This year’s annual club trip to the Eastern Sierras — organized by yours truly — came a tad bit later this year, but its planning nearly nine months ago couldn’t anticipate the snowfall that wouldn’t arrive last winter. From afar I watched the guide reports and river flows, but all of that was forgotten two Sundays ago, once an amazingly fat brook trout slammed the first dry fly cast into a suspect pool.
This is a good time of year to be in the Eastern Sierras. Fewer people, perhaps only the hardier (and those without kids), remain to fish, hike and camp. Being a bit more mature, our group rents a couple of rustic cabins, though we do cook dinner ourselves (clam linguine one night). The days are often cloudless and, at an elevation of 7,000 feet, this expanse of high desert warms up fast. Temperatures swing the other direction just as fast, dropping to the mid-to-low 30s in the evening. Startlingly brilliant stars illuminate the clear nights.
Once over Sonora Pass, my first stop was on the Little Walker River. This small water is often overshadowed by its bigger brethren, the East Walker and West Walker rivers, which offer bigger and more fish. A year after discovering the charm of the Little Walker, and during my first turn as “fishmaster” for this trip, I fished this creek with the club’s outings chairman. We had a wonderful time finding wild brook, brown and rainbow trout exactly where they should be. Jim has since passed away, but the Little Walker reminds me of his broad smile.
It was with Jim that I first explored Hot Creek, one of the waters that would be frequented during the week. Since I’d have six full days to fish, and in light of Hot Creek’s popularity, the plan was to fish it during midweek. It was a sound philosophy; avoiding as many other fly fishermen as possible and hoping that reduced fishing pressure over a day or two would improve my chances.
Hot Creek has been the marlin to my Santiago. It’s a spring creek with a high fish population, estimated to be 8,000 to 10,000 trout per mile. But these are highly educated trout that have probably seen every fly in the catalog. Throw in clear, low water and weeds that limit opportunities to small lanes and the chance of a drag-free drift, and this fly fishing heaven can become hellish, particularly late in the year. Most descriptions of Hot Creek include words that tend to scare me: “technical,” “attentive mends,” “drag-free drifts,” “multiple hatches.” That first visit with Jim five years ago didn’t dispel any of my trepidation, despite my landing two decent fish.
Although I was on the road Tuesday morning later than intended, I descended into the canyon well before the sun was fully on the water. A single fly fisherman had arrived before me. Reminding myself that there was no need to rush, I slowly and softly walked upstream, taking time to stop and watch the water. In the absence of light, the water was dark and unyielding.
Trusting to my experience that fish would be in a familiar spot, I finally stopped to cast a size 16 dark brown-bodied caddis trailing a smaller dropper (maybe size 22, or 24); a red-butt zebra midge type of fly made up during a fit of
madness inspiration at the fly-tying vise. This was truly blind casting. There was a lane big enough to allow for a decent drift of about two feet. I kept my false casts short and out of view of the trout I hoped were there, and used a single-haul cast to finally lay the flies on target. The caddis dipped on my third cast and a good-looking 11 inches of brown trout went airborne. I don’t know if it’s the lack of depth in the creek, but I don’t think I’ve seen brown trout as acrobatic as those in Hot Creek.
With the first fish to the net, my pulse finally began to slow and my body relaxed. My casting settled down. Two more fish made it to my net during the next hour, one a dark-hued rainbow of about 14 inches. There are bigger fish in Hot Creek, but any decent fish hooked, played through the mass of weeds, and landed, is still a pretty big deal in my book.
Soon the first few caddisflies and mayflies appeared in the air as sunlight began to warm the water. The sunlight also revealed pods of fish, some hovering between weeds, others just on the edge.
I downsized my caddis fly to a size 22, hoping that it might get a look or two. It did, but only in passing. I would land a total of six fish that morning and walk out of the canyon feeling pretty good about it. But it was a conversation — with a friendly guy who toughs out his year splitting time between fly fishing the Eastern Sierra and running a scuba shop in Cabo San Lucas — that had me pondering a return in the evening.
But that’s another story for another time.