A creek ran through it
Where the water has gone, I can not say (Sonoma Magazine, Spring 2011)
Bill Lynch, conducting research with a fly rod, a few decades after the heyday of Sonoma Creek.
The year was 1957. It was a warm Saturday morning in early June and I was standing knee-deep in my favorite local trout stream. I was already late for baseball practice, at least a 10-minute bicycle ride away. But the fishing was good and I nearly had my limit.
"Just one more cast," I kept telling myself.
A car honked from the Leveroni Bridge about 50 yards downstream, breaking my reverie. I looked over my right shoulder and saw my coach, Ig Vella, hands on hips, glaring at me from the bridge railing.
"Lynch, get your ass up here! You're late for practice," he yelled.
How Ig found me is not relevant to this tale but the fact that, considering the condition of that watershed today, I was catching rainbow trout in Sonoma Creek near the Leveroni Road Bridge in early June, is.
My earliest memories of trout fishing are centered on Sonoma Creek, from the first beautiful jewel of a rainbow I caught in its headwaters (near what is now Sugarloaf State Park), to the many days I rode my bike down to the Leveroni Ranch and got permission from Bob Leveroni to fish near his house.
Bob would often walk along with me for a while and regale me with stories from even earlier days when he and my grandfather, Ernest "Brown" Lynch, would catch dozens of trout in the creek as it meandered through his dairy ranch.
Sonoma Creek was, until the mid-1960s, a pretty little trout stream that held clear running water through a good part of the summer. Even after the flows slowed in July, August and September, there were still lots of deep pools in which trout (steelhead smolt) could summer over until the fall and winter rains came and they could migrate to the sea, as most rainbow trout do when they are in streams that lead to the ocean.
Trout fishing on Sonoma Creek dates back to at least the early 1880s. There was a trout hatchery on the creek in Glen Ellen in those days. In fact, rainbow trout fry from the Sonoma Creek Hatchery were shipped to New Zealand in 1883, providing the breeding stock from which the New Zealand fishery developed into the major tourism attraction it is today.
Local old-timers who grew up fishing here all have tales of catching limits in Sonoma Creek and its many headwater feeder streams. My favorite tributary was the one that flows through what is now the Bouverie Audubon Preserve and enters the main stem of Sonoma Creek near Glen Ellen.
David Pleydell Bouverie owned the property and allowed a few friends to fish there on occasion. The entry to the ranch, primarily open pasture land fronting Highway 12, gives no hint of the dark, green, forested beauty of the steep canyon that lies behind.
We'd stop at the house, check in with David, chat for a bit, and then proceed through on the winding dirt road that took us over cattle guards and through a couple of gates to where the road was carved along a steep hillside.
From that point we could look down to our left and see the creek as it splashed along from pool to pool, patches of sunlight reflecting off the ripples.
We'd park near the canyon mouth, pull out our tackle and then continue up the road on foot. The better fishing was further up. We'd save the lower portion for our return.
The road was rarely driven by anyone, except perhaps David, and the center of the track was clogged with grass. Large ferns and other brush gradually encroached until it was more like a path in the woods.
Just before the canyon narrowed further and the path rose steeply, we entered the darkest and most beautiful part of David's magical forest ñ a grove of magnificent redwoods, not as grand as those in the "Avenue of the Giants," but tall and stately nevertheless, and hundreds of years old.
The grove encircled both creek and road. It was like walking into an ancient, deserted cathedral. The ground was soft and spongy from layers of redwood needles, and the only sounds were the water tumbling over rocks and the calls of small birds that lived in the canopy above us. We spoke softly, wary of disturbing the peace within. From the grove, the road ascended sharply another quarter mile, leveled off and dead-ended. From there a narrow path led down as the steep canyon walls closed in.
That path lead to the uppermost pool on the Bouverie Ranch. Enclosed on three sides by fern and moss-covered rock walls jutting more than a hundred feet into the sky, the "big hole," as we called it, was fed by a waterfall that had its origins in springs somewhere east of the canyon.
Behind the waterfall, cut sharply into the cliff, was a wide cave that extended deep into the mountainside. Perpetually in the shade of the canyon walls, it would have provided cool, dark, damp shelter on hot days for the valley's earliest inhabitants.
The "big hole" contained lots of hungry trout, and it was there that we usually started fishing, gradually working our way downstream.
I fished David's creek for more than a decade, from age 9 to my early 20s. It was always my first stop at the beginning of summer break during college. The water flowed clear and fresh and the fish were always there.
I still dream of fishing Sonoma Creek and David's canyon. In those dreams I'm casting into a beautiful crystal clear riffle under a high canopy of huge trees that let in only slivers of mottled light. I see Bob Leveroni and David Bouverie above me on the bank. I wave. They smile and wave back. Then I see a splash and I set the hook on a nice little rainbow. It is so beautiful.
But, it's just a dream.
I'm awake to the fact that the waters of Sonoma Creek today are no longer clear and rarely flow enough to support trout after mid-April. Even the little creeks in our canyons are dry-or nearly so-for much of the summer, and the trout are few and rare.
Our valley is still a place of great beauty. A creek ran through it once. Where the water has gone, I cannot say.
From the Spring 2011 issue of SONOMA