How do I even begin with this blog post? Still slightly jet-lagged after my honeymoon in the USA, I have no idea where to start. Nor can I cover everything in this blog, because there are some stories that demand a proper treatment in print and the necessary depth. Suffice to say, this is a vast, fascinating country with almost limitless fishing. And while I didn’t want to bore the heck out of my wife Paulina, some fishy detours were an absolute must. Tricky to plan in one sense, because each state needs a different license and with limited time and my own idiosyncratic tastes, I had to make the most of quite a fast-paced visit. The best part of 2000 miles.
Perhaps from the very start though, I wanted to find the so called “rough fish” (American for coarse fish). Partly because I can catch trout at home- and also because free-biting fish like panfish and bass can be targetted with just an hour or two to kill at a time. The trouble is, as in much of the globe, online info tends to list trout and salmon fishing but is quite poor on all those other less fashionable fish. Bluegills, shad, catfish, carp… you name it, they scarcely get a mention.
We began our trip in Seattle, where downtown is a real mish-mash of cultures and cool places. You can also find Pike Place Market- one of the liveliest and best markets on the planet. It’s a place where you can find just about anything and the fishmongers entertain crowds by playing catch with twenty-pound salmon.
With the value of the post-Brexit pound not so healthy though, we had to be quite careful with budget. So rather than posh motels, we opted to break things up by investing in a $24 tent from Walmart.
Perhaps my biggest indulgence was a night at Silver Lake Resort, further south in Washington State. This is one of those rare places where you can literally fish from your own room, with a balcony right on the water!
It revived happy memories for me, albeit of fishing on the completely opposite side of the States in New York’s Central Park (a tale which you can read in my latest book, Crooked Lines). Panfish, such as crappies and bluegills might not be the smartest, but provide brilliant sport. American tactics are fairly crude, but you can have a field day by loose feeding and fishing with a British style float rig.
I had an absolute blast with the fish, catching a stack from the room and also briefly being connected with a large bass that grabbed a tiddler on the way in! We also took a boat out for a few hours; and while the bass went missing I had some more sport with the panfish on the fly rod, which proved very receptive to bloodworms and bright loch style flies.
The other cool part was the sheer friendliness of our American cousins, and we sank some beers and fished alongside our neighbours who just happened to be from Portland, our next stop.
This city is another colourful place and the spiritual home of the 21st Century hipster, awash with oddball humour and some of the best craft beer on the planet. Portlanders are notoriously nutty and original, starting up all manner of of strange businesses. Perhaps the most odd recent success story of the lot, however, is Voodoo Doughnut, a kingdom of some 200 random pastries, and even a few that have been BANNED! One of these was a special hangover doughnut, which became a cult offering for hipsters struggling through the morning after a big night out (it was topped not with sugar, but crushed aspirin).
It’s a brilliant city, and as the IPA capital of the world I was in heaven. Brews such as Citrus Mistress (a wonderful grapefruit beer), Deschutes IPA and the arrogantly named Total Domination IPA are amongst the best you will find anywhere- and for larger appetites, bars will also fill you a huge pitcher to take away, known rather disturbingly as a “growler”. Only in America!
Everywhere we went, we found great people, civilised and often cultured, shattering the regrettable cliches of the archetypal dumb white American. The folks of Oregon are friendly, smart and cultured. In the smaller towns and cities such as Eugene and Coos Bay especially, we found people amazingly kind and characterful.
Perhaps the only shock is the dark flipside of the coin, in the sheer number of homeless in the country. There’s a lot of mess out in the American wasteland. It’s a beautiful world we live in, but a damaged one, even in the world’s wealthiest nation.
But I digress. We enjoyed the cities a great deal. Paulina and me always go everywhere on foot. Neither of us has great direction sense, but if anything that makes it more interesting. But what I was most excited of all about discovering the vast forests, mountains and coastline of Oregon’s national parks. Days were baking hot, but nights were cold in the tent. As friendly as our neighbours were, you do feel a bit of a beggar in a cheap tent, pitching up next to American RVs, which are ridiculously big, like hotels on wheels.
Our next stop was the Umpqua River, where we had booked a boat day with guide Mike Shearer. What an absolutely epic place it was too. Broad and sparkling, with cinematic scale scenery and tons of smallmouth bass. I kicked off on the fly and was quickly stunned by the rod wrenching performance of these fish, with even the run-of-the-mill half pounders pulling like demons. That said, it was Paulina who had more fish, casting a plastic worm from the back of the boat. In fact, far from backing away they seemed to quite like the shade of the vessel.
What fine looking fish these are too. We had them to around the two pound mark, also witnessing the odd bigger beastie that wouldn’t take.
Our guide was not only highly knowledgeable but great fun. We saw wild deer and many birds of prey- and perhaps the highlight of the day was when he dispatched a bass and threw it onto the water. Seconds later, a bloody huge, classically American looking eagle swooped down and nabbed it!
It was baking hot, but the fish didn’t seemed to mind a bit- and by close of play we’d had over a hundred of these obliging creatures to the boat. Not huge fish but a whole ton of fun. Every tactic seemed to work. I had some nice fish on ultralight lure tackle and even managed to get a couple to take big grasshopper fly patterns right off the surface. A day I’ll never forget and there’s a fascinating article in there somewhere.
We then spent an amazing few days driving and camping in some of Oregon’s vast mountains and coastline. All of it was beautiful, but a couple of detours were especially remarkable. One was a trip to Umpqua Hot Springs, a site of naturally hot, mineral rich pools where you can have a relaxing dunk with amazing views of a rushing mountain stream, some seventy yards below.
And then there was Crater Lake. We had seen the pictures and heard the hype about America’s deepest lake, but little could prepare us for the ascent to this natural wonder. Passing through blankets of snow and steep, craggy roads we were met with very possibly the most spectacular view I have ever seen in my life. Vast distances and impossibly blue water. And no, I didn’t fish there. It is possible to cast a line, but fish life is fairly scant from what I gather- and I didn’t want to test my marriage by attempting to fishing at every stop. Sometimes it really is enough to watch and wonder.
In fact, my next fishing sessions were brief, on other stretches of the Umpqua and later from a campsite at the far end of Clear Lake, a huge stillwater in North California. Not that I needed bags of time, because I found the bluegills and crappies very receptive to the fly. Even in quite murky water they seemed willing to grab a pattern, especially if there was a good dash of orange or red in it. Bites were not always super positive though, and a short leader seemed to work best. These fish really kick for their size too- especially when they turn broadside and run in bumping circles, not unlike crucian carp.
The time goes so quickly on a road trip- a sure sign you’re enjoying yourself. The Oregon Coast and the Redwoods were spectacular too. We must have passed a hundred rivers and creeks- but for much of the time I had to be content to stare and daydream.
San Francisco was our final stop and a place I have wanted to visit my whole life. Dare I say it though, but it wasn’t quite the liberal, laid back place I’d hoped to find in all cases. Again, you have two cities. One of the well to do, and another of the lost, mad and homeless. We gave away our tent and some supplies to a young lady sleeping rough.
At least in Haight there is still something alive from the great hippie era of upheaval. Perhaps best of all was the gathering of drummers and musicians in the Golden Gate Park. It spiralled somewhere between genius and chaos, with sound shaking the air, a primitive sort of togetherness.
We also had time to stop at the Aquarium of the Bay, a fantastic collection of Pacific and worldwide species. I’m always a sucker for these places. The real stars were shoals of big striped bass and an extremely rare rock bass.
Perhaps it was the sight of all those amazing fish that made me eager to have one final cast from the city piers. I had a mere hour trying jigs with my LRF tackle, with our flight impending. But the biggest and most bizarre finale was still waiting. Something stranger than I could ever have imagined… a California Halibut, landed with the help of a borrowed dropnet and a gallery of Chinese fishermen and random tourists! It was an epic battle and one I might easily have lost on a 6lb trace! The full story will come out in the wash I guess…