“Uncertainty and expectation,” according to William Congreve, “are the joys of life.” Among fly fishermen, uncertainty is part and parcel of the sport.
This uncertainty plays into casting, fly selection, finding the fish and the water itself. A spey cast and wet fly swing can be used cover wide swaths of a river in the search for secluded fish. Innumerable “searching patterns” directly address any uncertainty as to the location of fish or even the existence of fish in a stretch of water. Weather and wildfires threaten fishability with flooding, drought and habitat destruction.
But fly fishermen forge ahead. There’s an enjoyment of unfamiliar waters, or the challenge of hooking a fish on that day when the fishing is mediocre or worse, or the choice of a fly made in frustration, one that doesn’t make any sense but fools an unexpected trout nonetheless. For all the science that the unknowing ascribe to fly fishing, those intimate with the sport know there can an equal amount of guesswork and, sometimes, plain ol’ dumb luck. Gilda Radner would have called this uncertainty a “delicious ambiguity.” More esoteric explanations claim that in uncertainty, the execution of the activity becomes secondary to the intellectual problem solving and decision making; two big parts of fly fishing.
My problem is that the uncertainty of today may affect my enjoyment of any uncertainty on the water next week. Currently, I’m a fly fisherman without waders.
My Simms waders had served me well the last four years. But last time I was out and up to my waist in a river, I felt a dampness that shouldn’t have been. Though it could have been the result of traipsing through blackberry bushes all those years, I was more suspicious of the seam. Availing myself of the warranty, I shipped the waders to Simms, where they were declared not repairable. Thankfully, a new pair has been authorized, but I have yet to hear that they’ve shipped. And no, I don’t have a back up pair. Yet.
Being without waders isn’t so much of an issue this time of year, if one were to fish after the hills have been warmed by the sun. But fishing early, as I often do, is still a chilly proposition in waters that aren’t too distant from the snow that is its source.
So, until the day I’m supposed to be fishing, I’ll be watching for the UPS guy.
In all fairness, I will also comment on Orvis’ customer service. I returned to Orvis a Safe Passage Sling Pack for replacement because of defective stitching that I thought could allow a seam to come apart. I shipped the Sling Pack (from California) to Orvis’ return center in Roanoke, Va., about two weeks ago on the same day the waders went to Simms in Bozeman, Mont. My replacement Sling Pack was in my possession earlier this week.
It turns the tables a bit when it’s the kids introducing parents to new places and experiences and revisiting the familiar after three decades is icing on the cake, though there’s bound to be disagreement in our personal memories.
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Mom and Dad at the cabin, for their first visit.
But easy agreement was found in the beauty of the scenery and shared remembrances during a long drive up and over Tioga Pass, along the shores of Mono Lake, before a return over Sonora Pass.
The parents arrived at the cabin late that Sunday afternoon, and after running an errand that took entirely too long for Dad, dinner was enjoyed and we settled in for the evening. Thankfully, the storm that had dumped snow on the passes had dissipated the day before and the warmth of the sunshine had cleared the roads.
Mom, Dad and I leisurely left Twain Harte with a route in mind but absent any planned stops or timetable. The hillsides leaned more toward gold, but were freckled by islands of still-green grass.
I’ve driven this road many mornings, but saw things a bit differently today since I wasn’t preoccupied with wetting my fly line. Miles rolled by, lubricated by conversation. Soon it was time for a stop to stretch our legs. Though there aren’t many hatcheries that will, in my mind, match the magnificence of the historic Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery visited in my youth, there was something familiar about walking around the Moccasin Creek Hatchery with the folks.
After the excitement of gaining 1,500 feet in elevation over the two miles of the “new” Old Priest Grade, it was all new territory for Mom and Dad as we wound through Big Oak Flat, Groveland, and past Buck Meadows. Highway 120 took us from 2,838 feet at Big Oak Flat to Yosemite National Park’s Big Oak Flat Entrance Station at 4,900 feet. Dad was impressed by the tidiness of the towns and the number of old buildings alongside the roadway, many of which are still in use.
If it wasn’t enough to have fantastic weather, traffic was light. By mid morning we arrived at the entrance station, where the purchase of an annual pass got us across the park border. Words in many foreign languages hung in the cool air, reminding me of the many nature blessings that aren’t more than a day’s drive from home that attract visitors from around the world.
I’ve always throught that the changes in vegetation and terrain grow more dramatic once inside the formal boundaries of Yosemite. Heavy forest yielded to granite, which only seems to yield to water in the form of glaciers, ice and liquid. We pushed on to Olmsted Point, taking obligatory photos, then on to Tenaya Lake. Availing ourselves of the facilities near the lake, I made a mental note that I need to spend more time exploring Tenaya Lake and its surroundings.
I had to explain to Dad that the Tuolumne Meadows campground wasn’t open yet when he asked why I was parking alongside the highway. He’d never been here so early in the season. (The campground would open two weeks later, rather early.) Though last June there was snow on the ground and big puddles filled with mosquito larvae, there was nothing of the sort this last week of May. A stroll toward the entrance was accompanied by a bit of debate about the differences between today’s visit and our memories of camping trips more than two decades ago. Regardless of the differences of opinion and any discrepancy in our memories, there was more than enough that was still the same to foster a feeling of familiarity.
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Mom and Dad’s triumphant return after 30-some years.
My worries about the water were confirmed during this walk through the campground when I stopped near the same spot from which I took a photo of Lembert Dome in 2011. Last year, there was no discernable difference between the channels of the Tuolumne River and the river itself, and the water was within two feet of the bottom of the Tuolumne Meadows (Hwy. 120) Bridge. This year, the channel nearest the campground was no more than a foot deep, and the river was barely touching the bridge abutments.
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The three of us at Leavitt Falls Overlook.
The reminiscing was further fueled by the sheer rock walls along the descent from Tioga Pass to Lee Vining. The thought of dropping in at Bodie Mike’s for a barbecue lunch was derailed by Dad’s sudden proposition of stopping at the Tioga Gas Mart — that he didn’t recall seeing before — to grab lunch at the Whoa Nellie Deli. A word of warning: Be careful what you order. It’s all big at Whoa Nellie. The Cowboy Steak Sandwich is not so much as sandwich as it is a steak slapped on a roll.
The easy drive north on Hwy. 395 from Lee Vining was a welcome change after such a big lunch. By the time we arrived to the intersection of Hwys. 395 and 108, the urge to nap had passed. A good thing considering the hairpin curves that would take us from 6,765 feet to 9,623 feet at Sonora Pass. Before our main ascent, the Leavitt Falls overlook offered a last opportunity to stretch our legs before the long trip over the pass. The reduced volume of water coming over the falls was another reminder that it’s going to be a dry year in the Sierra Nevada. We posed for photos, then began the long climb.
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Getting a roadside education at Sonora Pass.
This was undiscovered country for the parents, who never had a reason to travel this road. To my eye, Hwy. 108 over Sonora Pass offers much more dramatic transitions. The road rises faster and the changes in terrain and vegetation follow suit. Surprised to find it open, we stopped at the Donnell Reservoir scenic overlook, with a sweeping over the Stanislaus River canyon and the Central Valley. The road from there is bit less remarkable, winding through heavy forest and passing towns that only seem to be wide spots in road.
It was a long but worthwhile day; one that both revived and created memories.
There was exploration, fish caught, and the folks who raised us would revisit an old vacation spot at 9,000 feet — all despite weather last week that threatened to put the kibosh on all of it.
I started a mini-vacation two Fridays ago with a run up to the cabin, for once not battling traffic for any of the 142 miles. The plan was to get in a bit of fishing before the parents arrived Sunday afternoon and a drive over Tioga and Sonora passes on Monday. Besides an introduction to the cabin, history was the main reason for this tour. Our family typically spent vacation in one of the best possible venues, outdoors and many summers that meant Tuolumne Meadows.
But as of Friday, both passes were closed as late-season snow fell under dark gray clouds.
Willing to gamble only so much on the weather that afternoon, I set out for the ol’ irrigation canal, knowing it offers shelter and, if needed, a quick exit. During a few short hours the shifting weather offered sunshine, rain, hail and even a light flurry of snow. The fishing was as expected; my flies were hit mostly by wild browns and only the smartest stocked rainbows that hadn’t fall victim to salmon eggs or spinners. The stink of a possible skunking lifted, I retreated to a hot dinner and prepared for the next two days.
Instead of huddling inside, I was up before the sun on Saturday counting on the early hour and cold weather — about 48°F — working to my advantage. I choose wisely. Although I was on a well-fished creek, it was just me, the trout and couple of ducks for three hours. Fortitude and toughness won me solitude and a good number of fish that morning. Or, perhaps, it just proves that early bird adage.
By midday I was cleaned up and headed to the Moccasin Creek Hatchery for Trout Fest; the only time of the year that anyone is allowed to put a hook in its raceways. The grins of the kids were contagious; the K-9 demo of a quagga mussel search pretty amazing, and the general mood was generally festive. A local fly fishing club offered casting instruction in another raceway, allowing folks to cast an all-to-big fly to trout with appetites bigger than their four or five inches. I talked up a few of the hatchery personnel in hopes of lining up my plans for Sunday morning.
Those conversations suggested a return to the lower North Fork of the Tuolumne (near Basin Creek), a section of the river I had first visited about four years ago and enjoyed as an early season venue. This section is deep in a canyon and quite beautiful, despite its relative closeness to civilization. Most of the fish I caught back then there were stocked and in the intervening years that section of the Tuolumne had fallen off the stocking list as the result of an environmental lawsuit. But the word was that there were wild trout to be found.
Usually I’m up and out the door at the crack of dawn, but I’d reserved that Sunday morning for leisurely exploration of Forest Service roads outside of Long Barn. I was surprised to find much of my route paved with asphalt, and after marking a good-looking creek or two on the GPS, I headed to Tuolumne City and the four-mile descent to the lower North Fork of the Tuolumne.
Like so often happens, a small, nice looking wild rainbow slammed my dry fly on the first cast. (They always seem to do that when I’m least prepared.) I missed that first fish but managed to find almost dozen other little rainbows, scattered in the likely spots.
After a morning of rewards, I headed back to a hot shower before the arrival of the parents. But the folks’ visit will have to wait until next week.
If you have any inclination to fish the high country in the central Sierra Nevada, now’s that time to get going.
The two pictures below of the a side channel of the Tuolumne River were taken from roughly the same position in the Tuolumne Meadows campground, looking toward Lembert Dome. The left-hand photo was taken last week (May 28, 2012). The right-hand photo was taken during late June 2011.