Here, water rules. The Inland Empire, southern California, a vast valley of metropolitan growth. From the Santa Monica beaches to San Bernardino an hour and a quarter east (without traffic) extends one of America's largest and most highly populated continuous developed areas. About 15 million people are obliviously tied up in the battle for water consumption, but a few of us want to use whatever water is still between banks for something a bit different. Despite diminutive fish and graffitied banks I still enjoy fishing around here, where #18 is a small fly and 10 inch fish are trophies.
It seems to me, though I'm no expert, that there are untold stories about the fish that used to inhabits mountain streams and valley rivers where there are now homes and highways. Dormant myths involving pack mules and hardy souls searching the south west for answers and finding finned monsters can't possibly have been relegated to my dazed mind. Somewhere in words written or unspoken exist trout and men and adventures now buried beneath dams and broad suburban roads.
Now, though the fishes may be as small as the water they live in, they remain eager, hardy, tested, and some of them caught.
The San Antonio Canyon is home to the San Antonio creeks and its undersized fishes. Weekends are hopeless as the lower part of the creek becomes more of a bathtub to weekenders than a place to retreat to, but once past the crowds the noise of the white water reduces one's surroundings to oneself, thoughts, and the water. Alertness becomes concentrated into sight and feel. The hunt is not for fish, they are too small to see in white water. The hunt is for water - water that feels of fish. Deeper, slower, bluer, fishier.
|Graffitied walls of a ruined bridge - this road was decommissioned in 1969.|
Be prepared to cover ground. The hiking is either up or down, balancing on fallen trees, following log mazes above thorny nettles and impassable brush, and hopping rock to rock. Moving away from the bank to skirt around some thick brush and then returning to examine the water.
|The water roars as recent rain and snowmelt have swollen San Antonio.|
There is something surprisingly endearing about small fish. It could be the small water they live in, their eagerness to take a fly too big for their mouth, their disproportionately large eyes or their frantic vibrations on the end of the rod. Weather they are arctic grayling, brookies or just diminutive rainbows, I like small fish.
|This 6-incher catches its breath in shallow water.|
San Antonio runs clear and fast, water pouring over ledges and through brush. As is usually the case I try to cover a lot of ground. Much of the water is too fast or uneven to get a decent drift but every so often there is a pool or riffle that deserves high attention. I rarely cast for fish. The thickest vegetation in the parched canyon is along the banks. Drifts are achieved only by high-sticking directly above the hole or by under powering roll casts to gain a few extra feet. Now and again I will remove the butt section of my rod and cast with the top few sections. The strikes usually come quickly, if you can detect them. Even small fish learn quickly that an insect with a hook attached isn't an insect at all. Missing strikes happens, and with barbless hooks you don't land every fish you set on. They'll often rise for a dry and fail to get their mouths around the dressing and hook, leaving it floating not quite as high as before. One thing is for sure about these small trout, they are eager. They do not deliberate over whether or not to eat, or critique the use of a silver bead instead of a gold one, or shy away from some of the more artful imitations of naturals. They pounce and then vibrate, pause, and then vibrate some more until they are released back into hiding. I was told once that when a fish is small enough to fit in just one hand and when it won't cease from squirming, to turn it belly-up. Whether this calms the fish or simply disorients it, the hook does come out best when the fish is still.
|Large eyes look back at me after realizing I'm on the other end of the Hare's Ear.|
|Another small trout shines in just a centimeter of water before finding the deep.|
So I will continue to fish San Antonio, to hop its rocks and walk its shores, to acknowledge its urban setting and let the roar reduce my surroundings to myself and my intent, and to catch its fish and then release them again. Each mini rainbow representing the hardships of a desert canyon and the persistence of each trout. Each tiny fish triggering the thought and the dream that somewhere in these mountain waters, motionless among the heavy creek-bed rocks, laughing at my silver bead head and the fish that fall for it, lays the grandaddy, the fish that requires and net and two hands to hold, silent with the adventures he has seen.
|Except for a few black spots and a hint of red, this trout disappears in the mirage of grays and browns.|