One memorable morning in the early nineteen seventy's I turned right at Toms Place in Californias eastern High Sierra and headed down the one-lane unpaved road leading to the "Gorge", that stretch of the long tamed Owens River which extends seven miles downstream from the base of Crowley Lake dam.
For some, the "Gorge" signified an infamous fount of frustration and dashed hopes. The repository of countless sacrificed flies. A fly casting and fishing challenge to the few. The subject of discouraged invective by many. At first glance just another meandering creek. But to me, the "Gorge" had become something else, much more than just my all time favorite trout stream. I had learned to appreciate it as a somehow magical enclave of constant yet ever changing beauty. A lush garden of ruby red rose hips and carmine roots streaming in the current, submerged blossoms seen as through liquid glass, glades of colorful wildflowers, flitting butterflies and mating mayflies, sipping deer and busy beavers. A place completely in harmony with itself and those who could attune themselves to its quiet vibrations. Where in the opened mind the hustle and bustle of civilization soon faded in the majesty of natures elegant solutions. Potent medicine for my oft stressed soul.
In a purely practical sense, to those who could manage a precision cast and perfectly drag-free drift the "Gorge" was near fly fishing heaven. And after a series of humbling visits, I had finally accomplished those goals. By law the streams level never varied and seldom if ever iced over. Because of that, one could expect at least one prolific hatch nearly 365 days of the year. I dont know how it is today, but during those years the entire length swarmed with a healthy trout population, almost exclusively browns that averaged 8 to 10 inches with a few in the 14 to 16 inch rangealthough there were reputed to be rainbows as well. And it seemed as if every year or so someone would hook a trophy brown, then inevitably break off because to entice a take at all you needed 6X or 7X tippet and there simply was insufficient clear water to play and land such a fish.
The "Gorge" had its natural limitations. One had no choice but to wade, since both banks were overgrown with willows and other vegetation. And that meant casting upstream because the mere act of getting into the water inevitably stirred up enough silt to put down every fish within 250 yards downstream. So long as one presented a dry fly size 14 or smaller, one stood a reasonable chance of enticing a trout. Any small grey or grey/brown pattern such as the Adams, Cheater Adams, and Humpy were effective. Very small nymphs could also be productive. But only when fished upstream. Above and near the small parking area the stream was narrow; usually just a few yards wide, and in some places deceptively deep and unwadeable. But for those willing to take a thirty minute stroll down the east side the reward was a series of fair sized relatively shallow pools affording easy access and room to cast a fly.
It was in one of those pools a few minutes past nine in the morning on that day in September of 1971 that I stood in mid-stream, savoring the waters slow cool current pressing against my stomach, the faint rustle of aspen leaves fluttering above my left shoulder. The surface upstream was a dark mirror: not a ripple, not a ring, not a sign of life. It was as if my beloved "Gorge" had overnight become sterile. Yet I knew otherwise. Experience told me that the verdant cliffs of watercress bordering the main channel were lush shrouds for trout awaiting some signal to emerge. I should just be ready and bide my time.
Then I saw something. Not the usual spreading ring of a feeding trout. A wavy flicker below the surface a few yards upstream, heading directly toward me. I swung my head down to look; tried to see what it might be. There and gone before I had time to react, was a large water snake swimming swiftly past my left side, a struggling brown trout in its jaws. Had that been a rattler, my reaction would have been notably different. But as I recall, I just silently marveled at what I had seen, then turned my attention back to the rings starting to form at the head of the pool. Two hours and fifteen or so hooked and released trout later my attention was again drawn to the clear depths in front of me. Dejas vu. Only this time to my utter amazement it was a large and determined brown trout swimming the same course past my left side, a madly wriggling water snake clamped firmly in its jaws. I guess in natures lexicon turnabout does mean fair play.