fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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plenty of water and willing fish, and a return to Crooked Creek, part three

It’s a good thing that the shoreline of Crowley Lake isn’t much to look at; indicators go down the moment one looks away.

Looking down at Crowley Lake from the west, toward Nevada.

Nested in the south end of the Long Valley Caldera, Crowley Lake is a reservoir turned model trout fishery. Created by the damming of the Owens River just before the Owens River George, the lake sits at 6,800 feet and cool during the summer but doesn’t fully freeze during the winter. With a pH on the alkaline side and feed by a confluence of snowmelt-fed creeks – the Upper Owens River and McGee, Convict, Hilton, and Crooked creeks – and underwater springs, it offers a near-perfect mix of abundant oxygen and nutrients to sustain a robust population of aquatic insects, dominated by an incredible number of chironomids. The addition of Sacramento perch offers fry to feed big trout.

Whenever on this trip, I put out a call for partners to share the cost of a guide boat. While stillwater nymphing may not be a tactic favored by all, it’s unfair to dismiss it without trying it, at least once. Like guided fly fishing on any boat I’ve been, it’s like stepping onto a cruise ship. Just bring yourself, your license and sunscreen.

Gerry was the first to respond to my query and we set up a trip with Joe Contaldi. The owner of Performance Anglers Guide Service, he’s well-known on the fly fishing club speaking circuit and possesses the qualities that make for a great guide: enthusiasm, knowledge, and skill.

We arrive at the marine just before its 7 a.m. opening. We watch in disgust as an angler, two trucks ahead of us, strips all of the monofilament off his spinning road and leaves it lying on the road. The gate opens and we pull up, stopping long enough for Gerry to open the passenger door and grab the line.

It’s busy around the boat ramp as we walk toward the docks. After quick hello to Doug Rodricks, who I’ve fished with before on Crowley and Eagle lakes, we find Joe and his boat. Joe’s got that lake guide look, weatherworn, clear eyes, and a natural penchant for enthusiastic encouragement. He welcomes us aboard, offers massive and unexpected muffins for breakfast, then readies the boat for a short run north to McGee Bay.

It’s calm this morning on the lake; it’s a liquid mirror reflecting the mountains and sky. Beautiful, but not my favorite conditions. My best days fishing Crowley were helped by a little ripple on the water, just enough wave action to keep the fly moving and enticing hits a dozen feet under the surface. Gerry and I are instructed to occasionally raise our rod tips to give the flies action, a tactic with which we’re both familiar.

We anchor, rig up, and Joe points out the lane we should target. It’s a drop off twenty to twenty-five feet from the boat. I settle in, reacquainting myself with the lake, like meeting up with a friend after a long absence. It’s not long before there’s confirmation of fish in the area, on other boats. The still morning air is broken now and again by shouts of “fish on,” sometimes followed by the noises of anguish when a fish doesn’t make to the net.

Stillwater nymphing on Crowley Lake requires patience, focus, knowledge, and hope. I could on a guide for the knowledge, then hope I’m fast enough to set the hook. It’s the focus on the indicator, quickly followed by a quick and smooth hookset that’ll factor into success. Sometimes it takes a few misses to reacquire that skillset. Less than an hour after anchoring, that skillset was reacquired.

It’d be nice to say that I hit that first strike and landed a fish, but I can’t exactly remember. Regardless, that first fish was more than nice sized, about eighteen-plus inches. Joe asks if I wanted a photo with it, but I opt to wait for a bigger trout.

Fish on for Gerry in the early and too calm morning.

There can be days on Crowley Lake when the fishing is fast and furious, or consistent, or tough. This would be a day of consistency, both in terms of frequency and size. There was a chance nearly every half hour to hook a fish. A chance that required we consistently perform good hooksets. Sadly but honestly I must say my hooksets were less consistent than the bite.

The fish we did bring to net were consistently impressive. About midmorning , Gerry and I had a double. We both landed fish nearly every hour until about 11 a.m. When the bite slowed, I dug into lunch, a ritual that often elicits strikes. It didn’t.

One of my first Lahanton Cutthroats of the day.

Gerry’s big Lahanton, out of McGee Bay.

This is the time of day when guides decide whether to hold out for better fishing or to explore other options. Friend and outing companion Wayne and his guest, Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing participant Mike, were on the move, their guide on the hunt for a better spot. Joe asked us if we wanted to pull up anchor, suggesting we might try the Crooked Creek arm. Despite uninspiring reports from other guides, I said I was willing to give it a try.

(Crooked Creek was where I first learned stillwater nymphing. During April 2007, son Christopher and I attended the DVFF’s Novice Fly Fishing Seminar and, inspired by the class, sought a real-world experience reinforce what we had learned and expand out skillset with the help of a guide. I booked a trip on the hitherto mysterious Crowley Lake. When I was a kid, my family and I would pass the lake on the way to Tuolumne Meadows or June Lake Loop. The local newspapers we’d pick up to read and use in starting campfires were peppered with photos of unbelievably large trouts.)

Wayne and Mike headed out in search of fish.

Joe spent extra time positioning the boat mid channel and the first 10 minutes didn’t inspire confidence that this had been the right move. With my attention span waning, I missed the first solid takedown. But consistent opportunities that afternoon allowed Gerry and me to hook, fight, and land some of the most exciting fish of the day.

That evening, without embellishment, we dutifully made a report to our club colleagues. Perhaps our only complaint were sore cheeks from the constant grinning.

The next morning coffee was on early and a coordinated effort ensured the cabins were quickly cleaned. After a final group photo, some would make one last stop to wet a line. I chose to take my time through Yosemite, lingering to enjoy time well spent in beautiful places.

 


For those who missed ’em: Part One and Part Two.

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following no plan

Unhurried, we turned what could have been a three-hour drive into an easy-going, day-long expedition. Hours were spent exploring thin blue lines on maps and the unfamiliar dirt roads that would get us to hopefully fishy water. That time was rewarded with wild fish. One of us had to be satisfied with drifting a fly well enough to at least provoke strikes. We stumbled over boulders and walked through cold, clear waters on both the east and west slopes of Stevens Pass. Passed up less welcoming waters and greedily eyed a pod of big fish, fish too smart or wary to tempt. We stayed where we wanted as long as we wanted, and when the urge struck, we again headed east for a few or more miles before searching new water along another dirt road.

Often the best aspect of a destination is the journey required to get there. It’s all the better if that travel takes you out of your comfort zone. That’s now part of the nature of our Bro’ Trip™.

It was during June eight years ago that the rough outline – or at least the possibility – of an annual Bro’ Trip™ took form. Such traditions don’t just happen. They require work.

Back in 2008, our trip was about taking Dad fishing in Alaska, something he’d talked about but never followed up on. We spent four days of fishing for salmon and halibut out of a Kenai River lodge. Today, our Bro’ Trip™ is more modest but still adventures that include discovery and often take us to new places.

We easily throw trip ideas back and forth at the start of a new year before getting down to the real work: scheduling. We’re not retired or self-employed. Mark has two young boys. Side projects – Neighborhood Watch, college classes, and website work for my fly fishing club and the IWFF and NCCFFF (two other fly fishing groups), demand my regular attention. We both try to plan family vacations each year. Mark takes the boys camping and the whole family to various destinations. My wife likes cruises. Thankfully, both our wives support the allotment of some time for brothers to be brothers, and to sometimes act like boys.

After my banzai run up I-5 and the visit with the parents, I met up with Mark and family Sunday evening. He was barbecuing kokanee that was swimming earlier that morning. I was pretty ready to roll out the next morning. Mark wasn’t. It didn’t bother me much that he wasn’t ready. I’ve made a conscious effort over the years to avoiding worrying when it’s not necessary. And it’s definitely not necessary on vacation.

By midmorning the next day we turned off Hwy 2 and headed down a Forest Service Road toward Money Creek. Like many of the waters we’d fish that week, Money Creek is small pocket. The type of creek that attracts very few people, most likely fly fishermen with self-esteem issues. But its small dry fly water is worth a few casts. We were a bit too heavily armed, perhaps optimistically, with 3 wt. rods. We agreed to meet at the next bend to decide on whether we would extend our stay.

The weather was warm enough to allow wet wading but the water cool enough for the fish. Dense forest shaded both banks, their branches demanded care when casting unless we stepped into the water to make an upstream cast, which is my favorite tactic on previously unvisited water. The first step into the water was mildly shocking.

It’d been too long since I last laid hand to a fly rod, but the old muscle memory came back fast enough to generally place flies where trout might be looking. Without a visible hatch and expecting these to be wild and relatively unmolested fish, both Mark and I had tied on stimulator flies of one kind or another: Mark’s with an orange body, mine in yellow. The color didn’t matter; both were about size 16.

Quick strikes confirmed my guess; the trout were there. However, a lack of hookups suggested my fly was too big.

Mark working his way up Money Creek.

Mark working his way up Money Creek.

The benefit of not being a “purist” allows me to easily adopt strategies that other fly fishermen might frown upon. Rather than replace my size 16 fly, I tied a piece of tippet, about 10 inches, on to the stimulator, onto which I tied a size 20 Elk Hair Caddis. The biggest benefit to this setup is that the larger stimulator would give me an approximate location of my smaller, almost invisible fly.

That’s all it took. Later, Mark reported numerous strikes but not one fish to hand. I had landed half a dozen or so. The largest was about eight inches. It was a promising start. During the day we’d fish other creeks. We’d pass up others, usually because the footing was too treacherous for two not-in-their-prime guys. We found willing fish in the East Fork Miller Creek, before it merges with the Tye River to create the South Fork of the Skykomish River. Other waters on our list included Foss River, Rinker Creek and Quartz Creek.

Just after noon we had run out of easily accessible water and headed over Stevens Pass to make the descent into eastern Washington. We were talking like brothers can and munching on snacks, and the scenery whizzed by. That should have been a clue. The state trooper in the oncoming lane turned on his lights and made a U-turn. I couldn’t see any other cars headed east.

In retrospect, I found it heartening that I didn’t feel my stomach dip or my heart flutter with the realization those red and blue lights were for me. A quick check of my paperwork, an admonishment to slow down, and we were off again.

Mark interrupted our descent toward Wenatchee, suggesting we pull over to check out Nason Creek, which slips in and out of sight of the highway for many miles. This was a spot he’d checked out before. It was a broad, flat bend in the creek, its slow water hemmed in by broadleaf trees.

I half looked for signs of fish. This is the best way to spot a fish. This looking/not-looking – unfocusing on what you want to see – reveals subtle movements at the edges of your vision. Shadows, formerly rocks, start to sway back forth. Just above, the streamlined body. First one, then two, and a third and fourth. I pointed them out to Mark.

Then my jaw went slack and I went silent. An impossibly large trout swims into view. Larger dots along its back suggest it’s a brown trout. It would be former brood stock beyond its prime breeding years, but I’d rather believe it’s a wild and clearly piscivorous fish.

A welcome flight at Icicle Brewing.

A welcome flight at Icicle Brewing.

Before heading into Leavenworth for lunch, we sought out access on Icicle Creek, but hunger, fatigue and unfamiliarity with the area made beer and lunch more attractive. We stopped and walked a couple of blocks to Icicle Brewing Company.

The heat of eastern Washington was unlike anything I’ve felt before. It’s terribly dry. Even a small breeze feels like sandpaper. Shade offers only minor relief.

We lingered while munching on a pretzel, landjaeger and a meat and cheese platter, critiquing the beer and musing about unimportant things. (Who matched pretzels to mustard in the first place?) From Leavenworth it should have taken about 75 minutes to the house in Chelan but construction delays added about 40 minutes. Enough time for Mark to get in a nap.

Chelan was still baking in the afternoon sun when we arrived. We’d bake the rest of the week.


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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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on being a more imaginative fly fisher

There’s a fear that can creep over me in the company of other fly fishermen. Those who know me personally are likely to agree there’s a touch of restraint in my personality. Blending into a crowd is specialty learned during middle school; let’s spin it as a well-honed survival skill. Thankfully, in the years since, I have been able to put myself out there with the backing of friends and colleagues, though I still haven’t totally abandoned my introversion.

It was a recent podcast that made me realize that perhaps that fear coincides with the niggling thought that I may be a lazy fly fisher.

But I will hike to the fish. There was no hesitation last summer to march three miles into high-altitude lakes for brook trout no longer than the spread of my hand. I also tie flies. I built a fly rod. And it’s no problem getting up early to spend the day driving the 240-mile loop that takes me over Tioga Pass and Sonora Pass, alongside high-elevation streams and lakes as well as high-desert rivers.

I still feel a bit unworthy among my fly fishing peers. When others are describing the physical skill it took to lay a dry fly in front of a big trout 40 feet away, across four different currents and through 30 mile-per-hour crosswinds, I have no response. Oh, I’m catching fish to be sure. Just with less effort. It’s called nymphing; often under an indicator or dry fly.

It’s not that I’m apprehensive of trying different techniques. I’ll swing small wet flies, cast dries as far as I can — maybe 20 feet accurately — and chuck streamers when an opportunity presents itself.

Thinking about it, after being hammered by messages in blogs, podcasts and online forums that nymphing is inelegant (it is), too productive to be considered a real challenge and more akin to lure fishing than fly fishing, it occurs to me that nymphing, in fact, requires a bit more creativity than other tactics.

Why?

Nymphing often requires visualizing where your fly is and what its doing; rarely can you see it like a dry fly. It takes some thinking to set the depth at which that bead-head fly might be presented to fish hugging the stream bottom.

Observational skills are much more important. With dry flies you can rely on visual cues. When swinging flies, the take is abrupt and obvious. Nymphing, however, requires keen observation of subtle clues: the movement of the rod tip, the twitch of a strike indicator, even a suspicious flash of color. It takes skill to discern a take from your fly bumping simply into a rock or snag or hanging up on weeds.

What I’m trying to imply is that there’s another level of mental dexterity involved in nymphing and not required of other tactics. All tactics benefit from some knowledge of fish habits, hydrology and entomology and basic situational awareness.

Nymphing, however, requires imagination.

Guess that’s why it works so well for a day dreamer like me.


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don’t know what to expect this trip

It’s been a bad year for water in California. The April opener was one of the best in years thanks to low water levels.

Next week we’ll see for ourselves what Eastern Sierra rivers and lakes look like four months later.

One guide recently referred to Bridgeport Reservoir as a “pond.” Bridgeport is so low that its outflow into the East Walker River has been tainted by algae — algae that usually floats closer to the surface of the reservoir — and now the river is regularly off color and weedier than usual. Lake Sabrina in the Bishop area is so low that the front (manmade) lake no longer exists. The level of Crowley Lake is better than might be expected, but low enough to concentrate fish in the deepest areas.

The route taken by myself and guys from the club will be dictated by the Rim Fire. Hwy 120 remains closed. An expectation that the fire might not be fully contained until Sept. 20 doesn’t lend any clarity as to when it might open.

That’s not a big issue for me. I usually head over Sonora Pass via Hwy 108, with stops at the West Walker River, Little Walker River or Molybdenite Creek.

Thankfully, there will be water to fish when we settle in at Tom’s Place Resort (which certainly isn’t the resort you might think it is). The Upper Owens is supposed to be in good shape. The Middle Owens is flowing at an unseasonably high level. I may head to the high country, visiting alpine lakes and streams where I hope the fish are already preparing for a long winter.

However it works out, there will be lies told over beer and good grub.


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on becoming one of those guys

Opening day of the general trout season in California is this Saturday.

But I won’t be on the water. I will instead sacrifice the first opportunity to be skunked on my favorite stream for the greater good. (Very Vulcan of me, right?)

The first two years after I picked up a fly rod — some seven years ago — I would start preparing for the new trout opener a few weeks after the closing of the previous season.

I do still care about the trout opener. It opens wading access on the west slope of the Sierra usually long before the passes to the eastside are cleared. Being on the water at the earliest legal minute had become tradition. Even back when I was throwing hardware, it wasn’t about filling the freezer; it was simply about being out there, working the rust out of skills unused during the winter. Four seasons ago I accepted the invite of a fellow forum contributor to join him opening day in chasing down backcountry trout. He would provide the four-wheel drive truck, I provided flies. It was a day filled with good friendship, great weather and beautiful country unseen by most. Unfortunately, any trout that may have been in the half dozen streams we visited remained unseen.

The biggest influence in my changed opening day perspective is also one of the bigger rewards that have come with fly fishing. Notwithstanding the excitement of a big Eagle Lake rainbow taking me into my backing, I’ve find an unquantifiable pleasure in helping bring others into the sport. My contributions to the club’s novice fly fishing class aren’t huge, but the enthusiasm imparted by the instructors, including myself visibly, sparks something in the students. The payoff often comes a few weeks or months later, when one of those students, all smiles, presents a photo of the fish caught because of something learned in class.

So, while I’m not retired, but I’ve become one of those guys for whom the trout opener only marks the point in time that most trout water is wide open to fishing. I’m lucky enough to have a place in the Sierra foothills available to me most any time, and I have grown content to head up the week after the opener, often to find welcome solitude on most rivers and streams. I have also taken to the challenge of finding the ‘smarter’ fish left behind after the crowds of opening day.

When I finally do make that first cast for trout this year, it’ll be later, but for good reason.


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continued: two brothers’ excellent fly fishing adventure (or, part two of a two-part payoff)

Finding willing wild fish in an unexplored small creek still brings out the kid in me; there’s unfettered excitment, a little bit of a booty dance (at least inside) and everything, no matter how inconsequential, adds to the splendor of the place.

It wasn’t easy going, and there were a few scrapes along the way, but we walked off that creek I won’t name happy that we took a chance on a stranger’s advice.

The younger brother and I were a bit at loose ends two Saturdays ago. We’d previously spent Thursday fishing a Skykomish River tributary with guide Derek Young and buddy Kirk, and Friday out again with Derek on and near the Snoqualmie River. We learned a lot and caught enough trout to feel a bit more confident on waters not too far from my brother’s house.

It didn’t take long for Mark to show symptoms of the addiction. Throwing out newly learned jargon, he suggested we do some ‘bluelining’ along the U.S. Route 2 (Steven’s Pass Highway) corridor. We were out the door and on the road with little clue where we might end up.

For the first 20 minutes or so, we pondered possibilities that were soon rendered unclear in the absence of a copy of the WDFW fishing regulations. Along this stretch of road there aren’t many places to pick up a copy of the regs. Then fate stepped in.

We’d come up on a wide spot in the road and a small, rustic store stocked with an odd collection of the types of goods that only campers might buy when lacking any other choices. The store owner, a bearded guy who looked the part in jeans and a plaid shirt, told me they didn’t have any fishing regulation booklets. He tries to keep a copy in the store for reference but it always seems to sprout legs and walk off.

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A downsteam look.

It’s certain that I’m not the first to do this, but I carefully formed my response to include a mention of ‘fly fishing.’ And that, as has happened before, opened the door.

The store owner leaned a bit closer and I could swear he cast a conspiratorial glance right and left before saying, “Then I can give you the story on what’s going on ‘round here.” Mark walked up to the counter sometime during the description of a creek not too far away and a semi-concealed access point. Walking out the door, Mark and I agreed that if the payoff was as described, we’d return to buy a drink or something as a token of thanks.

After another 15 minutes of driving on a well-graded Forest Service road, we found the secondary road as described. At the end of it we purposely parked the truck out of view from the main road. Gearing up was expedited by the nearby sound of the creek, and perhaps more so by the buzzing of a large number of bees circling the flowering vegetation.

Dropping over a small berm, it was immediately apparent that moving up or down this creek would require a lot more wading. It was small creek, and it was clear that my 7-foot, 6-inch 3 wt. might be a bit too much rod for this water.

Less adventurous fisherman wouldn’t have ventured far either upstream or downstream on this creek. Unlike the water we fished the two prior days, this creek doesn’t get the flows necessary to soften the ragged edges of what is probably basalt. We scrambled over these rocks when we could, carefully climbed where able, and took more cautious routes when warranted.

We had no problem finding the fish. My biggest problem would be deciding whether or not to replace the yellow stimulator that would be battered and a shadow of itself by the end of the day. It’s a question I never really mind facing. (I never replaced it.)

The point at which we first saw the creek was a plunge pool that emptied into a wider, shallower pool interrupted by large rocks sprinkled throughout. I took the first pool while Mark edged along the bank downstream.

Within the first few casts we’d both elicited frenzied strikes. In that first pool I landed what would be the biggest cutthroat of the day, maybe close to 11 inches, a fish I believe my brother caught again near the end of our day. These trout were that hungry.

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Younger brother with one of the bigger cutties of the day.

It wasn’t what might be called ‘crazy fishing.’ The average fish was seven to eight inches, but they set themselves apart from bigger fish I’ve caught with beautiful, though darker, coloration. And each pool, seam or eddy had to be rested once the first fish had been played in that section of water; sort of ‘stick-and-move’ fly fishing. The upside was the abundance of good-looking water.

I enjoyed pointing out promising pockets to Mark just as much as I think he did finding fish where he might not have expected. Frankly, I’m still amazed every time that happens.

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Beautiful. Aggressive. Fun.

We spent more than three hours enjoying some of the most strenuous fly fishing I’ve ever experienced in my short time in the sport. More prepared fly fisherman would have loaded a day pack with lunch and fished this creek all the way to its confluence with the South Fork of the Skykomish River. Maybe next time.

This time around we enjoyed a treat alongside the highway, at the store where this all began, quietly letting the day’s events burn into our memory.

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