Chuck Ragan is a family man, an outdoorsman, craftsman and musician. From The Blanco River in Texas, the woods and water of Eastern Tennessee, North Georgia, the marsh and bayou of Southwest Louisiana and the salt and freshwater of Florida, Ragan was raised chasing fish, game and adventures in the outdoors while at the same time, sharing music worldwide from an early age. Ragan relocated to Northern California in 2007 where he continued his career in music, found peace in the foothills, lakes and rivers and has begun raising a family. As a newly licensed fishing guide, Ragan guides part time for the non profit organization Cast Hope to share his passion for the outdoors, fly fishing and the importance of conservation to under served or low income kids and their mentors. For more on Cast Hope please visit http://www.casthope.org
Photos courtesy of Scott Toepfer.
First light comes quickly when you don’t lay your head down until after midnight. I’ve always found there to be a fine line between being prepared and getting side tracked going through old gear or tying up a last minute pattern that could very well lure “the one.” Nevertheless, something stirs in the soul when we set out to catch some of what the first light of day has to offer. At that point, 2-4 hours of sleep may have well been a hibernation.
Since I was boy, there has always been something about dawn that makes me feel like I’m the only person in the world witnessing that very instant. I love feeling groggy but somehow so alive, aware and anxious to find out where the chills up my spine are coming from. With all senses on high, my thoughts and imagination racing through my head as I’m getting ready to step into the intoxicating thrill of the outdoors is something to remember. Even as a kid, I remember finding air in the lungs as clean and crisp as it would be all day, or maybe ever; wondering if for some reason there happened to be more oxygen outside to breathe, because the rest of the population around us were indoors sleeping. Funny and profound thoughts go through kids' heads in the early hours under the half-lit, half-starred sky. I remember constant curiosity about how it happened to be in that moment, at that very place as dawn began to break, that the osprey was on the hunt overhead, the buck in pursuit of his doe and fish boiled, breaking the surface at the same time the inquisitive fox began a retreat to her burrow. We see many amazing and wonderful things at first light.
At a very young age if I wasn’t alone, I was with my hero/brother Paul, a tried and true hunter and gatherer as well as my oldest friend. We would be setting out on what we called our expeditions or safari, which were rarely further than a few miles from the property. These were often taken with our mother, who’s forgotten more about living and thriving in the outdoors than most people will ever know. Of course, there were endless lessons from dear ol' dad, paw paw and other elders, who taught us to set out early amongst the hardwood timber bottoms, tall pines, lakes, lily, hydrilla and cat tails. Then it was our goal to become part of that stillness and completely in tune with nature.
Leaving early, we were always surrounded by the soft noises: the clinks and clacks of tackle, thermoses, lunch pails, rods, reels and gear. I remember the scents from the trucks and the boats, as some sort of magical combination of old scales, musty nylon, fiberglass and oiled Tin Cloth with a hint of 2 Cycle, 50:1 mixture. I remember the fire of excitement and curiosity about what adventures that rig had seen before me, and which ones where ahead of us. We couldn’t have ever left for the water soon enough.
As I’ve grown older, I’m content that the charge I found as a lad still resonates when I start my truck or unzip the tent. Nowadays, I’m spending the majority of my time in the outdoors with my best friends: the ever-so-loyal and dedicated glory of the chocolate labrador retriever. As fate would have it, we ended up finding these girls born right next door. Full-blooded loving sisters, they are always game for searching for coveys in the field, jumping in the boat, blind, or banks with me, or just walking the trail.
I’ve learned many lessons on the waters' edge, in a boat or waist deep in the current, just as many of us who’ve spent any time in the fresh air have. Mainly, that fishing is far much more than just the fish.
For some of us, fishing is the pursuit of the known and unknown with passion, faith, awareness and instinct combined to connect with the outdoor world and the species we live amongst. To bond in fellowship and solidarity with our brothers, sisters, friends, neighbors, strangers and, yes, dogs. For some of us it is so far beyond a recreational venture. It’s a way of life, a meditation, a campaign, a livelihood, a sanctuary or a church. Beyond the pursuit, many of us find it our duty to protect, safeguard and serve as temporary stewards to carry and pass on the integrity, lifespan and longevity of our natural resources, in hopes that our children will grow to do the same.
Over the years, my line of work as a touring musician has taken me to many places throughout the world. Most of the time I’m racing a clock, chasing the sun and carrots, living hand to mouth or collecting bounty from blood, sweat and miles. This seems to be the way it rolls for the majority of us out there doing what we do. Luckily, I’m surrounded by wonderful people and supporters that help keep the PMA up and living on the sunny side. Even though energy is good and work is a blessing, the road does take its toll, and heading home to my loved ones and my local water is the glue that holds it all together. My wife and I decided a long time ago to always live in a place that we love, and to do what we love and love what we do. After all, if we don’t have admiration for our surroundings, environment and well being, what will keep us willing to fight for it when it’s threatened?
Train stations, airports, crowds, congestion, smog and pollution can weigh heavily on anyone exposed to it, but is all part of a transient livelihood. After the dust settles and I come to find myself in the middle of a river in the preferred reality of home life, it often feels like a dream come true. I enjoy hiking with my dogs, wading through the river, playing with cross current inertia, rowing and drifting along the banks amongst the willows in search of wild fish and a little peace of mind.
It’s easy to find the beauty and peace here. Even though evidence of environmental catastrophe is clear in the gravel mountains of dredged stone and sediment created after the California Gold Rush, and even though this river has been beaten to a pulp every year since the first pan went into the water, she keeps a flowing and is surrounded by many who love and respect her.
The Yuba River is a special place to lose and find yourself while swinging flies, dead drifting or reaching out to touch wild rising trout. I find it easy to become mesmerized by the mist off the loops and the slapping sound of a bowling ball dropped from an airplane, which in actuality is just a local beaver reminding you whose territory you’re in. The mergansers, mallards and buffleheads making their way up and down the river on a flight path below the geese and sandhill cranes a thousand feet above them. The pull of the current while crossing the river, and the feeling of your boots slipping over smooth moss-covered stones before finding a sure foot, puts me on a different plane of existence. Finding myself focused on the task at hand, but at the same time feeling the troubles of a rambunctious world melting away as my mind drifts with the flows to meet that next seam on the run of promise.
Once we settle into that rhythm of reflection, we find the moments that define us. When it all comes together and the the natural world around us moves at its relaxed true pace, that rhythm beats with precision as we become in tune with it. And just as we realize how much fishing means beyond the initial pursuit, there’s the grab.