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Crowley Lake/Rock Creek Fishing Trip, Part 1 of 5

This last trip across the Sonora Pass to the Eastern Sierra will go down in my books as one to remember. And one that brought about new understandings and new respect for my relatively recently adopted hobby, fly fishing.

It all began July 18 as Christopher and I leisurely left Benicia in the morning. With my car’s trunk and back seat stuffed with camping and fishing gear, we were off to an adventure that was in the making for nearly a year. Our destination was the East Fork Campground near Rock Creek Lake, but my imagination was already on Crowley Lake, where the next day was would enjoy our first day guided fly fishing, courtesy Tom Loe of Sierra Drifters.

Part of the Sierras, west of the lake.

Part of the Sierras, west of the lake.

For me, Crowley Lake was a place of mystery since I was wee lad. My family would drive by Crowley on the way to Tuolumne Meadows and I would marvel at this man-made, 650-acre body of water (part of Los Angeles’ water system) in the middle of the high desert of Mono County. But I wasn’t marveling at the size of the lake or the sheer audacity of its construction, but at the stories we read in the free local tourist papers about the huge trout caught out of Crowley. So when Christopher proposed the idea of a guided fishing trip, Crowley sprung to mind as the place to go.

After dropping some items off at the cabin in Twain Harte, we pushed over Sonora Pass; which was nearly devoid of snow. Shortly after four that afternoon, we had established our campsite and settled in. In many ways, Rock Creek resembles a miniature June Lake Loop. Rock Creek Lake sets near the head of the canyon, with Lower Rock Creek tumbling through pine and aspen forests towards Crowley Lake. Upper Rock Creek feeds into the lake, descending from its source in the high Sierras. Campgrounds dot the length of Rock Creek canyon and two lodges are found near the lake.

A quick call to Tom that evening gave us reason to bed down at an early hour. Fishing on Crowley was good in the morning hours, and our start time was to be sixty-thirty. It isn’t too hard to fall asleep early in the Rock Creek canyon. The ridges that form the canyon rise rather abruptly and just as abruptly bring an early sunset and prolonged twilight. We were in our sleeping bag soon after nine.

The sun comes up early in the Eastern Sierra! As we emerged from the bottom of Rock Creek Canyon about five forty-five the next morning, the sun was fully ablaze. The air temperature was still a bit chilly when we found Tom waiting on the dock and soon were in his flats-style boat headed to the Crooked Creek inlet on Crowley Lake. For much of the year Crowley Lake trout – mostly rainbow sprinkled with browns and cutthroats – seek out the cooler and more oxygenated water at the lake’s various inlets. Tom’s plan this morning was to be there waiting when the fish swam up the channel.

I had warned Tom that while we knew the theory and had some basic experience, that we were new to fly fishing. He did a great job to taking the time to explain how we should cast and how one goes about stillwater nymphing. (Nyphming is trying to imitate a particular nymph stage of a local insect. In this case, it was midges.) Our rigs consisted of a midge dropped from a Punk Perch (both of Mr. Loe’s design), which were both suspended underneath an indicator composed of a brightly colored yarn.

I will confess that our casting left a lot to be desired. With Tom’s advice were we able to place our flies in the suspected path of the trout we hoped to catch. Once our flies were in the water, we were told to keep our eye on the indicator, and if it started to submerge to set the hook. This is a concept counterintuitive to spin fishing, when fish tend to smack into a lure and hook themselves. Consider for a moment the small hooks around which these flies are tied, and one gains respect for setting the hook quickly and properly.

Chris and guide Tom Loe with a nice Crowley rainbow.

Chris and guide Tom Loe with a nice Crowley rainbow.

But Christopher did so, pulling in the first and biggest fish of the day – about 20 inches – within fifteen minutes of Tom setting out the anchors. Tom said he’d put us on the fish and he certainly did. Before ten o’clock Christopher and I together brought 19 rainbows to the net and probably missed a similar number of strikes.

I was surprised at the fight in all of the fish we hooked. I don’t think any were shorter than 14 inches and all required a bit of play before we could bring them to the boat. It was an incredible experience. To put together the theory learned in our fly fishing class with on-the-water experience and advice. Best of all, I gained confidence that I perhaps even I could grow into a halfway decent fly fisher.

The downside to Crowley is that during certain times of the year a mat of algae blooms, which is then pushed around by the winds. Unfortunately this day the wind was blowing up inlet, pushed an ever dense cloud of algae in our direction. This, in turn, reduces the trout’s’ ability to draw oxygen and pushes them back into the deeper recesses of the lake. As the algae grew denser, the number of strikes fell. It was amazing, however, that an occasional fish could still find our miniscule flies amid the pea soup of algae.

As we closed in on noontime, the wind began to tease us, shift direction and pushing the algae out of the channel. Alas, it didn’t push fast enough. For the next two hours strikes were few and my ability to set the hook properly seemed to be diminished…perhaps by over confidence? But as our time on Crowley Lake ended, the idea of a return trip was already firmly planted in my mind.

Go to Part 2…

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