By Ashley Wright and Ash White
Team Ash in CalTrout's 2021 Five Rivers Challenge
Our authors have thoughtfully denoted themselves as A1 (Ashley Wright) and A2 (Ash White) to separate their respective voices.
A1: I've never considered myself “an angler”. A casual deep sea fisherwoman growing up in the San Juan Islands, sure. I started my fly fish journey in the Pacific Northwest over five years ago. I went “off-island” here and there trying new freshwater and building my experience. In 2019, I moved to San Francisco, where I had spent many cherished childhood summers with my grandmother. Tucking my fly rods and waders into a basket at my new apartment I made peace with my city tradeoff: concrete over caddis hatches.
Cover photo: Val Atkinson
I’d pass that basket bathed in afternoon city glow and think fondly of my “off-island” adventures, hoping to find my Bay Area equivalent. I googled ‘fly fishing bay area’ and the Golden Gate Casting Ponds at the Golden Gate Park topped my search. The GGACC boasts three casting pools and happens to have the largest angling club membership in the world. Anglers in the middle of San Francisco? I knew I had found my people.
It was easy to feel welcomed at the ponds, where beta for waters and rivers was shared openly. “Fishing the surf” was a term thrown around which had me digging into tide calendars, researching setups at Lost Coast Outfitters, and transitioning my Skagit River 8wt into a saltwater set-up. I joined women’s trips through LCO and here I am, two years later, with one of those very women I met years ago, competing in California Trout’s Five Rivers Challenge.
Photo: The ponds at Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club, San Francisco, CA
A2: It’s true! One LCO holiday party turned into many casting nights at the ponds that created a friend group fueled by pre-cast tacos and last-cast drinks. We shared life updates while bending a rod through the air. It’s easy to throw a few casts, share in each other's lives, and recast. Friends moving? Recast. Couples breaking up? Shoot your line. Promotion? Snap T. Failure? Big belly roll cast. Each night at the ponds built up our angling skills while supporting our personal resiliency through life. These friends quickly became my core unit, A1 among them, and when we were invited to fish the Five Rivers Challenge we couldn’t pass it down.
The registration fee for Five Rivers Challenge supports a myriad of CalTrout projects, all worthy endeavors albeit well above our price range. With encouragement from friends and family we decided to create a Facebook Fundraiser to support attending 5RC. How to start a fundraiser? With a name.
A1: With the creative support from Ella of Ella Kudzyk Creative, we were off and running with our fundraiser. Hoping to offset half our entry fee, we put in $3,000 as our goal. Would anyone support us? Were we savvy enough anglers to compete? What would it mean if we came in dead last and far behind the rest of the male competitors? The first twenty four hours we were giddy. We saw donations come in from Washington to Hawaii (A1: Hi mom!), to New York (A2: Hi, mom!), and back again. The local fly shop pitched in (thanks, Diesel), and pretty soon we were halfway to our goal. Imposter syndrome set in as the fundraising mark crept higher. Could we shake out as well as the rest of the teams? We’ve heard stories of the unforgiving overhanging banks and deep water of the Pit River. We wondered if the growing fires in Northern California would even let us through.
A2: Less than two weeks after we opened our fundraiser, we had hit our goal. As a development smolt at CalTrout, I’ve seen us raise $1M during our May virtual gala. An event we plan for 6M out of the year, six months of securing sponsorships, event planning, ticket sales and a couple all-nighters the week before the gala are always worth the 9pm post gala crash knowing we hit our goal. A warm feeling to watch our community raise funds supporting the fantastic work CalTrout does. A pride in all our hard work, from all the regions of CalTrout, to get to that moment. This individual fundraiser felt different. This was an acknowledgement that our interest in fishing, our interest in our small but mighty nonprofit, and our family and friends believed in the mission. That as young smolts in the fishing community people were interested in having us here.
A2: So here we were! CalTrout Historian Craig Ballenger heard we had made it. During our regular Monday check ins, he shared insight and support for Team Ash. Craig has had a crew of ‘dena (Pasadena) teams that he affectionately supports year after year, this time outing them for his proteges. The weekend before the competition A1 and I headed to Trout Camp to get the lay of the land with Craig. We practice cast off the Hat Creek parking lot and sight-fished for lengthy rainbows. We weren’t ready… but we went on our way to Michelle’s amazing lodge in the Fall River Valley anyway.
A1: Clearwater Lodge, truly the lodge experience anglers dream of. Owner Michelle Titus hasn’t missed a detail-- from decor, to hospitality, to making sure the dinner bell is rung exactly at 6:30. There is even a full on fly shop on site with everything you think you could need. We spent our first evening getting to know one another, participating in some ice breakers introducing ourselves and learning the rules and ropes. A random number generator curated who was fishing what river, and with which guide. We sat ourselves with the ‘Denas’ with a suspicious feeling that Craig asked them to make us feel welcome in this competition. The river/guide assignment chart made it to our table: first the Upper Fall River with Porter Simonis, then fishing with Brooks Provence on the Pit, ending the competition with a split day on Hat Creek and the Lower Fall with Ryan Avezzi. Imposter syndrome sets in again, how are the guides going to feel about being assigned to the womens team? What are we doing in a competition with waters we’ve never fished before?
Background photo by Mike Wier.
Day One: Fall River - Upper.
A1: Porter steers out of the Fall River boat house towards our first fishing spot, where the clock will start and we’ll have 8 hours to compete. Five Rivers Challenge rules are easy - catch the most inches to win. Each fish size will vary based on population, returns, efforts to conserve each population. A proof test to make sure CalTrout’s restoration projects were working, and we were game.
A2: Ashley, A1, is an avid birder, and points out all the wildlife along the smooth ride to our first bend in the river. We hoped this would be a productive day. Eyes glued to bobbers with heavy anticipation, we waited for one to drag under the surface. There’s no escaping the sun on the Fall, and by the time the mid-afternoon heat hits us we’ve both landed a few rainbows, enjoying ourselves, laughing at a few (A1: many) missed hook-sets much to Porter’s chagrin. We’re near sun delirium as famed photographer Val Atkinson putters his boat nearby. Narrowly casting through a low area of branches, A1 connects with her personal best of the trip.
A1: It felt so good to have that moment captured, to remember that feeling forever more. Those lumescent bobbers were starting to blur - breaking the sun glare stare by looking past the bank with needed reprieve. From a truck window, the Fall River Valley (?) is rows and rows of beautiful farmland. Take the view in reverse from the river, and you find yourself gliding through a watercolor painting. The depth in between each row of crops. Wind bending the grass, currents hitting the seam, fish breaking the water tension to feed on bugs stuck in top water. Now, I’ll look at farmland differently, knowing the life beyond the banks.
A2: So, how’d we do? Day 1, dead last with a healthy spread between us and the competition. The old saying goes if you’re not first you’re last, but we didn’t feel that way. We left the clubhouse feeling empowered - we made it here! And called an early night to get back on our game the next day.
Day 2. The Pit.
A2: Guide Brooks Provence met us at Michelle’s tack shop to reinforce our river gear with felt boots. The day before, the Pit River took down another team with steep falls and mud bees that left a nice rod and reel floating downriver that will make some fisherman very happy to find. Brooks explained euro-nymphing on our drive to the Pit -- a high-sticking technique that required practice and was guaranteed to land us a few. Already nervous about the treacherous sounding access and the water itself, Brooks bounded down to the river without a wading staff making the task ahead look easy. A1 and I followed close behind, mindful of the branches and deep holes in the shallows camouflaged by innocent wildflowers. Once rigged, were both on a fish in seconds. Leading the rod down river, the hit of the fish was a delightful bounce. Brooks was quick to net each fish and handled with care showing us the par marks on the side of the littlest ones--a sign of a healthy river. The Pit River fish have larger eyes to see through the tea-colored water, and it reminded me of the big eyes of my golden at home, aptly naming these fish the Golden Retriever of Trout.
A1: You’re wondering how we did, I know. We caught the most fish at the Pit River and set a PR for A2 on fish caught in a day. Realizing we were a little under other competitors' ranks, we were just grateful to see the varied ages and stages of each healthy fish, from 4” to 14”. Thanks, CalTrout.
Background photo by Val Atkinson.
Day 3. Hat Creek and the Lower Fall. Final Day of the Challenge.
A2: After a grueling day on the Pit, we were ready for the shallows of Hat Creek. We got to the water a little late after enjoying a morning by the trucks with Val Atkinson and the team in first place. Nervous to fish near anglers of such status, we moved downstream. With the perfect rig set-ups from our guide Ryan, we were on fish in our first casts. The morning felt like fishing should - carefree, enjoyable, warm sun keeping us happy in cool water. I felt proud to know we were fishing THE Hat Creek, a massive part of CalTrout’s History. While looking upstream we noticed Craig standing by the bank, who told us we were doing well with a quick nod of his hat.
A1: I could tell you how much fun we had on the Lower Fall, but I’d have to… you know. However I WILL say, that first slow indicator pull— which ended up my biggest fish of the day—was a slow tactful fight I’m proud to have landed in the net.
A2: I think I learned more in the past week of fishing than I have all year. That’s what happens when you are surrounded with great mentors, fantastic guides, and Tracey and Michelle leading the way to build a fantastic 5RC. All in all we came in 6th out of 7th, with a small spread in between. The placings didn’t matter. These rivers and the people on them did.
A1: The fishing community is a funny thing - you don't know you’re in it until you realize that first trip you took was many years back. That you can recall the memory of your first brown trout, golden, cutthroat, steelhead… Knowing you’ve made amazing fish pals all while learning the tricks of the trade and vollying the same $30 venmo for gas, thai food, or flies. We’re still fumbling through knots and back casting into trees, and that’s the beauty of it.
A2: For all the fishy experiences: thanks, CalTrout. Love you.
Ashley Wright, A1, is a nature enthusiast and photographer, enjoying the outdoors whenever she isn’t in the editing studio. She fishes often, and well. A1 can be found on instagram: www.instagram.com/aawrightley/.
Ashley White, A2, is a part of CalTrout’s Development team, curating fishing trips, special events, and proper fish puns as the Donor Engagement Manager. She fishes often, and not well. A2 can be found at: www.instagram.com/ash.annastasia/.
Background photo by Mike Wier.