The Mullen Family

Editor's note: Anglers across the U.S. are buying fishing licenses in record numbers. Following is a story in our new series, Fishing America, representing a slice of American angling pursuits.

For 26 years the Mullen family of Mill Valley, Calif., has made a pilgrimage on the week of the Fourth of July to the Crystal Springs Recreation Area, which lies north of the Desolation Wilderness Area in the high Sierras between the Tahoe National Forest and the El Dorado National Forest.

Their destination is a chain of reservoirs that provides the City of Sacramento with its drinking water, especially Loon Lake. And when they arrive at this hallowed ground, they meet up with four other families that have been doing the same thing for an equal number of years.

John Mullen said that the location was discovered by the father of one of the other four families about 40 years ago. In those days, the area was only accessible by foot, horse, or motorcycle. Today, four-wheel vehicles can take you right to lakeside campgrounds, but the area is still remote and almost never crowded, and thus a perfect getaway.

Running through Crystal Springs is the headwaters of the American River, which has been dammed in a series of reservoirs by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) — Rubicon, Buck Island, Loon Lake, Gerle Creek, and Robbs Peak. These reservoirs hold an abundance of native and stocked rainbow, brown and golden trout, which all five families seek.

"There are not many golden trout," Mullen said. "We've only caught one ever, but we kept trying."


Mullen Family pictures

This annual reunion is a serious affair.

"The motors on our boats have been specially tuned to run very slowly," Mullen said. "That helps make for a perfect troll."

The Mullen family uses Shakespeare Ugly Stick rods and Daiwa and Shimano reels, and cowbells spinners, followed by flatfish, Mepps spinners, Busy Bees and Friskie Flies, as well as several special baits created by members of the group that remain secret to only that tribe.

Trolling is the most reliably productive method. Over the years, the Mullens and the other families have located underwater springs, as well as places where pipes from upstream reservoirs pump fresh water into the lower reservoirs. Working those places almost always turns up strikes.

When fish are rising, the family then switches over to vintage fly rods, which were left behind by the previous owner of their home when they moved in. One is an ancient split bamboo pole, another is a Mohawk (the best guess is that they are both at least 50 years old and in good working order).

The biggest brown caught by the Mullen family was taken by Valerie, a sales manager the rest of the year: a German brown 17 ½ inches. Their son, Sean, a defensive end on the Tamalpais High School football team, holds the family best: an 18-inch rainbow.

John Mullen especially enjoys this annual retreat. For the rest of the year, he is the CEO of Promia, Inc., which provides software security to the nation's military.

Even away from the job, "I bring some hi-tech along: my secret weapon," Mullen said with a grin as he produces a Garmin GPS 76S, global positioning device. "It can provide a topographical map of wherever you are. Never get lost with one of these."

It also happens to provide special times when fishing is supposed to be optimal according to periods of the moon. It can be calibrated to anyplace on the planet, and it has worked wherever he has used it as his fisherman's oracle. "Never fails," he insisted.

Long before he took over the reins of Promia, John was a chef, a craft that he still enjoys. In fact, on their annual retreat, he donned his chef hat and took along a smoker for fish caught. The trout are promptly smoked, and then served on toast with a special horseradish and sour cream sauce that John brewed up. It's a recipe that is quite similar to one at an upscale Manhattan restaurant, whose exact name must remain anonymous. An appropriate secret, as after all, John Mullen is in the business of protecting the nation's information security.