I’m smack dab in the middle of my reunion years. In the next few months I have two high school reunions, and a couple with groups from my college years. Best guess it that we are meeting to celebrate the fact that the vast majority of us are now living beyond the life spans predicted by our era! ??In the ‘50s most men were gone before they were much past the retirement age of 65, and our feminine consorts just a couple of year later. But now, with all the improvement in medicine, a good number of us will be around to celebrate fiftieth reunions. Life spans have expanded by nearly a decade. With the exception of the drafted, accident prone, or die-hard (and early!) smokers, a good number of us oldies will still be available to sit around the bar, remembering old-time stories, whether they happened or not!
A few days ago, I was lucky enough to share a reunion date with a couple of my best friends from the past. We were crewmates who rowed together at Cal in the ‘60s, and had kept in touch over the many years. Not only had we shared the memories of our college battles (Cal in the ‘60s was a pretty crazy place!), but we had also enjoyed a lot of adventures in the woods and waters.
During our freshman year, I had suckered them—and about half a dozen other members of our freshman boat—into undertaking a midnight frogging trip in the San Joaquin Valley. We were staying at a fraternity at Berkeley over Easter break and surviving two-a-day workouts with the team. Naturally we had energy left over to spend most of the night in flooded fields with a frog gig in our hands and flashlights in our mouths! The next morning when the cook prepared us deep-fried frog legs to go with our scrambled eggs, we became famous!
Lots of Action
One of our other adventures involved going up to my buddy Ricer’s place in Marysville. We drove up with our buddy Steve in tow, and ate a huge breakfast that Rick’s mom cooked up for us. Then we went to the Yuba River, slept for a few hours in the hot sand like a bunch of fat snakes digesting a big rat or two, and went shad fishing. ??It was the first time any of us other than Rick had caught shad, and we had a ball. Not only did we enjoy the warm sun and cool waters, but the fish were in big schools and gave us lots of action. Shad are the largest of the herring family and fight like crazy. We bounced little white darts off the bottom, casting them out with light spinning gear, and were soon into the silver “mini tarpon.” They gave us lots of warning. We could see a hundred little dorsal fins break the surface as they came upstream. You could cast your little dart just above them and wham, you had a fish up and jumping! We hooked a bunch, landed a few, and had a wonderful time. It was a perfect break from rowing and finals.??That trip took place some 50 years ago but it seems like only yesterday. I sure missed the shad fishing and the happy hours spent with my best buddies!
When I discovered what a great shad fishery we had up here in Oregon, I figured that a reunion was in order. I checked with Ricer, who is senior partner in a big law firm in Portland, and Steve, who runs some real estate operations down in the Bay Area, and found a good date that both had open. ??I got in touch with a favorite guide, Rob Crandall of Water Time Outfitters, and we were good to go! We’d meet at a park just below the Willamette Falls near Oregon City, and head up for some fishing action!
Rob runs two half-day sessions each day during the June shad run, so I booked us an afternoon in the middle of the month. We met at a little park below a highway ramp and got on his boat at about noon. It was better than 90 degrees (remember, it had been hot in Marysville that day 50 years ago), but the spray off the falls kept us plenty cool! ??We had changed our gear a bit from the spinning rods and darts of the sixties. We were using light fly rods and casting small flies that Rob had tied. In honor of the occasion, I brought along my favorite old bamboo rod, a 1934 model called, “the Yuba,” built by E.C. Powell just a few blocks from Ricer’s home in Marysville! ??Rob got us into position under the falls and gave the guys instructions since neither had cast fly lines before. Soon we started casting and hooking fish! We had a ball! Man did we lose a lot of fish! Shad are tough to keep on anyway, since they have soft mouths that are hard to keep hooked, and for novices, keeping the slack out of lines that are attached to fish that fly all over the place is no easy task, but despite our best efforts, we started landing a few.??Landing and keeping shad is something new for Rob. While his clients like to catch the scrappy fish, almost no one keeps them. Despite the fact that shad have been a delicacy on the East Coast for years (George Washington ran a commercial shad operation), most westerners don’t like to mess with all the bones. Shad are the boniest of fishes, nearly impossible to debone, and are mostly kept for crabbing or sturgeon bait. But I have always loved the taste of smoked shad. My grandfather, a Depression-era fisherman, always smoked his fish and we’d sit around the kitchen table, pick the bones out, and enjoy the oily meat. But recently my buddies at the Skipanon Cannery have been canning and smoking them for me.
Like many fish, when the meat is well cooked, pressure cooked or canned, the bones dissolve so you get a rich fish, full of Omega 3, that is no work to eat and tastes wonderful. The roe is also excellent, especially when fried in olive oil, mixed with scrambled eggs and topped with salsa! Great tasting and wonderful for you!
But we had to train Rob a bit. One huge (maybe four-pound) hen hit Steve’s fly and kept him busy for about 10 minutes. The current was coming down quickly out of the falls, and the fish was all he could handle. Not only did it run all around the boat, it managed to go a couple of wraps around the anchor rope. Only after super human efforts did Rob manage to get it into the net. He carefully unhooked the big hen, held her out for all to appreciate, and then gently slipped her back into the water. Only after all of us screamed, “No,” almost in unison, did he remember that we were trying to keep a few dozen fish to fill our cans and packets with shad meet and eggs! The fish die soon after spawning, so some sea lion or big sturgeon got the dinner instead of us!
We fished a few different spots to enjoy as much of the scenery as possible and to try different ways to tempt the shad to bite, and had lots of success everywhere.
We took lots of pictures to compare with the Polaroids we had saved from decades before, and documented our success. The old men in the new pictures may have just been shadows of their former glory, but we rejoiced in sharing our lifetime of great memories and warm friendship.
In all, we managed to land some three-dozen fish, and later we made up some specially labeled cans to enjoy and remember our adventures. Hopefully we can make this an annual outing, maybe even inviting a few more old Golden Bears to join us in the future. Nothing like warm air, cool water and a few fish to bring some old brothers together!
Bob Ellsberg’s column, Fishin’, appears monthly in RV Life and at rvlife.com.