The name comes from the Chumash people. I do not know what it means but this creek put food on our table many times, especially when our cupboards were bare and the paychecks were far apart.
It was never a secret place. It is located above the town, I guess over time it’s become a city, of Ojai. There are a lot of farms and orchards up there. I say up there because it is up the side of the mountains that surround Ventura County. Avocados grow well there.
The farmers had stands by the highway and sold many varieties of avocados. They grow in different sizes. I was particularly fond of the avocados that were round and maybe a little smaller than a baseball.
Matilija Creek is too small to be called a river or even a stream. It runs all year round draining the water from mountains above. It is also a wonderful home for the native trout.
I did not like to fish but I went with the cousins on many occasions. I had to help put food on the table. John was getting old, or so he said, and he did not come along.
“I’m too tired. I have been working all week.” He would say. I didn’t think he was that old but it’s true he worked hard so I’ll give him that one.
One of John’s cousins was named Jose Luis. Everybody called him Joe Lou-ee. He had an old flatbed truck that he used for work and I would pile on the back with my cousins.
We would leave about an hour before sun up. It was cold back there so we bundled up together sharing a blanket. Actually the truck was open in the cab as well. It had no doors so it also had no windows. Jose Luis and his son were bundled up as well. Back then, those old cars and trucks did not have heaters. Windshield wipers was another option.
Ojai was about 30 miles away on Highway 33. It was about daylight by the time we arrived at the creek. José Luis had the creel. It had a strap that he slung over his shoulder.
That was all we needed. I had a folding knife in my pocket. It was still cold but the sun was high enough to give us light to see. We were at the creek but that was not where we were going to fish.
José Luis led the way. My other two cousins and I got in line and followed. The trail was narrow. We walked for about 50 yards, then we began to jog. A half-hour later we found our spot.
None of us had a fishing pole. We had to find a branch and make one. I found a long thin branch, about 4 feet long. I use my knife to trim away the small branches and I was ready to go.
Joe Louis gave me a length of string and a small hook. He also handed me a worm to use for bait. This is why I never liked to fish. When I put the hook into the worm it started squirming in pain. I know it was just a worm but I would imagine how I would feel if somebody stuck a fishing hook into me like that, and I didn’t like it.
Back home waiting for breakfast was John, my mom, my sisters, my two brothers. I knew they were depending on me so I tried not to think too much about that poor little worm.
We all caught fish right away. Going to the spot was worth the run, and worth the run back. I gave the string and the hook back to Joe Louis. We did not like to waste anything.
We all put our fish into the creel. There was nothing left to pack. Again, we started walking and after a while we were running back to the truck. Many people fished up there but they had to run quite a distance like we did to get to the good fishing spots.
It was easier and quicker running downhill. It was the same for the truck. I went inside with my share of the fish. There was plenty for everybody. I caught the fish, but my mama took care of the cooking. She was pretty good at cleaning the fish, by that I mean she was fast.
She would coat the fish in cornmeal and fry them up. We did not have lard or cooking oil available all the time. What she did do was save the bacon drippings to cook with. I know that sounds nasty by today’s modern standards, but it’s what we had and it gave the fish a delicious bacon flavor.
I did not like doing this very often. On the other hand, going out with my cousins was always an adventure and it was full of healthy exercise as well. The Great Depression made everybody miserable but we found a way to put some food on the table.
Thank you Lord for the great outdoors.