After we recovered from our day in the San Juan Islands, Eric proposed a hike to Barclay Lake, a less than 5 mile hike round trip into the western foothills of the Cascade Range. It’s a relatively easy hike, with an elevation gain of about 500 feet, into an area that has recovered from clear-cut logging. The trail follows Barclay Creek – a creek Mark and I fished last year to find numerous Westslope Cutthroat trout – much of the way and meanders through Douglas firs, western hemlocks, and red cedars, with floor maidenhair ferns, queen’s cup, salmonberry, bunchberry, and plenty of mushrooms.
As part of a “gift of experiences” to my brother we found ourselves in Anacortes, Wash., accompanied by his friend Eric, just after sunup. The plan was to spend the day chasing lingcod. While the fishing was sporadic, we did land a number of rock fish (no take allowed), two lingcod that were too small, and lost at least one big lingcod. The pictures really tell the story of a day not wasted on a beautiful day in the splendor of the San Juan Islands.
About this time each year I make the 789-mile road trip to visit the folks and the brother and his family with anyone willing to spend what’s probably too much time with me. It’s a longish drive of about half a day plus two hours.
This year, while discussing this year’s plans with my sister, she was quick to chide me for not flying. She pointed out that flights to Seattle from San Francisco aren’t that expensive. I feebly argued that it cost less to drive, even if it meant a lot of time behind the wheel.
Now that there’s been time to think about it, I still favor driving to nearly any distant place.
It’s easy to fly these days; no more difficult than grabbing an Uber. Book a flight, arrive on time, wait in line, and a few hours later you’re where you want to be. There’s no adventure. At least not the kind of adventure I’d enjoy: delayed flights, crying babies and minuscule snacks. Admittedly, flying does minimize the “cost” of time, but packed into a big aluminum tube traveling at 575 mph, one becomes disassociated from the process of travel.
On the other hand, traveling on terra firma requires participation with the outside world*. The possibility of adventure is a constant companion: stopping to take in new snow on the hills at the California/Oregon border, comparing rest stop bathrooms, watching the sun rise over fields just south of Redding and set just north of Vancouver, Wash., all during the same day.
It’s misadventures that create the strongest memories. Seventeen years ago, when it was just the boys and me, on the last day of school, we left in a worn out 1988 Honda Accord for Yosemite. The 12-year-old sedan squatted under the weight of camping supplies crammed into every available space. Of all the cars I’ve owned, it was my least favorite, a car purchases out of necessity with limited funds.
In retrospect, that day marked the beginning of one of the hottest summers that decade. The temperature had climbed to over 105 degrees by the time we passed through Manteca, in the center of the Central Valley. When Highway 120 hits Oakdale, the road begins a slow climb into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Though not steep, during this climb the Accord lost power and the temperate gauge began its own ascent. There’s no clear recollection of how many times we pulled over to let the car cool down. Despite better judgement, we pushed on and enjoyed a fantastic week in Yosemite Valley. And the boys have always remembered this trip. We’d often drive the same route to the family cabin and Sean’s running joke would be to point out oak trees he remembered “watering.”
Travel by car isn’t the most convenient way to travel, and certainly has its limitations. Neither is it the fastest mode of conveyance. But it can be a good option for those interested in passing through, being part of, and experiencing the world.
* This is also a big plus of motorcycling, but that’s for another time.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.