A Ditch Runs Through It

For two devoted anglers, fishing filthy waterways is good, clean escapism

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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. 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 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, a network of canals and ditches weaves lymphatically through the California farmland. The brownwater system may be noticed by airline passengers pressed to their windows during descent, 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 we 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 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, 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'd eat my sandwich and dangle 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 ditches don't have names. Some do, though they're not imaginative or particularly inspiring: East Drainage, North Drainage, 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, 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 its brother (or, more likely, its 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 before 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. We draw 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. 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 ditchside turnouts now, we more often run into Ukrainian and Russian immigrants in nylon tracksuits 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 when we don't ask to see their licenses. They are extremely determined carp fishermen.

Most American fishermen, myself included, consider carp a trash fish. The dull color of wet cardboard, they slog through the soft ditch bed, slurping the bottom silt with round, sphincterlike mouths. They are ugly, which undoubtedly accounts for a portion of their pariah status. Our true selves are reflected, we believe, in our choice of prey--we are what we catch. Fishing for carp, therefore, demonstrates a 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 underwater habitat--you don't have very far to fall. We are brothers. Companeros. The only difference between us and our friends down the bank is that they eat what they catch.

The thought of eating fish that lived in the ditches ranks 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. Maybe the Ukrainians weigh the risks against the fact that ditch carp cost nothing. 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 Environmental Protection Agency warnings seem like nitpicking. After Chernobyl, a little thiobencarb is just spicing.

Heading up Interstate 5, Billy and I 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 rescues 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, smells like a goat with a yeast infection, and it can take up to a week of steady hand-washing to be completely rid of it. 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 off-ramp.

We cut a slab of chicken liver into chunks and gradually feed it to a population of tiny chublike 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. It'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. Water sloshes 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 to 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.

Apart from a woman who could be Kathy Bates' younger sister, who perches regularly on the lip of a hole in a salvaged lawn chair, we rarely 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. 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 of new lures we haven't tried yet, and the boundless hope of fisher-men and idiots. Far from untouched, the ditches 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. 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.

Jeffrey Ewing's writing also has appeared in the literary journals Crazyhorse and Tule Review. Reprinted from Sacramento News & Review (April 26, 2007), an alternative weekly that tackles regional and national news with attitude. Subscriptions: $39/yr. (52 issues) from 1015 20th St., Sacramento, CA 95814; www.newsreview.com/sacramento.