Fly fishing for the first time in the San Gabriel Mountains

I was in a mope when I hiked down the canyon trail for some Friday afternoon fishing. No doubt about it, a mope, plain and simple. As I descended, feet feeling enervated, annoyed by the insistent biting flies, I forced a smile at those returning from the water, all bathing suits and youthful laughter, all optimism and camaraderie. Some would say “hi,” others would look up at me shyly, maybe not knowing if they should speak first. But I would have none of it. I felt old and alone. Like I said, a mope, or as Winston Churchill famously called his depressed moods, “the black dog.”

Local high school students Tommy, left, and Charles fly fish for the first time (Jim Burns).

Where was my best fishing buddy? I asked the trees, bitterly (he moved north and we’ve since stopped talking)

Where was my best fishing dog? (died of cancer this summer)

Where was the general fun in life at all, the life I’ve always so enjoyed?

With these dark thoughts swirling like threatening ravens among the trees,  I barely heard the footsteps behind me.

“Oh great, some more happy people,” I muttered, not looking around.

And so separated by perhaps two dozen yards, the three of us walked down the rock-strewn trail, me in the lead, the other two out of sight, but thudding along behind.

We were all going to the same place, which irritated me all the more. After all, if you can’t be nice to the ones leaving your refuge, how could you possibly be chatty with those who are invading it?

And — inevitably –when we all stopped together under the shade canopy of a dozen thick trees, the blazing summer light turning to smokey lounge, one of them asked the question.

“Hey, are you fishing down here?”

The teen couldn’t have been more than 16, a big, overgrown kid, like a pup tripping over his own paws.

About to answer, trying to at least be civil, suddenly his friend came along, holding an ocean pole, looming over the trail, about to be hung up on every tree, bush and snagging obstacle. He looked at me, embarrassed, spying all the junk on my vest — the thermometer, the nail nippers, the golden hemostat — and my four-piece fly rod that I’d yet to attach.

“Kinda big for down here,” he mumbled. “We were just looking for something to do.”

My tight lips relaxed. I thought how silly it is to be a middle-aged man, thinking middle-aged thoughts, when life flows each day with such unstoppable exuberance. Still reluctant, I couldn’t help but half-smile.

As we walked on, past an ornery barking dog protecting his master’s property by the side of the creek, I really wondered if I would share the spots I’ve found over these past several months. After all, it’s called “hot spotting” for a reason: your fantastic fishing hole from last month is now dead as a bat because some yahoo has fished it out.

Watching them navigate the path, I suspected these high schoolers would most probably do exactly that. But the sight of that out-of-place pole, and their faces, which it would be a cliché to call “shiny,” spoke otherwise.

And as we walked and chatted, a wonderful thing happened: I came back to myself.

Check out the red cheek on this trout from the San Gabes. (Jim Burns)

Soon, I’d tied a double surgeon’s knot to secure a length of super-skinny tippet to their tuna-tugging line. And I’d gifted them with a tiny bead-head nymph, the kind I knew the trout here loved to chase.

By afternoon’s end, Tommy, the bigger of the two, was learning how to cast a fly line. From the way he finessed my fly rod, I could easily squint my eyes and see an excellent fisherman down the road. And the smiling Charles caught a trout, only to release it back into the water on his own, no coaching from yours truly.

“It’s great down here,” Charles said, ” but people trash it.”

“Yes, they do,” I replied, as Tommy put some of it in my vest.

I left before them, but walking back up the trail, I thought maybe I should have stayed to guide them up. After all it does split confusingly at places, and Tommy had related the story about how their first outing here ended with getting lost and rangers having to come in after the gates closed.

Gut check … go back? I’d left to get some quiet time for myself, but also to give them time to be together without an adult around.

After puffing up the side of the canyon for 30 minutes, I sat in my car, wondering. After a time, I thought maybe I’d take a quick run back down … hadn’t they said they had to be back by twilight?

Then Charles popped into view, carrying that big tuna pole. Anxiety relieved. We both smiled and waved, and I wondered if Tommy would indeed talk his dad into doing some fly pole shopping before they headed out to Waterman the next day.

This life we have. This precious life we share with others.

See you on the river, Jim Burns





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