A ditch runs through it
Follow a pair of Sacramento anglers who leave work each day in search of the perfect herbicide-scented fishing ditch
The culvert under Sankey Road isn’t a place where you’re likely to run into Robert Redford or Norman Maclean. They’re bluewater fishermen. The water of the North Drainage Canal near Sacramento International Airport is an opaque brown that alternately oozes and spits through the corrugated culvert pipe. The ditch is running high, bank-to-bank with poisonous runoff and debris, and the pipe rumbles under us. Bubbles rise flatulently through the viscous surface from a carp feeding near the bank. I cast toward it, narrowly missing a truck axle, immediately losing sight of my rubber worm. It is certainly not the Big Horn River, or even Putah Creek. But fishing is often a matter of taking it where you can find it, and here is where Billy Galarpe and I find it.
Stretching north of the bleached concrete building where we work in Natomas, through the tip of Sacramento County up into Sutter County, a network of canals and ditches weaves lymphatically through the farmland. The brownwater system likely is noticed by airline passengers pressed to their windows during descent to SMF, but few others give it a second, or even a first, glance. Which is fine with us. We come to work fully loaded with rods and gear, and at lunch strike out into the ditch-fishing heartland.
Though we work only a few yards apart in a typically vast, cubicle-sectioned room, Billy and I arrived at our lunchtime hobby separately. He grew up in Vallejo surrounded by water, and gets uneasy when he’s away from it for long. For my part, I suffer from claustrophobia on a citywide scale. I’ve been racing the developers for open land for most of my working life. They’re obviously winning, but there are still moments of small victories. A ditch when the water’s up. Blue herons and egrets dotted across the rice fields behind a storm. The sour smell of herbicide like Quik Stop perfume.
When we first started fishing the ditches, the now-solid warehouse blocks were broken up by vacant lots and vernal pools. Leaving for lunch in any direction meant crossing a bridge, and the steady flash of water was like a Times Square come-on. I kept a telescoping Wal-Mart fishing rod under the back seat and a jar of Power Bait in the glove box. Billy had a Shimano sticker on his back window and a vanity plate that read “ANGLURE.” I’d see him leaving the parking lot, turning toward the back route to Truxel Road as I headed out to El Centro. For the next hour, I ate my sandwich and dangled worms from a bank off Del Paso Road while Billy munched cold taquitos and tossed spinnerbaits at Fisherman’s Lake nearby. Eventually our paths crossed and we compared notes. It seemed clear to us both that eating was a waste of fishing time. So we loaded our gear into a single car and have gone mostly hungry at lunchtime since.
Most of the ditches don’t have names. Some do, though they’re not imaginative or particularly inspiring names: the East Drainage, the North Drainage, the Cross Canal. Practical names. Names that get down to business.
The North Drainage is a favorite of ours. It cuts in a series of right angles through rice fields within earshot of Highway 99. The fields on either side are newly flooded, and a crop duster roars low overhead, depositing a yellow fan of rice seed.
The water levels in the ditches rise and fall unpredictably, responding more to agricultural and obscure water-resource stimuli than to rainfall or river stage. We’ve set out toward side ditches on the tail-end of a March storm only to find them dry. The North Drainage is more reliable than most. The fish have noticed this, too. Having a year-round home, and fed on a hearty diet of pesticide and toxic forage, they grow to respectable size.
Just the day before, I had hooked into one of them. I never saw it—they have to break the surface here to be visible—but it doubled my rod over as it ran up the culvert, smacking the rod tip against the pipe’s metal lip. It bucked the current effortlessly, and snapped my line when I tried to horse it out. Today, Billy hooks his brother (or, more likely, his sister). Billy is more fish-savvy than I am. He keeps the fish downstream of the pipe, wrestles it into the shallows by the riprap. He grabs it by the lower lip and raises it in triumph: a gasping, four-pound ditch bass. I snap a couple of pictures with his cell phone, then he lowers it back into the water and releases it.
We are not the only brownwater anglers. We are, however, among the few with valid licenses on display. Our Shimano lanyards slap in the wind as we drop down from the levee road across from Verona Joe’s Cantina Grill, drawing suspicious glances from two Russian-looking anglers down the bank. They are among the latest wave of immigrants to probe the ditches.
A few years ago, it was common to share the bank with Vietnamese and Cambodian fishermen going after catfish in the ditches. They grew up fishing and were very good at it, but they’re mostly gone now. They’ve moved on to the bluewater, to stripers and salmon. The ditches are a stepping stone, a way-station on the road to assimilation. At ditch-side turnouts now, we more often run into Ukrainian and Russian immigrants in nylon track suits with burr cuts dipping cornmeal and white bread “boilies” for carp. Like the two squatting on the mud ledge above the Cross Canal, they eye us with belligerent wariness, loosening up a little when we don’t ask to see their licenses. They are extremely determined carp fishermen.
Most American fishermen, myself included, traditionally have considered carp a trash fish. The dull color of wet cardboard, they slog through the soft ditch bed, slurping the bottom silt with round, sphincter-like mouths. They have none of the darting speed of bass, or the showy, postcard coloring of trout. They are ugly, which undoubtedly accounts for a portion of their pariah status. Americans like pretty fish. Our true selves are reflected, we believe, in our choice of prey—we are what we catch. Fishing for carp, therefore, demonstrates an alarming lack of self-esteem.
Ditch fishers have no such handicap. They are on the bottom rung already, and if you have no problem with the stigma, the bottom rung can offer a great deal of freedom. Billy and I understand this, at least in relation to fishing. After all, when you consider a Dodge transaxle “structure”—a bass fishing term for preferred fish habitat—you don’t have very far to fall. We are brothers. Compañeros. The only real difference between us and our friends down the bank is that they eat what they catch.
If you’ve spent any time on the ditches, the thought of eating any fish that lived there should rank just under cannibalism for culinary appeal. The surface film is often a prism of oil and herbicide, with brown foam bubbling where the current bumps the bank. It’s catch-and-release of a practical kind, having nothing to do with philosophy or proper fisheries management. It’s simple prudence, the same kind of cautiousness that prevents Russian roulette from being a more popular sport.
The Ukrainians on the Cross Canal blow all this off. Maybe they weigh the risks against the fact that ditch carp cost nothing. Or maybe it’s just a holdover from the old days, when no one in authority had your interests at heart. Maybe they think the apparatchiks are trying to scare them off, saving the best for themselves. Or maybe it just doesn’t seem that bad. Most of them have seen pollution on a scale that makes EPA warnings seem like nitpicking.
After Chernobyl, a little thiobencarb is just spicing.
Not long ago, we could walk to a good ditch. Every year now it’s a farther trip, and our lunches get longer.
Above Verona, where the Feather branches off from the Sacramento, there’s a sign on the shoulder:
Everything gets more relaxed and countrified above Verona. A few people are fishing the foot-deep Feather, but we turn off at Vernon Road, wondering, of course, why it’s not Verona Road.
The Main Drainage, according to the map, cuts under a farm road somewhere to the east of us. The only roads we see are gated or posted against trespassers. A power pole at the entrance to the most likely looking road is papered with shotgun-dimpled warnings, so we stop instead along the ditch beside Vernon Road. There’s a small white cross on the shoulder, a common sight along the ditches. The plastic flowers wired to the base of the cross are sun-bleached and wispy. We walk along the ditch a little way, see a couple of possible rises near the opposite bank. The water’s low, though, so we don’t bother with the rods.
We get a little uncertain this far from home. Verona’s about as far as we go on this side of the river. Closer in, the sluggish pools of the lower West Drainage and Fisherman’s Lake are easily reached. There are other options, too, within a lunch-hour of travel. Heading up Interstate 5, we can get to Tule Canal fairly quickly. We’re a little hesitant to go there, though. It’s almost legitimate, with a current and occasional sand banks. The only thing that saves it from near-bluewater status is its proximity to the steady rumble of the freeway.
It looks bassy, Billy’s preferred condition. The water’s still and warm, with cattails dropping cotton onto the surface. Billy’s a bass man, an authentic angler. I’m a little more opportunistic, going so far as to use stink bait for catfish. Stink bait, as its name only hints at, is the nastiest stuff you’re likely to come across, fishing or otherwise. It smells like a goat with a yeast infection and can take up to a week of steady hand-washing to be completely rid of. Catfish love it, which must say something about catfish.
Billy tosses his Baby 1-Minus into the current of Tule Canal and works it back in. Just the week before, I’d caught a small bass in a side stream feeding from under the train tracks, and Billy’s excited. Nothing comes of it this time, though, so we cross the levee to a series of ponds in the shadow of the Elkhorn Boulevard offramp.
We cut a slab of chicken liver into chunks and gradually feed it to a population of tiny chub-like fish that strip it from our hooks almost instantly. We don’t know what they are until we manage to land one, and even then we aren’t sure. Something small and voracious, its jaws still working after gobbling a chunk of chicken liver half its size.
Eventually, I land a good-sized channel cat. He’s hooked too deep to throw back, so I give it to the Ukrainian kid across the road. He drops it into his bucket and nods faintly at us. Water sloshes out of the bucket as the cat swims in tight, claustrophobic circles.
Later, Billy tells me that when a catfish is hooked deep, the best thing to do is cut the line and leave the hook in. Eventually the hook will rust out and the catfish will pass it, like a kidney stone, without apparently minding much. Which probably says something further about catfish.
At one hole along Power Line Road, near the airport, you can hear jet wash whistle through the rice stalks as planes land below you. It’s a good bluegill spot, with occasional bass. A woman who could be Kathy Bates’ younger sister perches regularly on the lip of the hole in a salvaged lawn chair. Most days, her silver Saturn’s parked there, and she’s sunk into her chair watching her line. It’s a long way down to the water, and will be a long way to haul a fish up. She has an umbrella taped to the chair arm—not a bad idea.
Apart from her, we hardly ever see the same people twice. Some are transient anglers, some are easily repulsed. Others move on to the bluewater and never come back. A few, like us, return to the ditches. The simplest explanation is that there are fish here. But ditch fishing also offers a level of anonymity and a conditional solitude that’s hard to come by. Peace within lunchtime. It is not pristine, but it’s not combat fishing, either.
To some degree, it’s also a matter of conditioning. As the wild land disappears, your standards for wildness go down. Blackberries and star thistle replace fields of wildflowers, and slough squirrels suddenly seem as exotic as otters. In this atmosphere, a drainage ditch takes on an almost rustic charm. If it’s got fish in it, all the better.
It’s not easy going back to work. Billy’s foot comes off the gas reflexively at each flash of ditch water. At Sankey, a tail slaps the water. The hens are bedding down. They are aggressive and protective of their nests. At Riego Road, a squadron of crop dusters lifts off one at a time. The Saturn Woman looks up from her pole as we drive past, scanning the rusty water along Power Line for movement. There’s a faint chemical tang to the air. This is spring on the ditches. All things reborn. Billy and I each have a couple new lures we haven’t tried yet, and the boundless hope of fishermen and idiots. Anything is possible. Billy’s big bass confirms all we believe, and will bring us back tomorrow. The ditches, far from untouched, are still in a way innocent. They are unaware of their funkiness, and unconcerned, just as a dog is of its breath.
The last ditch we cross, an arm of the East Drainage, is flat and still, though supposedly thick with crappie in spots. We pull into the parking lot beside my car and I stash my gear in the back. Billy parks his truck in the shade. We’re a half-hour late getting back to the office, but we take our time crossing the parking lot. A disoriented cock pheasant skitters out from behind the azalea hedge. He blinks at us, then takes off in a low trajectory toward the uniform laundry next door. The unnatural glow of LCD monitors leaks through the closed blinds of several windows, and we step reluctantly back inside the building, the illicit smell of ditch water trailing us through the lobby doors.