Right Over That Next Hill, It's a Million Miles Away

Normally, the expression "so near and yet so far" has a negative connotation. It means getting close to success, yet failing. It goes hand-in-hand with "wait till next year," and those words epitomize the frustration of not quite getting it done.

And so I present to you a deliciously different twist on being so near and yet so far away.

I will stay within the world of sports but spin mildly rather than wildly off in a different direction. I will take you to a world far from drug abuse, arbitration, cheating, firings and the stupidity of million-dollar contracts for playing children's games.

What's wonderful about this world so far away is that it is so close.

Henry Thoreau would love the place.

Henry Fonda would find it golden.

Doane Pond.

It was nestled in a valley surrounded by pines and oaks at the end of a meadow brown with grasses waiting for the warmth of spring to kick them to life.

It looked to be the kind of place you would not expect to find unless you took a 10-hour drive to the Sierra or maybe a two-day drive to the Rockies.

But there it was, little more than an hour northeast of Escondido up on the shoulder of Palomar Mountain.

It was the kind of place you take your kids, your dog and a book. I don't have a dog, and it just so happens that my son took me, which was nice. Eric is 24, an age when it seems parents and children occasionally change roles, and the children share experiences they have had.

Not that it mattered, but the object of this excursion was to impress our wives with the notion that we really could catch fish. Thus far, through most such journeys to conventional places such as Jennings, Hodges and Miramar, we had returned home with lame excuses about the temperature, water conditions, time of day and our after-shave conspiring to keep our stringers empty. (I think the instructions were still attached to my stringer.)

And so we traveled northeast out of Escondido, accompanied by a mutual friend named Norm McNett. We passed through Valley Center and the Rincon Indian Reservation on a morning made gloomy by gray clouds. We passed signs offering baby cockateels, oranges, appaloosas, lemons, bunnies, paintings, avocadoes and assorted dogs. We passed beyond where I thought civilization ended. It seemed the Salton Sea was about to be spread below us over the next hill.

Indeed, we eventually passed into and through the clouds on a winding mountain road. We climbed until patches of snow showed up in the shady spots along the side.

We passed into another world.

Shortly after 9 a.m., we pulled into a parking lot inside Palomar Mountain State Park.

"This is it," Eric said.

"It's beautiful," I said, and it was. "But where is the pond?"

It was so small that it was hidden by a small knoll at the end of the parking lot. One other car was in the lot.

As we organized our gear, eight deer came out of the woods behind us, trotted nonchalantly across a small meadow and disappeared into the trees on the other side.

"That's a good sign," Eric said.

"We catch fish when we see deer," Norm said.

Since I had never seen deer at Jennings or Hodges or Miramar, I understood why I had never caught a fish at any of those lakes.

Eric and Norm are quite serious about this business. The money they have spent on all the latest gimmicks to fool fish would probably feed a group of 20 at the nicest seafood restaurant in town . . . with a few bottles of Pouilly Fuisse.

It amused me, however, to learn of the time Eric whipped his rod backward to cast toward some reeds and looked upward to see Norm's hat sailing toward his target with the lure hooked in its brim. That was my idea of a highlight clip for Fishing Follies.

I crested the knoll with no thought of actually catching a fish. The little pond, maybe 100 yards long and 60 wide, was gray-brown because the cloud cover had literally caught up with us. It looked like a place for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, if they had been lucky enough to live near such a place.

And it was cold . I was wearing a knit cap I had bought for the Chargers' playoff game in Cincinnati in 1982 and the heaviest jacket I could borrow. I was not going to be tinkering too much with changing lures or hooks either, because my hands were like frozen fish sticks.

We settled in, warming when the clouds blew away and shivering when they came back. The changing extremes in temperature actually became part of the charm. It could only be quite like it was at a pastoral mountain pond.

That a succession of trout found what we were offering inexplicably irresistible added to an outing that did not really need piscatorial success to be delightful.

One particular fish hit my bait energetically and seemed determined to complete his meal and stay exactly where he was. He twisted and turned until I almost had him ashore, when he jumped from the water, did a Greg Louganis and virtually spit the hook into my lap.

"So near and yet so far," I said to Norm.

And then I thought: What a perfect description of the whole experience.

On Doane Pond.

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