Each Opening Day Weekend — with or without company — I charge into the Sierra Foothills in pursuit of the first trout of the season. This year Older Son Sean accompanied me.
Sean left earlier than I could Opening Day — I had a commitment — and he had some luck flogging a few spots before my arrival. We met up at The Cabin late in the afternoon. Sean brimmed with confidence that this would be the year he outfishes dad. The refrigerator was stocked with beer and the pantry with basic staples and, with daylight waning, we opted to warm up on the surprisingly trout-friendly irrigation canal behind town.
Opening Day brings nearly half the town to the canal, knowing that sometime during the prior week, days or hours, that the state DFG hatchery truck will have dropped a load of pan-sized rainbows into the water. I’ve seen everything brought to bear on the canal — the ubiquitous baits of questionable manmade formulations, bass lures, even 10 foot saltwater rods — with the results being full stringers, as well as the seemingly inevitable string of injured, dead, or dying stocked rainbows. (Wild or not, wasteful in my book.)
The first full day began with a five a.m. departure. This year it meant driving east on Hwy 108 during at dawn. Not surprisingly, remnants of dirty snow appeared at approximately 4,500 feet and drifts defined the snowplow’s reach after 5,000 feet. Most summers I will end up driving this route at least six times. Sometimes to destinations before the summit; other times to traverse Sonora Pass as I make tracks for the East Slope of the Sierras. So, knowing full well (and happily) that Old Man Winter laid down a healthy snowpack, we set out Sunday morning to reach the Promised Water, the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River, which is littered with boulders and sprinkled with wild trout and their domesticated brethren.
Outside the car windows the air was crisp and cold, and snow began to dominate the landscape. That should have been our warning. Apparently the road to Clarks Fork doesn’t warrant the same attention as the highway when it comes to snow removal. Disappointment was tamed somewhat by the acknowledgement that we were taking risk this time around by checking on waters never before visited this early in the season.
The next attempt to reach unvisited water— Sand Bar Flat and Spring Gap on the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River — was prevented by (1) lack of signage and (2) lack of a Stanislaus National Forest map. Fishing near Spring Gap can legitimately be called epic: a few years ago Christopher and I stumbled upon it late in the afternoon; late enough that we had about two hours of fishing, but those two hours yielded some beautiful wild rainbows. But Sean and I weren’t getting there this year.
Apparently gluttons for the punishment doled out by Forest Service roads, we threw caution to the wind to set the GPS for Wild Trout Stream X. It’s been mentioned here before as a location revealed in confidence by two old and grizzled fishermen who appreciated the fact that Sean and I were fly fishing and practicing catch and release. We had visited the stream in the off season, when flows were about half of what we’d find, and saw a good number of dark shadows that presaged good times. It’s about ten miles from pavement, on roads littered with potholes (and mud at this time of year) winding through dry pine forests, by meadows and over one river and a few creeks. Sean claims that no matter which direction we were headed that the potholes seems to line up on his side. It certainly wasn’t my driving.
Was the long, 20-miles-per-hour drive worth it? You betchya.
Smaller streams are always a great excuse to get out my smaller 3 wt. rod, so while I was getting that ready Sean nearly ran to a pool downstream of an old-school stone bridge. You’d have to ask him, but I would swear that it wasn’t more than one drift before I heard an exclamation affirming a hook up. Sure enough, a small wild rainbow was the first of many rewards for the torturous ride in.
I’m always amazed to find trout in streams like this one. It was rarely more than six feet across and more than two feet deep. Its crystal-clear water danced over the rocks, creating riffles and small plunge pools. Short stretches offered a riffle-pool-tailout configuration in miniature.
This small stream made the day. There’s nothing like wild fish. Particularly in light of The Unaccomplished Angler‘s “Adages as Pertaining to Smallish (Wild) Fish”:
- What they lack in size, they make up for in beauty.
- A size 22 fly in the mouth of a 2-inch fish is equivalent to a size 2 fly in the mouth of a 22-inch fish. Or something like that.
- It’s not about the size of the fish in the fight, but the size of the fight in the fish. And little fish are scrappers.
- There’s more fishing than catching big fish.
- Small fish, in the hands of those with small hands, look relatively large.
While I hear that Mr. Unaccomplished is good in the small hands department, it’s not so true for me. We’re in agreement on everything else.
And the wild fish at Stream X were h-u-n-g-r-y. We were casting a dry/dropper rig (a dry fly with a dropper, i.e. a subsurface nymph imitation) and these little guys chased both flies with abandon. Even the dry fly, despite it being a size 12 stimulator in my case. (The dropper was a size 18/20 Copper John.) As a relatively new fly fisherman who cut his teeth on nymphing as a nearly surefire way to dredge up trout, the last two years I’ve gained a greater understanding for the pure joy of presenting a dry fly in a manner adequate enough to elicit a strike.
Steam X also offered plenty of dry fly fun. Sean spent much of his time at the downstream pool, while employed my shorter rod in dappling various riffles and plunge pools as I made my way upstream. Disappointment was rare. Fish would rise out of bubbles of plunging water to inhale the rubber-legged stimulator. Others in riffles would pounce on the dropper at the last minute, just as it began to drift toward the water’s surface on the swing. Nearly four hours flew by. We capped the day with a great buffalo burger at the well-known Diamondback Grill in downtown Sonora.
Monday would mark Sean’s last day of the trip and a responsible but unfortunate decision to leave a bit early to make it to class. His original plan was to skip class to spend a bit more time on what I’ll call Hatchery Creek. (More on why later.) We were on the water just after sunrise, but with the water temperature at 50°F, there was no love that morning. Two hours or so later, Sean made his fateful decision. As for me, perhaps I’m too stubborn. Sometimes stubbornness pays off.
Mid morning, with sun dappling the water and the air temperature rising enough so that I could no longer see my breath, bugs began to hatch. A few small mayflies darted here and there. Then the bite was on. During the next two hours I would hook fourteen fish and bring ten to the net. (I’ll attribute the hooked/landed ratio to the fact that size matter that morning…nothing larger than size 18 got their attention.) Every fish was a cookie cutter stocker, ranging from ten to twelve inches. I’ll give ‘em credit, every single one of these fish put on a good show, either jumping multiple times or offering me a challenge by sounding for the bottom. I stuck around through the afternoon, trying to land that last fish. It never came. The evening entailed cleaning The Cabin and packing most of the gear.
The last bit of fishing for this trip came when the last load of laundry was in the dryer. I made the short drive to The Canal and casually walked upstream with drifting a couple of nymphs through likely locations, particularly the undercut bank just underfoot. Things looked good after the second case, when a colorful, ten-inch brown absolutely nailed the lower fly, a Copper John. During the 30-minute walk up to flume I picked up two more trout, both brownies. Below the flume, where the force of the water create a pool full of eddies, another five fish came to hand. (I missed two hooksets as well.)
Overall it was a great Opening Day trip. The catching wasn’t red hot as it’s been during previous Opening Days. Stream X, however, offered the highlight of the trip, the kind of fishing memory that will grow grander with each telling. But don’t ask for the GPS coordinates. You’ll only get there if I take you there. Blindfolded. Probably in the trunk.