fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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the 2013 Eastern Sierra Expeditionary Force, part 2

I think the most rewarding fish I ever caught was vivid wild rainbow from Hot Creek, one cold fall morning a few years ago. It wasn’t the biggest fish and it wasn’t the first. It was the one that confirmed I was doing something right. There have been quite a few fish since then, but this is one that stands out.

Early morning on Hot Creek, looking west to the Sierras.

Early morning on Hot Creek, looking west to the Sierras.

I’ve described Hot Creek as a personal crucible that draws me back whenever I’m near. It’s the kind of place you’d return to regardless of the fishing. Early in the morning, before the sun rises above the canyon walls and less hardy fisherman show up, it can be a meditative place. The last four years I’ve been alone during this time, at least without human company. Deer will eye me while slowly munching on weeds from the creek. Birds of all shapes and sizes fly over and flit about the stream as caddis begin to hatch. Dark shadows of trout slip between the weeds.

Hot Creek is a gift plunked down in the middle of some of the most gorgeous country. It flows for about 3 miles through a huge meadow of wildflowers and tall grasses — which has been under the private ownership of Hot Creek Ranch for decades — and is surrounded on one side by the Sierra Nevada Mountains and on the other by the high desert of the Long Valley Caldera, which stretches about 10 miles to the Glass Mountain Ridge. The most fished public stretch flows through Hot Creek Gorge, below the ranch.

This year the creek offered a special challenge: low water and weeds. Hot Creek is known for the weeds that make it such a prolific stream; weeds that necessitate good casts to small lanes if one is to expect a decent drift.

This year those lanes seemed to be half as wide and half as long. Most of the fish where either hovering at the beginning or the end of these lanes, or just at or under the edges of the weeds. Some could be seen. Others were revealed as they fed on something too small be seen.

Solitude on Hot Creek.

Solitude on Hot Creek.

If there’s one consistency at Hot Creek, at least during the fall, it’s the size of the flies that work best. A favorite among our group this year was a small Zebra Midge, but for me it was a size 20 CDC Caddis. I needed help seeing a fly that small, so this day it would trail a decent sized grasshopper pattern.

These days I tend to use dry flies more often as indicator in slower moving waters. I did so during my first visit to Hot Creek. Not because I wanted to, but because everything I had read and been told about this stream deemed it “highly technical.” I still don’t really know what those words mean when used to describe a river, stream or creek, but they were scary at the time.

These days, Hot Creek treats me fairly. Choosing the proper fly, casting well to the right spot and getting a good drift is generally rewards one with a strike. Whether or not that fish makes it to the net is up to me. This year, of about a dozen fish hooked, I’d lose half of them in the weeds. Others would throw the hook after going airborne. Only three would make it to hand for quick release.

I spent all of the morning and much of the afternoon fishing and exploring, visiting a lower section of the creek for the first time, and eating lunch about 30 feet above the creek while watching rising fish and mesmerized by the vivid landscape around me. It took more effort than usual to leave.

Somewhere along the line I read about a guy who fishes the Eastern Sierra, and on his vehicle is a bumper sticker that reads, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Appropriate for Hot Creek.


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the 2013 Eastern Sierra Expeditionary Force, part one

Ask anyone who attended my club’s Eastern Sierra trip about the fish that made it to the net, and he’s likely to tell you it was about 18 inches. And that will be the truth.

For some of our group that was the length of one rainbow trout. For others, that total of 18 inches was the cumulative length of six brook trout. That’s just how it can play out in the Eastern Sierras.

The nice thing about an annual trip is that there always seems be to a landmark at which everyday life melts away and the focus shifts and sharpens to living in the present.

Morning above the West Walker River.

Morning above the West Walker River.

In this case, it occurs once the descent from Sonora Pass begins and the high desert stretches out in front of me. The route of choice this year was Hwy 108, as Hwy 120 (Tioga Road) was closed through mid September due to the Rim Fire. The usual commute traffic was there. Twice I would weave between cows meandering on the asphalt.

There are two maxims that apply to my fly fishing: (1) Get the skunk of as quickly as possible and (2) shaving serves no purpose. To address the first adage, I stopped at the West Walker River earlier than most fly fisherman would even take their first sip of coffee. Early enough to enjoy the stirring experience of hearing reveille echoing from the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center before my first cast.

Most people head for “the bend,” knowing that pods of planted trout can be found and, occasionally, a bigger fish might be found under a cut bank. But upstream, pocket water is a bigger draw for me.

West Walker Wild Rainbow

West Walker Wild Rainbow

Pocket water slows me down considerably, and it’s a good thing. Besides the obvious, avoiding a fall and at least a sprain if not a broken bone or two, the pocket water in the Sierras tends to be favored by the better-looking wild fish, and they need to be stalked. With a slow and low approach, I found plenty of wild rainbows willing to play.

When the sun was high in the sky and hiding my profile consigned me to shade and leg cramps, it was time to head down Hwy 395 to Tom’s Place Resort, , which if you’ve ever been, is a bit more basic than the name implies. But the price is right. The rest of our group, totaling 12, would filter in throughout the afternoon.

After that, the real fishing would begin, to be followed by free flowing homemade beer, good food and plenty of lies.


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a confession

To be honest, I left home yesterday (actually left from the office) not as fired up as usual about the annual club fishing trip to the Eastern Sierra.

Now that I’ve been on “the Eastside” for about 16 hours I know why.

I didn’t get out with the fly rod often enough this year. I had forgotten what it meant to be standing in the clear water of a mountain stream so intensely focused on fooling that one fish that every other concern or worry melted away.

Leading up to this re-realization was a pretty unique — or special — morning.

The traffic ran into during my commute was entire comprised of bovines. Yes, I had to move into the other lane to pass cows.

My first stop was at the West Walker River, and as I contemplated the river, reveille echoed over the meadow, marking the start of the day at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. (To quote a Facebook friend, “Hoo Ahh to that! What a great day to be fishing in the USA!”

It was.

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P.S. This entire post was composed on my iPhone, so please excuse any sloppiness. And I really don’t know how I feel about being able to do so.


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on the (hidden) cost of visiting a “local” fly shop

Sure, deceit is rampant in fly fishing. A common non-answer answer to “What fly you using?” might be, “Well, they’re looking at dries, taking some nymphs too, but streamers might work.” And it’s always delivered with a grin.

That same grin might go along with a tale about the latest and great gear gotten at a great price, but often left unsaid is the “where” of that purchase. While I pondered the gift certificates on my desk and personally wrestled with this question of “where” the last few weeks, it dawned on me that me and my generation maybe the last one with truly equal footing in the pre- and post-Internet world.

My nearest fly shop is about 17 miles away, not too far. It’s a modest affair and on the surface, like many fly shops, seems to have had its struggles over the years. Inventory can still be hit or miss.

The Orvis gift certificates on my desk, however, made the choice between shopping online and visiting a brick-and-mortar shop both a logistical and a financial decision. The closest store, in San Francisco, closed last year. I could shop online, but wading boots were on my list, and just as much as I wouldn’t buy a fly rod without casting it first, I generally don’t buy anything that will be worn without test fitting. I also detest the drawn out process of buying, returning and awaiting shipment of a replacement item.

That’s why the wife and I ended up at the Roseville Orvis store, 80 miles away from home, a weekend ago.

We made a day of it, stopping to walk in Discovery Park along the American River, just above its confluence with the Sacramento River. The weather was great and the river was dotted with boats of anglers searching for the first salmon of the Central Valley season.

packWe found the Orvis store after realizing it had moved and, feeling a bit like a dork, I carried my waders and socks on the walk to the store. The waders gave me away as soon as I entered the store, and soon I was set with new rubber-soled wading boots. (My old felt boots are still serviceable, but will be relegated to a back role and waters known to be invasive species free.) A small chest pack was selected and a day pack ordered. More than a few flies made it into the bag.

I enjoyed the friendly banter with Frank – comparisons of fishing experiences, hints and suggestions of waters that deserve a visit – something that’ll never be matched online. And there was no cost to fondle wiggle test rods on my wish list.

Fuel to Get There: $18.45
Entrance Fee at Discovery Park: $5.00
Lunch at Smashburger: $10.52
Plenty of New Fly Fishing Gear: Don’t Ask
Personal Service from Guy Who Actually Uses the Gear: Priceless


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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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first time fly fishing with the wife (or, rolling the dice on being out-fished)

I never pushed fly fishing on my wife, but she’s always supported my pursuit of the sport and listens attentively to accounts of all my adventures. She usually believes the fish are as big as I say.

Then, a few months ago she took me by surprise, asking if I would show her how to cast a fly rod. I’ve had welcome opportunities over the years to help teach, or at least acquaint, a few folks with fly fishing. In addition to assisting with the club’s novice class, it could be said I didn’t teach too many bad habits to my brother and my son, both of whom went on to have some success.

After an involuntary thought that “those who can, do, but shouldn’t necessarily teach,” I agreed to take my wife out for some casting. Good weather offered an opportunity and we spent just under an hour going through the basic motions.

A few weeks later, during a discussion of our weekends, I reminded her that I’d be teaching the novice class on an upcoming Saturday. She asked if there might be room. There was, and soon she had reserved a spot. She learned a lot and suffered through some frustration.

It is nice to have someone to take a photo.

Sure is nice to have someone along to get photographic evidence.

We’d be at the cabin a week after the class, and while a friend would be with us and side trips were planned, it was expected that I’d slip away to chase a few trout. Although we packed extra rods, reels and my spare waders and wading boots, it wasn’t until we stopped at Bass Pro and purchased a license for my wife did the reality sink in that she actually might join me.

Firmly believing that the best way to hook someone on fly fishing is to get into a fish on a fly rod, our destination the next morning was a stocked stream not too far from the cabin. We test-fit the waders at home and knew they would work well enough. My wife set up the rod and reel on her own, we clipped on our wading staffs and headed to the stream. I think it was after a dozen steps or so that my wife began referring to my old wading boots as “clown shoes.” (Admittedly, they were a bit big, but did the job that day.)

My wife doesn’t much like water — it’s for drinking and bathing and that’s about it — but she didn’t flinch much when we began wading. While waders provide a barrier between the wearer and the wetness of the water, one still “feels” the water. I reassured her that in water this cold, after a bit of time, she’d be too numb to notice.

Just before the first strike...

Just before the first strike…

This is a stream best nymphed, with limited dry fly action some afternoons. Offering a running commentary on what I was doing, I rigged up two standard nymphs below an indicator. I explained and demonstrated where to cast (and hooked a fish in the process), and talked about how the trout would be looking for a close approximation of a real insect drifting near a current seam.

The morning was sprinkled with encouragement and advice. My wife’s casting, more like lobbing under the tree limbs above, improved. Her patience was impressive. After the first take of the day, it was more than an hour before a second bump. She wasn’t the only one casting to ghosts. I could count my strikes on one hand.

About midmorning we shifted downstream about 10 feet. The fish in this stream, though raised in a hatchery, move throughout the day, typically following the movement of the shadows. Close to noon, there’s more sunlight than shadows on the water, forcing any trout in the area into a narrow and definable seam. Downstream, I switched to a dry/dropper setup and was sight casting to a decent looking fish. Good placement and presentation earned a solid strike, and I landed my second and last fish of the day. Photo taken and trout released, the focus returned to getting the wife on a fish.

There’s no telling what changed — the temperament of the fish, the depth or general presentation of the flies — but suddenly my wife could lay out a cast, manage the line and fool a fish. A trout was hooked on the second or third strike, offered a dramatic leap and was gone. In between a few more strikes we worked on line management and talked about setting the hook. A few more strikes were missed.

Karen's First Fly Fish

Getting the “hero shot” took some dedication with an uncooperative, slippery fish. But she did it.

Then it all came together.

It was good to get excited about a fish on the line, even if it wasn’t my line. Limiting my advice to keeping the rod tip up and letting out line when the fish demanded it, I set my rod down and carefully moved downstream of the missus. I calmly instructed her to bring the fish head first into the net. For one heart-stopping moment the 12-inch rainbow would have flopped out were it not for my cat-like ninja reflexes luck.

Yes, my wife did receive a proper fly fishing baptism, falling into the water a few times. (No water over the waders and nothing broken.) Tangles were minimal and, amazingly, not one fly was lost the entire day. I do worry, however, that had she hooked (and landed) all the fish that hit her flies, she would have out-fished me.

Ask my wife why she stepped up to try fly fishing and you’ll get some sentimental nonsense that it’s another way to spend time with her husband. That day, in a cool stream away from everyday worries, after landing a trout, she told me of a new understanding of why I enjoy fly fishing.

While we’re not running out to buy her new gear, I’m now optimistic that there’s a greater chance of fly fishing any suspect water we pass during our travels.


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finding a fly fishing fix not far away (and why a 3 wt. was a poor choice)

I usually eyeball them through jaundiced eyes. Though instinctively taking inventory of every feature — shelter, shade, structure — I’d normally pass up a puddle made even more unappealing by strategically placed CalTrans-orange barrier netting.

But I missed Opening Day of trout season last Saturday. So, while a preference for good hygiene precluded any thought of sullying waders in the tepid water, it was hard the next day to pass up an opportunity to soak a line to test a presumption that life might be found beneath the surface.

My son’s tales of casting spinners to willing small bass brought me to this containment pond, barely five minutes from the house. Not much more than 50 feet across, there was nothing remarkable about it. The setting was serene enough, being that it is behind a [location redacted]. Trees line the south bank, providing a bit of shade and shelter. Reeds sprout near a corrugated culvert pipe and a darkness that comes with depth suggested a smaller drop off about five feet from shore.

“Nothing much over eight inches,” he had said.

Parked on a nearby street, I returned the 5 wt. to the trunk, selecting the 3 wt., thinking the smaller rod would offer a more sporting fight. We hiked over sidewalk and up a dirt embankment to get there.

Lacking any need for sophisticated assembly of a rod or the puzzling about the appropriate fly, my son and his girlfriend were soon throwing spinners and eliciting strikes. I maintained a semblance of dignity, but it’s a bit unsettling to publicly rig a fly rod while visitors to the [redacted] came and went by, while the sound of compression braking floated up from a nearby Bay Area highway. Being predisposed to size 20 Parachute Adams and even smaller nymphs, my choice of suitable flies was limited. A bluegill-ish streamer pattern was the ultimate choice.

The superiority advantage of fly fishing was immediately apparent. After three casts I managed to land the “largest” fish my son had seen pulled from this urban lagoon. All of 10 inches, it was a fun match for the 3 wt. This pattern continued, with more fish missed than hooked.

Previous encounters with bass — actually, lack thereof — left me a bit dismissive and a bit underprepared, but playing these little fish helped reduce a twitch developed during a winter devoid of any fishing. But the contentment that snuck up on me vanished in an in-your-face demonstration of the circle of life; a demonstration of an oft-told fish story that I had never personally experienced.

Like any of the half dozen other six-, eight- or 10-inchers, this small bass offered up a small tussle, until a large shadow shot forward and engulfed it. Any leader that was visible quickly disappeared as the shadow returned to the depths. A short tug of war ensued. Just as quickly, my line and rod went limp. It was more than I bargained for, but a welcome reminder why I enjoy this sport.

Big bass from a small pond.

Big bass from a small pond.

In a cloud of optimism but without any expectations, my box of streamers was re-examined and a heavier, bead-head yellow woolly bugger tied on. The smaller bass paid a bit more attention to this fly, though it was equal to at least a quarter of their body length. After a few casts, I remembered to let it settle a bit, hoping that might present the fly to the fish a bit longer. This tactic worked well enough, and I landed about 24 inches of bass six to eight inches at time.

The wind made casting a bit of a chore with a big fly on such a small rod, but soon enough I was more consistently hitting promising water. Finally the fly landed where directed. I paused; stripped in line, paused again, stripped. The line stopped in mid-strip. Being more accustomed to embedding a hook in an underwater log or moss-encrusted rock, it wasn’t until my line shivered that I realized there was a big(ger) fish on the other end. The choice of a small 3 wt. rod and reel was quickly called into question; the reel’s drag screaming painfully and the rod bending into an uncomfortable semiellipse.

There’s no gingerly playing a big fish on a small rod. Do so and you’ll probably lose this fish. Horse a fish too much and you’ll probably break equipment.

Without a net, I was unprepared for a fish of any size. But the fishing gods must have been smiling on me. Time seemed to slip away, eventually the fight ebbed and a lip was gripped.

In the end, I found my temporary fix last weekend far from clear, cool streams in which I’ll be wading when you read this.

An anatomy of urban fly fishing.

An anatomy of urban fly fishing.


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avoiding that 12-step program

I’m trying to avoid that 12-step program.

I’ve seen the results of the sickness. It’s not pretty. Often, it means a car can’t be parked in the garage.

An unchecked inventory of rods, reels, waders, vests and more spills from the shelves. A lathe, peppered with bits of grip cork, sits front and center, over fading oil stains. Boxes of feathers, thread, fur and hooks litter the floor. A pontoon boat or float tubes fill much of the rest of the space.

After taking an unblinking look at my array of fly fishing gear, it’s become clear that the time to act is now, before I lose control to an outside intervention. The rule around the house is that if an item hasn’t been used in a year, you’d better have a darn good reason — other than unshared sentimentality — for hanging on to it.

That hard look uncovered that 10-foot, 7 wt. rod that’s been wetted only once, chasing bass three years ago. I wouldn’t say I’m a trout snob, but bass fishin’ just hasn’t grabbed hold of me. And the trout I do chase generally don’t require much more than a 5 wt. (I’m actually leaning more toward a 4 wt. nowadays, but that’d require another acquisition.)

Luckily, I don’t have much, yet. There’s an old bamboo rod in one of those cases, but it’s safe; the wife suggested it could be decorative in the fly tying room that’ll be occupied by the last kid at home, probably for another three years. The spinning rods were long ago tucked into the garage at the cabin in the hope that visiting nephews might enjoy them. A boxful of spinners should join them shortly.

I expect that one’s collection of fly rods and reels is acquired for no other reason than fishing. Sometimes we want the latest and greatest, and forget what we already have. Sometimes it’s the search for the gear that will allow for longer casts, straighter cast, more accurate casts, or all of the above. Other considerations include differences in feel, flex, power, speed and fit and finish.

Maybe it’s a quixotic quest, but after casting various rods owned by friends and guides’ rods during the last year, I’m hoping to apply greater scrutiny any future gear acquisitions…buying only what I need, spending the money to get what I really want (with the required scrimping and saving). And there’ll still be room for a back up rod.

I’m hopeful that my belief that garages are for cars — many Californians seem to think that garages are above-ground basements — will keep to a minimum prevent any hoarding.


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a week of fly fishing, part two: a personal challenge (or, an unfamiliar approach to familiar waters)

There are times when the catching is good, but the fishing still unsatisfying. I was felt this way on Hot Creek, just a bit, during this last club trip to the Eastern Sierra.

I may not eagerly jump out of bed on a work day, but by nature — likely because I’m in tune with nature on most fishing trips — I’m an early morning fly fisher.

It’s a strategy that works for me. It puts me on the water long before almost anyone else. Nymphs work well for me in the twilight of the morning. The darkness lends the fish in my net a a mysterious, ghostly quality.

But this last trip, after that aforementioned conversation with the guy from Cabo, I thought it was time to change it up.

That’s what put me on Hot Creek about mid afternoon on a Thursday.

It was nicer than I expected, with a mid week crowd comprised of a single fisherman and myself, and the normally frustrating winds almost nonexistent. Caddis coated the bushes. An errant mayfly dipped up and down in the air.

I’d been told that a certain crane fly imitation would work well. I didn’t have one. The hoppers that were suggested didn’t get even a glance from fish clearly seen to be eating. For a time I watched the graceful and economical movements of a pod of trout, rising to feed and falling back to the bottom. Obviously, there was something that I couldn’t see bringing them to the surface.

Like most any water, Hot Creek comes with its own piece of counseling: go small. And in the afternoon, dry flies.

Normally I’d head upstream and work my way down, but after a friendly conversation with older gent already fishing (and giving him a size 20 caddis for use as an indicator above a trailing something about size 22-24), I decided to stick and move as I worked my way up the creek.

I rigged up in similar fashion, with a black caddis trailing a size 24 parachute Adams. This time of year, tactics at Hot Creek are often dictated by the abundant weed growth. A soft footfall serves one well, and I carefully picked my way around bushes while watching the “lanes.” In the past, I bypassed these areas under the pretext of one excuse or another. (My casting isn’t good enough, I won’t get a long enough drift, too many people, etc.)

It wasn’t too long before I saw that first nose, more of a bump in the water, a tell-tale sign of a feeding trout.

I cast well upstream. It took a few more casts, but with some skill luck, a good drift put the fly where it needed to be.

Hot Creek Brown/Small Fly

It still amazes me that a nice Hot Creek brown like this can be landed on so small a fly.

I’d repeat this more times than I care to recall but was rewarded with eight beautiful trout, mostly browns, all of which were no less than 13”. The biggest and prettiest crowded about 24” of beauty into 15” of fish.

Next year, I think this place will deserve an entire day of my attention.