fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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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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how to be a hero (or, hey, leave those fish alone)

It’s clear that nature’s dewatering of California this year will leave the trout that can be found skittish and stressed. I suppose that only the most thoughtful fishermen will leave them well enough alone as the summer wears on, or perhaps cross to the dark side of warm water species.

Opening Day may mark the beginning of the few weeks during which decent trout fishing may be found not too far away, while fish mortality is at a minimum. After that, it’s unlikely you’ll find solitude at a high alpine stream, creek or lake. The same climate change pushing wildlife to higher altitudes will similarly affect their human hunters.

This summer and fall — when still-flowing rivers will only offer skinny water — will be seasons of small fly rods and even smaller flies. A few small wild trout fisheries I hold dear (and of which I also hold a delusion that only I know about them) won’t withstand much molestation, meaning I’ll also be somewhere else.

It’s been proposed that “heroic measures” will be needed to save California’s salmon runs. As the weather warms up and naturally flowing water is scarce, it’ll be just as heroic to leave alone those fish that have nowhere else to go.


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a tacky fly box, almost what I need

So this week my news feed coughed up an item about a Kickstarter campaign to fund the development of newfangled Tacky Fly Boxes.

Reading the Tacky Fly Boxes vision statement it seemed to me that it’s not fly retention that’s my problem; it’s retention of the entire box. The entire box should be coated in tacky stuff.

About seven years ago I stumbled upon a stretch of river that wasn’t more than 30 minutes away from the cabin by road, but in the early trout season offered an opportunity to fish in solitude. It’s an area deep within a canyon where dogwood and pines filter the sunlight. Only occasionally is the shade is broken by shafts of light, lending an emerald-green cast to the air. The river is lined by boulders much of its length here, and stepping from rock to rock is necessary.

The excitement that comes with discovering new water was amplified by the willing rainbows. It was the kind of catching that’s so good you purposely slow down to savor each cast, hookset and fish itself. But this was my early days of fly fishing. I hadn’t yet acquired any habits or routines.

A sampling of our likely weapons of choice.

At $1 or more each, they add up.

The plan that day was to fish one river in the morning and another in the afternoon. When I arrived at the second river I reached into my vest pocket, unzipped and now empty. No fly box. It’d be a lie to say there was no panic. To those who say fly fishing really isn’t that expensive, try losing an almost full fly box. Buying a few flies at a time doesn’t seem like much; add them up and it can be tidy sum.

After only a short internal debate I headed back to the first river. It should have been a futile search. More than likely, the fly box was about five miles downstream by now.

Retracing my steps, on the last boulder, nestled in moss, was my fly box.

I’ve adopted on-the-water rituals since then. I have lost a net to some trees while hiking through thick bush. One rod’s been broken. That fly box, however, was the one lost item that made me question taking up this hobby.

I didn’t give up. It’s all been downhill ever since.


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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 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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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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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.