fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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National Parks Week and appreciating a high-country home

Centennial-Logo-W-Find-Your-Park-LogoOur days were measured by trout caught, bears seen and miles hiked; nights by stars and the embers of a campfire. During those summers we’d rarely see a familiar face, but the place seemed unchanging. We grew a lot during those short visits, climbing granite domes, hiking trails commonly rising 1,000 feet in less than five miles, floating in a river that only a few miles earlier was born of snowmelt.

I was reminded that Tuolumne Meadows was our vacation “home” last week when I posted a photo of my brother and me with a trophy high-country trout, back when our fishing was more about self-sufficiency and every fish ended up in a pan surrounded by bacon. Mornings my brother, sister and I would hike to Soda Springs to capture the naturally carbonated water – and bits of minerals I’m sure – our mother would gently blend with pancake mix to make some of the puffiest pancakes in the world.

Our visits to Tuolumne Meadows were more adventure than vacation. Stories of our exploits of those summers come up frequently: The poor decision to slide down the granite face of Lembert Dome as the sun set. The bear that followed us back to camp after a long day hike. My sister’s discovery that fish were living beings while ironically still fishing but refusing to eat our catch. On tougher hikes, mom’s constant encouragement to discover what might be around the next bend.

TM-Mark and meIt wouldn’t be out of place to say that Tuolumne Meadows, a less visited part of Yosemite National Park, helped form the person I am today. I’ve since returned to Tuolumne Meadows, one time fishing there with my sons, another time hiking up Lembert Dome with my brother and one son. Nature seems to ignore us humans; the changes over the last three decades are entirely ours.

I’ve been lucky enough to have visited Death Valley, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Lassen, Redwood and Mt. St. Helen national parks. Many national monuments, recreation areas and historic sites as well: Alcatraz Island, John Muir National Historic Site, Point Reyes National Seashore, Muir Woods National Monument, Cabrillo National Monument, Fort Point National Historic Site and Golden Gate Recreation Area.

The national park system is America’s Best Idea. Next week is National Park Week. Every national park will offer free admission from April 16th through the 24th. If you can, get to one and #FindYourPark.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”
― John Muir, Our National Parks


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my opening day…five weeks late

January’s promise to get out and fish earlier, more often and in different places now echoes with so much emptiness that the unthinkable is the only resolution.

Yes, I will be chasing trout this weekend. Memorial Day weekend.

The events and circumstances that kept me closer to home haven’t been unpleasant. They just didn’t include trout. Staying home last weekend included free and unrestricted quantities of barbecue and wine, not really a bad thing.

This is the first and possibly one of the few times to get to the cabin this summer, and despite the Sierra Nevada and its foothills being infested with a couple thousand campers and anglers, I’m going. With fishing reports read and flows checked, plans are firming.

An eyewitness account from a fellow fly fisherman suggests that a target river and one of its tributaries will still be high and muddy for a few days. But that bad news lends some optimism that little R Creek may have the water needed for guilt-free fishing for its wild rainbows. It’s a ten-mile dirt road drive to this little gem, so while in the area it’ll make sense to explore other blue lines on the map and not too far away.

It’s a certainty that a few high mountain streams will be walked, likely with the oldest son. A few will be familiar, others offering an opportunity to explore. Generally, this trip will be characterized by a philosophy that hiking a few thousand feet, maybe a mile or two, will leave the crowds behind.

Hopefully I’ll be the guy you won’t see this weekend.


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being forced to slow down and take the road less stressful

It was shaping up that this week might be the last rain-free week in which I could ride the Honda to work every day. I’d not ridden enough this year and winter was closing in.

My commute is 27 miles, mostly on highway, and the traffic’s generally moving at the speed limit when I’m headed to work. This time of year the mornings are chilly enough to prompt a wish for heated grips but the afternoons usually offer perfect riding weather.

Nearing the off ramp that’d put me on city streets for about a mile before reaching the office, my CB750 started to get a little squirrelly; just enough to convince me to slow down. The last turn before the office required too much effort and I knew from previous experience that the rear tire was losing air. It turned out my year-old rear tire was going flat.

I’d made it to the office and there was nothing that could be done immediately. I’d later learned that it was puncture about the size of a 30-penny nail (that’s pretty big). I called a few shops near the office and tried Fix-a-Flat, but in the end my son — who luckily had the day off — was willing to provide transportation home and pick up the bike the next day.

The response to this event, mine and of those around me, was interesting, particularly when others realized that you usually don’t carry a spare tire on a motorcycle. My calmness in the face of this dilemma surprised me. Perhaps it was the friendless of the people at the local shops, who despite being unable to help me, wished me good luck (in a sincere manner).

Riding a motorcycle is a choice. Hopefully a conscious choice that include being safe. For me a choice that’s been about slowing down and worrying less; taking it slow not only when it’s prudent but also knowing that the places I’m going will probably be there whenever I arrive.


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coyote, rattlesnake and turkey, oh my! (wild trout too.)

Sean lining up a putt on hole four at Twain Harte Miniature Golf.

Sean lining up a putt on hole four at Twain Harte Miniature Golf.

When it comes to the oldest son, the easiest way to level the playing field is to chase wild trout. While there may be some claim that genetics would ensure that he’d be at least half as good a fly fisherman as his old man, the truth is that there’s no substitute for experience.

The day after our Annual One-Day Tioga/Sonora Pass Tour, we had an agreement to take it easy, meaning no alarms. We were still up and out at a decent hour, though long after the sun had begun to warm things up. This Friday being designated a “Man Day,” our first stop was for convenience store coffee and breakfast. The day would later include miles of dirt roads, a lot of hiking, and a whole heap of fly fishing. Manly stuff indeed.

We were headed northeast to Arnold, cutting across the dry, now golden Sierra Nevada foothills once scoured by ‘49ers. We passed the time during the hour-plus drive with conversation, the usual good-natured ribbing, and a good playlist. The focus of the day was a small freestone stream rumored to be well worth the effort. It could be easily accessed through a state park.

We didn’t want easy.

After inquiring about this stream a few months back, a club member cryptically described in a hushed voice a series of left and right turns leading to a serviceable Forest Service road that eventually crossed Stream X. His tale of the wild trout that lived there was peppered with warnings of fast-moving logging trucks and rattlesnakes.

With the help of a National Forest Service map of the area, I had determined the most likely route. But there’s nothing like local knowledge. We stopped at Ebbetts Pass Sporting Goods for guidance and picked up a few flies from one of the best selections I’ve run across. Bill, owner and long-time resident who’s hunted and fished the area for some 30 years, is always willing to take the time to offer advice. (Based on our conversations, I now have a list of rarely fished and not-so-easily accessed waters.) Bill’s confirmation of our route also included some obfuscation…the first left was after a city limits sign and our destination was near the bridge.

The paved road extended farther than expected. The vegetation here was a bit greener and denser than that around the Family Cabin and a welcome change. Soon enough we were on the dirt road. Not your typical Forest Service road, rather one made more drivable thanks to constant compaction by heavy truck traffic and frequent watering.

It became clear during our pre-fishing ritual — changing into waders and checking rods — that we were in the right place at the right time. Chance would have it that I looked up just in time, over the top the car and through the trees to a bend in the creek about 50 yards away, to catch a glint that could only have been from a jumping fish. An added bonus: it was just us.

Sean was on the stream first and hooked a trout in a small pool. It was about nine inches, and coloration and big parr marks confirmed it as wild. Looking over this stream, it was clear this would be a day of pocket water. At the end of the day, about 75% of the water we’d fish was pocket water and more than 90% of our takes would be on dries.

In typical fashion, we leapfrogged past each other as we headed upstream. Sean lagged behind at one of the better shaded pools in this section. Upstream was a wide, sweeping bend. Trees provided shade on the inside. The outside of the bend must be scoured during heavy runoff, leaving a big field of rounded stones of all sizes. Tire ruts leading down to the stones were left by the logging company’s watering truck and — as evidenced by a pod of obviously stocked trout darkening the center of the bend — a DFW stocking truck. Temptation got the best of me and I got a few planters to take a big stonefly pattern. Sean had since emerged and I moved upstream, only to be halted by a fence extending through the stream and up both banks.

Returning to the bend, Sean and I agreed that, with the two other fishermen who had since arrived, it was suddenly too crowded.

A rainbow trout that's a bit bigger than expected in this small creek.

A rainbow trout that’s a bit bigger than expected in this small creek.

Nice surprise in a small creek.

During my time upstream, the driver of the watering truck had chatted up Sean. While sucking water from a beautiful stream that’s habit for wild trout is uncool, at least the driver offered up details about how to get to a more remote and less-fished section upstream. Following his recommendation, we picked our way down a less-frequented road. This isn’t your graded road, but rather a barren section of forest sprinkled with stones and crisscrossed by fallen branches. The type of road that wouldn’t necessarily require four-wheel drive, but where I would have been thankful to have a bit more ground clearance than offered by my (trusty) Accord.

It was slow going. The road meandered away from the stream and gained elevation before a fork dropped us down to a wood bridge.

Here the character of the stream changes. It’s nearly all pocket water. And skinny.

As expected, the fish were spooky. We didn’t really see the fish; we caught flashes of fast-moving shadows in the periphery of our vision. This is the kind of stream that tests one’s ability to pick out suspect water and adequately present a fly. There might be strikes on your first two drifts. After that, it was time to move on. Thankfully, there was a lot of stream available.

My first cast was to ideal pocket water behind a large boulder. Water tumbled past the boulder into a pool that while not deep, was dark enough to hide fish. That first drift netted a brilliant eight-inch rainbow. This was repeated often as we hiked upstream, with nearly every fish chasing our dry flies.

It’s likely we could’ve spent all day moving upstream. But we did have to pick up a wine club shipment in Murphys, so we headed back to try fishing downstream of the bridge. There were a few spots but it wasn’t too far before the stream enters a canyon narrow enough to encourage a solid risk/reward assessment before continuing.

A not-so-nice surprise.

A not-so-nice surprise.

Sean, who wasn’t aware of my decision, was hiking along a deer trail above the stream while I headed back upstream. There was no scream or shout, and it wasn’t until he caught up with me that I learned of the first rattlesnake sighting of the season. Sean was foolish coolheaded enough to linger long enough to take a photo.

We debated stopping to fish again on the way out but decided otherwise. Our drive back to the highway included sightings of a coyote and turkey. After a stop at Ebbetts to report on our success (suitably suppressing how excellent it really was), it was time for a post-fishing beer. Luckily, Snowshoe Brewing wasn’t more than 15 minutes away.

We completed the day picking up that wine, tasting some of that winery’s products, and grabbing decent-but-not-great burgers at a place adjoining a gas station. Music and banter continued on the drive back, with a promise to keep up the illusion that this really-not-so-secret place was our little secret.

I did outfish the boy. I also whooped him in a game of mini golf. Even so, I think he had a pretty great time.


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an annual one-day tour; many waters fished, some not

The Oldest Son and I kept tradition alive with the Annual One-Day Tioga/Sonora Pass Tour last week and found a few Sierra Nevada rivers and streams running a bit too high for easy fishing, despite the lack of snow this year.

This excursion — passing through Yosemite’s high country and over two passes exceeding 9,000 feet — was marked this year by a deliberate slowing down. As always, the plan was to fish along the way. This time, however, there was an acceptance that fish would be there, or not, when we arrived. Perhaps it’s maturity. Perhaps overconfidence in my abilities. Whatever the case, it would open our eyes to new sights and new fishing possibilities.

The Tuolumne Meadows general store being assembled for the season.

The Tuolumne Meadows general store being assembled for the season.

We left the Family Cabin later than usual but quickly covered our longest continuous stretch of driving before arriving at Yosemite’s Big Oak Flat entrance station. Less than an hour later we pulled into the Tuolumne Meadows campground parking lot. A crew was stretching canvas over the wood frame of the campground’s general store. The meadows were already exposed and beginning to brown. The upside: it’ll probably be a relatively light mosquito season. But if you have any inclination to fish high-country streams or rivers, the season will be about a month head this year. Don’t be fooled; it was still cold.

We wadered up and spooked a few trout in one river, wrongly thinking that they had forgotten about fisherman during the winter. We explored a few other streams just past Tioga Pass. Reading a roadside monument, I learned of Bennettville, a mining town that never produced ore during its existence from the 1870s through 1933. It did, however, give birth to the Great Sierra Wagon Road, which later became Hwy 120 and the Tioga Pass Road.

The Tuolumne River, with Sean in the far background.

The Tuolumne River, with Sean in the far background.

The morning spent, we headed down to the Tioga Gas Mart and after picking up a few bottles of Mammoth Brewing beer, stopped for a barbecue lunch.

A few more miles behind us, we stopped on the bridge over the Little Walker River. I judged it just on the verge of being fishable and expected Molybdenite Creek, which feeds into the Little Walker, to be in similar shape and worth the time to show Sean this favorite place for the first time. Disappointed to find two other fisherman, we hiked around them before dropping down to the creek.

The Bennettville Marker near Saddlebag Creek. The town is about a mile west.

The Bennettville Marker near Saddlebag Creek. The town is about a mile west.

My favorite spots on this creek are pools usually created by piles of brush or the ledge of a small waterfall. Eventually, I hooked a couple of wild fish, lost most on dry flies that were just a bit too big, but finally landed a nice brook trout. Downstream, Sean also hooked a nice brookie.

We worked our way downstream, exploring the confluence of the two creeks, then began the return upstream, revisiting suspect water. Sean landed another brook trout from the pool I had fished.

The other fisherman had left, leaving upstream water open. Through a thick stand of pines and aspen I found a curve in the creek that created a pool and nice looking tailout. Trees crowding the edge of the creek limited casting to short casts parallel to the stream. Reaching the tailout required letting a fly drift under an overhanging log. But it was too good to pass up. A few drifts netted a decent brook trout.

Once my focus was off the tail out, a small pod of fish working at the head of the pool came into focus. It was pretty clear they were stocked trout, and while their domesticated appetite might not present a huge challenge, their position did, requiring casting from a crouched position and underneath an overhanging birch branch. Sean joined me later, and despite losing three or flies between the two of us, it was a fun casting and fighting fish in close quarters.

On the way toward Sonora Pass, we skipped the raging West Walker in favor of the upper North Fork of the Tuolumne, on the west slope. There we’d find stock rainbows willing to hit stimulators well into the evening.

In the end, we fished places unfamiliar and usually unfishable this time of year.

The spirit of exploration spilled over to the next day…

More on that next week.


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grinding the nose in between what really matters

“We’ve been busy…” would be the applicable excuse to explain the lack of posts here, and it’s true in more than one way. The nose has certainly been to the grindstone, but thankfully interrupted by (multiple) visits from out-of-state family rarely seen south of the 47th parallel, too much food, copious beer tasting, and the celebration of one of those big steps down the path of life. The yard lies ignored.

Another road trip begins in just over 24 hours, an annual trek that’ll put us in the middle of a pretty fishy — and pretty — spot east and a smidge south of Yosemite. We’ve fished there before quite a few times, but this year, conditions seem to be a couple weeks ahead; more of what might be expected later in the month. The upside is that a small river not visited before may be a prime candidate this year.

At any rate, life’s been good lately, and now that we’re on the downhill slide into the holidays it’s hard to believe another year is closing fast.


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the weekend so far

Evidence that I’ve had little time to write this week…visit by the brother, a newphew’s first football game of the season, and a son’s graduation from the police academy…

Nephew Nicholas running down the ball.

Newphew Nicholas running down the ball.

Class 84 Inspection

Napa College POST Academy “Class 84” ready for inspection.

Sean Ready for Inspection

Sean ready for inspection.

Self Improvement Certificate

Sean recieving a certificate for an RTO score of 100% based on “performance, maturity, professional conduct, attitude and readiness to enter an FTO program.”

Two Generations

Mark and Sean, hopefully soon to be two generations of peace officers.