After eighteen hours of travel I arrive on the shaky, sweaty downside of an extended coffee and doughnut binge. I love travel, the lure of the exotic, broadening your perspective. But sometimes, instead of a welcome transportation to an easy, distant place, where you step off the plane and a bronzed beauty places a lei over your head and a mai tai in your hand, you end up somewhere more uncomfortably eye-opening; the kind of place that has you immediately grasping for something familiar to hold on to. Sometimes, the only familiar thing is a fly rod. This was one of those places. I grab the essentials and navigate to something I can relate to, the portal through which I can begin the process of a broader connection to my new surroundings: moving water and fish.
I pass a mural as I drive toward the river – a rolling chronology depicting a culture clash between light- and dark-skinned, a proud people subjugated and marginalized, suggestions of a coming rebellion and redemption. There are other signs and symbols adorning the landscape, as abstract and inscrutable to me as Toltec glyphs.
Natives live along some stretches of the river, dwellings cobbled together from found materials. Plumbing non-existent. I shudder to think about everything this river must transport, yet, like many such rivers (the Ganges comes to mind…), fish somehow continue to eke out an existence, and some species even thrive. A sun-weathered, half-clothed man chewing on a loaf of bread rises from a dwelling of scrap wood and sheet metal, staring at me blankly. On a tall piece of PVC, he has erected a flag whose origin I don’t recognize. There is a pile of discarded bones near the door. Too far away for conversation, and I’m sure I’d bungle the vocabulary anyway, so I opt for the internationally accepted greeting and raise a hand. After a few long seconds of chewing and scrutiny, he waves back and retires to his bungalow. Smells of cooking from the bustling neighborhood above waft down along the drainage as I walk on—curry, cumin, and cilantro, some sort of pro- tein being fried. Light gusts carry a hint of distant citrus. Horns honk and a woman walks by pushing a bike, both wheels flat. Children run across a bridge, dragging brightly colored pieces of plastic behind them, their squealing is incomprehensible, yet speaks unmistakably of the urge to play.
I push my way through tall streamside vegetation with a mix of excitement and trepidation. In my homeland, tidy barriers often designate wilderness from civilization. Such concepts aren’t so neatly defined here, as they aren’t in most of the world. At home, pushing through such shrubbery, with limited visibility, could mean an ugly encounter with a surprised grizzly. Here, it could mean surprising someone who doesn’t want to be surprised, or stumbling into a pack of feral dogs, or gashing open your leg on a piece of half-buried, rusty metal. But then I reach an opening, and a view of the river, and a slow tailout stretches before me. Though this river is unlike any I’ve fished before, I start breaking it down into recognizable components and before long it’s not so foreign. Water transcends dialect yet again.
A strip set and an explosion and I hear an onlooker call out some sort of “hurrah!” from the bank above. There are places in the world where this fish is as common as corruption, others where its rarity makes it an esteemed prize that people travel great distances for. In this particular place, it hovers somewhere in between, tending toward the former. The water boils with other fish that are now spooked and I’m running along the gravel bar, trying not to get spooled. I can feel the eyes of locals on me, pondering what I’m doing, even more puzzled when I let the fish go. This singular act may be the thing that convinces them I’m too mental to bother with.
I watch my first L.A. River carp slide back into the water as my focus switches from fishing to the impending rush-hour traffic.