fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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no longer just fair-weather fishing

I’d never thought of myself as a fair-weather fisherman until last month. The truth is that the timing of my fishing trips — most of which take place within a few hours drive of our cabin in the Sierra foothills — is more often dictated by the level of water and the appetites of the trout in it. There are plenty of sources for information that will give you an idea of what might be expected when you get where you’re going, but usually doesn’t match up with the reality of being there.

Last month I had left the cabin on an outing that began like any other early-morning trip over Sonora Pass. I left before sunrise, the roads were vacant and it was about 40 degrees F. The general idea was to visit previously unvisited areas of a nearby watershed, with no specific plan in mind.

The elevation of the cabin is about 3,600 feet, where autumn is generally makes its presence known in a pleasant manner. Leaves are beginning to change and there’s a nip in the air. Short sleeves are still comfortable most of the now shorter daylight hours.

The temperature fell as I began to climb toward the pass, and blotches of yellows and reds more frequently peeked out from behind the evergreens. By the time I arrived at Kennedy Meadows (elevation 6,700 feet), it was about half an hour past sunrise, but in the shadows of this piñon-juniper forest, it was 27 degrees. In 10 more miles I climbed another 3,000 feet, emerged from the tree line, and the temperature would rise about 25 degrees.

I have a fondness for the high country — because its beauty is one of stark contrasts, in some ways harsh but fragile in others, with dwarfed pines scrapping out an existence against a background of granite — and this dramatic variation in temperatures is one of the most observable influences on that beauty. The simple expansion of water as it becomes ice slowly breaks down granite. The melting of that ice, and snow, as well as a general weathering of the landscape, breaks that granite into pieces that, through weather and the activities of insects and animals, can be mixed with decomposed plant matter to create a thin and rocky soil. It’s truly amazing that such infertile soil supports numerous conifers of all shapes and sizes.

The descent on the east side of the mountains leads down to the high desert, where desolation of this shrubland is interrupted by strings of trees, usually aspens in the canyons and pines elsewhere, following the course of the rivers and streams of the Walker watershed. The sun gathers strength here, but this morning its power would be contested by a layer of cold air that had established a foothold during the night.

River-Side Ice

River-side ice at 26 degrees that morning.

There’s always that time, between emerging from the artificial environmental cocoon of a vehicle and before the cold really starts to bite, that the air temperature never seems that cold. When I pulled alongside likely looking water, it was 26 degrees. I had given serious consideration to the idea it would be chilly, but now worried I hadn’t considered it seriously enough.

So with the thought that I had come too far and retreat wasn’t an option, I began the layering that I hoped would suffice. This was comprised of fleece pants under the waders, a wind-proof wading jacket over a fleece sweatshirt that was on top of my long sleeve shirt, and a well-worn, wide-brim canvas hat. Later I’d realize that my fingerless fishing gloves would have been a welcome addition.

As long as I kept moving, I avoided the long shadows that persisted as the sun hung low along its autumnal path. The water was 58 degrees, at the low end at which trout will be active, so I didn’t linger too long in one spot and moved frequently to cover as much water as possible.

This was an entirely new experience. My breath hung in the air, lingering as puffs of white. Skim ice crunched underfoot. My guides iced up within fifteen minutes. It was cold. So cold that I almost — almost — hoped that wouldn’t have to plunge my hand into the water to unhook a fish.

I would leave this first spot about an hour later, skunked but feeling that for that brief time, more than ever, that I couldn’t escape being part of nature.


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go big(ger) or go fishless

The reality of my fly fishing outings is that more time is spent preparing and getting to the designated spot than is spent in considering the fish I might hook and, hopefully, land. Most of the time, this isn’t an issue. Then there’s the one time of year when it is.

Like most fly fisherman, I have my usual haunts; some more wild, some more convenient. Some of these places require a lot of planning: the scheduling of vacation time, packing the gear and more food than I’ll ever eat, and longish driving times. The more convenient places are usually less an hour away from my base of operation, usually the cabin.

That’s where I was a couple of weeks ago when I set out for Sure Thing Creek. It’s not the most wild stream, but in the fall it’s usually quiet. This time of year most of the fish left in the creek — mostly stocked rainbows — are the smartest, which didn’t fall for less refined presentations of hardware, bait and even flies. (At least that’s what I like to tell myself.) I’m familiar with the general ebb and flow of nature here, which usually dictates nymphs at sunrise then a dry/dropper set up about midmorning, which can give way to decent dry fly fishing about midday.

This day I was alone on the creek, which is actually a small tailwater, and the pattern of fishing was much of the same, though everything was delayed about an hour because of the coolness of fall. I spent most of the morning moving through three prime lies, with an embarrassing number of fish to the net. I switched to a dry/dropper with a #20 Red-Butt Zebra Midge hanging on 6X tippet about 12 inches below a #16 Stimulator with a yellow-green body.

Eventually, the number of strikes on either fly suggested a move downstream to a new pool that had been created over the last year when a tree that used to lean over the stream toppled during the winter and higher flows ate away at the bank previously held in place by its roots. The water cascaded over rocks, bubbles bringing oxygen into the pool, which was now wider and longer, and enticing.

I was pretty confident there’d be fish at the top of the pool, out of sight under the bubbles. A prominent seam about foot off the opposite bank also offered promise. I stood at the edge, and where the water immediately in front of me was about three feet deep and I could see the bottom. I cast about 20 feet to the head of the pool and let the flies drift.

It wasn’t until after I had passed my flies through the pool about half a dozen times that my suspicions were confirmed. The first sign was a strike on the nymph, though my hookset was too slow the fish too quickly spit out the fly. A few more casts offered another chance and with a good hookset, and carefully playing the fish, I had a rainbow trout of about 13 inches to the net.

In that moment, I had it all right: the fly, the cast and the presentation. I cast a few more times. The dry fly stopped. I set.

The rod bent more than it should. The first thought was “snag.”

Then the snag moved; slowly at first, but with purpose. Then the fish shook its head. Not the short, rapid shakes of a smaller fish, but the firm, powerful strokes of something larger. Then it shot upstream. Gentle pressure briefly brought back to the middle of the pool before it torpedoed downstream. More pressure, in the opposite direction, turned it around. We danced this way about four times.

Then it surprised me by charging toward me, angling downstream slightly. Stripping loose line, I regained leverage and applied pressure. Slowly the fish began to swing back upstream, paralleling the pool’s edge at my feet. It was a BIG fish. A salmon-sized trout.

With only a quick look, it could have been described as an Atlantic salmon — big spots on a pale background. Stunned, I didn’t respond fast enough to keep it out of the weeds, where it rolled, leaving about 2 lbs. of vegetation on my leader.

The world seemed to move slower than it should at this point, allowing my brain to process every sensory input. It was likely a big brown from the lake below. And between it and me was a foot of monofilament with a diameter of only five hundredths of an inch.

Maybe those thoughts took too much time to process, or maybe it was the fear that arose after realizing the size of my tippet, but a few second later that fish snapped my line with one big surge.

It was only after recovering from my deep momentary despair that I realized that my fault was not considering that I might meet up with a bruiser brown that day, pushed by the urge to spawn out the lake and into this small creek — even though I had landed a few over the years.

I’m just hoping there’s a next time, and that I’m better prepared.


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the 2013 Eastern Sierra Expeditionary Force, part 3

My last full day in the Eastern Sierra was planned around a mid-afternoon visit to Mammoth Brewing. John — a multi-year attendee of this outing — was keen on the idea, so we planned to spend the morning fishing and the afternoon…um…let’s call it “beering.”

We got an early start driving up Rock Creek Canyon to the Mosquito Flats trailhead, at about 10,000 feet. It was a typically crisp fall morning when we geared up and begin hiking, which for stretches was more akin to climbing. It stopped every once and a while to catch my breath admire the scenery.

Looking downstream (east) as Rock Creek exits Heart Lake.

Looking downstream (east) as Rock Creek exits Heart Lake.

We had no particular goal, so about an hour in we departed the trail and headed to the inlet of Heart Lake, which is about a mile and quarter so up the trail. John dropped down to the trail-side of the inlet; I hiked to the opposite side of the lake. Quite a few years ago I hiked this trial, a bit further, fishing the lakes along the way. That year I caught nothing. I know now that it had been too late in the day.

This early morning, however, there was plenty of interest, particularly if I could cast my orange humpy (dry fly) within a foot or so of the reeds lining the lake. There were spots, near inlets and outlets, where I would land half a dozen brookies, most colored up for the fall spawn. Most would slowly emerge from the depths or from behind a submerge log, and either lunch at my fly or flamboyantly refuse it.

Typical brook trout, one of many, caught in Rock Creek and its lakes.

Typical brook trout, one of many, caught in Rock Creek and its lakes.

We’d fish Rock Creek between two other lakes as we descended with the creek. I’d hook an occasional brown trout and stop often to just enjoy where I was. It was a beautiful day, with an ever-present breeze that kept things cool. The sun would be obscured every once and while by dark clouds; the almost black clouds I’ve only seen in the high country. John’s movement would mirror mine for the most part, though he did have to return to the trail to hike over a huge granite outcropping that prevented his following the edge of one lake.

Throughout the morning we met other folks, mostly hikers with a few fly fishermen among them. There was a noticeable absence of hardware or bait fishermen. While the casting is easy on the lakes, greater stealth was required in the close quarters of the creek. Most of the time I would cast downstream about ten feet, piling up some line to allow for a relatively drag-free drift for another five to ten feet. Any closer and my footfall would spook any unseen fish.

By the time we returned to the trailhead, it was time for lunch. My plan included a quick shower — I was going into town after all — and to meet John in Mammoth. We arrived just about the same time and it was easily decided to share a flight of regular beers as well as one of the seasonals. We had a good time talking with a server who worked the summer at Mammoth Brewing and would be heading back to Murphys (where The Wife and I enjoy the fruits of local winemaking), where he’s help with the grape harvest at his family’s winery. I walked out the door with a growler of Floating Rock Hefeweizen and one of Imperial Root Beer.

Both the beer and root beer (which, to my taste buds, is easily one of the best root beers around) are long gone. The fish have forgotten who I am. This just means I’ll have to return.


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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