The Dumbest Things I’ve Done in NorCal: A Poison Oak Nightmare on Hatchet Creek

If you buy into the notion that we learn best from our mistakes, I must be one of the smartest guys around. It might be a blessing or a curse, but I was somehow born with an attraction to adventure and the misguided idea that nothing really bad could ever happen to me; a seriously unfortunate combination. The fact that I’ve reached an advanced age on this planet without having to take my meals through a tube is even more astounding.

This is the first in a series of short stories about wild goose chases, crazy adventures and stupid things I’ve done (or tried to do), and how they turned out. Sometimes I got lucky, while others ended badly. 

Bushwhacking Hatchet Creek

In a state of almost 40 million people, I admit to an obsession with finding unknown, secret, unspoiled places where there also might be good fishing, and NorCal is full of them. 

These were the days before Google Earth and other high-tech ways of locating secluded places. I remember pouring over topo maps and circling places that might be worth visiting. One such place was Hatchet Creek outside of Montgomery Creek, California. I had done well fishing the rugged sections upstream from Hwy. 299 west of Burney, but there appeared to be an even more remote stretch where Hatchet Creek flowed into the Pit River. It even looked like there was a dirt road I could hike most of the way in. Hmmm…

I decided to go minimalist, just take the bare essentials with me. That meant a fly rod, a small box of flies, maybe a candy bar, etc. I’d learned climbing mountains that if you over-hydrated (chugged all the water you could possibly hold) for an hour or two before the trip, I could get away with not having to lug water in with me. 

When I located the turnoff for the dirt road leading into the place, I noticed a locked gate barring the way, so I was very likely trespassing. Every step of the hike was downhill, and it was a much longer descent than I had anticipated, but eventually I arrived at the end of the road and what appeared to be a tiny powerhouse. I had done it. I’d found another secret, fishing Shangri-la.

And the fishing was good, even better than I’d hoped. As I fished down Hatchet Creek toward the Pit, I started catching more pikeminnows and Sacramento suckers in addition to wild rainbow trout. Finally I’d caught all the fish I needed to, so it was time to get myself back out of there. 

It was a typical blast-furnace NorCal summer afternoon, and the uphill road heading out was very long, steep and tedious. At some point I noticed the tall ridge above me was flat at the top, and I reckoned the road where I’d parked my rig must be up there. It was a couple of hundred feet straight up, but there was a fairly stout rope hanging most of the way down that cliff face. Drum roll for my big error in judgement.

I somehow thought it might be a good idea to just climb that rope up to the top, instead of trudging at least a mile more up that steep old road. I broke my fly rod down and jammed it into a pocket freeing up my hands. Up I went. 

Most of the way felt pretty good, but since the cliff swept back a little, I couldn’t make out what it was tied to or where the road might be. As I topped a false summit I was shocked to discover I was only about 50 feet from the top, but every inch of it ran directly through an unseeable poison oak jungle. If I even look at poison oak, you might as well drive me to a hospital. I judged that I was too tired to climb back down and hike the road again, so I grit my teeth and climbed on. 

As soon as I gained the road I leapt into my car and sped toward the nearest bridge. I knew this could turn out very badly. I figured if I submerged myself in the icy waters of Hatchet Creek, maybe I could wash some of that poison oak oil off of me. It was an inspired notion, but no bueno. 

Two days later I was in the emergency room getting a cortisone shot, and I couldn’t go to work for two more weeks. Was it worth it? 

Honestly, I still can’t decide.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

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