Northern California Road Trip: 5/22 – 5/28/2012

With the end of the holiday weekend, comes the end of our week long road trip to the bay area. My sister in law got married on Saturday and the plan that made the most sense for us was to drive it down to San Fransisco and do it on our terms without the constraints of the airlines, and the stress of trying to organize transportation with two young boys and all of the things that we would need in order to make it work. My wife and I agreed that taking it slowly and touring some sights would be the way to go as it’d been a couple decades since I’d been down the 101 with my parents on our summer road trips as a child.

Our route would take us down to Eugene, OR towards Florence for our first night stop.  I would see the famous McKenzie River and imagine what it must have been like for the first fly fishermen who floated the river on the wooden dorries that the modern driftboats got their beginnings.  The drive out to Florence would parallel the tidal waters of the Duncan inlet on the Siuslaw where I could imagine would be a fanastic spot in the fall for returning salmon and winter steelhead.  Since this was a family vacation the time would be limited to stop and possibly fish but my wife did agree that I could make a stop in Guerneville, CA to pick up another Almarco pram. This would be preceded with quick stop in Crescent City, CA for a visit to Redwood Welding Services.  Here I would meet the father of the Almarco pram, Donald Nuss. His shop is located just off the 101 in Crescent City and was right along our route towards the Redwoods State and National parks.  I’ve talked to Don on the phone but wanted to shake his hand and thank him for coming up with this pram design which I believe to be one of the best out there if not the best that I’ve had the pleasure to fish and row.

I walked into his shop and the white haired and somewhat short in stature gentleman had his back faced to me while working at his pipe bending machine. I said, “are you Don?” With a growl, he answered, “depends… who’s askin’?”  The first things I noticed when he turned around was his metal workers hands, big, burly, knarley and strong. You could tell this guy had alot of time behind the torch and spent many hours with plenty of scars to show his craft.  It looks like he was working on a big gooseneck tandem axle trailer and had just about every imaginable tool known to a man with his experience. After my introduction, I was there to find out how he came up with this design as I’ve not encountered another lightweight welded pram that was better suited for fly fishing still or moving water than his brainchild, the Almarco drifter.  Once we exchanged some greetings, he really opened up and even cracked a smile as I asked him about the serial numbering process and how he came about with the overall design.  It was in 1976 a fly fisherman brought his wooden pram to Don and asked if it would be possible to duplicate it in aluminum as the weathered and beat up boat had seen its better days and was pretty much a goner.  One side of the boat was pretty much toast and from this, he was able to take measurements from the centerline of that old pram and design with higher sides and a bit more rocker from bow to stern a boat that would glide over the water but have plenty of side to side stability for fly fishermen who often times stood while casting and or fighting a fish.  Once the boats started coming out, and the word started getting around, the calls would come in from anglers all over Northern California requesting for his Aluminum prams.  He would cut the templates in bulk and weld up each boat once an order would come in, and would take a laborious amount of work, some 30 hours of welding, grinding, bending, forming, and manufacturing to birth a new Almarco.  When I asked about the serial numbering process, he shared with me the first three digits are of the manufacturer ALQ, the next are the sequence, the letter designating which month the boat was built, A-L, the next would be the year in two digits, and the last would be the sequential number each boat.  Since Don isn’t a fisherman, he had to rely on the input from other fly fishermen on what worked and through the years his prams never really changed a whole lot other than minor things for comfort and function such as the anchor locks. The most innovative and distinctive marks on his prams are the built in handles in the bow and stern. These cutouts are really smart, weight saving, and secure, a great place to strap down to the roof rack or in the bed of a pick up.  The next is the width, the boat is wide, and stable, I’ve never felt unsafe in this boat and with the amount of foam floatation under the bench seat, this pram would never sink even when capsized. The built in side trays, the elevated anchor locks, the bow rocker all add to the rowability of this boat as I can testify that it glides over the water versus pushing a path.  The most important factor of the boat was the weight, with it coming in at around 65 lbs its so easy to manuever this alone and to have all my gear, lunch, and to be able to fish in comfort is how it all comes together.  Don pulled out a file folder and had an invoice for each one of his creations, I was amazed to see the stack of serial numbered receipts, wondering where these boats have made their way over the past 40 years.  He said that over the 20 years that they were made, he produced a little over 600 of them. I am lucky to have found my first one in Spokane, I was the third owner .The guy I bought it from indicated that he got it from a retired doctor who relocated from Northern CA to Spokane.  Until then, I had only read about the Almarco on the California internet fly fishing forums and had always wanted a better pram as we were limited to either fiberglass, wood, or very heavy aluminum here in the Pacific Northwest. The first time I rowed the Almarco, I instantly knew that it was a keeper.

Knowing that I would make the trip to the bay area, I poked around Craigslist and to my surprise found a guy selling his Almarco. He was the original owner and purchased it in 2000, it was a 1999 model. The state requires all watercraft to be registered and licensed and he had a title and hull numbers that corresponded to the registration, pretty interesting… We got lost a few times even with GPS trying to locate this place, and often times wondered if we’d get robbed or mugged in the seedier of places that was definitely hair raising.  The owner was a rough gent but sincere, he agreed to hold the boat as I sent him a hefty deposit and based the sale on trust alone since he was a fly fisherman as well.  I was worried when I saw the pitbulls, and the broken down cars and the kids in the streets with joints and the smell of weed through the air.  Once I was directed behind a gate, there I saw the Almarco and some of my anxieties went away, Jon would also show me his G. Loomis GL3 8 wt. and Tibor reel, which he used for getting King Salmon in the nearby Russian River.  He had only used the boat a handful of times in the 12 years he owned it, but felt it was time to let her go since he had a failing shoulder and could no longer cast a rod.

I brought down plenty of ratcheting tie downs, but was a bit concerned with the Thule roof rack as it was  wee bit too narrow to accomodate a solid platform for the gunnels near the stern, there was maybe a centimeter left of rack edge but once I had four tie downs secured, that pram was going nowhere even with highway speeds up to 80 mph that would ensue for the remainder of the trip.  I was more concerned about how the whole set up would fit into the parking garages in downtown San Fransisco, where the location that I wanted to park only had a max vehicle height of 7′. The whole set up was measuring about 7′ 4″, too tight!  It all ended up working better as I found even closer parking to our hotel and they had oversized parking for the monster trucks that were parked there along with our Honda minivan with rooftopped pram.  I found that the pram drew alot of attention from the valets at the hotel, guys saying that they’d never seen anything like that before and how great it would be to fish out of that in the delta. One valet showed me the photos of his Ling Cod, Rockfish, Vermillion, Salmon, Halibut that were all caught in the bay, he said that a pram like this one would be ideal to launch and fish, with a smile of my face, I agreed and we exchanged fish stories and photos while Rolls Royces, and other expensive European vehicles made the way into the parking pavillion.  Even in line for gas at the Costco, guys were asking me about the pram, it was like a magnet for anyone that fished and my wife was looking at me and wondering what planet fishermen are from as we must have some kind of radar that beacons us together.

Driving along the 101, we’d cross the famous estuary and mouths that would become the Smith, Chetco, Klamath rivers.  Not sure if I would have the opportunity to go back to these places and fish for legendary salmon and steelhead, but maybe one day in the future.  Even with all the waters here in Washington, Oregon, and BC that I have still yet to fish, there is a lifetime of exploring and fishing to be done here. Most of you probably think I am deranged, as this is my third Almarco and 4th 8′ welded Aluminum pram in my fleet. Yes, I did say 3rd! With the advent of blogging and the wonders of the internet, you know that I also brought home Almarco #2 most recently.  Terry K. from Montana upon doing some research about this boat that he fell upon contacted me and asked what that pram is worth as he was wanting to sell it.  I jumped at this opportunity and the rest is history. I am done with my quest for finding these prams, ideally I was considering handing each one down to my sons so that we’d all be able to fish out of them when they were old enough, but who knows if they’ll love fly fishing as much as I do. I know that they will stand the test of time as Don Nuss shared with me that even those boats that were made in the 70’s were still being fished actively. Those early boats outlived many of their original owners!















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