I spent the early mornings this weekend surveying the two mile stretch of creek that runs off the mountain, past the house where I grew up and into the valley. I kept the dogs at heel and looked into large riffles and swift pools for spawning browns. I carried my old youth 20 gauge partly in case we ran into a shallot and pepper quail dinner or an unlucky duck pate, but mainly to give the dogs a reason to live. The tiny fixture of my youth felt like a toy in my giant man-child embrace but I knew better since my father still asks if it’s unloaded and open when I bring it back into the house.
The memories of growing up in this slow hand clock landscape dueled for conscious relevance as I passed landmarks and milestones along the rotten granite banks. The Dead Horse hole where I finally landed the albino rainbow that broke me off most of that summer. The fir tree where they shot the cougar that ate my neighbors dog. The upper bridge where I would burn my report cards and love letters to girls whose faces I’ve now forgotten. The spot where the rancher’s son caught a 33″ brown trout with his hands when they were diverting the creek to replace the bridge. He wrestled it like a child would with a fish half his size, awkwardly squirming together like teenagers in heat. He put it back in the main channel to spawn dreams of bowing rods and mouse patterns skated on the surface of a full moon.
The creeks around here don’t look like much, but they hold some fish that people fly around the world to catch. The above mentioned 33″ brown wrestled, rescued, taped, and released. My buddies dad the on the next creek over who caught a 12lb brown with 6 field mice and a muskrat inside of it. I don’t have any photos in my possession of those particular slabs, but here are a few of the average ones we catch in this tiny isolated system:
I was kept in my nostalgia for most of both mornings until I reached the bottom of the canyon on the upper creek on Sunday. In two days I hadn’t seen a redd or a pair of fish carving one from the gravel in the entire length of the meadow. I may have bad eyes and a steady hangover, but things weren’t adding up as the facts begin to surface.
I haven’t seen spawning fish or redds since 2010. I remembered the last brute I landed 2 years ago, an aging male with a head one third the size of his body who had overgrown his environment in the upper creek. I recalled the lack of minnows and young fish spotted during this last summer. And I remembered that bastard diversion dam just below the ranch on a lease property. It was perched at the divide of the slower and deeper lower creek these fish inhabited much of the year and the upper and faster section where they would take refuge from the warm lower waters in late summer and use to spawn in during the late fall.
By law these dams are temporary and need to be pulled to allow passage of fish and allowance of water rights downstream. I haven’t seen this dam pulled in several years and figured that whoever was leasing the land had been pulling it intermittently and I had just not seen it. But were they? I was wondering if now, during the short spawning season of trophy brown trout and long after the haying season, would there be a need to have the dam in? Other ranchers I know, including my neighbor, pull all of their dams as soon as the hay is ready to be cut – which is usually in early August unless they’re watering cattle in dry pastures – and even then they wouldn’t dam a creek this time of year.
I walked the two miles back down the creek to the edge of my neighbors property and looked across the fence into the lease land to see this –
The dam still in place. In fact it’s been there long enough to grow moss and full blown lilies. With my polarized lenses I could see the silt was almost to the top board on the almost 5 foot dam. My blood began to boil so I walked into the woods to calm down before I got shot by somebody I don’t know for destroying their useless dam in full Hulk mode. I probably could be mistaken for a yeti or a bear when shirtless so I could imagine the lawman saying “Honest mistake, we got lotsa b’urs roun’ here. Woulda done the same myself if I was fixin to protect myself and my property.” Damn this hairy body and the young stupid soul that used to inhabit it before some kinder and gentler less testosterone fueled “adult” version took over. And damn that adult version even more.
I marched straight back to my parents home and asked my pop about the people leasing that property. He knew them, barely, but said they were nice folks who lived in the house and they acted as caretakers for the owner, who died just a month ago somewhere back east and probably never set foot on this ground so meaningful to me and mine. The pasture, and most likely the water rights were leased to somebody local but he didn’t know who. If the caretakers had reign over the tiny parcel and its precious water management, I’d make sure to convert them to the way things run around here. I put on my best come to Jesus hat and shorts, along with an almost clean plaid long sleeve and made my way back down the creek, this time in my truck and to the front door of the ranch house.
I knocked on the door to calmly and neighborly explain the the error of their ways – that hoarding and misusing water in the West is a bigger crime than bank robbery, voter fraud, murder, cattle rustling and blasphemy combined. I prepared my presentation and how I was going to walk them out back to the dam and show them first hand what sloth hath wrought and how they probably killed off the last browns in this particular creek by cutting off access to their prime spawning grounds for several years. I even briefly thought about them pulling a distorted and mish-mashed portrayal of the final scene from “Se7en” on me. They’d have a courier deliver a box to me at the dam and I’d be like Brad Pitt screaming “WHAT’S IN THE BOX!!??!” and I’d open it to see the head of a female brown trout with a face flattened from repeatedly pounding against the heavy silt laden dam boards that the couple refused to remove, and I’d blame the death on them. Rage is my sin. They would tell me she was pregnant, and I’d lose it and they’d die for their sin which was the envy of my passion for these fish.
I knocked a second time, only louder. I looked off the porch and watched the wasted water flood a small pasture with 4 horses in it, who probably weren’t stoked to live in a manmade marsh in the late fall. The water drained from a ditch into the tiny pasture and it looked like a rice paddy planted by Salvador Dali. The flooded field drained into another small ditch that rejoined the creek at the end of the lease property. No passage way around the dam for any fish no matter how hormonally determined or skilled.
Nobody ever came to the door, so I drove back to my adopted home in Reno. On the way I let it stew and tried to perfect the best possible speech to convey my wishes for them to remove the dam and manage their allotted water more properly, let alone legally. I could just call the Water Master or Fish and Game but I believe in the long run that would only make for bad neighbors and reduced access on other farms that us local boys still get door knocking or “just a wave” use of for hunting and fishing. Handling these types of matters in a small rural area is more touchy than greater matters in a city, and I hope when I return to their door in the next few weeks this can all be resolved with a better understanding of the land and our place in it, as well as a better understanding and new friendship between neighbors.
I want to take them to the upper creek next fall and show them the paired off fish that look too large for the water. I want to take them out in the spring and hook into one. I want that dam to be used responsibly. I want those that will come after we’re returned to dust to sense the awe of having these small water sharks swim under the banks beneath their feet and humble them in their ability to thrive on seemingly so little.
We can all take a lesson from these trout in that aspect.
Let’s hope they’re reasonable.