Trout chumming in America

This week’s Nothing Ever Happens begins with a search for a dead fish. Or, more precisely, a fish head. I’ve received many suggestions for topics since I began this column, but perhaps none so surprising as the one a friend hit me with last week over a game of Scrabble. “I want to write about something summery,” I mused. “Something outdoorsy.”

“Well,” he said, “we could put a fish head in the river and watch the crawdads eat it.”

I pride myself on extensive knowledge of local entertainment options, but here was a pastime I’d never encountered. Ignoring the obvious question of why anyone would think to do this, I focused on practical considerations. “Where would we get a fish head?” I asked.

“Oh, I’ve got one in my freezer,” he replied. Problem solved.

We decided to rent kayaks from the Sacramento State Aquatic Center at Lake Natoma and paddle to its rocky, crawdad-friendly shores with a smelly fish head in tow. Normally, my friend would catch the diminutive crustaceans for dinner, but he left his fishing net behind to avoid offending my vegetarian sensibilities. (As if feeding scavengers rotten trout would win me any awards from PETA.)

Unfortunately, we also left the fish head behind, so we were forced to buy one on our way to the lake. At our first stop, a high-end Raley’s, the butcher looked shocked by our request.

“A what? No!” he said, as if we’d demanded a carton of feces. We amended our order, asking instead to purchase a whole trout, and received the same offended glare.

Too cheap to invest in Raley’s calamari for our native shellfish, we proceeded to the humbler WinCo Foods, where the employees seemed unfazed by an appeal for unorthodox fish parts. Too bad they were fresh out of noggins. We selected a whole, glassy-eyed, 1-pound trout.

At Lake Natoma, a dock hand steadied our yellow plastic kayaks until we were settled on top, and then shoved us onto the lake with a warning to steer clear of the nearby Nimbus Dam. We obediently paddled in the opposite direction from the imposing concrete structure, skimming over the sunny surface of the water. The fish rode on the back of my kayak, double-wrapped in plastic.

We explored small sloughs, where the water was low enough to beach our kayaks and too shallow to cover the larger rocks where crawdads hide. Disappointed by a lack of crustaceans, we consoled ourselves with ripe blackberries from lakeside vines. We swam. We watched wiry teenage boys fly off a cliff on a jury-rigged rope swing and plummet into the water below. We kayaked to the lake’s center and drifted like wood.

As relaxing as this was, our deceased passenger wasn’t getting any fresher. My friend mentioned some previous luck catching crawdads on the riverbanks below the Folsom Powerhouse, so we relinquished our kayaks and drove a few miles to the trails there.

We carried our carrion to the woody banks of the American River, where a rocky underwater ledge created a sort of crawdad apartment complex. My friend tore the trout into pieces and proceeded to chum the water. Fish oil spread across the river’s surface as we waited for our guests to visit the buffet.

A half-dozen arrived within five minutes, scuttling from rock to rock with pinchers waving, eyeing the fish cautiously before seizing it. My friend picked up a lone crawdaddy so we could examine its beady stalk eyes and segmented tail. The creature railed against capture, doing its best to slice our fingers with a hefty pincher until we returned it the fishy feast.

The crustaceans jockeyed for position, shoving each other to reach the flesh and then scissoring off large hunks with their claws. I narrated the underwater drama like a poorly dubbed Kung Fu flick. “You want to fight? Fight me!” I cried. “I’m taking this whole fish! Try and stop me, suckers!”

It was utterly ridiculous, and probably the most fun I’ve had yet this summer. Who, besides the crawdads, knew the simple pleasures of a dead fish?