There are several places around the world where it is often claimed that the weather is so variable that one need only wait twenty minutes or so for a change if the current situation isn’t to one’s liking.
SoCal would not be one of those places.
Instead, one of the claims to fame for SoCal is that the weather and geography is such that one can ski in the morning and turn around and surf in the afternoon.
As a native Angeleno I can vouch for the accuracy of the second statement and as a fly fisherman I would further refine that phrase to say that one can stream fish for trout in the morning and surf fish for perch in the afternoon.
It often happens that, depending upon the time of year, one can also be standing in the snow in the morning while roll casting a 3-wt. on said narrow mountain creek and then be wet wading in the surf with an 8-wt. come the afternoon.
It’s an awesome thing, even if it does make packing the car and loading the vest or pack a tad difficult.
Now as most of you probably already know, this past weekend we celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday and, as is the common custom here in SoCal, about a hundred thousand of us trekked up into the mountains to “get away from it all”. As much as I hate crowds, I must confess that I, along with my lovely wife and some of our dearest friends (yes that includes my fishin’ buddy Sean and his beloved bride) were among the mobile masses.
Nothing says “over the river and through the woods…” like struggling to maneuver around a thirty-five vehicle long line of SUV’s in the drive-thru for Starbucks and then crawling along in a twenty-five-mile long traffic jam while the vehicle next to you literally shudders from the bass beats of the Black-Eyed Peas.
However, once we eventually inched past the turn-off toward Las Vegas, where most of the vehicles seemed to be heading, traffic opened up and my mood lightened in proportion to the frequency that billboards gave way to oaks and then pines.
We finally arrived at our mountain retreat by late afternoon under clear sunny skies and mild temperatures.
My parents had made the drive up the hill (as we call it– even if it is a 6500 foot high “hill”) earlier in the week and good ‘ol Mom had immersed herself in a cooking frenzy such that we were greeted by the mouth-watering aromas of turkey in the oven and sweet potato pie cooling on the counter.
Needless to say, in addition to our feast, we had much to be thankful for and the rest of the day, including the moonlit walk along the boardwalk over the southeast shore of Big Bear Lake, more than made up for the mildly rocky start.
Before retiring for the night, Sean and I confirmed and reconfirmed with our spouses and the rest of our party that they had absolutely no intention of arising early (as in before 11 a.m.) and thus assured, he and I made plans to hit the upper portion of the Santa Ana River while everyone else recovered from a turkey and stuffing induced coma.
Friday dawned clear and cold. We fortified ourselves with hot coffee (I also managed to break into the fruitcake — yes the fruitcake — without making too much noise) and we headed off.
If this “Black Friday” was chaos at the malls, it was bliss in the local mountains. We saw only two other vehicles during the entire drive to the river and encountered no other anglers the entire morning. Tens of thousands of people in the mountains and we saw no one – such is the paradox of SoCal.
But then again, perhaps the rest of the angling world had heard that conditions were less than suitable and we were the ones on a fool’s errand.
In any event, we found the correct turn-off and drove about a mile back on the dirt road paralleling the river, stopping frequently at various wide spots and near bridges that criss-crossed the water. Sean used a dry/nymph rig and I fished a size 18 nymph in the deeper pools and wider riffles–which is to say the sections that were wider than what we could jump. We hop scotched along the different sections of the river working our way downstream. The sun had not yet reached into the bottom of the canyon and it was cold. In fact, ice lined the bank of the stream, especially in the deeper shadows.
As the morning wore on, the sun eventually peeked over the ridge and the overall scene immediately took on a magical quality. Sunlight washed over the tops of the trees and highlighted the light glazing of frost in the almost bare upper branches. A few moments later, shafts of light poured down through the trees and illuminated the ice, transforming the river into a something like a Thomas Kincaide painting.
As beautiful and as peaceful as it was, the fishing was poor. Sean managed to pull in only one small but vibrant Brown Trout the entire time and I only managed to illicit one feeble, half-hearted rise toward my fly. We changed flies frequently but just couldn’t find the winning pattern.
We moved further downstream. Sean found a smooth, clear pool with what looked like the dark outlines of several decent Trout holding by the near side bank. I held tight where I had a panoramic view of the unfolding mini-drama as he crept slowly forward in a low, crouching position using the spindly brush along the bank for cover so as not to spook the fish. He made his cast. It was textbook perfect with a fine, tight loop that slipped between the overhanging, barren branches and past the leaning trunk of an old Jeffery Pine.
His dry/dropper combo landed neatly at the edge of the pool but did not move in the normal fashion. After a few seconds, he picked up and cast again. It was another well-formed loop landing precisely where targeted and still it did not drift as it ought.
Puzzled, he cast yet again to the same pool only to get the same result.
Now, it is often said that the definition of insanity is attempting to do the same thing over and over while expecting to get different results.
To the best of my knowledge, Sean is not insane.
Thus, after the third cast with the same results, he pulled in his line and approached the pool that had looked so promising but now simply seemed perplexing.
I too could stand it no longer, so I also approached this little pocket of water. We both stood there for a moment until the cause of the mystery revealed itself. A crystal clear and amazingly thin sheet of ice had formed on the surface of the water where Sean was casting. It extended out from the bank to about mid way across the pool.
He was effectively casting onto a glass tabletop though neither one of us could see it from our original positions along the bank.
There were indeed Trout beneath the ice. They sat tight to the bottom watching us, confident that we could not reach them. They were like the boorish uncle who teases the lion from the outside of the enclosure, smug in the knowledge that the thick plexiglass will allow him to escape the fate everyone else secretly wishes upon him.
We continued to stand there and laughed about this neat little trick of nature. We joked about being true SoCal boys and thus being naïve to the subtleties of frozen water.
It seemed like a good time to wrap things up so we decided to call it a morning and head back to our wives and breakfast.
The trip home was quiet and reflective. We didn’t speak much but when we did, it was to comment on the quiet beauty of the river and the unexpected but very welcome lack of anglers on what should have been a very busy holiday weekend.
We both agreed that a huge part of the appeal of fly-fishing is the discovery of the unexpected – sometimes it’s unexpected but obvious once you stumble upon it and other times it’s as fleeting and as elusive as crystal clear ice on a lonely, narrow mountain stream deep in the heart of a forest surrounded by millions of people.
I love this addiction called urban fly fishin’.
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