A couple of years ago I dislocated my left little finger when thrown by a horse on a friend's ranch in Idaho just west of the glorious Grand Teton Mountains. My friend had provided himself with most of the comforts of life, including a fly-fishing pond. Being lazily disinclined to ride with my finger in a splint, I took up fly fishing.
A couple of days later in that late summer we floated, fishing, slowly down the Teton River on a lazy golden afternoon. We had no lunch; my legs became fiercely sunburned. I noticed neither and was surprised to see how long the shadows had become. It was then I realized that I was, at least in theory, a fly fisherman.
The trick was to become one in practice.
What with one thing and another, we didn't get around to it until recently. Now I have a certificate saying that I have completed the Mastering the Art of Fly Fishing course at Clearwater House on Hat Creek in Cassel, in northeast California. It's the only diploma I'm tempted to hang on my wall.
I haven't mastered the art, of course, but I've gotten a start. If I can just learn how to tie knots in stiff monofilament fish line that to these 63-year-old eyes is just about invisible . . . well, I intend to.
Clearwater House happens to be the only fishing lodge in California endorsed by Orvis, the venerable tackle makers who run fishing schools throughout the country and who suggested it to me.
Two words of warning:
It's a stretch to call this trip a weekend escape, since instruction in the course begins at 2 p.m. Wednesday and runs through Sunday lunch. But you could go just for a couple of days of fishing, with or without a guide. And by flying to Reno (Southwest or Reno Air) and renting a car for the pretty 2 1/2- or three-hour drive, you can make it up, or back, in a day (just barely.)
And it's expensive. The four-day Mastering the Art of Fly Fishing course costs $850, meals and bed included (plus tax) per person. Bed and breakfast only per person is $115 a night. If you want a bed and three meals, it's $145 a day.
Accommodations, meals and a full day of guiding, based on two people, is $270 per person. Taxes and tips are additional, and you'll spend a certain amount of money in the guide shop buying flies and tackle. You may borrow rods, reels, waders and boots.
My wife and I drove up from Los Angeles, stopping first in Lassen Volcanic National Park at an old and charming resort, Drakesbad. Lynn had a broken leg from an earlier bicycle accident at Lake Tahoe, so she sat under the oak tree on the lawn and read.
The fly-fishing course at Clearwater, given three times a month from May through October, is an attractive mixture of comfort and rigor.
First, the comfort.
Clearwater House is an old farm house, now a seven-bedroom inn, quite near but not directly on Hat Creek. Each room has a private bath. It sits at 3,106 feet in the southern part of the Cascades. The landscape is gently rolling hills. You see snow-streaked Lassen Peak to the south. As you drive from stream to stream, Mt. Shasta sometimes jags up into the sky.
The owner of Clearwater, Dick Galland, bought it a few years ago and turned it into a spacious, bright and indeed elegant lodge, with Oriental rugs and handsome old furniture. It has an excellent example of that necessary staple of a fishing lodge, a library, and a nice collection of English and American fishing prints on the walls.
The food is both copious, for the athletes and would-be athletes who are fishing men and women, and imaginatively tasty. Our first night we had an excellent Oriental chicken salad accompanied by several innovative cold salads. On other nights there were a fine baked halibut with fresh tomato sauce, baked chicken with spinach pesto sauce, and ribs and hot sausages. There was a good selection of wine from which to buy a glass or bottle.
A fresh apple pie with a very short crust was a particular delight. There were fresh muffins or waffles for breakfast and zesty sandwiches for lunch.
Now, the rigor. Mastering the Art of Fly Fishing is a serious endeavor. It is four uninterrupted days of instruction, practice, (and practice and practice) and fishing. It begins Wednesday afternoon. "By Sunday afternoon," the brochure boasts, "you'll have the skill and confidence to go to any trout stream in the country and make an intelligent decision about what fly and technique to use."
In my case, that's a little exaggerated but not far wrong. Our two guides, Mike Peters and Kevin Peterson, taught us three basic (but devilish) knots. We saw videos about streams and trout and the flies they feed on. We had casting clinics on the grass every day. Our goal was to cast into a 3-foot circle 30 yards away. We were videotaped, so we could see what we looked like and how we could improve.
In Hat Creek we fished standing in rocky riffles and we fished on sandy bottoms in slow water. We fished the strong swift water and big boulders of the Pit River, the area's major river, which has cut a spectacular deep gorge in the plateau. We fished a rocky mountain stream. It was just like the Pit River, only in miniature. The fish were smaller too. We fished with nymphs (underwater) and dry flies (on top of the water). Mostly we fished standing in the creeks, but sometimes we fished from the banks.
And, to the amazement of some of us, we actually caught fish; some of us more than others, of course, but we all did.
Old hands will tell you that the secret of a fishing lodge's success is the guides. Ours were experienced, patient and insistent. They wouldn't let us hang back. They were sure we would learn. Like good sergeants, they kept us moving. Breakfast 7:30, casting on the lawn at 8:15. Dinner at 6, then fish until dark.
Mike Peters was the more ebullient. "Does that make sense? Does that make sense?" he would shout after explaining to us an aspect of fly fishing we had just encountered but he had known for years.
Kevin Peterson would patiently explain, just one more time, exactly what you should do and how it would look if you got it right.
Both men cared deeply about the fish. Clearwater House, like much serious fishing these days, is catch-and-release. Barbless hooks, keep the fish in the water, quickly let them go.
The weather was bright and largely clear, warm in the middle of the day and cooler at night. One day blended into another until suddenly it was Sunday lunch and our congenial group had to part. We drove the five hours south to Sacramento, with a short stop to inspect the famous Fly Shop along Interstate 5 in the south part of Redding, then home the next day.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Budget for Two
Gas from L.A.: $$62.05
Motels, 2 nights: $127.03
Sacramento, 2 dinners: $84.09
Sacramento, 2 breakfasts: $18.47
Lunches on I-5: $12.03
Fly-fishing, bed, meals for me: $850.00
Lodging, meals for Lynn: $580.00
Tackle and flies: $71.00
Tips for guides and staff: $10.00
FINAL TAB: $1,914.70
Clearwater House, Cassel, CA 96016; tel. and fax (916) 335-5500.