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Getting Hooked

Christopher Gardner

Cast Aways: Frank Mocerino and Brian Earhart fish at one of Los Gatos Creek's percolation ponds.

A man's quest for the reel truth

By Geoffrey Dunn

WHEN I WAS 5 or 6 years old, my father, a man of tender intentions if sometimes violent contradictions, taught me to trout fish in a small, secluded stream in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I could tell you where it was, where it is, but a good trout fisherman never reveals such secrets. I will allow only that it was on the western slope, over the hill from Los Gatos.

We would arrive at the stream, a small creek, really, in the early evening after my father's workday, and I would find myself captivated by the sounds of the tumbling water, the enveloping shroud of the redwood and laurel forest that covered us, the verdant lushness of the sword ferns and sorrel that hugged the sandstone banks.

To enter a trout stream--and one does enter into it--is to enter, like Alice, another world, an Arcadian canopy of wonder and mystery, intrigue and adventure.

In A River Runs Through It, Norman McLean equated trout fishing to a religious experience, partly because his father was a Presbyterian minister, a devout dry-fly fisherman, with a rather dour view of sin and the joys of the flesh. "To him," McLean wrote, "all good things--trout as well as eternal salvation--come by grace, and grace comes by art and art does not come easy."

My father was and, I suspect, remains an unrepentant wet-fly fisherman, not bound by the covenants of either the Old or New Testaments. Wine, women and song are his creed, if not necessarily in that order. He is not above using bait to catch a fish, particularly if that is all they are biting.

My father, however, did demand that I approach trout fishing with a certain piety, if you will, a secularized religious reverence. He taught me to tie my flies properly, to take only fish that my family or I would eat, to never disturb a stream bed and to never, ever release a small or unwanted trout without wetting my hands with stream water first. There is an integrity to trout fishing that is not to be transgressed.

I recently discovered an 1891 account in a local newspaper in which a pair of local fishermen claimed to have caught 850 trout on a single day's expedition to San Vincente Creek in Santa Cruz County, an exercise in greed and callousness that was undertaken for publicity purposes to spur tourism in an otherwise depressed economy. Their names, for the historical record, were Tom Dakan and Rob Dudley. Surely they are rotting in trout fisherman hell.


Where to fish in the South Bay.


TO STARE INTO the waters of a trout stream for a morning or afternoon is a meditative experience of unparalleled ecstasy. It is the metaphysical antithesis, I would argue, of being caught in a traffic jam on Highway 280.

There are two primary--and primal--relationships involved in trout fishing.

The first is between the individual and the stream--the physical world. To embark on a moment of trout fishing is to come in touch with the earth, the Cosmos. One drops a line into the flowing water and encounters the rhythms of the universe. Each movement along the stream, each tiny bump, is recorded in the flesh of the hand. One's attention must be constant: The slightest mistake can result in a snag, the hole ruined, the entire enterprise gone for naught.

The second essential relationship is between the individual and the fish--with life. The tenuous connection from hand to rod to line to hook links one with another living being, a muscular and powerful biological bolt hidden in the dark undercurrents of the water. One searches for another life in a stream the same way that astronomers seek life in the far reaches of the Universe: with an ounce of anticipation and a pound of uncertainty. One never knows what to expect.

There is also something particularly sensual--and, I dare say, sexual--about trout fishing. It is an act of polymorphous perversion, an orgy of the senses, to partake in a day on a trout stream: the coldness of the water against the skin, the force and tug of the current against the body, the feel and smell of the fish and bait, the taste of the water and air. To join with another life in this ambience is more than a sexual metaphor ("You get a line, I'll get a pole ..."); it is orgasmic in its own right.

Whenever I place bait to hook or lift a fish from the stream, I think of my father, fishing now in the far corners of the Montana wilderness. Like the water before me, my mind retreats to its natural flows and rhythms, to memories of days spent trout fishing in my youth.

Norman McLean was right: All things merge into one, and a river runs through it. So, too, does blood. But they both make their own ways to the sea.

Think of Siddartha at the river, the seer in search of the holy Om. "It seemed to him as if the river has something special to tell him, something which he did not know, something which awaited him," the German novelist Hermann Hesse declared. "He saw bright pearls rise from the depths, bubbles swimming on the mirror, sky blue reflected in them. The river looked at him with a thousand eyes--green, white, crystal, sky blue. How he loved this river, how it enchanted him, how grateful he was to it. ... It seemed to him that whoever understood this river and its secrets, would understand much more, many secrets, all secrets." Perhaps Hesse himself was a fisherman.

The late poet laureate Robert Lowell, in his poem "Near the Ocean," eloquently captured the sexual drive of the fish itself:

    O to break loose, like the chinook
    salmon, jumping and falling back
    nosing up to the impossible
    stone and bone-crushing waterfall--
    raw-jawed, weak-fleshed there, stopped by ten
    steps of the roaring ladder, and then
    to clear the top on the last try,
    alive enough to spawn and die.

I memorized those lines many years ago on a hitchhiking journey to Humboldt County. While I can still recite the poem, I can no longer recall if I was traveling there for love--or running away from it. Maybe both. Either way, I was certain that fishing on the Mad River would be good.

I WOULD LIKE to proclaim that trout fishing is a unifying constant, that it provides a familial bond that is forever unyielding, but alas, it does not. Occasionally the line of life gets caught beneath a rock or snagged in an unforeseen branch or tree stump, and the line is suddenly--and irrevocably--broken. Unlike in popular literature and Hollywood movies, there are not always happy endings.

My father now lives somewhere in the Rocky Mountains near the border of Canada and Montana, a land of gorgeous and plentiful trout streams. For a brief period a bit more than a decade ago, I fished many of them with him. I carry a picture in my wallet of the two of us holding a substantial string of coho salmon that the two of us caught in the Swan River.

I have not seen him since. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that he still goes fishing on most afternoons, after finishing his chores and tending to his business. I know precisely where he secures his worms and grasshoppers, how he carefully tends to the fish he's caught.

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From the May 1-7, 1997 issue of Metro

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