically inventory every item in my bag, double-checking everything from license to floatant to flask. But if there’s another guy suiting up, every instinct tells me to hustle.

And if it’s my river and I know exactly where I’m going, I get moving. I’m on a mission. Where’d that car come from? Blink and miss me. I’m on the water with jackrabbit speed and elusiveness. But if it ain’t my river, I pay courtesy. I gear up slow. I say hello. I ask which way they’re working, so I don’t drop in. I read the river like the Sunday paper, skimming sections for highlights, earmarking places to return to, and typically starting with the easiest-to-read. What, you don’t start with the funny pages?

Anyway, why should there be any difference in approach? What encourages this innate cold stoic fisherman code of silence? What makes a river, or a particular bend of river, “mine” or “yours”? Frankly, nothing. It’s not particularly gentlemanly to fish like a fugitive. It’s clearly best to slow it down all the time. Why not go out of my way to say hello and strike up a quick chat any time there’s a friendly face around? I typically do, but sometimes it requires me to flip a switch. I don’t like that. There’s no point in carrying the burden of this big city me-against-the-world gotta-get-mine mentality when out fishing. There’s no point in carrying that attitude anywhere. That perspective seeps into and consumes your brain. Succumbing to it defeats the whole purpose of getting outside in the first place. One of the biggest reasons I started fishing was to get away from that. Those perspectives are diametrically opposed and impossible to resolve.

Note to self: Be a gentleman and ditch the attitude.

In this particular case, I approached the fellow and immediately hit it off with his border collie before I could hardly get a word in. Now I know that border collies are typically energetic creatures, but this dog may have been a crack addict. The owner admitted so himself. Without notice he jumped into my arms, licked my face, wrapped his snout around my line, jumped off like a lemur, took my line with reel whirring, ran circles around my ankles, and brought me down like a bolo, owner apologizing profusely, bellies full of laughter, my face down in the snow.

We managed to untangle the web of line and carry on like dignified chaps. This nice fellow in his camo bootfoot waders carried a net on his back big enough to land his damn dog. Either there really are some lunkers in this river, I thought, or this guy is just thoroughly optimistic. Either way, I liked it. He was heading further downriver, so I dropped in right where I was. The water looked perfect. Exploring up and down river as far as possible is one of my favorite parts of the whole experience, and typically I am loathe to settle for the first nice hole, but I was short on daylight and just happy to be there.

In this uppermost section below the Stampede Dam, the river was pocketed, shallow and the bottom covered in stringy moss. Even without splitshot, I had to clean my nymph of goobers after almost every drift. I walked further downriver, swinging wide around my new friend and slinking through the bushes. I never even caught eye of my neighbor, but you better believe his collie found me.

This goofy dog decided to ditch his master and followed me a half mile down river. I tried diverting him with a fun game of go-fetch-the-rock-you-mutt, but he always returned, sprinting by in a flash of fur. It was only then that I also noticed this dog was lazy eyed. I wish I had captured the cock-eyed look this cracked-out collie gave me after I tried to trick him for the third time with a nice juicy rock. “Fool me once, … uh…”, he seemed to say.

I love dogs, and I love nothing more than some romantic notion of a man and his dog going down to the river for some good old-fashioned adventure. I never fly-fished as a kid, but I spent endless weekends with our Golden Retriever and Siberian Husky scrambling down the steep banks of the Sultan River. I loved nothing more than ambling around with those dogs in the woods, playing in the river, not a care in the world. Dogs are extremely perceptive and great wilderness companions. They find things you’d ignorantly walk on by, such as a fresh cougar kill, or the latest pile of trash dumped on the property. Funny how people seemed to treat our land like the town dump. One time the dogs found an actual human body mixed in with the rubbish. The sheriff had a few questions about that one. But that’s a different story.

When you take your dog and throw in something finnicky like fly-fishing, it seems tough. You need a good dog: a dog that will stay out of the way, keep quiet, and come when called. A lot of guys I’ve seen with their dogs are just struggling. If the dog isn’t jumping in the river and spooking the fish, they’re running away, barking at other dogs, jumping on other folks, or just generally being… well… dogs. What do you expect? Like I said, I don’t have a problem with that. But I imagine it can be difficult when trying to focus on fishing.

Such difficulties were quickly realized as I made a small roll cast and suddenly found myself with a 30 pounder on the line. Somehow the collie had managed to get nice and hooked on my rig and took off at full gait, again, reel whirring, again. I chased and corraled the dang pooch and jumped on him, wrestling him down, frantically feeling for the hook. He took a liking to this new game, writhing out of my grasp, jumping on me, licking my face, and rolling all over the line. This was distinctly less funny the second time around.

I managed to find the hook embedded in a wad of fur and slipped it out. No sooner than I did, the dog was up in a flash, finally running upriver back to his owner… with, crap, the line still looped around his leg an– OWWWW. Set the hook right into my damn thumb. He tried to slip loose as I pulled the hook out, dragged it for a few more good stabs in my thumb, and bolted off. Good riddance, fleabag! Talk about the importance of good line management. That’s one of those moments you’re half glad nobody was there to bear witness, half sorry nobody was there with a video camera.

I made my way downriver and found a nice hole underneath some rocks and a downed white fir. The trunk formed a nice diversion dam with the root system on full display. An outlet flowed around the side of this natural dam, and it was here between some large rocks and my side of the river that I found some nice trout holding in the current. To be honest, I damn near stepped on them before I realized they were there. I was reminded of a saying that lesser anglers can often be found standing where they should be casting. Well, there are definite benefits of stumbling, I mean fishing, upstream. They appeared none the wiser of my presence.

Of course, in and of itself that means nothing for me; they turned out plenty the wiser of the game being played. Despite short-range sight casting and smacking them on the nose with my collection of smaller baetis and midge nymph patterns, none bit. They took a few tantalizing looks at one particular beadhead, even initiating pursuit downstream. They teased me with a few rises, typically when I wasn’t looking. Sploosh– huh? But nothing doing.

I should have moved on down the river. Move along, keep trying, maximize your odds somewhere else; there are loads of fish that live here in the Little Truckee. Too many times, though, have I abandoned fish that weren’t buying what I was selling, only to fail to find anywhere fishier and return empty-handed. I’m still learning this game. Well, that doesn’t mean anything; who isn’t still learning? But when I find a fishy spot I want to figure it out. When I find a primo spot, where fish are actively and recklessly feeding, moving on feels tantamount to giving up. Sometimes you just have to put your foot down and stay put. I’m not in this for numbers. I wish I were that good. I am a student of the game. Persistence pays off.

Then again, sometimes it doesn’t. At least, not immediately, not directly. Sometimes the sun goes down and the fish come home and don’t get scolded for their new lip piercing. What can you do? It was worth it. It’s always worth it (despite the need to reassure you, or myself, of it). Sure as heck beats an afternoon hanging out in the Northstar lodge. Or, God forbid, a day at the office.

Out of nowhere, a giddy golden retriever barreled into the river and into my legs, interrupting my downright poignant train of thought. “… Zuhh? What? Oh, hey feller.” Goldens sometimes (usually) have that look on their face that is so dumb-yet-lovable, so inexplicably happy to see you, stranger. A few “good boys” and he was off to the races, re-joining someone else late to the party.

I may have first realized the sun was getting low when my fingers went numb and the guides on my rod iced over. As I was getting ready to pack it in, I caught a glance of that same other fellow downriver on the opposite bank landing a nice fish. Nothing like someone else’s success in close proximity to validate your own unaccomplishment. As he tried to land the fish, I saw his dog barreling into the water, chased away by scolding, shooing, and shouting. Oh boy…

The drive home was gorgeous. I had never fished immediately around Tahoe before, but man could I get used to it. Real used to it. Truckee is a fabulous town and everyone who lives there with world-class skiing and fly-fishing minutes from home should consider themselves properly spoiled.

Weighing my dissatisfaction with my current corporate surroundings, I realized then what a fabulous place this would be to live, year-round. And to work, year-round.

One of these days… one of these days.

63 Responses to “Opening Dog-Days”
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    Wonderful piece…I’m glad you found my blog, and resultantly I found yours. Your photos are amazing…I love the black and white. And your writing….beautiful. Keep on!

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      Well shucks, thanks Erin. I appreciate you stopping by. You got my word, I will keep on keepin’ on. I’m just getting started here, working through some road stories from the past year, feeling for a rhythm, and patiently waiting for snowflakes in California. I look forward to reading more about your winter in the canyon!

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