A Ditch Runs Through It

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

| Utne Reader September / October 2007

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.