exploring before it’s all over

As if it hasn’t been a figuratively dry trout season for me, a long trip last weekend over three passes, along rivers and over two reservoirs showed that things are literally drying up…

This was my last and only second trip to the Sierras during the general trout season. It was happenstance that kept me off the water and only sheer determination — and a desperate desire for a break from every-day life — that crammed a 400-plus mile drive and not enough fishing into a single day.

Firsthand reports dashed any hope of great fishing. Small streams were trickles, meaning wild fish were off limits. State-stocked waters that normally received a few buckets of fish before the end of the season didn’t.

Another view of the sunrise from Sonora Pass.

Another view of the sunrise from Sonora Pass.

Optimism being the most overused tool in a fly fisherman’s arsenal, I still hit the road over Sonora Pass before sunup. If there were few fish to be had, at least a sunrise at 9,000 feet doesn’t disappoint. This late in the year, a sunrise seems to last longer.

Looking a bit southwest from Sonora Pass.

Looking a bit southwest from Sonora Pass.

There was unexpected company on the West Walker River, a couple planning to soak bait. They went their way, I went mine. I’d have pocket water all to myself, whitefish on the mind, and the sound of reveille arising (a bit too late in the morning this time?) from the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center.

My "office" for the morning. (West Walker River)

My “office” for the morning. (West Walker River)

Just like that “confidence fly” most fly fishermen keep tucked away, there are pieces of water one comes to expect to hold fish. My expectation held true this morning. It didn’t take long before a fish was fooled with my favorite red-butt zebra midge pattern. While not large, white tips on smooth fins suggested it was a more educated trout. Even if was a hatchery fish, it had spent enough time in the wild to learn a few things while it’s pectoral and caudal fins healed. There would be no whitefish this year and nothing big, but all of the trout I found were feisty.

This isn’t the time of year that these trout rise to dry flies, but the water level requires stealth, a dry-dropper setup, light casts to small seams and short drifts. It’s hard to disagree that this type of rig might be a reflection of my middle-of-the-road nature, mixing the oft-look’d-down-upon tactic of nymphing with the loftier technique of dry fly fishing. Deep down I hoped for a rise to the dry fly, but ice crunching underfoot suggested it was not to be.

My plans called for crossing Monitor Pass on the way to the East Carson River, then over Ebbetts Pass, and finally completing a twisting and oblong course over the man-made New Melones Lake. Unfamiliar with the route and wary of unpredictable delays, I was on the road again before noon.

Many times I’ve enjoyed driving — whether a car or motorcycle — over Tioga and Sonora passes many times, during the spring, summer and fall. Any threat of snow brings about closures, but during this trip Tioga and Sonora pass, as well as Ebbetts and Monitor pass had reopened after brief snow closures earlier in the week.

Looking west from near Monitor Pass.

Looking west from near Monitor Pass.

The landscape and vegetation of each pass is unique, with stark changes as one gains elevation. Over Monitor Pass, Highway 89 twists between and over numerous peaks, alternating between barren high desert to east and the fir and pine forests on the western slopes. Once over the summit, the road quickly descends to meet Highway 4, then crosses the East Carson River.

This was first visit to the East Carson River. The wild trout section was low and slow, and out of the shadows of the high canyon walls. Sunlight reflected off nearly every eddy, riffle and pool, and, as might be expected, the fishing was great but the catching not. It was suggested after the fact that I should have fished upstream, where a summer of stocking might mean a few stupid willing fish would remain. I chalked this visit up to exploration. Since it wasn’t too far away, I drove to Markleeville. I had to drive through town a second time; I blinked and missed it the first time through.

Colors along Highway 89, just south of the East Carson River.

Colors along Highway 89, just south of the East Carson River.

The route over Ebbetts Pass is more adventurous than the comparatively high-speed Highway 108 over Sonora Pass and Highway 120, which winds through Yosemite and over Tioga Pass.

Driving over Ebbetts Pass is not for the faint of heart. Sandwiched between a full-width, two-lane state highway is a section reminiscent of the descriptions our parents and grandparents might offer of roads built only wide enough that two Model Ts could squeeze by each other. This middle section, from Lake Alpine to Silver Creek, is a barely two-lane road. There is no center line or fog lines. Shoulders are a rarity. Steep curvy portions, precipitous drop-offs and vistas of pristine landscapes are plentiful. If the narrowness of this road isn’t enough to reduce one’s speed, the beauty was. Lack of planning meant I couldn’t linger. Plans are already afoot to return with a greater abundance of time.

Ebbetts Pass tarn.

Ebbetts Pass tarn.

The rest of my drive was in relatively civilized areas. I’d pick up apple cider outside of Arnold, then wine and special spices in Murphys. I crossed New Melones Lake, which looked more a river at flood stage (it was formed by the damming of the Stanislaus River). Back in Twain Harte early, I cleaned up and planned to attend to a few items on the to-do list, figuring I’d walk to the local Ace store for a halogen bulb and any other necessary item. During the walk I began an exploration of a different variety. More on that next time my fingers are willing to dance on the keyboard…

Leavitt Falls, late in the fall.

Leavitt Falls, late in the fall.

All of the photos, and some more:

no fishing, but a good catch

Summer’s gone and dribbles of rain have wet the ground a few times. It’s been an almost fish-less year for me. That may change with an end-of-the-season trip after the first of November, but in the meantime I’ll remain a bit cranky.

That’s not to say I haven’t been busy with tangential fishing endeavors. By the end of this month the move of two fly fishing club websites to new online platforms should be finished, and my involvement will taper off from full-time developer/designer to part-time consultant. I’ve also busied myself with experiments in online learning, recreational shooting and a personal goal of walking 5 miles daily. It’s become difficult to remember how fishing could fit into my schedule.

Last weekend it was creepy neighborly curiosity that had Karen and me traipsing through a home across the street and a houses up. The residents weren’t people with whom we had wanted to acquaint ourselves. The house was now vacant and an estate sale planned for Saturday.

In the world of estate and garage sales, every minute counts; but we had things to do and arrived about an hour late. There weren’t too many items of interest, though a nice rolling tool cabinet and couple decent pieces of furniture were tagged as sold.

I’m not a picker by any stretch of the imagination and generally won’t dig through a pile of junk hoping for a gem. But walking through the garage my attention was drawn to a few rods tucked into a corner.

It was the usual collection of rods bought on the spur of the moment: a mix of spinning and bait casting rods and nothing remarkable. The same could be said of the reels, with one exception tucked behind the others. A fly reel attached to a medium saltwater spinning rod.

Two years ago I purchased an unbranded bamboo rod at the club auction for minimal money and since had been looking for a reel that might match the rod’s patina and pedigree. At first glance, this reel would fit the bill. I offered $5, mumbling that it was the reel I was interested in, but that I’d do them a favor by taking the rod off their hands as well. The deal was sealed and money changed hands.

The Catch

The Catch

The rod cleaned up well enough to keep for the occasional misstep outside of fly fishing. The reel was in decent shape and only required wiping some dust and cobwebs away, which revealed it was a Pflueger Medalist 1495, a solid reel that I suspected might work well enough on the so-far-unused bamboo rod. But it was set up for left-hand retrieve, and I don’t do left-hand retrieve.

The Internets quickly offered up enough knowledge to indicate that I could set it up for right-hand retrieve. With a few tools and decent instructions the reel was soon in pieces. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but I admired its construction and relatively simple design — a more elegant reel from a more civilized age.

After a simple inversion of the drag plate was all it should take, but the right-hand retrieve side of the drag plate was missing a bezel that would allow the drag bearing, which fits inside the drag plate, to nestle into the drag plate. Test fitting revealed that would prevent the spool from seating properly. I scratched my head for a bit then sent off a few emails to guys who know better than I.

Apparently I had found a left-hand retrieve only Medalist 1495, likely manufactured in the late 1950s or 1960s before Pflueger changed the drag plate to allow folks to reel with the “wrong hand,” apparently a “quite collectible” version of the Medalist.

You’ll find me looking for another $5 reel for that no-name bamboo rod.

on the progeny of planted parents (or, can a wild trout be a good substitute for its native cousin?)

There’s something wonderfully satisfying about the surprising fight-per-ounce ratio of a wild trout that is followed by a revelation of coloration more vivid than man might create. That’s doubly true when the wild fish is native.

There are purists who would dismiss the progeny of planted parents, but earlier this week, Mark Kautz raised an interesting thought about a possible decline of opportunities to catch wild trout on his Northern California Trout blog as the California Department of Fish & Wildlife’s stocking program shifts to triploid trout.

Shelving the wild vs. native fish discussion for a bit, if I can’t chase native trouts, I’m just as happy stalking their wild brethren. Wild trout are the reason I took up fly fishing. There comes a point in every fishing career that you develop an affinity for a style of fishing, or a species, and often both. It can happen unexpectedly and unconsciously.

With me it began on a little creek in the Walker River watershed, with a spinning rod and a size one spotted Panther Martin teardrop. The cookie-cutter planter rainbows are the standard fare downstream, but my recent rediscovery of the benefits of hiking a bit farther than most weekend warriors had convinced me that whacking through dense stands of cottonwood could be worth the effort.

Trout are one species that adhere to the adage that “life will find a way,” and there’s no better example that the wild fish that often can be found upstream of the ruts created by the DFW’s live-haul stocking trucks. That day it was a cast to riffles in the shade of streamside willows that introduced me to a sizeable wild trout, at least by my standards. Until then, my familiarity of trout with parr marks had been limited to fish measuring less than six inches; this one was about twelve inches long. That wild trout was my gateway fish to appreciation of native populations.

As Mark observed, it’s likely that many folks expect to stock their freezers with trout poundage with a value equal to the cost of a fishing license; perhaps by any means necessary and without knowledge of or concern about the toll on wild and/or native trout. Perhaps it’s fed by the illusion of self-sustenance, even if for only a few days each year. It’s just as likely those fish won’t be replaced as the DFW’s triploid trout — chosen in response to a legal action challenging its hatchery and stocking operations — can’t reproduce. In the long-run, this should be a good thing for California’s native fishes. (It should be noted that the California DFW hatchery system has been gearing up production of native fish for selected waters.)

Still, it’s hard not to wonder if meat fishing, especially in a state as populous as California, would decimate populations of wild fish that have gained a foothold where native fish don’t exist. Also, with California’s now minimal sustainable populations of native fish, it could eventually impact native fish without stronger enforcement of regulations. That, or we have to hope, as Mark alluded, that meat fisherman will be more inclined to drive a few miles to grab some steaks than clamber over rocks, descend into a canyon or even walk a few thousand feet upstream.

Thank you, Mark, for the thought-provoking discourse.

unnatural restoration of wetlands

While the most radical statement I made during the ‘70s was the purchase of a white and green-striped backpack emblazoned with the ecology symbol, I’ve always been pretty certain that Styrofoam isn’t environmentally friendly. Yet there it is; big blocks of the stuff being used in the restoration of the wetlands north of my commute on Hwy 37.

Ecology Backpack

Used one like this in Boy Scouts.

Restoration of this area, in the Napa River delta and known as Cullinan Ranch, began three years ago. According to the website, long-term farming led to subsidence — up to six feet — as the marsh dried out. This puts the area below mean sea level. The hope is to restore 1,500-plus acres of tidal wetlands in the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge. But it’s estimated it would take Mother Nature about six decades to rebuild the site with sediment deposited in by the Napa and Sacramento-San Joaquin rivers.

It seems that’s where Styrofoam geofoam plays a part.

About two weeks ago, semi loads of big blocks of geofoam were offloaded while tractors of all sorts and sizes carved out a building-sized ditch paralleling Hwy 37 for about four miles. Now that ditch is being filling with geofoam. The geofoam website lists various applications of the stuff and touts its benefits.

I just can’t get my mind around it. I can understand stabilizing the embankment along the highway, but stuffing what in essence is Styrofoam into the earth as part of restoring a site to its natural composition seems contradictory.

Of course, once covered with dirt and after vegetation takes hold, no one will know.

quick note (or, yes, I haven’t been fishing)

I sit down tentatively in front of the keyboard, the one-eyed monster stares back, unblinking. The view out the window reminds me that midsummer has passed and for the first time in a month I’m fully aware of just how much fishing I’ve missed. It’s a long time before the end of the season, and there should be opportunity to haunt favorite fishy places. But there’s no making up for time lost.

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything just for fun. The prospect of doing so is exciting but a bit terrifying. I’ve been challenged the last month or so by genetics that required minor surgery on my left hand, not my casting hand, thank goodness. Apparently I inherited from some long-forgotten Northern European ancestor the necessary components to develop Dupuytren’s contracture. After outpatient surgery, I was in a brace for two weeks. There was no keyboarding at 70 words per minute. But life didn’t sit still. Work piled up. I was in the middle of three different website projects as well as my regular job. It’s taken weeks just to get back to par. To the three readers still left, I’m sorry for the absence.

My forced downtime did not go to waste. Karen and I spent a weekend in Chico; no fishing, just lots of beer tasting at the Sierra Nevada Beer Camp Across America.

The weekends this month are already full with life’s non-fishing activities and that’s just fine. Given that California’s in the middle of a horrendous drought, the trout have more important things to do than ignore my fly as it drifts by. Vegetation has become tinder for fires. It’s anyone’s guess if this winter will put a dent in the drought. The recent reports of warm water game fish and mammals appearing in the ocean off the California coast (mahi mahi, yellowfin tuna, pilot and Bryde’s whales) and the recent humidity and showers could be the tea leaves predicting El Niño is developing. However, expectations have recently changed, and it may be a weak event.

In the meantime, you’ll find me preparing for the time opportunity presents itself.