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Fishing With Chris Isbell

I moved to the Anderson Valley in the fall of 1971 and this fall it will be 50 years I have lived here. I don't know where the time is gone.

In the summer of 1974 I had the great pleasure and good fortune to meet Chris Isbell. I was 24 at the time and he was 15. His family had just moved into the old Cafe house on the back road in Navarro. When I met Chris he was busy casting with his spinning reel into a 2 pound coffee can which was probably 40 feet away. He was very good at it and could get close if not in to the can every time. He had a way of slapping his line when he wanted it to stop. It was something he practiced over and over again and as I found out later when we started to fish together, the fish would hide a lot of times under the bushes on the side of the river bank and there may have been just a small opening of a foot or so in a bunch of bushes. You had to be able to cast into that small opening if you wanted to catch them.

Chris Isbell

I had been a fisherman my whole life and caught my first steelhead when I was 13. But I had no idea how much I had to learn. Chris and I started fishing together that fall and winter. I am happy to say that Chris caught 115 steelhead that year. Sad to say I got only three. I was using a big bamboo deep-sea fishing rod with 60 pound test line which I would have put a one-ounce weight on just to cast it. Then it would just sink to the bottom because it was too much weight. To catch a steelhead the bait had to move with the flow of the water.

We were a good fishing team though because I had a truck and Chris had all the bait (roe) I could go through. At one point I was so sure he was catching all these fish because the bait he was using was bigger, so my bait got way too big.

The second year I did much better. Chris gave me his old rod and reel, the one he had been using before he bought a new set up. Chris always had the best fishing equipment. Over the years he had a number of hand-made fishing rods. One was 13 feet and another was 11 feet. It was impressive to watch him catch a giant steelhead with his 13-foot rod. The rod tip would bend all the way around so that the tip was back next to his hand holding the rod. The fish would jerk trying to get off the hook, but because the pole was so flexible it put no stress on the line so the fish couldn't break it unless it got caught in the bushes.

Chris and I fished together for years and I have compared those times to friends to what the American Indian did with the buffalo. We lived every day during those fall and winter months to fish for those incredible fish. Chris had quit school before then. 

Chris taught me that the first person to the fishing hole usually caught the fish. So we always walked in before daylight with flashlights and got there first. My girlfriend Kristy and I would have dinner with the first fish I caught and then we would have fish and eggs the next morning and still have more for lunch on the river. It was truly like living off the land.

From the first year Chris and I started fishing together he always gave me his first steelhead of the year. I told him he should take it home since he had a large family and I knew they would like it. He replied that he would just catch another one.

One of the places we accessed the river was at Robin Bloyd’s property off Bloyd Road. One day we were coming out when we met Tom English who was living down there then. We’d caught three big steelhead and a trout. Tom asked who caught each fish one by one and Chris would say he did for all the big fish and said that I caught the trout. That was one of Chris's favorite stories to tell.

We also fished for other things year-round. Chris always had some special trick to show me. During crab season, which opened on December 1st, we didn't have a boat but we would fish on Big River with fishing poles and two throw rings. There were a lot of crabs. They would grab our pole lines and come all the way to the surface and then let go. Chris took a bunch of line off his reel and balled it up around the bait and hook and cast it in. When the crabs started to attack the bait he’d let them play with it long enough for them to get tangled in the fishing line and then could bring them in.

Abalone season started on April 1 back then. There were so many abs that the limit was five per day. Since I'm a large guy with long arms, I could reach way under rocks on a low tide. I did very well getting some nice abalone. I never did get abalone the size that Chris would find however. He did get in the water. But mainly he would find in big rock exposed by a low tide with the base of it covered in sand. Then he would dig and dig until he exposed the bottom of the rock that had been sealed off. Under it he would discover these giant abalone that looked like big fat hats.

We also fished all summer off the rocks and caught all sorts of rockfish. One time I remember the late Bull Hopper told us about catching a sea trout and cutting off its tail and fishing with just that tail as a lure. It was amazing! Chris caught a sea trout and cut off its tail and attached it do is hook and cast it out and brought it back like a lure and caught three lingcod that day, one after the other. All on just that tail.

We also fished for day fish and night fish. It's funny they call them smelt in the Bay Area and grunion south of there. They may be the same species they call Hooligan in Alaska. I'm not sure. I have many memories of fishing for them. One was at Howard Creek north of Fort Bragg. Chris and I were on our way up to Usal to do some surf fishing, which takes in both day fish and night fish. The night fish are smaller and usually run at night. We stopped at Howard Creek and there were ten or so guys netting fish and picking up fish with each dip. As the waves came in you could stick your net into the sand and anything in the way got caught. I suggested we get down there immediately! Chris said wait, so we waited 10 minutes or so until he pointed to where all these fish had been scared and moved it this little patch of beach where no one else was.

We ran down there and made two dips each and had more fish than we could deal with. When the fish are really running like they were then, I had fish up to my pant legs and so many fish in my net I couldn't pick it up. I had to drag the net up the beach. It was like a wall of fish two feet high in your net.

Another day we were fishing at night on Alder Creek. Standing out in the water netting fish in the dark with just the moon to see by has a spooky feeling to it. You can just see the waves breaking and coming in at you and all this white froth from the water. Anyway, what was really scary was once when a whale came in really close with its tail out of the water at least 8 feet. It had come in to feed on the surf fish.

Back in 1976 or 1977 we had a major drought here. The steelhead couldn't get up the river and got caught in the tidewater holes. One of the main holes was called Trussell Hole and it had hundreds of fish in it. Chris and I were fishing one day with about 25 other people and an old-timer caught his first steelhead ever. He and his son left and were walking up the bank when his son ran back down and yelled, "Is there a doctor here? My father is having a heart attack!"

There was indeed a doctor there who went up to see this old-timer who was having a heart attack after catching his first steelhead and tried to save him. Chris and I ended up walking past them and Chris told me that that was the way he wanted to go.

Now here it is almost 45 years later and it's our turn with Chris having a major stroke this past week. I'm praying for his recovery.

ED NOTE: Doug reported Wednesday afternoon that Chris is no longer at death’s door. He’s able to talk and move parts of his body that had been frozen by the massive stroke he suffered last week.

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