Whenever I cross the Schellville Bridge over Sonoma Creek on Highway 121 at this time of year, I’m reminded of the many Christmas school vacation days I spent right by the bridge trying to catch a steelhead.
From the time I was in the seventh grade, I would look forward to the holiday break as a chance to go fishing. There were really only two choices close by at that time of year. One was striped bass fishing in the sloughs that run from Sonoma Creek to the Napa River across the lower part of Sonoma Valley. The other was to try for steelhead, which ran up Sonoma Creek in fairly good numbers until the 1980s.
The regulations then were that you could not fish in Sonoma Creek after Nov. 1, above the tidewater mark, which at that time was about 200 yards or so above the bridge.
I was too young to drive, but could persuade my mom or dad to drop me off at the bridge and then pick me up later in the day. When the weather was OK, they let me ride my bike down.
It isn’t unusual for Decembers to be dry, and in those years, when the flow from Sonoma Creek was low, the salmon and steelhead would be stuck for a while in the brackish tidewater that included my favorite spot near the bridge.
I wasn’t the only one who fished there. The late John O’Brien, a California Highway Patrol officer, longtime Sonoman and avid fisherman, was often there, too, along with a few other diehards.
Most of the time we just fished, but every now then one of us would hook one, and that would keep us coming back for days afterward, always hopeful.
My biggest thrill came on a day not unlike the ones we’ve been having this December. It hadn’t rained much, the creek was low, and the fishing reports were not promising. Nevertheless, I was eager to try out a brand new spinning reel and rod that my folks had given me for Christmas.
Good spinning reels in those days were expensive and not nearly as widely sold as they are today. Mine was a much less expensive one, built in Japan. It was painted a shiny forest green and the monofilament line had a tendency to get stuck behind the bale if you allowed any slack when reeling or casting.
The cool thing was that it allowed me to cast further, and use lighter more interesting lures in my quest to hook a steelhead.
On my first real day of fishing with the new reel, I was by myself just north of the bridge. It was low tide and I’d been casting for several hours with no action.
I tied on a new lure I got at Basileu’s that looked like a hot pink hula-popper bass lure, but I was told it was for steelhead.
I kept casting it across the creek, letting it sit on the surface, and then reeled it slowly toward me. After my 50th cast or so, I was bored, my attention wandered and I wasn’t ready, when the water under the lure exploded and a huge fish (salmon or steelhead) engulfed the lure and took off downstream.
It was moving so fast that the reel came apart. The bale spun off, the handle was useless and the line was in a big bird’s nest on the ground at my feet. But, miraculously, the fish stopped its downstream run and started back toward me, the lure still in its mouth.
With the rod in my right hand, I reached down and gathered up as much of the loose monofilament as I could and tried to play the fish by running back and forth on the bank, trying to keep my line from tangling in the tules, and the fish from breaking off.
I must have really hooked the fish, because I kept this hand-line, run-back-and-forth battle going for what seemed like a half hour, but was probably only about 10 minutes. Ultimately, my passage back and forth caused the line to wrap around more bushes, tules and branches. Some of them got dragged into the water and actually helped slow the fish, but then one of the branches stuck in a snag, and the fish kept going. There was a sharp “ping!” and my beautiful big fish escaped.
At the time, it seemed like the worst outcome possible. I really wanted to land that steelhead (or salmon, I never knew which). But over the years, I came to realize that I got the best part. It was the thrill of my fishing life up to that point, and I never forgot it. It was my first catch and release experience (all be it a very long release), which is virtually the only way I fish today.
Speaking of today, if you are so moved, the best fishing is off the Sonoma Coast, where Capt. Rick Powers, of Bodega Bay Sportfishing, is providing his clients with excellent rockcod and lingcod fishing as well as limits of Dungeness crab to bring home. Call him at 875-3344 to book a trip.