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High Sierra High by Bill Watanabe

August 18, 2015

During World War II, my father was on the garbage detail at Manzanar.   You would think this is a pretty dirty job and no one would want to do it but apparently at Manzanar they had more than enough helpers.   Apparently this was because the guys on this detail were allowed to go out of the camp to dump the garbage in the foothills of the High Sierras.  The story goes, according to my late father, that the garbage guys would quickly finish their work and then spend a few hours fishing the streams to catch some trout before returning to the camp.  I guess no one ever tried to escape which would have ruined it for everyone!

After the war, for a number of summers during my childhood, the whole family would leave the farm in the San Fernando Valley and drive up to the Sierras to fish the streams and lakes around Independence and Bishop.    I have pleasant memories of my father walking along the streams with his pole and fishing gear and disappearing for hours going up into the backwoods to fish all the nooks and crannies of the streams where fish like to hide.   Perhaps my father loved to return to these streams that had names like “Taboose Creek” and “Goodale Creek” because it reminded him of sweet moments of freedom enjoyed outside the barbed wire and the feeling of being surrounded by nature, as well as the challenge of catching fish to take back to the camp for dinner.

As a result of these family fishing trips, I have been going to the High Sierras for most of the past 60 years – long after my parents have passed on.    And I am not alone – in fact, there have been many instances when the only people I could see fishing at any one of the mountain lakes were Asians – and most probably Nikkei.   One time while fishing the shore at the end of the road loop at Convict Lake, there were about 20 people fishing and everyone was Asian except for two Caucasian young men who happened to be fishing right in the middle of all these Asians.    I overheard one white guy say to the other:  “Hey Joe – I think we’re surrounded!”   And they were!

If people ask me to name my favorite lake, I guess I would say Lake George because even when the fishing is terrible, the view is so beautiful that it doesn’t matter!   Lake George is very popular and I can guarantee that if you ever go to Lake George, you will inevitably see some Nikkei folks fishing there – and they may be someone you know or knows someone you know!

I used to go fishing every year with my brother.   We are both pretty sedentary fishermen – content to put on some bait, cast out our lines, and wait in our folding chairs for something to happen.   These were good times to talk about anything and catch up on family news and maybe even try to solve the problems of the world.   My brother and I might sit by the lake for a whole day even if the fish are not biting (as they often aren’t) because we enjoy the calm and relaxation just as much as the joy of catching a nice fish (well, almost as much).

My Issei parents, on the other hand, were absolutely driven to catch as many fish as they could with a total disregard for the daily catch-limits so they could bring home as many fish as possible to brag about and to give to their friends and neighbors to enjoy.   My parents were very law-abiding citizens but in terms of fishing limits, the laws were totally disregarded!   Back in the old days, a person could catch and keep as many as ten fish per day and later it became seven and then down to five fish per day.   My parents expected results and if there was no immediate action, they would change bait, or they would change fishing spots, and if necessary, they would pack up and change lakes!   My parents, who would never go over the speed limit, would hide as many fish as possible in their camper, even using an oversized water jug that could hold a dozen small trout with ice.   Whenever they saw a Fish & Game warden come around, they would become very worried about getting caught – and it was me or my brothers who would scold them for hoarding so many fish!

My parents usually out-fished me, but on one occasion while the three of us sat on the lake shore, I caught the first fish and they were happy for me.   Then I caught the second fish and this time they were a bit surprised and alarmed.   Then I caught the third fish – and I could tell from the pole action that it was a big one.   I called out to my parents “Get the net – get the net!” but when I looked at them, they just sat there and didn’t lift a finger to help me!   Blood may be thicker than water – but not when it comes to fishing!

My brother can no longer cope with the high elevation of the Sierras so he doesn’t go anymore.  But I still go with other friends whom I have known for several decades, and in addition to the fishing, we always enjoy the beautiful vistas, star gazing, hiking, Ranger talks, boating, Mono Lake tufas, Rainbow Falls, Red Meadows and hot spring showers, and occasionally running away from bears.

John Denver had his Rocky Mountain High, but we here in California have the High Sierra High, and to tell you the truth, even though the Rockies are very grand and beautiful, the Sierras are taller and every bit as grand!


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