Wednesday, March 30, 2016

BLAST AND CAST ON THE DELTA


Do you work it out one by one, or played in combination?  You throw out your gold teeth. Do you see how they roll?
The month of March brought me to my 60th birthday, which, by the way, is a birthday which mostly sucks, but the majority of us are still counting on getting there. It is “middle age” but we all kind of know it’s not the middle.  It’s well into the back nine. I decided to celebrate by combining two of my favorite activities, upland game hunting and bass fishing, in northern California.

I figured a combo trip like this deserved some research, so I contacted Northern California Cross-Outfitters, which advertised that they brokered outdoor adventures and specialized in the Delta.  My appointed representative was Jason MacSanchez, who advised me that he was of combined Mexican/Scot heritage and really knew his way around the Delta. 
I told him what I was interested in and suggested that I would like to do the hunting part of the trip with the crew at Bird Landing, because I really liked their facility and the staff there.  He said he had not heard of them, which should have caused me more alarm than it did at the time.  I just told him to concentrate on getting me a fishing guide who knew what was going on in the Delta, which is a vast resource that hosts a multitude of remarkable natural resources.  He indicated that he would incorporate my hunting trip into whatever fishing, lodging and dining experience he could arrange with the locals with whom he was in contact.
Jason said he would hook me up and requested I send him a deposit.  He asked for a combination of Travelers checks and a money order, which seemed like an odd paring.  I had not seen a Travelers check in decades.  I ended up going to a UPS/post office/saving and loan facility where I procured the species of payment requested.  While I waited in the lobby for my number to be called, I watched a talk show featuring the former Bruce Jenner, who was probably one of the most famous athletes I can remember seeing.  He won the gold medal at the Olympics in the decathlon, which features a combination of different track and field events.  The woman sitting next to me was watching in tears, whispering between sobs, “She is so courageous.”  I couldn’t hear what was being said, and pretty soon my number was called. I completed my multiple transactions at a single station at the counter.
Jason, upon receipt of my payment, sent me a link to a virtual tour of his business, known as Cross Outfitters - and included a Skype connection.  I had never actually Skyped before, and had a hard time at first, as it is a combination of video and audio broadcast through my cell phone.  I kept getting it backwards.
“Hey Ed.  Mind if I call you Ed?”  The phone was making a noise, but I could not get any picture.
“Nice to meet you Jason.  It is perfectly okay to call me Ed, as that is what everybody calls me, mostly because it is my name.”
“Well, Brah, here’s the deal.  I am a cross-fit trainer and a Vegan, so I know that I am going to able to push you toward having a great time.”
I fumbled with the phone and then caught a glimpse of my guide for this journey.  He looked to be about thirty five, with one of those I-was-going-bald-anyway shaved head looks and a very tight shirt that read:
“Cross-Outfitters – Our Warm Up Is Like Your Workout.”  He did look pretty fit.
“Gosh Jason, It’s probably better that you aren’t going hunting, in light of the whole Vegan thing.”
“No worries Brah.  I think outside the box. We will catch up with you in Lodi where I have set you up with a great guide and a cool bed and breakfast place in the heart of the Lodi wine country.  See you on Saturday night.  I gotta catch a big Bike-for-the-Lord rally in Tracy anyway on Saturday.  It is a big networking opportunity and I can combine my love of fitness, faith and finance.”
I rented a cool gunmetal gray Ford Squirrel, which is a hybrid Sport Utility vehicle designed for those who enjoy good mileage, off road driving and the sporty feel of a car that looks like the cap of a Confederate enlisted man.
I drove out to the Bird Landing facility, where I met up with my old friend Jim Lawman, who gave up a promising career as a sheriff of a corrupt border town to become the primary facility acquisition and design planner for Google.  We met up with our guide Alexis, who is a biochemistry student at Davis, an expert dog handler and the number one woman sporting clay champion in America. Alex was accompanied by her dad, who was a former IRS agent turned shooting instructor/hunting guide.  

  I found it slightly irritating to be in the company of people who seem to be so good at so many things in comparison to me, but I tried to make the best of it.
As always, we were well taken care of by the pretty and talented girls at Bird Landing – Kimberly and Taylor, shown here with Alex.





We got out to the field at about 1 pm for what they call an “Afternoon Stroll,” which involves 8 birds and a very large field that had been hunted earlier in the day.  Alex sent out her English pointer “Cali” who is the same type of dog that starred  in the TV program “Hunting with Hank,” a show with which I am sure all of my readers are familiar.  Cali would get out and hold point a good distance away.  If she smelled the bird her tail would wag.  Once she actually saw the bird, her tail would stiffen up completely.  If the bird started running, she would follow on a sort of half-point.  It was a great form of communication with the hunters.

We enjoyed an excellent and relaxing walk in good weather, with great conversation.  I managed to get a great impact shot of Jim knocking down a pheasant.  I took it with my I-phone, which is a wonderful combination of phone, camera, compass and computer.





Later, we managed to sneak up on a group of birds that were all sitting together on this log.  Jim instinctively yelled “Freeze! Police!”, but we shot them anyway, even though they totally followed Jim’s instructions.                                                                                                                                                  


I must interrupt this narrative to bitch about a fundamental party foul that was committed by a man who came into our field with his very young son as we were actively shooting birds.  I pulled away from a shot at the last second when he and the boy appeared directly in the path of a fleeing pheasant that I was deep into the process of shooting.
“Excuse me, but I think I lost my cell phone somewhere in this field, so my son and I are just going to stomp around randomly during your hunt until I find it.”
I am not making this up.  It really happened.  They continued to walk around in our field for nearly an hour until they found it by calling it on a phone they borrowed from someone else.  I wanted to abuse this guy, who was giving his kid the worst lesson a father could possibly contrive in a hunting atmosphere, but I was a guest of the club and did not want to scare his kid, who had no idea what kind of danger his bullshit-for-brains dad was placing him in.  Anyone who has ever hunted pheasant knows that you do not wander into a private field that is being actively hunted.  This guy does not deserve to own a gun, or even a phone.  Although it pains me to say it, he did eventually find his phone and finally left us without getting his kid shot, or learning anything worth knowing.
After the hunt, we traded our pheasants for pheasant sausage and whole smoked birds and then went to the lodge café to scarf down big burgers.  After picking up our meat, we went over to Shirley’s Tavern (featured in a previous article), where we spent some time with Shirley, who was out of every kind of beer except Budweiser, so that is what we drank. 



After I left Bird Landing, I dropped off the sausage and smoked pheasant with starving students at the Berkeley Acropolis, which is one of my favorite places for celebrating a good clean kill.
As I left the Berkeley campus, Jason’s face came on like clockwork on the screen of my I phone. 
“Hey Brah.  I got you hooked up at the Flaming W Ranch in the heart of Lodi wine country.”  I will meet you there tonight.  It’s kind of a combination dairy-pig farm and winery and the people there are Hela-cool.”
“Did you really just say Hela-cool?”  I asked.
“Yeah Brah, Oh, I forgot you are from southern Cali.  Everyone says that up here.”
This guy was starting to bum me out. He gave me the directions to the place in Lodi and I drove out there to meet him.
When I got to the ranch, it was dark and I really did not know where I was.  I was driving down this country road, following the GPS instructions dictated by my female voiced robo instructor, when I saw what looked like a torch being slowly waved a few farmhouses ahead.  I slowed down and a woman, holding a real live torch, hailed me.
“You must be Ed”, she said.  “Jason told us to be on the lookout for you.  He just called and told us that he isn’t going to make it here tonight, but that he will visit after you are done fishing tomorrow.”  He is doing some kind of night time, bike racing/ walk-on-your-hands race to benefit the Lodi transgender community.”
“I guess that kind of event is something that probably sneaks up on you.” I offered up, as she opened up a gate that led to a gravel road onto a very impressive piece of property.
“My name is Electra” she said.  “Welcome to the Flaming W Ranch.”  Her enthusiasm was contagious and I could not help but take an immediate liking to her.  I was secretly glad that Jason had found a way to not be around.
“Are you Greek, or named after Sophocles' tragic Greek character who was the eldest  and vengeance obsessed daughter of Agamemnon?”  I asked, hoping to score points with this literary reference.
“ No, not at all, but a lot of folks ask that very question.  My dad was a Buick dealer and knocked up my mom in his favorite company car.”
She brought me inside to meet the rest of the crew, who were pouring Basil Hayden bourbon while waiting on a whole pig BBQ that slowly revolved over an open fire pit.  The wonderful aroma wafted into the spacious house as the other three occupants greeted me.  I knew right away it was right place for me.  It turned out that Electra was a wine broker and chef academy instructor who had been a local calf roping champion and prom queen at Tokay high school back in the day.  She also had a wicked sense of humor.  I would later find out just how wicked it was.   For now, it was just incredibly amusing.
I met my guide, John Henry, who works both as an architect and fishing guide.  His wife, Samantha, is a zoologist/museum curator who also creates the daily menu for the wide variety of animals maintained at the Living Desert exposition near Palm Springs.  Samantha introduced me to her brother Ulysses, who is married to Electra.  Everyone gathered around the spitted pig, drinking bourbon, while Ulysses, who is a firearms instructor and heavy equipment broker, explained to me the fine points of managing a dairy-pig operation.  It was quite fascinating and something I never realized was a viable enterprise.  He explained that the large pig we struggled to get off the spit and cut up with meat axes was what they call a “dry sow,” which no longer served the farm in its primary capacity as a milk producer, but was delicious because of what it had been fed all its life.  Additionally, any leftovers could just go back to the pigs, because they are omnivorous.
Ulysses and Electra set me up in a beautiful guest room after a feast in a dining room that was right out of Camelot.

 “We are fishing at 6 am, so you’d better be ready.”  That is exactly what I wanted to hear as my head hit the pillow.
We were up at 4:30 am and hooking up the boats Ulysses stored in a 3,000 square foot garage.  I joined John Henry as we dragged across the levy roads toward Vieria Landing, which is one of hundreds of beautiful spots to launch in the network of tide influenced fresh water locations in the western Delta.
We were targeting striped and largemouth bass, both of which were just starting to go on the bite in this early part of the season.  I had read that the bass would most likely bite on the outgoing tide, which produces the greatest movement of water as the retreating tide gives way to the river systems that spread their energy throughout the Delta on the way to San Francisco Bay.
We kept in contact via cell phone, which we also used as our GPS navigation devices.  John Henry expertly used the electric trolling motor to get us into promising areas when he was not using his refrigerator-sized outboard to push us up and down the Delta at 50 plus miles per hour.


We came upon several Derelicts of the Delta, as this body of water is notorious for abandoned vessels, due to the lack of regulation regarding anchoring up huge boats for which the owner has run out of options. 

 There were several vessels like this one – a sort of combination sport fisher/sailboat, which is neither a good sailboat nor a great sport fisher – more of a giant wallower with cavernous holds.  They are apparently a species of boat built in the greater Stockton area.  The examples we saw were well past their prime and were tagged by some agency. This one was over 60 feet long and at least 15 feet deep from keel to weather deck
I managed to get on the board with a couple of largemouth I got on a double bladed spinner bait.


John Henry cashed in on a striper on a crank bait and  then this large mouth bass on a Senko, which he threw relentlessly.


Ulysses got striper of the day on a shallow-diving crank bait and many more in front of the fabulous waterfront homes at Isleton. 

 Everyone caught fish and nobody got lost, which is something that can easily happen on the Delta without electronics, or a keen sense of one’s surroundings.

                              Samantha's smallest fish of the day, but it was the first of many
After we got the boats hauled out and were headed back to Lodi, Ulysses called Electra to see about dinner plans, as Electra had planned an Italian feast with home-made pasta from the eggs from their chicken coop, some actual stone ground flour and the milk from their pigs.  She is a master chef and had planned flight of wines to go with the various courses.  Jason would be joining us to bask in the after-glow of the outing he took credit for arranging.
As our wheels crunched up the long gravel driveway leading to the back of the spread, I caught a glimpse of Jason.  He was dressed in a kimono like robe that covered a fishnet tank top.  He was doing Tai-chi style movements on an elevated platform near the heavy equipment with the sunset strategically framing him for our view as we approached.  Just before we pulled up, he leapt off the platform and onto the bucket of a backhoe, where he did few bar dips before propelling himself at us.
“Hey Brah, how many fish did you kill?”
“Just this one” responded Ulysses, cutting in front of me to intercept Jason with a display of the striper.  He said “Hey Jason, do you want to clean it?”  I could sense a bit of tension between Ulysses and our cross-trained agent of fortune.
“No way Brah. That is for flesh eaters.  I am sticking with the Italian stuff.  Hey, I taught Electra that recipe for homemade pasta and want to make sure she doesn’t screw it up.”  Jason seemed like he was intoxicated.  Electra winked at me and said “Jason you are the man.”
Jason had his hair balled up into a tiny man-bun on the top of his head.  It looked like a hairball from a cat.  “You can just call me Sensei, Electra.  Let’s break out your wine.”
We went inside.  Electra had laid out an incredible spread of olives, pepperachinis, cheeses, veggies and smoked meats.

  Jason began picking at it right away, as Ulysses and Samantha poured the wine.  Electra was over at the big stove and had just transferred her home-made linguine pasta from the pasta machine to the kettle. 

 A saucepan of mushroom sauce simmered next to it.  Jason began hovering nearby as she stirred it, clearly irritating her.
“Jason, go feed off the anti-pasta platter and stay out of the kitchen until I am done.  Maybe you could set the table.”
“Hey Babe,” he said, “Maybe there is something you don’t know about the Zen of Cross-Fit.  We do everything at once, because we can.”
“Well, I am the chef in this kitchen and let me assure you that there is a natural order, an appropriate progression to a good meal and the flow of the evening.  You are  upsetting that balance!”
“Cross fit knows no boundaries” he declared.  “We set our own pace.   You may seek order, but we re-order!”
Jason stuck his hand directly into the hot pasta just as she was straining it over the sink.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” Samantha asked.  Jason turned to her and stared intently.  “The secret is not minding.” was his response as he pulled out a fistful.
Where was G. Gordon Liddy when you needed him? I thought to myself.  This guy was pretty goddamned strange.
He walked over to the platter and began heaping olives, mushrooms and pepperachinis onto the steaming pasta he dropped on a plate.  “This is how it is meant to be eaten, if you've done the work-out to deserve it.”
Electra yelled at him “Don’t do that.  It will ruin everything, you fawning pig-man!”  Jason just looked at her and shoved a forkful into his maw.  Suddenly, his mouth began foaming and his nostrils flared red.
“You cannot allow the anti-pasta to come into direct contact with pasta in the same bite!” she cried, but it was too late.  Jason’s head seemed to detonate as his eyes bulged and he vainly tried to eject the supercharged cargo that was reacting in his mouth.  His head began smoking, but it was more like the smoke you get with dry-ice.  It stayed close to the ground where he now lay, twitching slightly.
She stood over him and slowly said “you know nothing of the forces that govern the culinary universe.”
She looked back at us and tossed back the rest of her wine. “I told him.  You all heard me.”  Ulysses put his arm around her and said “I never liked that little prick.  Let the pigs have him.  Nobody is going to miss Jason.”
And so it was, as the flow of the evening was only briefly interrupted by this cosmic collision of electrons.  We all swore each other to secrecy and finished the rest of the meal in relative peace, as did the porcine denizens of this unique dairy ranch.
I will not tell a soul, except of course within the privileged bounds of this publication, but who would believe me anyway, even if I decided to narc out such gracious hosts?
I got up the next morning and had some really great French toast before getting on the road back down to southern California, or, as Jason would have said  “Southern Cali”.
I hope to get a chance to stay at the flaming W again and make a further exploration of the wonders of the Delta, but I may just take things one step at a time. This whole combination thing makes my head spin sometimes. Now that I am old, it is good to savor individual experiences and avoid combining the forces of pasta with those of anti-pasta, because


These are the Days.






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