Dad and I decided to fish up the Clavey a way before turning around and heading back downstream. The Clavey is only about a third the size of the Tuolumne and its relative smallness was kind of a relaxing change of pace. I let the comparatively smaller size of the stream lull me into a false sense of security, and it almost cost me my life.
I had waded back and forth across the river numerous times with no trouble. After we had turned around and headed back downstream, Dad got quite a way ahead of me and was out of sight around the bend. I continued wading downstream in waist-deep water and worked my way out toward some boulders in the center of the stream that looked like a promising spot. Upon reaching the spot and fishing the pool, I realized the water downstream was too deep to wade. Turning around, I found the current was too strong to wade back upstream against. It looked like I was stuck.
I decided to try to wade directly across the current and hope for the best. If you’ve ever tried to wade across the current in chest-deep water, you’ve probably experienced the eerie sensation of feeling the current wash the gravel out from underneath your boots. You try to stay upright and still maintain your forward motion across the stream, but the river starts you moving slowly downstream. You try to keep your feet under you as you begin to bob up and down like a cork in the current.
Suddenly, I was slammed into a V formed by two boulders. The tops of both rocks were about two feet below the water’s surface, and I could barely hold my head above the water. I put a hand against each rock and shoved, but I couldn’t get free — the current held me like a vise. I tried again and still couldn’t get loose, only this time I could feel myself losing strength.
Finally, I got my feet between my body and the rocks. It dawned on me that I’d probably only have enough strength left for one more try and that if I failed, it’d probably be the end of the line.
After a brief prayer, and using both arms and legs, I pushed with all my strength. Suddenly the current swept me away, bouncing head over heels downstream. I managed to make my way to shore and collapsed on the sand. Except for breaking my rod tip and being bruised, soaked, and sore, no harm was done. That was as close as I want to get to meeting my maker for some time.
Last spring, I recall reading about a father and son who turned up missing while fishing on the North Fork of the Stanislaus near Boards Crossing. It was more than a month later, after the water level dropped, that some other fishermen found their bodies.
My close call happened in the fall, when the water was low and clear, yet I had been guilty of an often fatal mistake: I had underestimated the incredible power of moving water. I failed to respect the force.
This spring especially, with the abnormally heavy snowpack in the Sierra, most of the rivers will be roaring with 10 times their normal flow. All it will take is a couple of days of hot weather, and the raging torrents will begin. Of course, there’s no way to tell for sure, but my gut tells me that this opening day will be a killer.
I’m not trying to scare you out of going fishing, but if you don’t want to wind up wedged between some boulders until some fellow fishermen find what’s left of you, you’d be well advised to stay away from all — repeat, all — of the major Sierra rivers on opening day. That means to avoid any of the major tributaries of the American, Mokelumne, Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced. The higher elevation streams will be snowbound and unfishable. Your best bet will be to fish the lakes — or, better yet (if you hate crowds), stay closer to home and go bass fishing on the Delta or a local farm pond.
If you think I’m trying to dissuade you from fishing your favorite river on opening day, you’re right. Better a dull weekend than a deadly one.
I’m probably one of the first to complain that there are too many anglers, but I sure as heck don’t want to reduce the competition by having some of my fellow anglers drown. Don’t plan on fishing any of the major Sierra rivers until July. I’m dead serious. Stay away from the rivers this spring and you’ll live to enjoy them this summer.
Until next week, tight lines.
• Don Moyer is president and CEO of a consulting firm and has more than 20 years’ experience working with the outdoor recreation community, including anglers, hunters, backpackers, environmental groups and the public. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column runs every week at www.tracypress.com.