Sometimes you find paradise in the strangest places. If I could be anywhere this time of year, it would probably be on the Trinity River, with its surrounding hillsides ablaze with fall colors and its own crystalline flows blackened by wave upon wave of migrating salmon. However, my busy guiding schedule keeps me close to home in Autumn, and while I love being on the local rivers, I occasionally need to get away from it all.
One of the oddest sanctuaries I’ve found is a small waterway near Woodland called the Toe Drain. Considering the name sounds a lot like something you’d need to cure a foot infection, you’d think that this hidden body of water would be, well, less than scenic. And you’re absolutely right.
The Toe Drain is a sluggish canal that drains the rice fields of the Yolo Bypass. The used motor oil-colored water oozes its way through banks lined with discarded appliances, old tires and broken bottles. And where water from the fields runs into the Toe Drain, a strange toxic-looking foam collects.
At first glance, this is definitely not a place you’d want to spend any time. In fact, I’d driven over it a million times without even giving it a second thought. Then, one day in October of 1997, I noticed a bunch of people crowded along its banks near a bridge. I pulled over to see what the commotion was and, almost unbelievably, I saw several bright king salmon attempting to leap up into a culvert that drained a series of sewer ponds.
I went home and looked on a map and found that the Toe Drain eventually flows into the Sacramento River near Rio Vista. Those salmon obviously got some bad directions to the spawning grounds along the line and, unless they turned around, were doomed in the 70-plus degree water. Seeing them in there sparked my curiosity, though, and I vowed to return to the Toe Drain and do a little exploratory fishing.
Before I ever had an opportunity to fish the “Drain,” I talked with a DFG biologist who knows a lot about area and she told me that in addition to salmon, she’s caught stripers and sturgeon in test nets, along with lots of fish like bass, catfish, carp and panfish. At that point, I really started getting interested.
It wasn’t until last year, however, that I made it back to the Toe Drain. After my salmon season ended in mid November, I was in desperate need of a little peace and quiet. So, I grabbed an ultralight spinning rod, a bobber, some sardines and headed out. I took my little 10-foot jonboat and drug it down the muddy bank, where some old gentlemen where sitting in lawn chairs with rods propped up in “Y” shaped sticks. The ol’ boys were having such a great time eating cold KFC chicken right out of the bucket and swapping tales, that I’m certain a bite on either of their lines would have gone unnoticed.
Already, I could tell I was going to like the simplicity of the place. No cell phones or jet boats or chemically-sharpened hooks or space-age fishing rods necessary here. I slipped the boat in the water and rowed upstream about a half mile. When I rounded a bend, the freeway noise faded into the sounds of herons squawking and kingfishers sounding their victory calls. I felt a million miles away from anywhere as mallards exploded from the water ahead of me and statue-like egrets suspiciously watched me pass.
Near a tall cottonwood tree that was a brilliant yellow hue, I found some rushing water entering the Toe Drain from the west bank. Though not a sparkling cobblestone stream like you’d find on the Trinity, the rice field run-off looked like a promising fishing hole. I threaded a hunk of sardine onto my hook and then lobbed the rig out into the mouth of the foamy stream. In seconds, the bobber went under and 4-pound line started ripping off my reel at a steady clip. After a lengthy battle, I boated (and released) a 10-pound catfish. Cool. I’m not a huge catfish fan, but that fish put up a very good account of itself — and so did the other dozen or so I pulled out of the Toe Drain that day.
It was really, really nice to spend a quiet day fishing alone. I’ve gone back to the muddy canal several times since then and it’s always rewarded me with some very nice fish and plenty of much-needed solitude. Sometimes, paradise is where you find it.