A true story from my memoir The Kid in the Kaleidoscope.
The Himalayas had the Abominable Snowman; Scotland had the Loch Ness Monster; the Northwest had Bigfoot; and the Santa Cruz Mountains had Supertrout. Described by those lucky enough to catch a glimpse of him, Supertrout was a noble denizen of the water, a baron of bait stealing; big as a barracuda, he could be hooked but was too big to land. My older brother lusted for him like Ahab over Moby Dick. At eleven, David was three years older than me, and he took it personally when our camping trips ended without him landing the elusive fish.
The summer of 1960 was a typical California scorcher. Mom stayed behind for some coveted alone time; her idea of fun didn’t include camping or fishing. She smiled with relief as Dad, David and I piled into our ‘46 Chevy pickup for a rattling ride to Portola State Park in the nearby Santa Cruz mountains. Portola’s streams and creeks were annually stocked with easy-to-catch trout, none bigger than five inches. Few of these made it through the summer, but there were other animals: blue jays, squirrels, inquisitive raccoons, and of course…Supertrout.
Our expeditions to Portola usually included cabbage-shaped Uncle Manuel, the family’s camping expert. I never knew if he was Mom or Dad’s brother, but he was older than either of my parents and his garage was choked with camping equipment. In addition to camp stoves, lanterns and fishing gear, he had an army surplus tent that slept ten.
Uncle Manuel was like that kid you had to let into the game because it was his ball. Since he owned the tent and most of the equipment, and since he was retired from working on the railroad and his children were grown and gone, Uncle Manuel usually came along. He wasn’t so bad, but I gagged when he made us eat raw spam sandwiches. I could never convince him that the stuff needed to be fried or that it was necessary to scrape that gelatin crud off. He also brought along cans of pork and beans that he ate cold from the can. I sometimes worried we might get attacked by raccoons because Uncle Manuel would turn the tent into a gas chamber if we didn’t leave the tent flap open at night.
When we arrived at the park we’d hunt for the best campsite. The adults always wanted a spot close to the bathrooms, while we kids wanted a place so far from civilization that if we died it would take bloodhounds to find our bodies. Once the site was selected, Dad and Uncle Manuel made us comb the spot where the tent was to be erected, an important step because a sharp rock in your back could keep you awake all night, or even poke a hole in the canvas flooring. And it was a sure thing that if only one jagged rock was left under the tent, it would find its way beneath your sleeping bag. Some campers brought air mattresses to cushion their sleep, but Uncle Manuel who, like me, carried around his own padding, called those people “softies” and forbade such things in his tent.
Shortly after arriving at the park, David would become a soul possessed. He was always eager to hear anything about Supertrout, no matter how ridiculous. Uncle Manuel, usually a miser with words, once made the mistake of telling David about a neighbor whose tax man had a bookie who spotted the famous fish. Dad tried to lower David’s expectations by saying he’d never heard of a bookie who fished, but my older brother took this, as he did most things, very seriously. Park rangers were the best source of information. When peppered with questions about Supertrout, they’d just wink and say, “Nobody’s caught him…yet.”
David would sleep in his clothes so he wouldn’t need to waste time dressing in the morning. Fish were said to feed at sunrise so many campers brought alarm clocks, which seemed to defeat the entire point of a vacation. Long before sunrise he would grab his gear and head down a forested path, disappearing into the inky darkness. The beam of his flashlight would be joined by those of other hopeful anglers staggering through the dying night like zombies. Diehard anglers staked out their fishing spots early, before the good ones were gone. Most stopped at the reservoir itself, the area of deepest water, but the prevailing theory was that someone would have caught, or at least seen, Supertrout if that’s where he was hiding. The truly determined sportsmen, fishermen like David, continued on past the waterfall at the far end of the reservoir to search for the perfect spot, usually a shaded cove with deep slow-moving water.
On those rare occasions when he allowed me to tag along with him, I’d hear David mumbling under his breath, “Think like a fish…think like a fish! Where would I hide if I was a fish?” Realizing he was trying to get inside the head of something scaly that ate bugs was kind of creepy. Eventually David would settle on a shaded cove and get down to the serious business of trying to outwit a fish that probably didn’t exist, a fish that, if it did exist, would have a brain smaller than a walnut. It was usually at this point he’d wave me away to a less promising site, claiming that sound of me munching the Frosted Flakes I’d packed into my pockets distracted the fish.
When it came to fishing, nothing was more important than bait. On this subject there were countless opinions. Some people preferred worms or crickets, but salmon eggs were a popular choice. They came in little plastic jars and were available in different colors; they also came in different flavors to accommodate a fish’s changing moods, but I can tell you from firsthand experience they all tasted the same. When salmon eggs didn’t do the job, anglers might try a bit of raw bacon or a piece of marshmallow. In an exploration of taste and style worthy of Julia Child, David would sometimes cover a salmon egg in soft Velveeta cheese and add a piece of orange peel. Although delicious, these were ignored by Supertrout.
Since I wasn’t as interested in fishing as the others, I’d often play in the shallow water leading up to the reservoir. Or I’d hike the trails that led through groves of redwoods that stood like sentient giants, many of them still showing scars from a fire that raced through the area long before the white man arrived. Or I’d daydream about owning a German Shepherd like Rin Tin Tin. I begged my parents repeatedly but the answer was always the same: NO.
David seldom returned to camp for breakfast or lunch, but Dad insisted he return for dinner. Dirty and tired, he’d stagger back to camp, angry that the day had been a failure. Dad would always say that any day spent fishing was a day well spent, even if you didn’t catch anything. But David would roll his eyes in obvious disagreement. Even though he desperately wanted to catch Supertrout, deep down I don’t think he really liked fishing all that much.
It always seemed to me that the best part of fishing came at the end of the day, when everyone gathered around the campfire to burn marshmallows, tell stories and let the whoppers fly. There were always tales of cagey Supertrout who, year after year, refused to be caught and grew in size.
On the morning of our last day at Portola that year, Dad insisted we all fish together, as a family. David grumbled that my whining would most likely prevent us from hiking far enough upstream to find a really good spot. Just before sunrise, we left Uncle Manuel snoring in the tent and headed for a fishing hole not distant enough for David but close enough for me and Dad.
The spot was just fine. It looked like trout heaven to me, but I couldn’t think like a fish the way David could. There weren’t other fishermen around, so we settled in for some serious fishing and bait eating. Hours passed, and David got edgy because he knew that all too soon we’d be breaking camp and departing. He was once again running out of time. Dad still enjoyed the whole fishing experience, but David scowled at the water like it was his personal enemy.
Then something moved in the water.
Conclusion on Friday....