Cooler loaded, picnic supplies and scruffy comforter in the back, we lock the front door and check the oil in the Mountaineer—a quart low and too early to do anything about it. The sun has barely roused its sleepy head.
We’re off to Three-Mile Slough in the south delta, fishing poles clickety-clacking all the way from Sacramento, roads mysteriously empty two days before the 4th of July, two days before the sparklers and bottle rockets and Roman candles explode, two days before children break their arms or cut their toes, burn themselves on the barbecue. Two days before life changes fully into summer and the new order of things begins.
Today, one of two free fishing days in California, we cross Three-Mile Bridge to Brannen Island, going after striped bass in the delta’s mixing zone of fresh and saltwater. We go without a license, without a clue, but there’s hope as we settle into canvas camp chairs just after sunrise and study the water. A fish jumps, another and eventually another. We’re in no rush. We have all day, a lifetime to burn daylight.
Wind from the Pacific Ocean pushes through the Golden Gate, flies past Antioch and Oakley, barrels around the tip of Brannen Island where we sit. It rattles tulles, rustles wildflowers, and sends white egrets and blue herons soaring. Ducks paddle through riffles looking for shelter. Stretching away to the west, farmhands tend fields of corn and alfalfa, their tractors’ soft humming carries on the wind.
A jingle bell fixed near the pole’s tip will signal if a fish comes to nibble at the bait—sardine and anchovy. My son, hurtling toward thirty and rushing to get his line in the water, barely cuts the bait, fixes chunks too large for slough fish on his hook, too big for small stripers, the wrong bait for catfish that suck sustenance from the decaying bottom muck. I hold my tongue, keep faith in my son’s hard-headed ability to keep trying and learning, to keep fishing. The sun turns up its heat and butterflies and dragonflies flit around us.
The island’s named for early California business rascal Samuel Brannen, who bought up land in the delta and throughout the state with funds skimmed from the tithes of his faithful Mormon brethren, eventually losing his empire when he was found out.
Families begin to join us on the island, picking shady sites nearby to picnic. Children, hauling colorful float rings and mats, throw themselves into the warming waters of the slough. My son moves on to deeper water.
I spread the comforter in thick shade, loll in the relaxed, melodic sounds of Spanish, Tagalog, Korean, Hindi, Vietnamese as women give directions for preparing lunches, laying nap pads under trees for the little ones, and arranging fishing poles for the hours before sunset when the fierce mixing of air and water comes again and the men go fishing.
They come now single–file, like squaws along a trail, coming from the overnight camps at the park’s south end. In ancient times they’d be gathering tulles for baskets, roots for medicine or acorns for mush, gossiping as they went about their tasks.
But, these country matrons chatter in English, dress in low-cut tank tops and tight shorts, wear sequins on their flip-flops and ball caps. They sip from tall tumblers and play country songs from a hidden music box. Near my table, the last picnic spot cooks in the sun. They sit at the table for a while in the glare, smooth on suntan lotion, edge closer to my shady site. Stretched out beneath a thick cottonwood tree, I secretly watch them from under the brim of my sunhat.
“He said we had to be outta here by noon, then he got in the boat with his fishing poles,” one woman said. They laugh, all agree they were told the same thing. “We’ll be lucky to be home by midnight.” Then they fall to talking about the advent of their first menstrual cycle, compare how they felt, how prepared they were for the event, the response of straight-laced grandmothers, absent mothers, step-fathers, their own daughters now edging toward the day.
Alan Jackson sings from the music player buried inside the beach bag, resting now on my paper sack filled with cups and plates, a few plastic forks: “It’s alright to be little bitty, a little hometown or a little big old city. Might as well share, might as well smile. Life only goes on for a little bitty while.”
I relax, keep spying on these squatters pushing into my picnic space, blithely nudging aside my bag of pita chips. My son returns to the congress of matrons, glances at me playing possum under the tree. Before they can move, a crowd arrives, perhaps from the parking lot or from some celestial hiding spot, a few are dressed in white choir robes, others in patent leather shoes, sun hats and dress slacks. They skirt my picnic table and make their way down the slope to where the dozens of children play in the water.
The man in a flowing white robe wades into Three Mile Slough as his followers form a tight knot on the shore and to the astonished crowd declares in Spanish a “baptismo.” One after another, three teenagers enter the water and wade to the minister.
He murmurs to them in Spanish: “Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” He calls down Espirito Sancto, tells the drenched teens to continue “glorificando a Deus,” tells them to become “fishers of men.” Then the congregation disappears.
The children return to their water play, the matrons return to lunch preparations and finding their fisherman husbands. My son and I eat salami and cheese sandwiches, chew on brownies, pack the Mountaineer, which is still a quart low. My son did not catch a striped bass, although he said others fishing around him did. But, in the spirit of hope, he says we have enough bait left for tomorrow. I love him too much to remind him free fishing is only for today. We don’t have fishing licenses.
Cover Photo: Three-Mile Bridge by Sacramento photographer Joe Chan. Joe’s images are currently on exhibit and for sale at Locke Food and Wine, the Moon Café and River Road Gallery. Down in Walnut Grove, he is exhibiting at the Seeker and at Husicks Taphouse in Clarksberg. Joe has an online portfolio at: www.flickr.com/photos/joechanphotos