I’ve seen them inked on the backs of envelopes, scribbled on bar napkins, fashioned on the flip side of matchbooks, and even translated to the palms of hands.
No matter where they’re scrawled, there is one thing that hand-drawn maps hold in common –- often they include a major oversight and, invariably, they lead anglers on a wild goose chase.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that flyfishers must occasionally follow vague leads or they’ll only fish crowded rivers where wade-anglers vie for elbow room like cattle in a feed lot and floattube guys bang around throttled lakes like bumper cars at an amusement park.
I’m not saying that easily-accessed and, hence, often crowded waters, such as the Madison, Bighorn, Missouri, and Henry’s Fork, aren’t worth fishing. In fact, there is a lot to be said in favor of driving to the river on a paved road and casting flies at supersize trout just a quarter mile from a fly shop and hamburger stand. But you have to admit it isn’t like fishing some newfound mountain stream loaded with big native cutthroats, set deep in grizzly country, with a couple peanut butter and honey sandwiches tucked in your vest.
More direct, maybe those guys who catch so many Volkswagen-size trout on well-known waters, guys who figure a successful fishing trip should require no more challenge than the last -– maybe somewhere along the line they lost their sense of adventure and all the possibility it held. They say it’s all about hammering a bunch of pigs and their point is taken, but I’d respect that opinion much more if those weren’t the same guys crowing about how crowded the rivers have become.
It was all about adventure, fishing new water and hammering big trout when I accepted a hand-drawn map and joined Jennifer McCrystal for an April day on central-Oregon’s Davis Lake, a place that commonly kicks out ‘bows to four or five pounds.
April is a time of rebirth in central Oregon and its lakes and reservoirs fish particularly well just after the ice comes off and the water warms. And it’s not a moment too soon. By April, anglers grow tired of those tiny midge patterns and light tippets they threw all winter, so the opportunity to catch large trout on the big ugly stuff, such as leeches and minnows, tied to leaders that resemble climbing ropes, is sweet relief.
It’s true, the water is cold in April and the weather could bring snow any given day, but green grass sprouts, songbirds return, the snow geese fly overhead on their northward migration, and the mere promise of sunny days to come has a way of warming an angler’s core. And for guys who live on a perpetual limited budget, like many trout-addicts do, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper to chase big western trout and pray for warm weather in April than it is to book an exotic trip to some place like the Bahamas for bonefish.
Fortunately, a spring day on a western lake or reservoir, such as Davis, has a way of easing the “tropics-are-too-expensive” pain. If you land a truly good fish, a rainbow stretching between five and 10 pounds, you can hoist the catch, face your worldly-fishing friends and ask this rhetorical, and, I might add, entirely satisfying, question: “You boys ever catch a bonefish this big?” Unless they really lucked into something in the Keys or Cuba or the Bahamas, don’t’ expect an answer.
Still, spring fishing at Davis is a crapshoot because its rainbows are found in pods, which is a fancy term flyfishers use when they find a squadron of hungry trout in a confined area. But those fish can be as elusive as they are abundant and the angler who fails to locate a pod may drive home disgruntled, ready to label Davis as the Dead Sea. The best Davis Lake flyfishers know where the pods hang out and often land a couple dozen mature fish in an afternoon, although the average has declined recently due to an illegal introduction of largemouth bass, an act that has turned into an epidemic of sorts in the Rockies.
You almost have to feel sorry for people who illegally stock prime waters. I always picture a bass guy who can’t afford a trip to Texas or Florida, a depressed man who endlessly endures the tales of his hot-shot friends who wield travel stories like fencing rods and aren’t afraid to bury the point. You know, it gets old listening to exotic stories when, for whatever reason, your own adventure is limited to a 200-mile radius around your doublewide. At some point, a guy of modest means probably makes a choice between loading their deer hunting rifle and shooting that braggart or taking matters into his own hands –- he creates the next killer bass fishery right out the backdoor. The latter is a lot cheaper, even if they get caught, than hiring defense for a murder trial.
To prepare for our trip to Davis, Jennifer and I tied leeches, rigged our rods with sinking lines, and consulted her husband, T.R., for specific driving directions.
I admitted unfamiliarity with the area and told T.R. who, at the time was a teacher, I didn’t want to get lost. He said, “Oh, you can’t miss it,” then tore a page from a notebook and let the ink fly.
This is the point where all those previous debacles creep back into your skull; that night I got lost looking for a pond called the Hog Hole and ended up sleeping in a floattube, amid a pile of stinky, rotten suckers, with wet snow falling on my head, begging for daylight to announce a path home; searching for that sweet little cutthroat stream said to be accessible over public land, only to find that my interpretation of the map lead strait across property owned by the nastiest rancher you could ever imagine (he wore a six-shooter on his hip, but did not draw the weapon); a map detailing a killer sidechannel on the Madison, stuffed with hungry rainbows, but missing was any mention of two big, black, angry bulls that chase your ass over the fence in the name of cheap f’n sport; the biologist’s map leading to a remote golden trout lake located in Wyoming on the crest of the Continental Divide that failed to identify its name as Windy and its waters as barren (hey, man, you owe me for a tent, a lost fiancé, and a burned-out casting arm). Understand, I could go on for a while here.
In the end, I accepted T.R.’s map to Davis Lake, firm in the belief that the most memorable days are made so by preceding bouts of inactivity, days when the fish, for whatever reason, snubbed their noses at the most legit offerings. When I began fly fishing I thought tailwaters and private lakes as paramount. Today I view them as little more than aquariums, fine for the youth or beginner, but ultimately boring if fished on a regular basis. As evidence, experienced anglers understand the necessity of defeat and are inclined to seek out places where a variety of obstacles must be overcome to place a few good fish in the net. As is the case with many aspects of life, as one grows older it’s less about numbers and more about quality, and diversity. Still, as a handdrawn map passes hands, I always ask, Am I really up for this today? I am reminded that I’m surrounded by some really good tailwater streams where I can find trout the size of Volkswagens and access is easy.
Really, I didn’t expect trouble. T.R.’s map included a full rendition of Davis Lake, including little X’s marking the prime spots, and a big FISH HERE! next to the most prominent lava flow. We fled town under its direction, fully confident that we’d drive right to the place. I now can tell you about a national epidemic: America’s fine young teachers are lacking in the cartography department.
In point, the map got hazy as soon as we turned off the main highway and it wasn’t long before we discovered a variety of errors; a mislabeled road; a forgotten turnoff; a Y where there should have been a T; and a lack of mileage information between reference points. The land around us was flat or rolling timbered benches and it all looked the same. The big landmarks—the Cascade’s 12,000-foot-high volcanoes—remained obscured by clouds and drizzle.
We pulled off the road and inspected the map, alternately peering out the window into the gloom and rain as if waiting for Davis Lake to just appear from the mist. As I clicked the wiper command to Mach III, we considered scrapping our plans in order to find a bar serving hot toddies. You know the line: The Weather Outside is Frightful… We’d drink, and shoot pool and laugh, then call T.R. to come get us. Later, I would catch giant rainbows in a mixed up dream if I didn’t get the dreaded bedspins first. But it wasn’t even noon on the East Coast and that’s where I usually draw the drinking line.
Things got worse quick; we climbed over a nasty lava flow searching for the lake, praying that a loose rock wouldn’t break an ankle or leg; after exiting the lava flow we geared up at a campground only to find that access to the lake was restricted to protect nesting birds; we drove back, traced tracks to the lava flow, and followed an old trail to the lake in a downpour that soaked us to the bone.
I found the lava flow particularly scary because, bad map or not, T.R. would be pissed if I returned his wife with a broken leg. That’s one of the unwritten rules of the outdoors—like not being late the morning of a fishing trip and not peeing into the wind—you don’t bring a friend’s wife home in a heap.
It’s easy to see why a rainbow trout or even a largemouth bass might find Davis Lake attractive –- Davis is shallow in most areas and full of weeds. Big pine trees creep to the water’s edge around the entirety of the lake. And those snowcapped volcanoes ring the area. It’s all very pretty until someone hoists a bass for a photo.
During spring Davis’ trout stack up along the biggest lava flow, which flows directly into the lake. It’s kind of a surreal place where you’d only be half surprised if a Pterodactyl flew overhead or a Tyrannosaurus wandered down to the edge of the lake. At one time they did just that.
In fact, about 190 million years ago, during the Jurassic Period, all types of dinosaurs could be found in the region, including Diplodocus, Tyrannosaurus, Brachiosaurus and Brontosaurus, the former being an 80-ton giant that still carries the title, “Largest animal ever to walk on land.”
About 70 million years ago most of what is now Oregon was covered by tropical seas harboring downright scary creatures. One of those was a sea-faring lizard called Tylosaurus, a fast-swimming, agile beast that grew 30 feet long and could kill and eat a 600-pound fish. Hey, man, I know that floattubing in whitecaps or during a lightening storm is dangerous, but imagine dipping your legs in the drink with one of those creatures in the neighborhood. The rule of thumb when fishing at that time in history might have been, drop no floattube fin in the drink if you can’t kick faster than your fishing partner.
About 45 million years ago the central Oregon landscape lifted, pushed back the tropical sea, then erupted, killing all types of animals in its wake. At that time, palm trees, avocados, pecans and walnuts grew in abundance and mammoths, four-toed horses, rhinos, tapirs and crocodiles inhabited the lowland swamps and higher land. Later, saber-toothed tigers, camels and giant pigs roamed the area.
Beginning about 17 million years ago, as rainfall decreased across eastern Oregon, volcanic activity sent enormous lava flows over the region, including those seen at Davis Lake. That type of regular activity continued for about 15 million years, only subsiding in the last two million years.
The central Oregon Cascades were affected by the ice ages, too. The most recent occurrence happened about 22,000 years ago and it buried the Cascade crest under 2,000 feet of ice. Glaciers pushed within seven miles of present-day Bend.
Although we’re currently experiencing a lull in the major forces—a lack of ice and volcanic activity—don’t get too comfortable because scientists believe that huge eruptions will occur about every 500 years and the last one happened about 1,300 years ago. We’re due and the area around Bend is currently active. Don’t be surprised if the major population centers, including Bend and Portland, are swallowed by mud and lava flows. And Davis Lake isn’t exempt. It too will likely fill in and harden. That would be a tragic loss to flyfishers, but look at the bright side—no more photos of bass in front of a volcano.
I digress. Today, especially during spring, trout are drawn to the Davis Lake lava flow because, some people say, it pulls heat from the sun and distributes that energy into the water. Other people, including T.R., feel that a deep channel running parallel to the lava flow attracts baitfish and trout show up to gorge. I’ve never seen trout basking on the surface with a cocktail held on a fin so I’m inclined to side with T.R. on this one.
As we rounded the first lava finger Jen hooked a rainbow that fought hard despite the cold water. She cried, “This fish is huge,” and that was true, but it was off in a moment.
I made a few casts parallel to the lava and allowed a mohair leech to sink with the line. I made it twitch, then rest, like a real leech might do, and a fish took on the fifth cast, but the 5X tippet popped. I issued a long-drawn “Ooh,” the kind that nearly deflates your lungs. It’s the only thing you can do when the first big fish of the day is lost before it was really ever hooked and all of sudden you can’t begin to explain why you were so foolish to tie on 5X in the first place. Jen, I asked, “You got any 2X?”
Five minutes later, another fish took and this time I didn’t blow it. That fish plowed for the bottom, possibly trying to rub the leader against an extension of lava, but then that’s giving a fish with a brain the size of a pea (humbling isn’t it) an awful lot of credit. The flex of the rod finally brought that trout to the surface where it made a couple wide swaths around the U-boat, it’s dorsal cutting the water like a shark’s. Then it turned on its side and slid into my net. That fish measured about 22 inches, a real, fat hog, and I was jacked up.
I turned to Jennifer and said, “Yea, for all the hassle, at least T.R. put us where the fish are.”
That aspect, as you probably know, is the most important thing. Draw a map and send a fly fisher across burning desert or over frozen tundra filled with parched mosquitoes and hungry bears, or make us drive 50 miles on an axle-breaking dirt road in four-wheel-drive low, or tempt us to negotiate a nasty lava flow -– if there are hog rainbows, cutthroats, brooks or browns at the end of the trail, you’ve gained a friend for life.
Unfortunately, Jen and I bobbed around in the waves for three or four more hours with only a couple additional tugs. We tried a variety of patterns and fished our flies at all depths to no avail. We told a bunch of fresh stories and agonized over our mutual foot and hand pain, due to that cold water. And we passed a little warming flask back and forth, trying to stave off the chill. According to a friendly angler who bobbed by in a float-tube, the bite was hot until we arrived. He’d landed several fish in the five-pound range while Jennifer and I pretty much went for a hike on a lava flow. It was damn cold, certainly not Bahamas-type weather, so we admitted defeat, kicked to shore and headed for Bend.
I guess it would have been a lot easier if on that spring day we had fished the familiar Deschutes River for steelhead or redsides. Or we could have grabbed T.R., made it a two or three-day adventure and hit a famous tailwater stream in Idaho where we clobber the hell out of them every time. We know exactly where those trout hang out, we know exactly where to park, we know which trails lead to the water, and we know exactly which flies to use during a variety of hatches. We even know that we’ll catch lots of fish between 14 and 19 inches, a mix of cutthroats and rainbows, and that the landing of a fish over 20 inches would rank as a minor miracle.
But, if we’d done that or visited any number of famous tailwaters instead of following T.R.’s brutal map to Davis Lake, we would have caught a bunch of old, familiar, hook-scarred trout and headed for the bar around noon, perhaps on Eastern time. That scripted day might have ended up in a dusty folder in the back corner of our brains where trips lacking revelation blend into one.