The weekend Scott and I fished Bull Gulch, we must have been seventeen years old. He’s far, far younger than I am (by about two weeks), and I was still seventeen when I graduated high school. Bull Gulch… that was indeed a good place. We camped there a lot as a family when I was smaller. You’d follow the coast road southward past our house up to Carpenterville. I say “up” because the old townsite is 2 miles inland from the coast, and one of the southernmost bits of Oregon, it sits at almost 1700 feet (518 meters) in elevation. Turn inland and drive. If there are no gates you’ll eventually hit Bull Gulch.
Jerry Thomas, my Dad’s taciturn tree stump of a friend, took Scott and me there for an overnight fishing expedition. I don’t remember why my dad couldn’t drive us; maybe he had to work. We rode in Jerry’s Jeep with the top down, all our supplies stowed and fishing gear packed. The plan was to fish Bull Gulch; well, not really the gulch itself, which was just a creek that dumped into the South Fork of Pistol River (or Pee Creek, as some of the locals called it). Then we would hike out the next day until we hit the main branch of the Pistol River, make a climb up to the main road, and meet my dad the following day. This was true wilderness hiking–there were no roads going outwards once we began. All we could do was follow the river downstream.
There were a few gates across the road that we bypassed by driving overland-and-around, so our trip wasn’t exactly. The roads inward were not good; actually, they ranged somewhere between rutted-and-bad to appalling-and-nonexistent. We loved every second of it. At some point the Jeep’s radiator started leaking. Of course, being a true native son of Curry County, he pulled over into a patch of shade and poured a can of Copenhagen chewing tobacco directly into the radiator. “Good as new,” he said, and off we went down the what-used-to-be-a-road.
We got down to the campsite, unloaded our gear, and Jerry, hands in his pockets, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well… see you later.” Our wilderness adventure began. I hope his can of snoose held out. I’m not sure I ever saw him again. OTHER people have seen him, of course. It’s not like he died of radiator tobacco poisoning. Just me. This was my last great hurrah in the Oregon wilderness before I headed to France for a year, and then on to College.
Scott had better gear than I did: better camping stuff, better fishing gear, and a better sleeping bag. I remember that. What I don’t remember is what we ate, or how we slept, or the stories we told. We were there to fish. Brook trout, cutthroat trout, were a given and I’m pretty sure we were hoping for summer steelhead. Neither of us had fishing licenses or tags, nor were we expecting to need them. We were, shall we say, way out in the boonies, miles from the nearest home.
It was midday, I recall, and we began fishing immediately. A few hundred yards upstream there was a glorious smooth, flat rock that jutted way out into the river, one of our family’s favorite swimming holes. I’d once caught a 13 inch trout while I stood on this rock, so I gave it a try. There were riffles, small falls, and fallen trees all over the place. I remember we were there the wrong season for pennywinkles (as we called them)–actually caddisfly larvae–and the best natural bait for trout available. They make little stone-and-stick nests around themselves, less than an inch long and live in the bottom of creeks. I found one or two after a long search of the flat Rock and used them as bait. Scott went farther upstream to fish a riffle. He got an enormous hit on his line sometime that afternoon. It was one that got away. “Piece of crust!” He shouted.
He said that a lot, actually. It was good for expletives, and for namecalling. “That guy who runs Mick’s Mini Mart! What a piece of crust!” like that. We had been best friends since eighth grade, when he punched me in the stomach, so we knew each other pretty well. He had Irish red hair, Irish red temper and vampire teeth that grew in funny when he was young. He had them pulled out sometime in high school. Pity. We were in choir together. He was a natural talent (an amazing soprano when he was younger, and a great tenor when his voice changed) while I had to work at it. I slept over at his house and he’d have the radio playing a rock station out of Medford all night. It helped him sleep. We’d listen to George Carlin records and listen to The Martian Hop far too many times. One year, we singlehandedly wrote most of the choir’s variety show, lifting entire skits from George Carlin albums. We thought we were freaking hilarious (Al Sleet, your Hippy Dippy weatherman, with all your hippy dippy weather, man!) We might have been a little bit funny. He had a Jacuzzi (“This is our ool. You can see it has no P in it. Please keep it that way.”) and a friendly doberman pinscher named Farrah with bad hips. My senior year, the one year I played basketball, the coach made Scott and me play against each other one-on-one for the final jersey in the varsity spot. I was humiliated and quit after that. The next day, he quit the team too, on my behalf.
He lived a couple hundred yards from the Rogue River, where we’d splash around and dig for mussels when it got hot. I never fished the Rogue. No tags or license, remember, and Fish and Wildlife folks would check you and ticket you on the Rogue. He was also a better fisherman, but on this trip, we both caught a few little ones. We probably cooked them over open flame and ate them with salt that night. And of course, we went to sleep that night under the stars, with visions of the big one dangling from our lines.
The next day our adventure started. We stowed our gear into packs, had our fishing poles handy, and began the long, wet hike downstream. We planned to fish a few holes every now and then. We had salmon eggs and maybe night-crawlers as store-bought bait. In the past I’d also used cheese, parts of already-fished trout, insects I caught and wet flies, with maybe one pellet of shot tied a foot above the line, just to make it sink a little. My favorite trout fly was my Royal Coachman, although I used others if the time demanded.
South Fork of Pistol River was not impassable, but it was pretty darned close. It was, at most, 15-20 feet wide, usually with steep embankments on one or both sides. There would be long, 25-yard stretches of shallows, followed by rough currents of centuries-old boulders, followed by deep holes. I was one lucky son-of-a-gun. Thinking back, I would bet nobody fishes the south fork Pistol River like that except once every five years, if not even less frequently. We were truly hiking unexplored territory. There was a lot of wading, even more climbing, and occasionally, swimming, to get to our target.
Within a few hundred yards, of course I fell in, fishing pole, backpack, sleeping bag and all. I was never all too graceful around water, which you might have read a couple times in this blog, but this didn’t stop our fervor. We were both soaked up to our chests from having to wade back and forth across the river to make our destination. We’d stop to cast a line every 20-30 minutes or so, until it was obvious it was getting late. Then we decided to stow our poles and get moving. My wet sleeping bag went from being a nice-tight roll to a very sad, soggy 40-pound walrus mustache draped over my pack. My pole stuck out of my gear too high, so even when broken down it would snag on brambles and alders that hung over the river.
Finally, we made it to Pistol River, where the two forks merge. It was wide. maybe 10-15 yards across, and we were standing across from a wide gravel bar. We schlepped ourselves across, and then straight up a recently-logged mountain to reach the main road. We hiked downstream, toward Pistol River, in soggy shoes. We were tired, wet, covered in dirt from the climb up the old logging landing, had pints of pebbles and bark in our shoes, and we were very, very happy.
Eventually we saw the dust cloud that was my dad’s truck and made it back. I don’t know how we did things back then, without GPS or cell phones to coordinate pickup times, but it seems we estimated things just about right.
You know? In all that trip? I remember getting a few really good bites, but I don’t recall bringing home a single fish. A couple days later, we both got a really good case of poison oak for our troubles. Still, we had lots of wet, exhausting fun fishing part of a river and visiting part of a country that nobody, maybe not a single person every 10 years, ever sees.