The box, with its dust, unfinished and almost bleached looking wood, brass hinges and latch captured my imagination for what I might find inside. Carefully, I lifted the latch and opened the lid to reveal what at the time seemed a genuine treasure. Nestled in the box was a four piece bamboo rod with a shiny burgundy finish. Beside the rod, but in their own little section was a selecton of flies, and I knew from the pictures I’d seen in Field and Stream and Outdoor Life that I was looking at a fly rod for the first time in my life. I lightly touched my fingers to the rod’s smooth varnish finish and closely inspected the four rows of flies labled: “Royal Coachman, Bumble Bee, White Miller, Grey Hackle Yellow.” There were three flies of each pattern. To a young boy who at the time was just cutting his bass fishing teeth on Hula Poppers, River Runts and Injured Minnows, they were the most beautiful and delicate things I’d ever seen.
“One day, ” I thought to myself, “I will become a fly fisherman and catch trout, just like Ted Trueblood,” a bigger than life sportsman and my favorite outdoor writer of the time.
Pleased with my interest, and to help me realize that dream, my father outfitted the rod with a Perrine automatic fly reel, a sticky floating line defined by letters rather than numbers, and taught me the basics of fly casting in our front yard. At first, I had a hard time reaching the narrow concrete walkway that seperated our lawn from the lawn of Mr. and Mrs. Chambers who lived next door. With regular practice, it was not long before my casts were stretching across their lawn as well and onto the lawn of Mr. and Mrs Crowman, a chronically cranky couple who forbade me to include their property in games of catch with my friends.
Some years passed, and despite becoming a fairly accomplished bass angler by a young age using “conventional tackle,” I longed for the day when I’d fish for trout with a fly rod, just like Ted Trueblood!
That day finally came when a buddy and I decided to visit Green Valley Falls in Cuyamaca State Park with its attractive campground divided by the rarely mighty Sweetwater River. It is a small stream that by summer in most years can be easily straddled in many places and difficult if not impossible to find in others as it goes underground. The stream had recently been stocked by the Department of Fish and Game with nine to 12-inch hatchery rainbows that typically sported worn fins, missed more than a few scales and could never resist a red salmon egg impaled below a split shot on a small gold hook. No matter how hard or how long I looked at these fish, they never looked like the rainbows Ted Trueblood caught.
In a pool below the road that crossed the stream before leading to a picnic area and campground loop, two dozen freshly delivered trout gathered together and swung in a current that emptied from the road culvert. A few feet away, a group of children begged motorists to cross the creek fast enough to splash them, but the trout didn’t seem to notice. My friend cast to the base of the culvert and as the current carried his red salmon egg downstream, we watched it disappear into the mouth of one of the trout which was quickly derricked onto the bank and into a cheap wicker creel that missed its shoulder strap and had to be carried like a toaster. That first trout was followed by another, and then another. It was a familiar trajectory for our stream fishing trips that would I had followed many times in the past and would result in a limit of ten hatchery rainbows in my friend’s creel.
This did not seem to be the place, nor these the fish for my first trout on a fly. Telling my friend I’d see him later, I began hiking downstream, well away from the pools that had been stocked, the picnicking families, the campground, the cars, and the kids that begged to be splashed by them.
I was far enough away to reason that maybe I could find a trout that had been overlooked, had washed downstream and acclimated to the stream and an environment that produced insects for its meals rather than the offerings du jour of salmon egges, miniature marshmallows and Velveeta cheese.
I sat down on a rock and for the longest time watched the water flow by, working its way around a midstream rock roughly 30 feet away. Protected from above, it seemed I thought, a nice place for such a trout to lie in wait for a hatching insect or a clumsy ant or beetle. It was at that moment that I spotted a small and almost imperceptable splash next to the rock. And then another. There was indeed a fish that like me, was watching the current as it passed by the rock.
Aware from a Field and Stream contest that voted the Adams as the favorite dry fly of its readers, I tied one on my leader, applied some flotant, flipped it into the current and played out enough slack line to reach a bit beyond the rock before the line would pull tight.
It was an act I had rehearsed in my mind many times. I watched as the fly drifted with the current and as the stream narrowed and funneled toward the rock. I was as dumbfounded when I saw a flippy splash as I was dismayed by the realization that I had missed the fish. This was the moment that I had waited years for, and I’d blown it. I drew the line back to me, blew off the water that made it difficult to stay afloat and repeated the drift with the same result. This was no dress rehearsal, it was the real thing and I felt tragically incompetent on this stage and in the glare of the footlights. I knew that Ted Trueblood would not have missed either of those strikes, but if he had, he wouldn’t have hung his head as I was beginning to do.
I tried again, and on the third drift, the trout managed to hook itself. After a quick but spirited fight, I held in my hand a wriggling seven inch fish that looked nothing like the hundreds of trout I’d caught before in the stream.
It was a rainbow trout, but was smaller than any fish I’d seen stocked, sleeker and with actual color, parr marks and white trim on its fins. It was one of the most striking fish I had ever caught and remains so, as well as the most memorable to this day. I knew immediately that it was a wild fish, a fish that if not “native,” was most certainly a product of the stream. Holding and releasing that beautiful little fish began a quest that changed my life and more than a few of my views regarding fishing. Further efforts in more remote areas as well as other streams produced similar fish.
I was soon doing everything I could to learn more about the fish that lived in our small streams. I spoke to game wardens and biologists and courted “old timers,” with a recollection of trout and even steelhead in San Diego County. I read everything I could get my hands on that might tell me more, including the journal of San Diego’s first game warden. I even found a book written in 1881 following an expedition conducted by the New York Museum of Natural History that revealed the presence of what were described as “speckled brook trout,” 26 years before Department of Fish and Game records described the first arrival of trout in the region.
I began sampling and studying other small streams and was astounded by what I found. Years passed, droughts, floods and wildfires came and went, and still these remarkable fish found a way to survive. I helped to convince the state’s top wild trout biologist to visit and sample the trout in a remote local stream. A few specimens were killed, placed on ice and flown out in a Forest Service helicopter for a second flight that would deliver them to a University of California laboratory 600 miles away for further analysis. We were both stunned and pleased with electrophoresis and DNA results indicating that these remarkable fish are not the result of any fish that have been planted. That these were more than likely native wild fish.
In time, I found myself lobbying the Department of Fish and Game and the Fish and Game Commission for regulation changes that would protect these fish and their habitats. When they failed to act as quickly as I hoped, I co-founded San Diego Trout to better advocate for these fish and authored a county-wide trout management plan that was eventually accepted by the Department of Fish and Game.
In large part, that small fish greatly influenced my views, my interests and ultimately my life because it and its brethren are more than just fish. In the final analysis, they will come to be recognized as an “indicator species” relative to humans in this region and our stewardship of the precious streams and watersheds that we share with those little trout.
I have been fortunate to have enjoyed a life and career intertiwned with watersheds, streams and trout. Along the way I have had the pleasure to catch some pretty nice fish, but none so beautiful, so memorable or as large in my life as that seven inch rainbow that took my fly some 45 years ago.
And all because I dusted off and opened that long wooden box found tucked away in our basement.