Guides Eye View
As a professional guide for the past 29 years, logging roughly 800-1100 miles annually floating the Trinity River, I have experienced a variety of outings that have ranged from a mountain lion and bear encounters, broken oars/taking on water, thirsty drifters barking at the stars and howling at the moon during a midnight float on the Trinity River, chasing fresh-run steelhead down river in a hot pursuit, to the occasional disgruntled newcomer who felt cash should have brought him success. Never a dull moment best describes my career as each and every outing has challenged my mental capacity, not to mention the physical aspects that have kept me on my toes. I started this "story column" years ago and it has been well received. Thank you for the positive feedback. I will continue to share my experiences with you until you all have had enough. - Herb
This fall, 2012, I will have invested 30 years in the commercial guiding operations. During my three decades of drifting roughly 800-1100 miles annually, targeting Trinity River salmon-steelhead, I have been asked, multiple times, if I or any of our customers were ever seriously hurt during a fishing venture. Do you really want to know? Will it make any difference, especially at this point of my career? Ok, for the most part I have been fortunate to have dodged any major accidents. Not to say I haven’t had my share of body dings, flies pitted in my epidermis and on occasion taken verbal abuse from unsuccessful disgruntled individuals. I have encountered a few akole squeezers that set me straight and taught me early on commercial guiding isn’t all fun and games. I’d like to share the following, which easily comes to the mind, with the inquisitive and for those in question.
June 1983 - It was early dawn as I seconded guessed the opening of the primitive launch site. I backed up my truck and forced my drift boat through the small cavity in the dense willow line and successfully dumped in. (In the early 80’s there were no designated or developed boat launch sites or county road signs. Hell, just getting close enough to dump and drag a craft to the river was a main event, especially in the dark). Everyone was excited and had every reason to be. The lead edge of fresh run spring Chinook had recently arrived and as we prepped and set up our gear you could hear the occasional splash of rolling and moving salmon. The run was in and on!
Early morning we targeted transition waters, riffles, tailouts and non-descript glides, unfortunately with zero success. As the morning sunlight filtered through the trees and beamed upon the mountains, slowly bleaching out the river and unveiling the rivers depths, we visually observed the early morning shuffle was over and it was now time to focus our efforts in the deeper holding pools. Salmon are a notorious schooling fish and spring Chinook are also heavyweights, averaging 10-15 lbs. with occasional 20 plus slabs, requiring plenty of room to rest and stage; especially during the heat of the day. Time was running out as I knew by 10:30-11: 00 the heat and high tilt of the sun would shut down the fishing. I quickly throttled the oars into full gear, heading for my favorite pools.
During the early 80’s Trinity River flows were a mere 150 cfs. and navigating was tricky with little room to falter. More like throwing darts. (And many of you think 300 cfs. is low). As I approached a progressive riffling dogleg, named“Cooksies,” I advised my clients to hang on. The braided channel approach was always dicey and required a dead on straight line approach. As I entered the main riffle, I pulled hard on my left oar to straighten the bow for a direct line up. To my surprise the oar popped free, from the new oarlock and in an instant I was out of control and quickly drifting down the run broadside; heading straight for a large evergreen posted at at the bend of riffle. We were committed and I knew we were going to hit and wondered about the strength of the fiberglass 16 ft. Clackacraft. Before impact I yelled for everyone to lean to the left. We followed through however the slam and flex of the gunnel threw everyone to the right, dipping the gunnel into the river. Surprisingly everyone was still on board. Cold water rushed in and as the boat semi-capsized we were helplessly lodged. I yelled for everyone to lean to the high side with hopes of our weight freeing us. Not a chance, the boat didn’t budge and continued to fill with water. I grabbed the free oar and tried to pry us loose again with no success. As a last ditch effort I instructed to rock side to side. Finally the half submerged boat drifted free, yet still out of control, down the balance of the riffle.
Blown oarlock and no way to row, I had to do something to slow down our drift before entering the deep pool below us. I jumped into the shallow riffle, hung onto the rear anchor bracket and made every attempt to gain control. The weight of the boat proved too much as it dragged me helplessly across the rocks and down the swift flows. Witnessing my clients panicked, soaking wet, sloshing back and forth and drifting away I applied a death grip and somehow, someway managed to slow the boat and drag it from the teeth of the riffle and onto a small island just above the pool. I rushed to help my swimming clients. “Is everyone Ok” I asked. They both nodded yes. I helped them out of the icy bath and onto the safety of the island.
Fortunately the sun was high enough to provide warmth and allow us to dry our clothing. I pulled the drift boat up on the island, popped the drain plug and proceeded to bail it out. My clients were still in somewhat of a shock as they slowly dried off and walked off the adrenalin rush. After puking my adrenalin rush, behind the bushes, I remained numb, bruised, embarrassed and stuck for words. The sounds of the riffle were still haunting. “Hey” my client blurted. “I saw you popped an oarlock. I was in the Navy and that can happen to anyone. Reach in my pack and there is a bottle of rye—we can use it.” Wow, what a cool guy I thought. I was fortunate they were not hurt. In fact, after a 45 min. drying out period and discussions about boating, river/ocean navigation they surprisingly elected to finish out the morning fishing. Good thing, the very next pool below us produced. Luck fell upon them. His girlfriend caught her first spring Chinook, a chrome beauty of about 15 lbs.. I was not so lucky. After the trip, which they paid and did return for several future trips, my right knee had swelled to the size of a softball. A visit to the Doc was necessary and x-rays revealed I had a knee contortion (cracked in 4 places). It was a long, one legged, summer and slow sore healing process.
Sept.1986- Early rains inspired a very solid rebounding run of late summer- fall steelhead. For a week conditions were nothing short of perfect and runs and fishing were unusually predictable. It was easy to be a hero as most trips yielded out of the ordinary success. Fishing was so good that evenings were celebrated with smiles of success, exciting detailed fish stories/reports and plenty of favorite spirits; sometimes too many spirits.
I was victim of one of those evenings. A stellar day led to the flowing of many favorite mixtures of spirits one evening. The following morning I awoke disoriented, felt like I got gut punched and with a foul taste, like a cat crapped in my mouth. Momma said they’d be days like this. I carelessly forgot I was scheduled to work so tried my best to put on my game face. I greeted my excited clients with a few mumbles and stutters and we were underway.
My weary game plan was to stick with, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” approach and chose to target the runs of fish we encountered the day before. Still green, I tried my best to be social, tentative and professional; it was easier said than done. Floating down the river, I intentionally forfeited waters to cut the fat and go straight to the buckets. Carelessly, I was attempting to multi task, rig fly rods, leaders, tippits, flies and row at the same time. Just as I realized I was caught off guard, drifting sideways, a free floating oar blade caught a rock, launching the oar directly into my ribcage. Surprisingly I was able to grab the oar and minimize the full impact but not until I was one step away from becoming a skewered human shishkebab.
The class- three riffle muffled my reactions and brought out cheers and laughter from my clients; they were totally unaware I got nailed. I buckled down, grit my chops and attempted to breath and gain my composure. Ug! I pulled it off, or at least thought I did, with a halfhearted smile, a few gifts from the steelhead Gods and feeling some throbbing ass kicking pain. Later years revealed, from other outfitters, unattended oars have also been responsible for the unexpected broken jaw/noses, black eyes, swollen eye sockets, and numerous other body jabs/slams. Ask anyone who spends even a minimal amount of time navigating waters; it is just a matter of time before you encounter the unexpected. Even today I still cringe when I see another boater drifting with free oars dangling.
That night I suffered excruciating chest pains that warranted another visit to the doc. Ex-rays revealed three cracked ribs and two bruised. It’s a rude awakening to learn what is prescribed for cracked ribs---take the inflammatory and pain pills and deal with it for the next four painful months. Oh, and remember not to sneeze, cough or laugh.
Caught in a Crossfire
A friendly father and son team had previously signed up for one of our Lewiston Lake fly fishing crash course. Both caught on quick and performed well, and eventually developed a strong passion for fly fishing and beautiful Trinity County. To further their fly fishing education, they reserved a November Trinity steelhead trip with high hopes of hooking into the west coast legendary ‘ghost of the coast.’
A small storm had settled in bringing just the right amount of rain to color the upper river. We all were stoked and after a couple hours of fishing with zero success, the father and son quickly learned steelhead fishing is not only a test to brave the elements, but also the mind as well. I attempted to maintain the positive aspects of steelheading, quoting: “most peoples smallest steelhead is their largest rainbow; they don’t come easy; put in your time because dividends are paid in pounds of heart throbbing chrome steel; it happens when you least expect it; don’t try too hard; maintain the faith with each cast, be set and hang on.”
Just after stepping in a new run and delivering only a couple casts, the fathers reel sounded off with a loud pitch echoing through the canyon. A bright hen revealed her chrome profile in a cart wheeling leap before shaking the hook. WOW! He exclaimed, “It was over at the blink of an eye”. Stunned, the father slowly waded back ashore so I could re-tie and inspect his gear. Shaky hands and unstable balance I could see he still suffered from the steelhead adrenaline rush. He needed a pep talk to reinforce his confidence. “Welcome to steelheading ---not just anyone can hook ‘em,” I commented. “Enjoy the moment, but shake it off or they will get the best of you. You know the grab, surging power and what can happen. Now go get ‘em.”
Unfortunately the rain had intensified and the runoff was beginning to swell the river. It was going to be tough – heads were down and fish were on the move. I hustled down to a personal favorite run, “the Bone-yard,” that is in the gut of the canyon and often produces transitioning fish. As we dropped through the above run I heard a few gun shots that quickly got my attention. The sound echoed from down river and I was sure my clients heard them as well. Nothing was said.
We approached the Bone-yard and noted the water reflected a misty green with plenty visibility. I lined them both in the top riffle with hopes of another solid hook up. We hadn’t been there for more than five minutes when another round of gun shots echoed; this time too close for comfort.
I yelled out at the top of my lungs “people are fishing close by!” My comment had no effect as more shots were fired off close by. By now the father and son had reeled in and quickly huddled along the shore line vegetation.
I grabbed the raft, shielding us, and advised we slowly wade downstream to a clearing to become visible and investigate. More shots fired! I continued to respond at the top of my lungs. We arrived at a brief clearing and out of the woods walked a shabby individual, strapped with a high powered riffle, holding a half bottle of liquor in one hand and banishing a pistol in the other. He slowly approached and blurted out, “I don’t see any ‘No hunting’ signs.” By now the father and son are wide eyed and scared to death. I had a strange feeling overcome my entire body, yet I made direct eye contact with our well-armed encounter, and as politely as possible indicated despite no signs, I simply wanted to alert him we were in the immediate vicinity. He tipped the bottle, slugged down a drink, waved his pistol and proceeded to stare me down with a hauntingly cold expression.
The father and son remained deadly quiet. I ever so slowly started wading them along the distant bank, never taking my eyes off his. He said nothing and continued to stare at us all. After a few minutes of dead silence, with the exception of the riffle and rain pattering upon us, out of the bushes another individual revealed himself. He too had a bottle of liquor in one hand, pistol in the other. “How’s fishing?” he yelled. Fortunately, he appeared to be a bit friendlier. I responded slowly indicating, “We’re heading in because of the wet and cold conditions.” We all slowly waded to the shore and the father and son were smart to remain silent. Our armed encounters said something we could not hear, and slowly proceeded to head back into the woods.
I was greatly relieved yet did not know what to say. I had never encountered a situation such as this. I informed all to get into the raft and began stroking down river, maintaining my thoughts and silence, yet kept a keen eye out. The father attempted to break the ice by asking, “Is it hunting season and is it legal to shoot along the river?” I answered as best as I could with hope of giving them faith and confidence all was OK. We floated over a mile and arrived at another promising run. I asked if they would like to step in. The father took charge and informed me they both were cold and ready to go in. I knew the truth and attempted to perk their spirits with conversations about the river while rowing to the take-out.
We arrived and I truly felt there was a great sigh of relief from the father and son as we beached. I backed up the truck and just as I started loading up, our comfort zone was quickly disrupted by a series of gun shots directly across from us. The shabby encounters obviously waited for us. Continuous rounds of shots were fired from a variety of guns whizzing directly overhead. I instructed the father and son to get in the truck and stay low. I literally threw our gear in the back, strapped the raft and drove off – fortunately alive. The shuttle ride was quiet. I dropped off the father and son and apologized. I raced home and called 911 to report the incident. The Sherriff Department investigated; unfortunately the report was too late and area was too remote. No one was apprehended or arrested.
Twenty nine years later and thousands of guided trips on the Trinity River, I have never encountered anything even remotely close to a strange incident of this nature. Were we in the wrong place at the wrong time? Impress, intimidate, whatever the intentions, the strange encounter and turn of events scared off the father and son. I have never herd form them again. Guns, alcohol, remote areas compounded with strange individuals and unpredictable personalities can easily lead to a very bad chemistry. I have been asked if I carry a gun. I do not and personally feel another gun is not the solution. I have often reflected back and wondered what if? Herb
Barefoot in the Fast Lane
I was in the beginning stage of my profession and excited to receive the business and teach new anglers how to fly fish. My clients booked a half day and since they were on a budget requested a campground close to the outing. The campsite, time and place were all confirmed! The morning of our scheduled trip I patiently waited for my new clients at the designated meeting place. After a half hour of a no-show, I began to wonder. I already received their deposit, so I was somewhat confident they weren’t going to stiff me. Forty-five minutes later I head up to the campground to investigate. To my surprise, the entire campground was vacant. Then I noticed a bright red Mustang parked in the last site, well in the back. I pulled up and noticed the fastback was wide open. 8-track blaring Led Zepplin, smoldering camp fire, over a case of empty beer cans littered the ground, an empty bottle of Jack Daniels highlighting the table centerpiece and two bodies snug in their sleeping bags…well into la-la land – must be them.
I awakened them with a loud, “rise and shine, fish are waiting.” The two red eyed souls emerged and quickly apologized explaining their tardiness as a result of the excitement and getting away for some fishing. I instructed them to hustle up and gave them a half hour to meet at the launch site. I knew I had little chance for an early morning grab as they finally arrived an hour later. Both were cold and strangely one individual was barefoot. I asked, “Where are your shoes?” Rich indicated he got them soaked last night when he went down to the river to relieve himself. Whether it was the beer, Jack or whatever else, he misjudged placing them by the campfire – they burned up. Unfortunately he had no backup. Scratching my head I thought to myself, “This could prove to be interesting.”
Before launching, I prepared the raft and instructed both to wader up and string rods. One angler showed off his shiny new rubber Converse waders. The barefoot angler wore a sad face and explained he had no waders. By now it was late and I simply wanted to get on the water with hopes of pulling this off. I indicated I would fish him in the raft while the other waded. Their fly gear was primitive; one Eagle Claw #8 wt. and a Fenwick #6 wt, but do-able especially at this point.
Whether it was the hype to go fishing or Trinity’s early morning beauty, or both, there was an eagerness to help. I instructed when launching the raft they were to watch out for the tie down hooks on the side of the trailer, and all on the count of three. One-two-three, the raft was launched with a loud, “Oh shit!” remark. The angler sporting his new waders ripped them all but in half. The rip measured from his waist all the way to his knees. “Wow, that’s difficult to do,” I muttered. I handed him a roll of Duct Tape and mentioned when we get done they’ll be as good as knew. Yeah right, I thought.
Finally, drifting down the river, I heard both anglers exclaiming, “Alright! Wow! Cool!” While they were busy gazing, I was counting my blessings; we were ten minutes into the trip and nothing had happened. I pulled into a beautiful run and demonstrated casting, presentation and techniques. I was surprised both could actually cast. Other than a few moans of how cold the water was, the wading angler covered the water well. The barefoot angler was over-aggressive and managed to frequently get his fly caught in the trees. Even after continuous instruction/advice, he was determined to do his own thing.
One tree too many – the barefoot angler got angry and leaned on the old Fenwick until it bent like a horseshoe. Pop! The glass rod shattered. A brief moment of silence was interrupted by laughter from his buddy as he yelled, “You asshole!” “That’s OK, I’ll take it back to K-Mart,” yelled the barefoot angler...”besides, I’m just enjoying the float.” He then turned and asked me, “Mind if I smoke?” As I laid the rod to rest I told him to knock yourself out. Working my way down river to check on the wading angler I smelled something other than tobacco. Looking back the barefoot angler was laid back in the seat, bare feet and legs propped up, sitting in a cloud of smoke with a joint the size of a cigar hanging out of his mouth. I asked myself, “Why did I get up this morning?”
Hung over, no shoes, socks, waders, broken rod, and stoned. This is not the schedule I had planned and my hopes for a productive day were fading fast. Just then the wading angler tightened up and yelled, “Ya-a-a-Hoo!” I looked up and thought there just may be an angle up there. I hustled down to the action and sure enough a beautiful brown trout had accepted his streamer. The brown fought well and I instructed how to land the fish. We worked back to the soft edge of the run and finally netted a well-earned 17” brown. His first to the fly! Fish dinner, they both yelled out. No way, I boldly replied. We’ll take photos of the release. “And just how do you eat a photo,” commented the pie-eyed, barefoot spectator. I pretended not to hear him and took photos. The wading angler gently let the brown swim from his hands. His eyes widened as the fish freely swam back to security. The scene was all but inspirational until the excited wading angler again yelled out, “Ya-a-a-Hoo!” and with arms straight up in the air, lost balance and fell in up to his neck.
The endless turn of events from that trip not only caught me off guard but ultimately tested my guide ambitions. I perservered although have yet to guide another barefoot angler. Months later, I followed through sending the brown trout photos. Sadly they were returned. Postmarked, “Return to sender, resident deceased.” Possibly too much fun in the fast lane? - Herb