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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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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it’s ugly here

With our latest rain, I’m hoping it won’t be 1975 all over again. Then and now, precipitation was routed around California by a high pressure ridge for months. December of that year was the beginning of two years of drought conditions. Our reservoirs are now lower than at the same time in 1977, which was preceded by two dry years. Jerry Brown was governor back then; irony or conspiracy?

Without non-stop rain through the rest of our rainy season the coming summer will be one of dirty cars and brown lawns. Communal showering may become de rigueur, perhaps followed by an uptick in births.

Back then I wasn’t fishing as much as I do now. There are a few small streams — only shared with the most trusted — that will go unvisited this year. It’s a given that low reservoirs will push more fisherman to moving waters that remain open which, more likely, will be tailwaters.

Automatic readings last Thursday show the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is now at 15 percent of normal, up from 12 percent on Jan. 30. At this rate, we only need 28 storms of similar magnitude to reach normal levels. And that still won’t be enough.


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a different type of enrichment

In my newsfeed this morning was a refreshing article about a kind of cool plan for Native Americans to take ownership of a section of land in Northern California through which flows a wild trout stream. According to the Sacramento Bee:

A group of Maidu Indians has succeeded in its quest to be named the official owner of Humbug Valley, a 2,325-acre area in Plumas County that is the last remnant of their once vast homeland still in relatively pristine condition.

The Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council unanimously recommended that the Maidu Summit Consortium hold title “in perpetuity” to the grassy meadow laced by a wild trout stream seven miles southeast of Chester.
Sacramento Bee

Nice.

I really don’t have much of an opinion on Native American gaming, but more than once, almost in the middle of nowhere, I’ve passed huge Native American casinos on my way to a trout stream. (I do hope that the parking garages are designed to capture any runoff tainted by the drippings from the Buicks, Cadillacs, Lincolns and Crown Vics.)

While I wouldn’t lump myself in with tree huggers, I am also aware of the fact that modern remediation isn’t always as successful as might be hoped. What’s encouraging is a plan to use indigenous understanding and traditional techniques to restore this land.

The Maidu will work with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop a comprehensive land management plan that includes restoration of forest and meadow habitat as well as Yellow Creek, a state-designated wild trout stream. Earlier this year, the two groups were partners in a project designed to restore wet meadows in Humbug Valley.

Charlton H. Bonham, agency director, was part of that project and has publicly endorsed Maidu ownership of the valley. Humbug Valley presents a historic opportunity to demonstrate how traditional ecological knowledge can complement the modern scientific approach brought by state agencies, he said.

I fished Yellow Creek in solitude a couple of years ago and consider it one of my best experiences on a wild trout stream. It’s an intimate creek marked by undercut banks, with numerous twists and turns that reward stealth.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.


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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.