Member Monday: A Hot Summer Day in Chico Creek Canyon by Steve Callan

Welcome back to Member Monday.  We kick off our July theme on “Summer” with a piece  from member Steve Callan.  Steve is the author of Badges, Bears, and Eagles.  You can hear more from Steve on his NPR interview.  

A Hot Summer Day in Chico Creek Canyon

by Steve Callan

One of my most memorable trout fishing trips took place during the summer of 1964.  My fishing buddy, Paul Martens, had heard that some trophy browns could be caught in upper Chico Creek.  The only way into this treacherously steep canyon was an overgrown caterpillar track that hadn’t been traveled in years.  Throwing caution to the wind, I shoved my 1947 Chevy pickup into first gear, stepped on the gas and inched forward.

“I just bought a new Mitchell 300,” said Paul, obviously excited.  “I can’t wait to try it out.”

“If this road gets any narrower you might not get your chance,” I said

Walking might have been faster than the old truck moved in first gear, so it took us almost an hour to reach the end.

“OK, where’s the trail?”  I asked, climbing out of the truck.

“It’s supposed to be here somewhere,” answered Paul, in a sheepish voice.

“It’s only nine o’clock and already hot,” I complained.  “The temperature’s supposed to hit a hundred today.”

Paul and I peered over the canyon’s edge.  All we could see were giant boulders, scrub oaks and what appeared to be an impenetrable wall of poison oak.  Reasonable adults might have surveyed the situation and decided it wasn’t worth the risk, but we were sixteen year old boys, not reasonable adults.  Besides, we could hear the trout stream rushing and rippling below.

Paul discovered what might have been some kind of human foot path a short distance from where the road ended.  I looked it over and was convinced that it was no more than a deer trail, but that was all we could find so we gathered our gear and began the day’s adventure.

Both of us carried cloth fishing creels and two piece spinning rods, with reels attached.  “Watch for snakes,” I warned, as we carefully squeezed between two patches of poison oak.  About fifty yards down, the trail disappeared and the canyon became even steeper.  Sweat poured off our faces and into our eyes.  We had already forgotten about avoiding poison oak.  The fear of stepping on a rattlesnake paled in comparison to the anticipated joy of reaching the stream and flopping into the refreshingly cool water.

Expletives rolled off our lips as we charged forward, pushing brush and sharp branches aside.  “It’s too late to turn back,” I shouted.  “Keep going, Paul, we’re almost there.”  I reached a clearing, fifty feet above the stream.  It was then that I heard Paul cry out, “Sheiiiit!”  I looked up just in time to see my fishing buddy burst through a patch of poison oak.  He was still on his feet, but sliding on the soles of his Converse All Stars.  Paul’s fishing rod, with his new Mitchell 300 reel attached, was still firmly clutched in his right hand.  Suddenly his feet flew out from under him and he fell backward onto the hard red clay.  The impact loosened Paul’s grip on the fishing rod and away it went, bouncing down the canyon, over the rimrock ledge and into the stream below.

Fortunately, Paul’s rod and reel didn’t break into a hundred pieces.  They did, however, land in what had to be the deepest pool in Chico Creek.  Paul was devastated.   He had not only lost his new reel, but after all of the work getting there, he didn’t have anything to fish with.  “Cheer up,” I said, still laughing.  “I’ll get your rod and reel back.”  I reached into my creel and pulled out an old diving mask.  “I brought this to see if there are any big browns in this stream, like you said.”

Paul and I carefully climbed down the remaining rocks to the water below.  I marveled at the beauty of this Northern California trout stream.  The water was crystal clear as it rushed over car sized boulders, creating one deep pool after another.  Alders provided much needed shade, creating an ideal environment for fish and other aquatic life.

Ditching my shoes at the water’s edge, I carefully maneuvered across the rocky bottom until the swirling water was shoulder deep.  My face mask had not been used for some time, so I rinsed it out, spit on the inside glass and thoroughly rubbed saliva around before rinsing it again and putting it on.  Leaning forward, I stuck my head under the water.  The sounds from above were immediately silenced and replaced by the muffled sound of rushing water and millions of foaming bubbles flowing downstream.  Pushing off from the stream bottom, I skimmed across the surface toward the steep cliff on the opposite side.  Tucking my upper body and straightening my legs, I began my descent.  Within seconds I was ten feet below the surface, continuing downward.  The water became dark and suddenly colder.  Pressure began to build in my ears.  Peering toward the bottom, I saw several eight-inch rainbow trout dart upstream toward the falling water and disappear into the bubbles.  My peripheral vision was limited by the sides of the old face mask, but I managed a short glimpse of something larger, much, much larger…

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