We forget how much of California is wild and vast maw. Head into California's far northeastern reaches and the world falls away. You'll pass over happy creeks, hypnotic orchards, and honor system fruit stands with signs hanging from barns proclaiming, "The best gift you ever found was in a barn." Everywhere is the aphrodisiac of pine. Also, from almost every vantage point along almost every road, snow-capped Mount Lassen looms: in the empty-wide sky, white clouds scurry toward Lassen for their own closer view.
It's as if you are driving towards promise.
Northeastern California is home to many wild and lovely things, and one of them is some of the world's best fly fishing. The lower Sacramento, Fall River, Hat Creek, the Pit River, the McCloud, Burney Creek: these are bucket list fishing holes. Name drop them to even the most casual angler and watch his eyes glaze over while his hands twitch, casting already for God's own wild rainbow trout.
Like many outdoor activities, fly fishing first provides opportunity for a breathtaking road trip, and the journey into California's northeast is no exception. A casual glimpse at any map reveals, to the north and east of Redding, the happiest preponderance of green: sprawling national parks (Lassen Volcanic), national monuments (Lava Beds) and national forests (Plumas, Lassen, Klamath, Shasta-Trinity, Modoc) that occupy space reserved in other parts of California for fast food restaurants and big box stores.
I traveled first along California Highway 36, through the towns of Paynes Creek and Mineral, and then along Highway 89. I passed over the aforementioned burbling creeks, with Mount Lassen filling my windshield like a serene Japanese painting as the road slowly rose and took on a steeper cant until my car stopped, panting at the southern entrance to Lassen Volcanic National Park.
A pretty ranger flipped open the entry window and smiled.
"Well today's your lucky day," she said. "The road just reopened this morning."
I had been driving past heavily snow shrouded forest for almost thirty minutes already, but still I said somewhat stupidly, "But it's June."
The ranger nodded happy acknowledgment.
"It sure is, but up here that doesn't matter. Some years this road is closed in July. I'm from New Hampshire. I thought we had snow. But snow in July..."
Not just any snow, but buttercream snow topped with a sparkly ice sheen. On this bright, sunny day the Park was a fairyland, made fairer still by a road impeccably cleared. It's with good reason that Highway 89 is designated a National Scenic Byway. I drove through a summer winter wonderland until I found a spot where I could pull off the road and wander through the snow.
Exploring Lassen Volcanic Park would take several lifetimes. It is 106,000 acres of surreal volcanic terrain surrounded by a cool green sea of conifer forest; home to our country's greatest labyrinth of lava tubes and countless hikes through bubbling, steaming, blurping volcanism. The easy hike into Bumpass Hell provides a great initiation, but not on this day. It was buried in four feet of snow.
So I found a pullout where the snow was actually melting in places, and I wandered off into the woods, meandering through conifer passageways hung with air I wanted to drink. In the forest, the sunshine became fairy glow and I could hear nothing but my own eider-softened footfalls, and when I stepped out into an open pasture a goose-pimpling wind rushed across the snow. But that was the only sound. I can tell you unequivocally. Silences do whisper and hum.
I drove on. Outside the park I passed through the tiny speck that is Old Station (nonetheless, a popular stop for hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail). When I arrived at Clearwater Lodge on the banks of the Pit River, just outside Fall River Mills, the gloaming was coming on. In the last light of day the sycamore trees along the dirt drive went dark, but warm light poured from the Lodge windows, dappling the wide verandah porch.
Clearwater Lodge, with its world-class guides and its world-class rivers, is, well, a world-class fishing destination, but like many things that stand on merit, it feels no need to gussy itself up. I loved the Lodge the instant I stepped through the squeaky screen door. Built in the early 1920s to serve as housing and a place to play for Pacific Gas & Electric employees (employed at numerous power houses in the vicinity), the Lodge still has its original fir floors, wood-paneled walls and beamed ceilings. It even has a restored 1923 billiard table that has, no doubt, seen its share of embarrassing pool. Old clocks tick in the quiet. Photographs of fish and fishermen adorn the walls, and books like "Sex, Death and Fly-Fishing" (not necessarily in order of importance) stand on the bookshelves.
"It's an old building that creaks and rattles," a guest said to me. He gave me a long look and then he said almost wishfully. "It seems like it should be haunted, but I don't think it is."
People don't come here for séances. They come here to fish for trout, and at dawn the next morning my guide John Fochetti pushed us out on to the Upper Fall River in our small, flat bottom skiff. I am no hydrologist, but immediately I noticed that the Upper Fall River is a grand name for a river that looks pretty much like a creek. A very still creek. Fochetti concurred, and this, he said, was the Upper Fall River's beauty. It is indeed an odd river, he told me, as we motored between its narrow banks. Most rivers have a gradient. Not the Fall River. This allows the weeds in the river to grow thick, and the thick weeds give the bugs a place to hatch and live and thrive. The bugs, well, they bring the trout. Plus, the Fall River is fed by cold springs, and trout relish cold water. The perfect environment and plenty of food see to a simple thing.
"The fish," said Fochetti, "are large. Sometimes, very large."
Not that you'll be pulling them from the water (and putting them back: Clearwater Lodge is 100% catch-and-release) willy nilly.
Fochetti cut the motor and gave a wry grin. "It's a real tough fishery." He reckoned this wasn't a bad thing. "If something is simple, people are going to get bored with it pretty quick."
In short order, Fochetti had rigged us both. I am not a fisherman so I did not pretend to be. Fochetti gave me a patient lesson, so that in short order I was no longer casting like a nerve gas victim. Fochetti is the kind of guide any outfit is lucky to have. When I told him I would do my best not to hook him, he said, "Don't worry. I've been hooked a few times. And I've hooked myself a few times for sure."
I fished, though I wouldn't call it that. Mostly I watched Fochetti. His casting was a beautiful thing to see, line roping out and dropping to the water like a spider's thread, the dry fly sending out a phalanx of miniature ripples.
Low fog hovered along the banks of the river. In the dawn light, the meadows were smoky gold. The quiet barns -- and the river -- still held night's cool. Actually cold. But the cold gnawed comfortably.
Fochetti took in our surroundings and smiled.
"This is why people come out here. There's not too many spots like this in California. We're out every day guiding. And in the evening, what do we do? Go fish."
It was quiet, except for the occasional lowing of a cow. Fochetti nodded toward a ring in the water some 20 yards off our bow. "There's a rising fish right there." He cast. Already the ring in the water was gone, vanished like an old lover's smile. His fly rested on the water, ignored. Fochetti flicked it back. "I told you," he said. "It's tough fishing."
As the morning progressed we moved from spot to spot, searching. As the skiff ran, beneath the water, a prairie of thick grasses bent in a viscous wind. Fochetti tried different spots and different tactics. Though it didn't seem possible, at one spot he switched to lighter line.
"The water's so clear here, the fish see the line and they're outta here," he explained. "So I'm going with thinner line and tiny little flies." He held up something I pretended to see. "A micro mayfly, size 18," he said, helpfully. "When the real flies are sitting on the water waiting for their wings to dry, that's when the fish will eat them."
When I said it seemed like there were countless nuances, Fochetti smiled slyly.
"Oh yea. Lots of nuances. But you know, that's kind of the fun. That's what brings a lot of people to fly fishing. There's always something new that you can work on, something new you can learn."
What many anglers learn is that, often, you don't catch a damn thing. We weren't having any lucky either. Time passed. We cast. And then, when Fochetti's fly dropped flawlessly to the water for the umpteenth time, there was an explosion and instantly his rod bent. And bent.
"Good fish. Definitely feels like a strong fish," he said, still playing guide, but I could tell he was only half paying attention to his words. It was a good, strong fish, and he needed to pay attention.
Standing in the skiff, quiet country all about, he now talked only to himself, as, very, very slowly, he brought the line in.
"Come on buddy... come up here. Oh yeah. Oh-oh yeah. Big fish. Come on, buddy."
The rod still bent. This fish was not giving in.
Fochetti actually looked mildly surprised.
"At some point this fish should tire out," he said. "But he doesn't seem like he wants to."
The rod bent. Fochetti drew the fish closer.
"Man, you're not getting tired. It's a really big fish."
It is a delicate dance. The line is so thin.
Finally the fish was next to the skiff, and when it flashed just beneath the surface Fochetti forgot he was a guide and gave a 12-year-old's hoot of joy. Bending, he picked up the hand net. Quicker than you can blink, the net was in the water and a wild rainbow trout -- 20 inches, golden and perfectly formed -- was in the net.
The gold of the meadows was on its skin. It was 20 inches of sleek symmetry, its fins like perfect razors.
Fochetti did not admire it for long. Clasping the trout gently, he removed it from the net and held it just beneath the water, facing into the current. Fish and fisherman waited patiently. When Fochetti released the trout, it stayed motionless in the current for a moment before casually swimming away.
"He'll just sit on the bottom and sulk for a while," said Fochetti and then he fell silent.
He watched the water. A minute passed. Maybe two.
Very softly, Fochetti said, "Sweet, sweet, sweet. That was the biggest fish I ever caught out there."
Life is full of surprises.