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fishy tales

I cross the state line from Oregon into California with only an ancient map of California at my disposal. Each time I unfold it the paper tears and crumbles some more. The coastal cycle route is clearly signposted on the highway but, for no particular reason, I cut-off Highway 101 inland onto Route 197 towards the Jedediah Smith State Park. Route 197 is a quiet road which winds along a river valley through massive old cedar forest.

On my way into Jedediah Smith I meet a couple of cyclists on the road I saw in a supermarket car-park in a town I passed through earlier in the day and we wave to each other. The hiker/biker camp sits, secluded, among giant redwoods just above a river, clear water running noisily in its wide rocky bed. It is a busy river that obviously gets much busier after the winter snow melts.

The couple have already set up camp but they are the only other people in a sizable area with well spaced camp sites. I choose a site at a polite, but sociable, distance from their camp. After I examine the maps provided at the park entrance, and figure out a potential route for tomorrow, I wander to the couple’s camp site to see what maps or guides they might have to share with me.

There is no sign of the guy but the girl and I talk for a while, first poring over maps, and then, after I spot a lobster mushroom on the table, moving onto the subject of funghi. The girl is on her way to buy some beer from a grocery store, a mile or so down the road, and she invites me to come over later for a drink.

In the evening, when I drop in for the promised beer her boyfriend is tending a small fire. I have brought some fallen wood with me so as not to arrive empty handed and I offer it to him. The guy thanks me but points out a sizable foil wrapped fishy shape on the grill above the fire and says he will stoke up the fire later. Eyeing off the aluminium clad bundle, I am instantly filled with envy.

“I don’t have a Californian fishing licence,” he confesses, suddenly, and I promise not to tell on him.

Stephanie hands me a beer and we stand next to the fire discussing, alternately, bicycles and fish. When the trout is cooked Brian divides it into two and then offers me a small piece which I greedily accept. He tells me about all the others which he released and I nod, sadly. I love fish. I quiz him about fishing for trout in streams – an art I am unfamiliar with. He shows me his telescoping rod which packs up discretely and a box of pretty lures and flies.

“I’m going to go fishing again in the morning. You can have a go, if you like,” he offers.

“Yes, please!” I don’t hesitate for a second.

In the morning, I get up and go to the river as soon as I wake. I spot Brian, standing knee deep in the water.  He is bringing a fish towards the bank, as I approach over the rocks, but by the time I reach him he is crouched low by the water and I only catch a flash of silver disappearing. He turns and sees me.

A passionate fisherman.

A passionate fisherman.

“Did you see that? That had to be 6 pounds! A steelhead.”

He gestures, wildly, indicating the size of the fish. I admit that I didn’t see much. He describes the struggle: how the fish swam under a rock, how the line chaffed on the rock – that one there! – but, then, how the fish eventually tired and he reeled it in, back under the rock, without the line breaking.

... that's the rock...

... that's the rock...

“You should have seen it. It was leaping and jumping… it put up a great fight! It was the most exciting fishing experience of my life!” It is hard to doubt him; his hand is on his heart as he speaks, his eye aglow with a almost religious fervour.

“Would you like to have a go?”

I would.

My first cast goes well, hitting the water exactly where I had intended but I am not used to fishing in fast rocky streams. I let the lure hit the bottom and it snags instantly and irrevocably. I am mortified. Brian, however, is philosophical and rigs up the rod again. I throw out the lure again, and then again, and again; only once briefly hooking a tiny fish. Eventually, I give up, accepting that it is porridge for breakfast, again.

I am equally passionate about fish but not nearly as skilled at catching them.

I am equally passionate about fish but not nearly as skilled at catching them.

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