Hot Weather, Cold Bite In Old Stomping Ground

The following appears in the September issue of California Sportsman: 

By Chris Cocoles 

EL SOBRANTEI was the passenger in my sister Charlene’s SUV as we drove north up San Pablo Dam Road, and I felt a bit distracted. 

 Maybe it was the three impatient  dogs – highlighted by the youngest of the trio, hellraising puggle Nala – or what we were listening to on the local sports talk radio program during our drive from San Mateo to the East Bay. But really, I was anticipating what I hadn’t seen in so many years, and that was the shoreline of a special lake. 

San Pablo Reservoir was something of sacred water when I was a kid. It was a place that even in the urban sprawl of the Bay Area felt like a wilderness getaway when I was lucky enough to get across San Francisco Bay to try my luck for some of San Pablo’s trout.

 This has always been one of the local go-to spots for rainbows. I remember multiple opening-weekend trips here, when promises of trophy trout plants almost always resulted in at least a fish or two. 

Sometimes we’d simply fish from the shore next to the parking lot; on other days we’d rent a small motor boat and head across the lake to one of the most popular spots to anchor, Scow Canyon. There, you can anchor in a cove and cast some inflated nightcrawlers and lazily spend a morning in solitude despite being a few miles away from the clogged freeways and bumper-to-bumper chaos of the Bay Area. 

But I’d probably not seen that postcard view from San Pablo Dam Road for decades. Now I was back. I’d brought my sister, our three dogs and an August heatwave along for the ride. 

Photos by Charlene King/Chris Cocoles

DO YOU KNOW WHEN you’re older and haunts you once frequented as a youngster don’t seem as big and aren’t as dynamic as they once were? Confirmed. This was a letdown.  

We thought we’d missed the turn to get to the lake’s main recreation area until we found it. And my reunion with San Pablo Reservoir wasn’t what I hoped for. I envisioned a summer Monday morning with a bunch of boats leaving the marina; kids and their dads unpacking tackle from their cars; other dogs for ours to geek out over the potential of meeting and interacting with; a long line in the tackle shop and fish tales being swapped. Instead, I found Tombstone  a fishing ghost town. 

The parking lot was darn near empty and the store was until I walked in and gave the poor woman working her shift with a sale to make (the park entrance fee, a required East Bay Municipal Utility District fishing permit and some bait). 

I asked what the catfish were biting on – trout fishing usually slows down in the summer after the plants end in June – and she convinced me that a container of frozen chicken livers was as good an option as any other. Sold. 

Needless to say, we didn’t have many anglers to crowd once we somehow got the pups, my German shepherd/Lab mix Emma and Charlene’s puggles Nala and Angel, leashed and somewhat controlled enough to transport them and our gear to down to a spot a short walk away. Just one other brave soul was already fighting a rising sun that would spawn a high of about 83 degrees that day. 

I went to college in Fresno,  worked in the Southland high desert of Lancaster and also in the humidity of northwest Arkansas, so I have a history of living in the heat. But about 30 minutes into this fishing foray it already felt like a scorcher. 

My companions on this day? Forget it. Charlene has spent her entire life on the Peninsula, where it rarely gets above 72 degrees. The dogs struggled to sit still and quickly tripped over each other to suck down the bottle of water we poured into a bowl. Sister and canines hung around for a while but retreated to a nearby covered picnic table for some shade.

I was going to carry on. 

Pups Nala, Angel and Emma did their best to keep cool in the summer heat. (CHARLENE KING)

MY FIRST SIGN THAT this wouldn’t be a turn-back-the-clock day to past San Pablo Reservoir glory was keeping my chicken livers on the hook. When I first opened the container their frozen state made them difficult to get on the hook. Still, I was teased into thinking there was some hope. 

My line tugged ever so slightly before straightening out just as fast. I reeled in, noticed my naked hook and convinced myself it was must have been a clever catfish that stole the bait. As the weather got warmer, the bite would also heat up. My sister and the pups walked back down to me, sweated a bit more and then fled. Who could blame them?

The guy down the shoreline near me looked as bored as I was and eventually waved his white flag and departed. Flies invaded the ground when a piece of chicken liver fell off my hook as I reeled in. One boat cruised by, invoking some memories of past trips to Scow Canyon. But this wasn’t Once Upon a Time in El Sobrante. There would be no fishing fairy tale or Tarantino-directed revisionist history on this day. 

By 11 a.m., we gave up and settled for eating an alfresco burrito lunch at a taqueria just down the road in Orinda. 

Still, it was a great morning. I went back to my roots, something that just never seemed to be in the cards during all my return trips to the Bay Area since I’ve moved away. I’ll go back sometime, most likely when the weather is cooler and the trout are active. 

That’s what I remember most about this place. CS

Photos by Chris Cocoles