Tag Archives: weather

ripples without water (or, this drought stinks)

The only reason I haven’t curled up in a fetal position and yielded to California’s 500-year drought is there’s at least a few days of trout fishing on the horizon.

It’ll be good news and bad news situation. The good news being that low water will allow access to most streams and rivers during my limited time fishing this month. The bad news is that the water may be gone when I can next venture into the Sierras.

droughtmapAs a native Californian, most of the drought news is the “usual” hue and cry about the fight to bring water to farmers, efforts to save water, dwindling city supplies and wildfires resulting from the record heat, as well as the not-so-usual and so-called Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

But the stories that truly illustrate the far-reaching impact of The Great Drought are smaller in scope and often just as alarming.

Spring fishing in the Sierra Nevadas usually means fewer people and rattlesnakes. This year, at least the rattlesnakes will be more numerous.

Wildlife experts from the high Sierra to Southern California report that snake sightings are up, largely due to the warm, dry weather that has gripped much of the West. Rattlesnakes, like many animals, have been drawn out of their wintertime dormancy earlier this year because of the mild conditions that have accompanied the drought, experts say.

Shrinking agricultural employment is affecting school attendance.

It’s not just fish that depend on insects — which often reproduce in water — but birds. The tricolored blackbird may make the endangered species list with help from the drought.

Reproduction declines have been noticed since 2007, before the drought, Meese said, but recent counts have shown even steeper declines. A statewide survey of tricolored blackbirds, known for their red shoulder patch with a bright white stripe, was recently concluded and the results are due out in three weeks.

At issue for the birds is a lack of insects since female birds require insects in their diet to form eggs. Also, young birds require insects during the first nine days of life, when they cannot digest plant material. Meese contends that the effects of the drought have created lower populations of insects, as well as less-extensive wetlands from which blackbirds can feed.

Even before the full effect of the drought can be felt, food prices are on the upswing. The $200 million cherry crop is expected to be up to half of normal. http://blogs.kqed.org/bayareabites/2014/05/13/light-california-cherry-season-thanks-to-warm-winter-expect-higher-prices/

…the warm, dry winter threw cherry trees off their game all over the state. California usually delivers the nation’s early season cherries, but with yields down around a third of what they usually are you can expect to pay a whole lot more at the market.

What the trees want is a wet, chilly winter with fog that keeps the daytime temperatures under 55 degrees.

But, clearly, the trees aren’t getting what they want.

California honey prices are being pushed to new highs. California was at the top of the list of honey-producing states a couple of years ago. Not anymore. This third year of drought could cut production to its lowest since 1981.

Suction dredge mining remains an issue for our rivers but, apparently, now is the time to shut down those machines and pick up a pan in the search for gold. Accessibility is creating a mini-gold rush in the Sierra foothills.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the severity of this drought has shifted the discussion on fracking.

Fracking a single oil well in California last year took 87 percent of the water consumed in a year by a family of four, according to the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry lobbying group. That amount — a modest one by national standards, the oil industry argues — has become an increasingly delicate topic since a drought was officially declared early this year in the state.

The drought, combined with a recent set of powerful earthquakes, has provided the momentum for about a dozen local governments across California, the third-largest oil producing state, to vote to restrict or prohibit fracking in their jurisdictions, as concerns over environmental effects and water usage have grown.

At the same time, a bill that would declare a statewide moratorium on fracking has been gathering support in the State Senate, a year after a similar effort failed.

The frail nature of our infrastructure — arrogantly designed to fight Mother Nature’s wisdom — is certain to be tested in the many months between now and the next rainfall. A switch to ignoble warm water species might salve the itch to fish, but at what cost to one’s pride?

how to be a hero (or, hey, leave those fish alone)

A stream of water trickles on the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir near San JoseIt’s clear that nature’s dewatering of California this year will leave the trout that can be found skittish and stressed. I suppose that only the most thoughtful fishermen will leave them well enough alone as the summer wears on, or perhaps cross to the dark side of warm water species.

Opening Day may mark the beginning of the few weeks during which decent trout fishing may be found not too far away, while fish mortality is at a minimum. After that, it’s unlikely you’ll find solitude at a high alpine stream, creek or lake. The same climate change pushing wildlife to higher altitudes will similarly affect their human hunters.

This summer and fall — when still-flowing rivers will only offer skinny water — will be seasons of small fly rods and even smaller flies. A few small wild trout fisheries I hold dear (and of which I also hold a delusion that only I know about them) won’t withstand much molestation, meaning I’ll also be somewhere else.

It’s been proposed that “heroic measures” will be needed to save California’s salmon runs. As the weather warms up and naturally flowing water is scarce, it’ll be just as heroic to leave alone those fish that have nowhere else to go.

no longer just fair-weather fishing

I’d never thought of myself as a fair-weather fisherman until last month. The truth is that the timing of my fishing trips — most of which take place within a few hours drive of our cabin in the Sierra foothills — is more often dictated by the level of water and the appetites of the trout in it. There are plenty of sources for information that will give you an idea of what might be expected when you get where you’re going, but usually doesn’t match up with the reality of being there.

Last month I had left the cabin on an outing that began like any other early-morning trip over Sonora Pass. I left before sunrise, the roads were vacant and it was about 40 degrees F. The general idea was to visit previously unvisited areas of a nearby watershed, with no specific plan in mind.

The elevation of the cabin is about 3,600 feet, where autumn is generally makes its presence known in a pleasant manner. Leaves are beginning to change and there’s a nip in the air. Short sleeves are still comfortable most of the now shorter daylight hours.

The temperature fell as I began to climb toward the pass, and blotches of yellows and reds more frequently peeked out from behind the evergreens. By the time I arrived at Kennedy Meadows (elevation 6,700 feet), it was about half an hour past sunrise, but in the shadows of this piñon-juniper forest, it was 27 degrees. In 10 more miles I climbed another 3,000 feet, emerged from the tree line, and the temperature would rise about 25 degrees.

I have a fondness for the high country — because its beauty is one of stark contrasts, in some ways harsh but fragile in others, with dwarfed pines scrapping out an existence against a background of granite — and this dramatic variation in temperatures is one of the most observable influences on that beauty. The simple expansion of water as it becomes ice slowly breaks down granite. The melting of that ice, and snow, as well as a general weathering of the landscape, breaks that granite into pieces that, through weather and the activities of insects and animals, can be mixed with decomposed plant matter to create a thin and rocky soil. It’s truly amazing that such infertile soil supports numerous conifers of all shapes and sizes.

The descent on the east side of the mountains leads down to the high desert, where desolation of this shrubland is interrupted by strings of trees, usually aspens in the canyons and pines elsewhere, following the course of the rivers and streams of the Walker watershed. The sun gathers strength here, but this morning its power would be contested by a layer of cold air that had established a foothold during the night.

River-Side Ice

River-side ice at 26 degrees that morning.

There’s always that time, between emerging from the artificial environmental cocoon of a vehicle and before the cold really starts to bite, that the air temperature never seems that cold. When I pulled alongside likely looking water, it was 26 degrees. I had given serious consideration to the idea it would be chilly, but now worried I hadn’t considered it seriously enough.

So with the thought that I had come too far and retreat wasn’t an option, I began the layering that I hoped would suffice. This was comprised of fleece pants under the waders, a wind-proof wading jacket over a fleece sweatshirt that was on top of my long sleeve shirt, and a well-worn, wide-brim canvas hat. Later I’d realize that my fingerless fishing gloves would have been a welcome addition.

As long as I kept moving, I avoided the long shadows that persisted as the sun hung low along its autumnal path. The water was 58 degrees, at the low end at which trout will be active, so I didn’t linger too long in one spot and moved frequently to cover as much water as possible.

This was an entirely new experience. My breath hung in the air, lingering as puffs of white. Skim ice crunched underfoot. My guides iced up within fifteen minutes. It was cold. So cold that I almost — almost — hoped that wouldn’t have to plunge my hand into the water to unhook a fish.

I would leave this first spot about an hour later, skunked but feeling that for that brief time, more than ever, that I couldn’t escape being part of nature.

the 2013 Eastern Sierra Expeditionary Force, part 3

Looking downstream (east) as Rock Creek exits Heart Lake.

Looking downstream (east) as Rock Creek exits Heart Lake.

My last full day in the Eastern Sierra was planned around a mid-afternoon visit to Mammoth Brewing. John — a multi-year attendee of this outing — was keen on the idea, so we planned to spend the morning fishing and the afternoon…um…let’s call it “beering.”

We got an early start driving up Rock Creek Canyon to the Mosquito Flats trailhead, at about 10,000 feet. It was a typically crisp fall morning when we geared up and begin hiking, which for stretches was more akin to climbing. It stopped every once and a while to catch my breath admire the scenery.

We had no particular goal, so about an hour in we departed the trail and headed to the inlet of Heart Lake, which is about a mile and quarter so up the trail. John dropped down to the trail-side of the inlet; I hiked to the opposite side of the lake. Quite a few years ago I hiked this trial, a bit further, fishing the lakes along the way. That year I caught nothing. I know now that it had been too late in the day.

This early morning, however, there was plenty of interest, particularly if I could cast my orange humpy (dry fly) within a foot or so of the reeds lining the lake. There were spots, near inlets and outlets, where I would land half a dozen brookies, most colored up for the fall spawn. Most would slowly emerge from the depths or from behind a submerge log, and either lunch at my fly or flamboyantly refuse it.

Typical brook trout, one of many, caught in Rock Creek and its lakes.

Typical brook trout, one of many, caught in Rock Creek and its lakes.

We’d fish Rock Creek between two other lakes as we descended with the creek. I’d hook an occasional brown trout and stop often to just enjoy where I was. It was a beautiful day, with an ever-present breeze that kept things cool. The sun would be obscured every once and while by dark clouds; the almost black clouds I’ve only seen in the high country. John’s movement would mirror mine for the most part, though he did have to return to the trail to hike over a huge granite outcropping that prevented his following the edge of one lake.

Throughout the morning we met other folks, mostly hikers with a few fly fishermen among them. There was a noticeable absence of hardware or bait fishermen. While the casting is easy on the lakes, greater stealth was required in the close quarters of the creek. Most of the time I would cast downstream about ten feet, piling up some line to allow for a relatively drag-free drift for another five to ten feet. Any closer and my footfall would spook any unseen fish.

By the time we returned to the trailhead, it was time for lunch. My plan included a quick shower — I was going into town after all — and to meet John in Mammoth. We arrived just about the same time and it was easily decided to share a flight of regular beers as well as one of the seasonals. We had a good time talking with a server who worked the summer at Mammoth Brewing and would be heading back to Murphys (where The Wife and I enjoy the fruits of local winemaking), where he’s help with the grape harvest at his family’s winery. I walked out the door with a growler of Floating Rock Hefeweizen and one of Imperial Root Beer.

Both the beer and root beer (which, to my taste buds, is easily one of the best root beers around) are long gone. The fish have forgotten who I am. This just means I’ll have to return.

hiking through history

We snuck out of the Bay Area on the Thursday a week ago for long weekend, planning to cram a bit of everything into the time we had.

Railroad ties at the West Side Rail Grade trail head.

Railroad ties at the West Side Rail Grade trail head.

In a new spirit of exploring unknown parts of familiar territory, we ended up on the West Side Rail Grade the next morning. The trail — really a former narrow-gauge railbed — begins on Buchanan Road in Tuolumne City and is carved into the hillside above the North Fork Tuolumne River, on the north side of the canyon. It was christened in 1898 as the Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valley Railroad under the ownership of the West Side Lumber Co., which used narrow-gauge railroads in the Sierra Nevada Mountains until the 1960s. The HH&YV was primarily employed to haul fresh-cut logs from the sugar pine forests of eastern Tuolumne County to the West Side Lumber Mill in Tuolumne City.

The trailhead is just outside of town, and the first 100 yards are marked by decomposing railroad ties that look like worn steps. After that, most of the trail is exposed, which left us to bake in a remarkably hot morning sun. There are a couple places where benches and tables allow for a break in the shade, and a sprinkling of poison oak along the trail encourages one to stick to the well-worn path.

Though I’m not a history buff, per se, it’s a pleasant surprise to find remains of history in situ. About a mile down the trail we came across long portions of ties and rails, with the trail occasionally shifting from one side of the tracks to the other.

Rails of the Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valley Railroad.

Rails of the Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valley Railroad.

The grade slopes gently downward, at least for as far as we hiked, and it would be a great place to break in some new boots. Had we continued the full 4½-plus miles, we could have soaked our toes in the North Fork of the Tuolumne River, near Basin Creek. (I originally discovered part of the West Side Rail trail while exploring Forest Service land above Long Barn, and while fishing an upstream portion of the Tuolumne, but have since determined that was another section of the trail that stretches from Hull Creek to the Clavey River, that that’s another hike for another time.)

Hot and happy dog.

Hot and happy dog.


We met a few folks along the way: an overachiever who was jogging uphill and a few women who walk it almost every day, one of whom had made a dramatic move from the northern California coastal town of Bolinas to the much drier Sierra foothills.

With the full heat of the sun soon approaching, we left the exploration of a last blind curve for another time, and headed back. This day we had the dog with us and I don’t know if it was he or I who was panting more in the heat.

I have a feeling, though, that we’ll see more of this trail in the spring.