A Ranchero Runs Through It- an essay

The Ranchero saga began in the fall of 1964 when Grandpa Harry drove it from the Teague Motor Sales showroom. It had white-wall tires, “Honey Gold” exterior, a 3-speed Cruise-O-Matic transmission and was powered by a 200-cubic inch straight six. How well I remember Grandpa chuckling with glee when he stomped on the gas pedal and was rewarded with a burst of speed. His ability to find entertainment at other people’s expense was a behavior I grew to appreciate. But inevitably, as with racehorses and hunting dogs, old age caught up with Grandpa. California stops, back-ups without looking and T-boning a station wagon on the way to the bowling alley served notice that every-day driving had become a challenge for him. At age 72, with his last vestige of freedom no longer in the cards, we took away the keys.

Rather than park his beloved Ranchero in his hay barn for pigeons to crap on, he offered it to my parents who were badly in need of a second vehicle to alleviate the crunch of seven family members competing for the use of an aged Plymouth sedan. The Ranchero reported for duty in the spring of 1967 with 11,000 miles on its odometer and vinyl seats that smelled factory new. “Ronnie the Ranchero,” as we nicknamed it, proved to be a workhorse for our family. Over the next few years, my siblings and I drove it back-and-forth to college in the Willamette valley and to summer jobs.

In the summer of 1970, Lee Trevino won the 100th British Open, George Harrison played the sitar at Bangladesh and Apollo 15 circled the earth. I was 19 years old. That summer was also the last time that Grandpa Harry and I fished together. On the morning of that last fishing trip, I punched the exit clock after working a night shift at the local pea cannery and stepped from its cool concrete shell into the bright light of day. Blue skies greeted. The Ranchero’s bronze hood gleamed and its fine-tuned motor responded like a trustworthy steed when I turned the ignition key. A restless sense of anticipation followed the rush of stored-up adrenaline. Who needs sleep before your night off? I thought. Driving directly to my grandparent’s place, I approached the south pasture where winnows of fresh cut alfalfa emitted mildewed pungency. A flock of gray geese worked over orchard grass lining the barnyard’s rail fence. Bees circled lazily around a row of supers stacked three-high beside the small spring-fed pond that held Grandpa’s pet trout.

My grandparent’s brick-faced ranch-style home was fronted with two majestic weeping birch and a curved concrete driveway framed by boxwood shrubs. It was twenty minutes short of 8 a.m. when I nosed the Ranchero into a parking spot. Grandpa’s creel, brown cotton vest, and two-piece bamboo fly rod with striped cloth case lay in a neat pile by the garage door. The metal “Farmers Exchange” thermometer tacked to the side of the house read 75 F.

I loaded Grandpa’s fishing gear and we headed south towards the Blue Mountain foothills. Our direction of travel took us past colonial-style farmhouses, Graybill’s swimming pool and goat pastures overgrown with teasel and bull thistle. We discussed the price of wheat and marveled at dust devils whirling like spinning tops over furrowed fields. Unwritten rules of the road were to watch for farm trucks on blind curves, drive 50 mph on straight-aways and leave a dust plume for the next vehicle to eat. Grandpa was at his storytelling best on that trip, the last one we fished together. Leaning across the front seat, he spun tales about ornery mules, horseback rides to headwater trout, his latest bowling score and past life at the Ganders & Winget bicycle store. We were like two peas in a pod.

What I remember most about that drive to the South Fork of the Walla Walla River was how good I felt. Grandpa’s ability to make you feel special went beyond the way he told a story. His ever-present smile, sparkling eyes and boyish vulnerability drew you near. His genuine concern for your feelings provided comfort when things weren’t going your way. Those attributes I hoped to someday emulate.

Our day’s fishing began at Elbow Creek, where the path of the river twists sharply to the north. Grandpa stayed close to the trail while I hiked upstream. When we met up at noon, I found him working a boulder-laden stretch shaded by overhanging alder, battered willow creel strapped to his side. Using a full shoulder throw to deliver a Royal Coachman Bucktail to a deep run on the opposite bank, he lowered his rod tip and mended line to float his offering at the speed of the current. Grandpa’s technique suggested form and function. “10 o’clock, 1 o’clock,” he coached when my casting technique collapsed at the point of release. I can’t tell you how many trout we caught that day or how big they were, only that we had a great time.

When the next summer rolled around, I was a newlywed. Nancy and I had been virtually inseparable since we first met in college. “Can’t keep their hands off each other,” Dad often remarked.

From Mom and Dad’s perspective I was too young to get married, had limited financial resources and future plans for a graduate degree would fly out the window. Looking back, I can’t say I blamed them. Things settled in my mind, however, when I asked my older brother for advice and he said, “It’s your choice, not theirs.”

When heated discussions cooled, Mom and Dad signed the legal paperwork to grant me “underage” permission to get married. It helped that Nancy’s folks were more than eager to pair her up. We migrated to summer jobs on the Oregon coast where I worked for the Game Commission as a fish checker and Nancy waitressed in a seafood restaurant. Five months later, we returned home to announce that Nancy was pregnant. The downside was that Grandpa Harry didn’t live long enough to share in the excitement of his first great-grandchild.

Dad enters the back bedroom of our home to rouse me from deep slumber. The December night is black and still. A crust of old snow covers the ground and ice plates the bedroom window. Dad shakes me and whispers softly, “Sorry to wake you but we just received a phone call. Grandpa Harry died last night following a sudden asthma attack.”

Frank Soos wrote, “Death cannot be reconciled despite a wash of words.” Neither did we find comfort in tired huddles. The sun did not shine for me that day and victuals lacked flavor. I remember numb limbs, the salty sweet taste of tears and a sleep-deprived brain screaming, “It’s not possible!” But Grandpa Harry was gone. He would no longer greet me at his front door with a strong handshake and a ready smile. There would be no more fishing the South Fork together.

Until the day that Grandpa Harry passed away, my life had been sheltered from tragedy. Getting skunked while fishing or losing the big one at the net did not enter into the equation. You could say I was naïve about life’s possibilities. Back then pregnant girls and delinquent boys were sent away until cured. Nobody’s dog got euthanized. They were “put to sleep” or they “ran off.” All husbands and wives loved each other, priests were one step from sainthood and baseball stars were unsullied American heroes. Growing up in a small town can do that to you. The number of experiences and people you encounter limit your understanding of the world.

Because of that harsh dose of reality, I did not attend Grandpa Harry’s viewing. I wanted to hold onto the image of our last day on the South Fork: his forward lean as he cast to the far bank; cold, clear water swirling around his knees; a bemused smile when a fat trout jumps at the sting of his hook. I can still picture the slice of his fly line in fast current and the deep bow in his trusty bamboo rod when the fish pulls hard. In my memory, Grandpa lands the largest trout of the day (easily 16 inches long) and releases it so that others have opportunity to do the same.

In 1999, I reluctantly put the Ranchero up for sale. The challenge was how to let go of my heartfelt memories. Those carefree summer days tooling down the Oregon Coast, smiling bride by my side. The morning I brought my newborn daughter home from the general hospital. Teaching my son how to drive on weekend trips to the city dump. And what about that last sunny afternoon on the South Fork, sitting on the tailgate with Grandpa Harry, him trying to coax me into taking a bite of stinky limburger cheese?

Five months after my first newspaper ad, the Ranchero’s one working brake light flashed goodbye as it turned the corner, its new owner at the wheel. More than three decades of family memories had been reduced to eighteen Ben Franklins. Regardless of its novelty, the fat wad of cash in my wallet felt inadequate. I crouched at the curb and traced the outline of crankcase oil, transmission fluid and engine coolant that soaked into asphalt. No matter how hard I tried to evoke magic, there was no flood of memory, no relief, no sadness. Like a death-row prisoner resigned to his fate, I had let go. It was the end of an era but you can’t purchase tradition.

Three for the Fly Rod: Shad, Pinks, Whitefish

 

“That ain’t fly fishing,” my fly caster pal remarked, when I described a recent experience “flossing” sockeye salmon in the Kenai River.

“A 4/0 Gamakatsu hook adorned with a hank of yarn is considered a fly if half the shank is covered,” I replied. “Anyway, what’s the difference between that and you drifting a Bead Head Pheasant Tail Nymph or a Pink Maribou under a bobber?”

“The difference is I use a fly rod,” he snorted. “It’s more sporting.”

Most anglers accept that impaling fat juicy caddisfly larvae on a no. 12 Adams is cheating. But what about dousing a strip of rabbit hide, a.k.a. Flesh Fly, with a splash of Mike’s Sardine Oil? Or drifting a Pink Maribou jig below a strike indicator, a.k.a. bobber? I’ve even heard of anglers chumming sharks to get them in proper mood to strike a fly. Let’s face it. Fishers have become creative with what it takes to catch a fish.

Before the “sport of kings” deteriorates into an x-fighting video game, however, one must define the rules of engagement. First and foremost, tipping any fly with bait is not allowed. Hooks adorned with animal hair and feathers are encouraged with the caveat that modern materials such as Mylar, foam and bead eyes serve the same purpose. Must your fly resemble an insect? Sorry, streamers have been around for centuries. The main requirement, according to Washington Sport Fishing Rules for “Fly Fishing Only” waters, is using a non-fixed spool type reel and conventional fly line to deliver your offering.

This article is for open-minded flycasters willing to experiment with different techniques from a floating vessel. Or perhaps you are a traditional spin caster looking for an excuse to bring your aged fly rod out of the closet. Although certain elements may approach heresy in select circles, I’d argue the single most important thing about fishing is to have fun. And because catching fish translates to having fun, my focus is on three species abundant in northwest waters.

American Shad

I anchored my Hewescraft a stone’s throw from shore and placed a loaded fly rod in the starboard holder. “What should I do,” my wife Nancy asked?

“Just sit back, relax and wait for your rod tip to go down,” I said.

No sooner had I cracked a cold one than her rod doubled over and she was fast into a feisty “roe” shad.

It was July 4th weekend and we were on the Columbia River one mile downstream of McNary Dam. The Columbia River provides a great opportunity to test your mettle for American shad. These big-eyed members of the herring family move quickly through the estuary in late May with peak timing over Bonneville Dam in June. Run size over the last 5 years has fluctuated between two and four million fish. Nearly one-quarter of the run migrates upstream to the lower Snake River.

Shad will strike most any fly, small jig or spoon. Red, white, pink, chartreuse, silver, gold, brass and two-tone colors are all effective. One color works better than another some days for reasons you can only speculate. As for gear, a 7-weight fly rod is recommended. Although a three-pound shad rarely takes out line on tight drag, strong currents may be in play.

Adult shad move with purpose along shoreline contours, concrete wing walls, basalt riprap, and current seams at depths ranging from 4 to 20 feet. I start my day trolling close to the bottom, dropping the anchor once an active school is located. The easiest on-anchor technique is to attach your fly line directly to a downrigger clip, leaving 15 to 20 feet of line hanging behind the boat. Drop the lead ball within two feet of the bottom and watch your rod tip. Another option is to position the downrigger ball to a comfortable distance from the bottom and troll slowly under power.

Don’t have a downrigger? Another approach is swinging a weighted fly or jig from an anchored boat. I favor a 6-foot leader and heavy sink tip line for this application. Quarter your cast upstream, let your line sink, and mend it to reduce drag. Letting the fly hang in the current after the swing can often trigger a strike

Another favorite “fly fishing” technique for shad involves using a modified Magnum Wiggle Wart to deliver a fly to proper depth. For this application I remove treble hooks from a Mag Wart that has failed to catch a salmon. A “neutered” Mag Wart will take your offering down 8 to 15 feet, depending on current speed and line diameter. I tie a shad fly behind three feet of 8-pound test fluorocarbon leader, spool out 50 feet or so of line and let the river current impart an attractive flutter.

When the shad bite slows or if my Wart becomes lethargic, I pick up the anchor and slowly troll back-and-forth across a current edge to vary action and depth of my offering. You can hold your rod, but it’s best to put your rod in a holder and let shad hook themselves as the thin membrane on their jaw tears easily.

Pink Salmon

“What makes salmon jump?” my grandson Adam asked.

Our guide wasted no time replying. “It’s to loosen their egg sacs prior to spawning.”

I bit my tongue. Every odd year since 2011 I make a 200-mile commute from the dry side of Washington State to chase pink salmon or “humpies” with my grandchildren in the Snohomish River. But wait a minute! Everyone knows humpies prefer sand shrimp drifted under a bobber Why waste time tossing flies when you could bonk your limit using traditional spinning tackle? I’d argue that hooking a 6-pound pink on an eight-weight fly rod is akin to battling a 20-pound king on a Shimano mooching outfit. Things can get out of control in a good way.

You can expect that Puget Sound streams will once again be flooded with pink salmon in 2017. The largest runs occur in the Skagit, Snohomish, Green, Pullulap, Nooksack and Nisqually Rivers with peak numbers arriving from late August to early September. There is no better fish to introduce a novice to the sport.

This part of my article is not about arriving before first light to fly cast for pinks along a Puget Sound shoreline. It’s about shirt-sleeve days in early fall when access to a drift boat, jet sled or pontoon boat gets you away from the crowd. It’s about sneaking in a cast after your grandchildren have gotten their fix of jerking and reeling and settled down with a foot-long ham-and-cheese, party-size bag of chips and a handful of M & Ms.

I prefer to anchor in slow to moderate current where pinks wink, splash and roll as if to show they can. These behaviors demonstrate salmon on the move. And for every pink you see, there’s a dozen or more milling below the surface. After anchoring on a school, I tie a weighted no. 4 Pink Clouser, Pink Flashabou Comet, or similar pattern (key word here is PINK!) on 10 feet of 2X tippet or 10 lb test leader. I cast my sink tip line slightly upstream and allow it to swing across the current as close to the bottom as I can get. Retrieving with a series of short quick pulls helps lift your fly in the water column and varies action. Alternatively, you might let it hang languidly in the current.

Struggle to get your offering to depth? I admit to catching my first pink salmon on a 1/8-ounce BeuMac hot pink Maribou Steelhead jig. Aerojig Zip Zip makes a bright pink jig, sized 1/64 to 1/16 ounces, having heavy wire Gamakatsu hooks. Dress up a favorite jig with pink chenille, Maribou or Krystal Flash and you have a fly. Words of caution: watch your backside when tossing these tiny guided missiles.

Mountain Whitefish           

            “I brought my spinning rod this time,” Ted said, reflecting back to when he dragged the river bottom with a nymph pattern for three hours without so much as a grab. “I’ve changed my mind about having to fly fish all the time. I want to catch fish.”

“We’re going to start with spinning gear,” I replied. “But once we find where whitefish are holding, we’ll switch over to fly rods.”

An hour later, with three fat Mr. Whites in the bottom of my cooler, our fly rods came out. We were smack dab in the middle of the Hanford Reach in an area where fall Chinook salmon build redds. Water depth ranged from 6 to 12 feet at moderate river discharge. It was a blue sky day with air temperatures in the low 40s. We tugged wool caps down over our ears to protect from a steady breeze.

For this exercise I favor a 6-weight rod with floating line and 10 feet of leader below a 2-inch diameter Thingamabobber. At the terminal end of my leader is a no. 10 Glow Bug. Two feet above that, on a dropper-type arrangement, is a single 8 mm orange plastic bead pinned above a no. 14 Eagle Claw snelled hook. A no. 5 sinker pinched 8 inches further up the leader completes the elaborate setup but disallows one from venturing into “Fly Fishing Only” water.

Catching whitefish in strong current involved some work. I had to remain vigilant on the bow to control our position and speed while drifting through the half-acre patch of water where whitefish concentrated. We angled our casts upstream, managing line loops to maintain tension. Admittedly, I got tangled up more than once while surrounded by a 40# “rocking chair” anchor, trolling motor, foot pedal and a large coil of rope. Ted had more freedom of movement from the aft end of the boat. That was my excuse for him hooking the first three whitefish and I’m sticking to it.

Okay. I admit it. I stole the idea from Alaska anglers that drift colored beads under a strike indicator for trophy rainbows during the sockeye salmon spawn. One variation on the theme involves using an Exude “rocket red” egg in place of a plastic bead. There’s also tipping an orange hackle fly with a maggot although that would be considered cheating.

The “faux egg” method is deadly in the Hanford Reach in November when fall-run Chinook salmon spawn. Mountain whitefish stage in nearby shoals, gobbling up loose eggs to build up energy reserves. While lightweight spinning outfits afford greater casting distance and depth control, fighting a 3-pound whitefish on a fly rod and reel is a blast. Hooking and landing two at once, as I did last year, is even more of a hoot.

During the heat of summer you can find success drifting a no. 18 Hares Ear or Copper John through shallow riffles. These patterns closely resemble midgefly and caddisfly larvae, favorite foods of the mountain whitefish. What doesn’t work well though, as Ted can attest, is dragging a weighted Stonefly Nymph behind the back of the boat when whitefish key on Chinook salmon eggs.

Give it a Try

            Admittedly, some members of my local fly caster club do not condone variation on the theme. However, neither have I been sent to the end of the buffet line at dinner meetings as penance for creative angling. Indeed, I may have made a few converts, particularly on days when fish ignore more traditional offerings. After all, isn’t the purpose of fishing to catch fish? And doesn’t catching fish lead to having fun?