Happy Father’s Day! This story (plus the Editor’s Note at the bottom of the page) both appear in the June issue of our sister magazine, California Sportsman. We hope you particular enjoy Lance Sawa’s fishing-related tribute to his late dad and all of our fathers.
By Lance Sawa
Maybe I was nervous or just excited, as I was up long before the sun rose over the mountains. In reality, I know that it was jet lag from the long plane trip from Japan.
It has been four years since I have set foot on California asphalt and soil, and another nine years since last I walked the desert sands of Bishop and fished the area’s waters.
After the long flight, the drive from L.A. the day before had been uneventful, but there was a sense of excitement as I started seeing road signs for Bishop. I saw once-normal sights through new eyes, as if I had never seen them before. Japan, where I moved to, is mostly desert-free, so the dry sand and dusty air was enjoyable.
MOUNT WHITNEY FISH HATCHERY was a must-see stop for me, and I did it even before I got to my hotel in Bishop. It’s slow-paced – a welcome rest stop after traveling at highway speeds all morning. Getting out to stretch my arms and legs felt great as I walked around the small pond. Large rainbow trout followed me around, the opposite of what they would do in the river.
Even though life here is slower than the city, it is ever-changing and certainly was on this day. The once water- and fish-filled raceways were now empty; a chain-link fence protected them. A large picnic area where the old parking lot once lay was a great place to sit. Looking over, I saw the stately stone building – clean but closed the day I went.
After leaving the hatchery, I made my way into Bishop, and after checking in at the hotel, I went to the local tackle shop. Its location had moved, but its large sign still pointed the way for me. As I only had one day budgeted for fishing, I only bought what I needed: worms, hooks and a one-day fishing license. We all have to be legal out there; a large fine is not worth it.
I started early. After advice from the friendly tackle shop guy, I started out at Buckley Ponds. Even before the sun was fully up I had caught my first fish, a small bluegill. They were shy biters but hungry, taking the hook after some waiting. In total, I caught about a dozen bluegills before I noticed where the bass were.
The side of the pond next to an outlet was where I found the bass hiding. They were not shy about eating the worms I showed them. That morning, as bullfrogs grunted all around me, I released three small bass back into the pond. I continued up to the middle pond to catch a few more bluegill and bass before leaving for the Owens River.
HERE’S HOW MUCH THINGS had changed from 13 years ago. My once favorite spot was no longer accessible; a wall of brush separated me from the water. Even the dirt path, once well traveled, was now grown over. I had to use another new path, which took me close to the old spot. It was here where it finally sunk in: I was doing this trip without Dad.
Five years ago, after a very bad time at a hospital visit, my dad Mark died at home. He wanted to go out not with tubes down his throat into his lungs, but at home with the dogs and Mom. He barely made it up the four steps into the house – and only then with three rest breaks – and then slept with the dogs in the front room. He never made it back into the bedroom one last time.
My older sister was able to say goodbye the next morning before they took him away. It would be another short but agonizing month before I could get back and be there for my mom. She was unable to process her feelings at the time and we decided to not throw anything away until next time. We didn’t think that would be so long, though.
This trip was to help me sort through some of the tackle Dad left behind. Mildew had taken over most of the cherished cloth items. Dust-covered reels that once dripped with water; many rods bent against the wall after an animal or earthquake knocked them over; line dry-rotted from the heat in the garage. By contrast, his hooks were still all in perfect condition, though none in the correct size for the trout in Bishop’s Owens River.
WITH A PLOP, THE worm on my newly bought hooks slipped into the river and slowly drifted downstream. I quickly learned where the snag was, then where the swift water was flowing, and finally, where the slow pool was. After a few more casts, I hit the slow water every time and avoided the snags.
Within 20 minutes of parking, I scored my first trout of the trip. Another came not long after, but then nothing for the next hour. If I was with Dad, we would be talking about where to go next, but now it was all up to me. I can’t even call him for advice now. With the changes in the river, I was unsure where it would be best.
Bishop Creek below North Lake was always beautiful and full of wild trout, which was the main reason I decided to try there next. On the way up, I would check on Intake 2, another favorite spot, even though I never had much luck there. Along the way I realized just how much Bishop itself has changed in the years I had been gone. Not only the river and landscape, but even the cityscape is different.
Before coming, I was warned that the water was low everywhere, but what I found was far from that. The Owens was fast and at a level I was used to. All the ponds I went to were full of flowing water and hungry but wary fish after the holiday weekend. Here at the mountain streams, it was at most 3 inches low, but crystal-clear.
You could see the fish clearly. The stockers will eat anything you put in front of them, but the natives are a bit harder to hook. I had never taken one on PowerBait or line heavier than 6-pound test, which is what was on the old reel. I dug out some 2-pound line to make a leader with the smallest hooks in the tote.
They wanted the worm on my hook, but they knew better and turned away once they saw it. One of the leftover stockers was happy to bite it, though, and I was happy to have one. Without even lifting it from the water, I released it to rejoin the group in the current.
Further downstream was another spot I once enjoyed. Upstream the river split, only to come back together here behind this large boulder. Many wild trout hide here; they are fun and challenging to catch. It almost represents sight fishing, because they gently suck up any food without any feel through the line. Flylining worms with zero weight was as close to the bottom as you could get.
This was the only fishing I was better at than Dad. He’d say the other trout were larger and easier to catch. It took years for me to get the hang of these tricky, sly trout. It all comes down to two main points, though: 1) Never use anything heavier than 2-pound test. 2) Hide the hook completely in the bait – even the point. If a fish sees the hook, you will not get a bite.
Within 10 minutes I had a small trout on, and it put up more of a fight than the stocker twice its size. It was also released without me even touching it; I just let the line go slack and pulled the hook from its mouth with the line. It rejoined the small school and fed like it wasn’t just hooked.
Another five fish came up before I ran out of bait and my own hunger began telling me it was time for a meal.
On the way down the mountain, I checked up on Intake 2 and was glad I hadn’t fished it. It was packed with anglers – both from shore and in the water. Plus, the most anyone had was two fish, and only because they’d started from the morning.
LATE IN THE AFTERNOON, after I ate, the wind picked up and I was blown off from doing any more fishing. At least I hadn’t bought any more worms. It had been a great day of fishing, even if it was also filled with tough feelings and sad memories.
I went to sleep early because of the early wake-up call and lingering jet lag. The next day I was well rested for the drive back into Los Angeles.
After shopping for snacks early that morning, I started out. It wasn’t long before I saw the first mileage road sign for L.A. It was almost sad that Bishop and its waters were getting further away from me.
I am not immune to change. CS
REMEMBERING OUR DADS
As I write this, Mother’s Day is just around the corner. By the time anyone reads this space, Father’s Day will be looming. Given that I have lost both of my parents – Mom in 2007 and Dad in 2019 – I usually have equal parts of emotional responses on those May and June days that we honor our mothers and fathers. I find myself being a little sad since I miss them, a little happy knowing they led long lives, a little reflective and a lot nostalgic. There are so many memories to look back on with some reverence.
And thank you to our correspondent Lance Sawa (an expat Southern California native also known as our “American Angler in Japan” columnist) for his moving piece on a return to the Eastern Sierra as a tribute to his own late father Mark, a constant fishing partner (page 15).
Sawa and I both can think back on past fishing adventures with our dads (though my pop wasn’t much of a fisherman; then again, neither was I. But that doesn’t matter). But admittedly at times I have a hard time collecting my thoughts when writing about those times. I asked Lance if he too struggled to put all those feelings into words when recapping his trip to Bishop.
“The story was very emotional and difficult to write. I sat on it for months, not touching it. When I went to Bishop on my last trip I knew it would be hard, but not as heartbreaking as it was,” he said.“ By this time I had gone through most of my own grieving process, but the feeling of loneliness was heavy. His old rods are now mine. His old spots are now mine. The memories of our time together are now mine alone.”
That’s what makes certain days throughout the calendar year a little more difficult for me, knowing that I don’t have my parents to share them with. Holidays, obviously. NFL Sundays, when my dad and I both enjoyed friendly bickering over our favorite teams and bitter divisional rivals. The August day marking his car club’s annual picnic we’d frequently attend together. Even when I’m fishing and knowing he usually was indifferent about being on the water, I think he had fun with me. Sawa seemed to echo those thoughts when reminiscing about wetting a line with his father.
“He was the type of person who talked about nothing important when fishing. Always talking about a new fishing spot or a new bait that was all the rage,” Lance said of Mark. “Even if that new spot or new bait produced no results, he was happy.”
And I’ll try to follow that blueprint when it comes to remembering those no longer with me, to look back with more joy than sorrow. I’ll take that approach on June 18. I hope for everyone to also have a Father’s Day to remember. -Chris Cocoles