Most people have heard the famous song ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ by Johnny Cash. Fewer people have probably heard of Folsom Lake, which was not far from where I lived in Granite Bay, around 6th and 7th grade (I guess before I’d heard of either the song or the lake).
I want to be fair in my assessment of Folsom Lake, because it’s a pretty beautiful spot that supposedly has some exceptional fishing, but I’ve personally never heard any great stories or had my own success there. I have found memories of it from my childhood, a nice beautiful spot with purple bursts of wildflowers along the shoreline and tons of open space for camping, hiking, biking, boating, and anything else you could dream up. Compared to the smaller Swan Lake by my house or the murky Sacramento Delta, Folsom was a gem at the base of the Sierra foothills.
Folsom is a watershed reservoir that trapped a lot of water coming down from the mountains. Partly because it’s a big lake, it struggles from drought, so water levels could change 30, 40, 50 feet at some points, depending on rain and season. It makes conditions tough and fickle, which I think fueled my displeasure with my fishing experience (just imagine me as a 6th grader standing there all upset: “This fuels my displeasure.” What a joke!).
That’s not to say we didn’t fish. Of course we did. We’d take my dad’s old Formula 23 footer out there and go around fishing all day, sometimes all night. It was just us fishing, time after time. Sure, we caught a fire amount of fish, but never big ones, never large amounts, just the odd bass or perch or trout from time to time. I was always instinctively disappointed.
One of my favorite memories on Folsom Lake is completely unrelated to fishing. As a reservoir lake, we knew to avoid the area immediately adjacent to to the dam, due to the obvious dangers of getting too close. As you get closer, there’s a big pole in the water and a string of buoys meant to keep young and reckless boaters from getting sucked into the dam and spat out the backside in a horrible demise.
We hoped to find some good fish out that way, so we cut the motor and started casting out, trying our luck, and slowly drifting closer to the dam. When we got too close, we’d turn the boat on and move away. Cut the engine, drift, repeat. It was a nice rhythm despite the lackluster fishing. Finally, we decided to call it quits.
My dad went to fire up the boat and it did not start. That’s right — did not. We had this moment of calm before we got really worried, and a few moments more before worry turned to fear. In my head, I could see us drifting right up to the dam, only to be pulled under to a violent death in a seething watery vortex.
But while I was imagining our doom, my dad was keeping us safe, tying us to the line. In the end, we made a quick call for vessel assistance and got towed back to land for a (thankfully) anticlimactic outcome.
I still think about Folsom Lake every once in awhile. Sometimes I remember it in the small moments as I reach to start a motor, sometimes I think of it when I see fields of lavender and purple wildflowers. Other times, my memories are triggered by the rambling bravado of Johnny Cash. He sings:
Far from Folsom Prison
That’s where I want to stay
And I’d let that lonesome whistle
Blow my blues away
It’s a pretty apt description of my feelings for Folsom Lake. As I got older and fished more places, I ended up just staying away from Folsom. I never had much luck there, so other waters in the area drew me in, places I started to fish all the time. You could say I gave up on it too early, or that I hadn’t cracked its secret.
That’s probably fair. But maybe the secret to Folsom is just to enjoy the boating, tubing, water skiing, and all the recreation. Maybe it’s just, as the song suggests, to stay far away. I’ll let you be the judge. As I said from the outset, I’m not sure if my assessment is totally fair, but Folsom Lake did little, if anything, to Blow my blues away.