Voices from the River: Filling buckets

The author and his daughter, filling buckets on Yellowstone's Lamar River.

By Tim Frahm

When my daughter was in third grade (she’s in sixth grade now), her class practiced a regular exercise they called “filling buckets.” This involved being kind or thoughtful or in other ways a good friend to each other. The outcome of this exercise was a classroom full of kids helping each other to feel good about themselves—and they came home happy, brimming with good stories.

That phrase has stuck with me. And it seems to me that it’s not just supportive social interactions that fill our buckets. For my family, northern California steelhead rivers have been doing that for over fifty years.

One river in particular has filled my family’s bucket: the Garcia, heart of the Stornetta-Point Arena complex of public lands and, thanks to the support of Trout Unlimited and other conservation groups, now permanently protected as part of the California Coastal National Monument.

(L) Herb Frahm and contest-winning Garcia River steelhead, 1965.

My first recollection of a bucketful of Garcia River dates to 1965 or so, when my Dad came home with a big ol’ steelhead and a bigger smile. The fish grabbed his Spin-n-Glow near the Minors Hole in the lower tidewater. He ended up winning a local contest with that fish—biggest fish of the year that was weighed in at old Herb and Jim’s Sport Shop. That fish was well hooked; so was I.

Come winter steelhead season, Dad and I would head north to check out the rivers. The Eel, Navarro, Garcia and Gualala—we were frequent visitors to them all. Dad was a mover. He would fish a spot for a bit, then return to the old station wagon and head to the next spot or river. I was different. I could spend days on the same water, learning and waiting. We had the drive to fish in common though.

The Garcia River tidewater is one of the most gorgeous coastal landscapes in the world. It can challenge you with wind and cold and drain your energy in a hurry. And sometimes the weather conditions weren’t the most challenging thing about fishing there.

An old friend, George Innes—a big old guy with the presence of John Wayne—could buffalo folks right off the water by complaining about the wind. “Boy, it’s windy!” he would bellow. “Nobody can cast in this hurricane! Geez, I hate this wind!” Pretty soon, the angler competing with George for that reach of river would give up and move on. George would then stand up and fish with a smirk on his face and the wind at his shoulder.

(R) The author, same spot, similar Garcia River steelhead, 30 years later.

Then there were the bugs. I remember another friend, Dennis Stephani, dragging himself into a local eatery in the town of Gualala one night, bug bit to heck. All dinner long, Dennis raged against the Garcia and the ravenous bugs. The rest of us were unsympathetic, though—Dennis may have been chewed up pretty good, but he and Dave Brill had found fish.

Those stories fill my bucket. So does the recollection of tundra swans flying over the Garcia as the tide turned and the fish moved down at Brush Pile. So does the time that I found fish at Minors—then told Wes, then Dean, then Kevan so that we all were in fish that morning.

So does a pair of photos I have, that I keep together. One is of my dad, when he was 45 years old, holding that big contest-winning buck with a Spin-n-Glow still stuck in its mouth. The other is of me, when I too was 45 or so, with another fine Garcia River fish that took my swung fly in the lower Minors, probably fifty feet from the place where Dad landed his fish some 35 years earlier.

I’ve got a spot on my desk next to those two photos reserved for my daughter, so that when she feels the tug and sets the hook, she can join us—smiling with a big old Garcia River steelhead to hand.

Of all the reasons the lower Garcia River deserves to be part of a national monument, one stands out to me: it’s a true cradle of modern steelhead fishing. As an angler, you can feel the history there. I’m grateful it’s now protected, and will continue to fill my bucket—as well as the buckets of other anglers who brave the wind and the bugs and the gruff old-timers on one of the best steelhead streams in California.


Tim Frahm is the Central Coast Steelhead Coordinator for TU in California. His casting and storytelling skills are legendary in these parts.



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