Stray Mutts and Sunfish: Exploring the Skinny Water of the East Fork of the San Jacinto River

A gorgeous Longear being closely examined by Minnow

              I reached for my rigging phone on the dash of the truck. The bright white light of the screen reflected off the inside of the windshield. For a brief second the dark interior of the cab was illuminated as I glanced down at the phone and saw Alex was calling.

“Hey, where are you?”

“I think I am right behind you,” I replied.

“Well, it doesn’t look like we can get down to the river from this road. It’s blocked with a gate and there are no trespassing signs all over.”

“All right. Just hang-out for a little, I will be there shortly,” I replied, a little frustrated.

I turned down a residential-looking street and saw the back of Alex’s Toyota Tacoma parked in front of a locked gate. We both got out of our trucks and looked at the maps on our phones to try and find another take-out spot for our float.

                We knew where our put-in was, it was where RT 1485 crossed the East Fork of the San Jacinto. But finding a take-out spot was proving to be a little difficult. We decided to travel north and checkout another area on the eastern side of the river. But, when we slowly crept down the street towards the river, we ran into more “No Trespassing” signs. We finally decided to drive north to RT 1485 and cross the river. We then headed south along the western bank of the East Fork. We finally found a little pull-off that was adjacent to the water. Here we left Alex’s truck. It would be a short float, about a mile long, but we both were excited to explore new water.

Alex aiming his flies for the bank

                The morning was well underway when we finally launched the Flycraft into the murky water of the East Fork of the San Jacinto. Alex stood in the bow of the Flycraft and began casting to the banks. Minnow, sat in the middle of the boat and looked around eagerly. The foliage of the overhanging trees was fairly thick. Alex kept a watchful eye on his back cast so he wouldn’t snag himself on the low hanging branches. We floated by a beautiful Bald Cypress growing out of the water. Its strong trunk jutted erect from the muddy water.

                It didn’t take long before the river began getting shallow and we finally came across our first obstacle of the day. A large fallen tree blocked a fast moving navigable chute. We had to beach the boat and portage across a pebbly point bar. Little did we know that this would be the first of many portages we would make this day. Before we shoved off again, Alex and I walked the length of the pebble bar casting dry flies. I lobbed a foam ant into a little eddy and a small sunfish rose to the surface to take it. That was the first fish of the day.

Another beautiful Longear caught on a small stimulator

                We started climbing back into the boat when something downstream caught my eye. A small, scraggly dog was standing in the middle of the shallow water looking at us. Minnow’s hackle stood on end as she let out a low growl. Keeping my eyes on the dog, I said, “Alex, look downstream, we have company.”

                 My eyes caught something moving high on the bank and I watched as two more stray dogs emerged from the tree line. The two dogs plodded into the shallow water to join their companion. There they all stood for a brief minute, looking upstream at us, then they trotted out of the water and climbed the opposite bank. We were relieved that the strays had little interest in us and we climbed back into the boat and shoved off. We had drifted downstream about 10 yards when a fourth stray dog, this one being much larger and wilder looking, came running down the bank into the water. Its yellow fur was matted with mud in several places. The dog paused for a brief moment as it caught sight of us.  “Oh boy. That’s a big dog,” Alex said in a low voice. “Let’s hope it has better things to do than mess with us.”

                Apparently, the mongrel did have better things to do because it took off running through the stream in the same direction the other dogs had gone. We continued our float uninterrupted by the stray dogs for the remainder of the day.

The Longears were stacked up in the knees of this Cypress tree

They couldn't resist the white gurgler

                With precision, Alex was casting a white gurgler to the root-covered bank. He then would make short strips with his fly line and pop the fly along the surface of the muddy water. This technique worked quite well and many Longear Sunfish couldn’t resist. They ferociously attacked the fly, sometimes jumping all the way out of the water. On more than one occasion, a Longear would make a frantic charge for the fly, but because of the haste at which it attacked the fly, the fish would miss its target completely and tumble through the air. Many of the Longears were hooked around cypress trees that were growing out of the water. The knobby roots or “knees” of the cypress offered great habitat for the sunfish.

                The total length of the float was only about a mile long. But it was taking us considerable time to get anywhere. We often floated from one river bend to the next, only to portage over a pebble bar due to a fallen tree that had had its roots undercut and had toppled into the water. This was only a minor inconvenience to Alex and I because it offered us both an opportunity to wander the point bars and fish the various riffles and cut banks.

A pretty typical sight on our float that day. There was a lot of lifting, pulling, and dragging the boat around various log jams and obstacles

                The sun was now high overhead and we were entering the hottest part of the day. We slowly worked our way downstream, floating, pulling, and lifting the boat as we went. We came to a shallow section of the river and pulled the boat through a narrow chute jammed with logs and debris. Alex walked downstream a short distance and made a nice cast under a small bush. He stripped the white gurgler along the surface under the overhanging foliage. WHAM! The first and only bass of the day swam out of its hiding place and hammered the fly. The bass was quite small, but it was still exciting to catch something other than sunfish.

                By late afternoon we had made it to our takeout spot. We quickly unloaded our gear into Alex’s truck and then carried the Flycraft up the bank to the truck. Overall, the float required a good deal of work, but it was exciting. When I go back, I’d like to hit this section with a 3 wt. and dry flies.

Headed home