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.
If you missed it, Part One can be found here.
South of Hot Creek as Hwy 395 skirts the eastern shore of Crowley Lake, the landscape shifts from the flat topography of the Long Valley Caldera to small hills dotted by decomposing granite boulders. This glacial till, an accumulation of unsorted glacial sediment, begins to dominate the scenery to the east. A few minutes later, a flat spot to the west marks Toms Place and shelter for the weekend, Tom’s Place Resort.
This is a place that sits apart from time. It must have been a sight welcomed by travelers when it was built in 1919. A small seven-room lodge, twelve cabins, and a requisite general store and café sit between the trees, rustic and worn, now blend into the surroundings. After many return visits, it’s home away from home.
Each of our two cabins will house six men of a certain age and prone to snoring. I arrive early to get my pick of a bed against an outside wall.
Fishmaster John – the organizer of this trip – is already there. Cabin 25 is open, guests in cabin 26 have yet to check out. I claim my bed, unload my gear. History hangs in the air and little has changed save for new vinyl flooring that replaced cabin’s old indoor/outdoor carpet. True to its rustic theme, the sagging subfloor was left in place and the new flooring follows its uneven contours. I sit down to lunch. John heads out to fish the Owens River.
I spend time listening to what I don’t hear. Though near to the highway, the periodic drone of a passing car quickly dissipates. Soon it’s overwhelmed by the whoosh of wind through tree boughs and the staccato songs of birds and insects. Theirs is the song of late summer, when direct sun can still be uncomfortably warm but the nights cool enough to make it clear fall is around the corner.
Others of our group arrive over the next few hours. The first to arrive are Ron aka “Rags”, John K. (our wine steward), Richard, Dave, Gerry, Terry, and Wayne, accompanied by Mike, a veteran in the club’s Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing program. Kirby the Raffle Dude wanders in, Tenkara rod in hand. His long-time partners, Fred and Greg – the guests who had yet to check out –unlock cabin 26. It’s become a habit among those three to arrive a few days early, allowing time to fall into a well-established routine of eat-fish-nap-eat.
There’s supposed to be fifteen of us, eleven in the two cabins, two in the lodge, and one in another, smaller cabin. That’s when the unthinkable is mentioned. Where’s Brewmeister Ron? Concerned comments rise. He usually arrives during the early afternoon. Now it’s closer to evening than afternoon.
Ron and his home-brewed beer arrive well before dinner but long after pessimistic speculation that we might have to resort to mass-manufactured brews. The group complete, we settle into camping chairs to lie about the fish caught earlier in the day and our hopes for tomorrow. Gerry serves up two lasagnas, both of which disappear before pies and cheesecake materialize in their place.
It’s the little things –and folks who attend –that make this outing what it is. How a trip-long debate pitting the Davy Knot against the Clinch cumulates in a spontaneous experiment that involves Wayne tying both knots on a single strand of monofilament, then pulling both ends until one fails. (The Clinch Knot would fail about 90% of the time.) Or, the homemade food that tastes so much better with a side of the outdoors. The comradery that comes with a common interest and the fellowship found in failing to land that one trout that took too many casts to fool.
The long shadows of sunset merge to into the darkness of the night. When conversation wanes the quiet breath of nature can be heard around us. No one’s checking the clock, but almost in unison we begin to wrap up conversations and head to bed.
The morning is the same, in reverse. The first noise arises from a fumbling with an unfamiliar coffeemaker. It’s cold in the early sun. We’re wearing jackets that won’t be worn the rest of the day. Convenience rules the breakfast choices: mostly muffins and cereal. There’s envy rather than criticism of the two guys who choose cheesecake.
The only plan today is to fish. The night before Fishmaster John and I had discussed heading up to the Mosquito Flat Trailhead. He and I did the same the last time I was on this trip. The trailhead starts at 10,300 feet and goes up from there but we both appreciate stopping every once and a while as we make our way to Mack Lake. The lake is only about 200 feet higher but the trail, which parallels Rock Creek, climbs substantially higher before descending again. John veers off the trail to find the lake’s inlet, and I follow.
Small seasonal creeks still soak the ground that’d normally be dry this time of year. John heads for the inlet. I’m heading upstream.
It’s one of those bright days that can only be experienced at higher elevations. Made infinitely better by a lack of human influence. Little Lakes Valley rests between a range of peaks to the north and south. They’re still frosted with snow. High-Sierra granite dominates the landscape. Where it doesn’t, the land is green.
The creek here butts up against the bottom of the southern side of the valley. It’s almost impossible to pick one of the riffles, plunge pools, or tailouts that’ll christen my new Tenkara rod. (A Japanese fly rod, if you will, without a reel.) It takes some time to get accustomed to the casting. My left hand keeps reaching for the reel that’s not there. The fish are there. Fingerlings too small strike nearly every drift of my fly. I move upstream to a promising pocket and my educated guess is rewarded with a small but vibrant brook trout. This is a pattern repeated most of the morning as John and I leapfrog each other as we head upstream toward Marsh and Heart lakes.
As on most streams, creeks, or river, I find one stretch where I just know trout should be. Here it’s a long riffle that ends before a small plunge. The buffer, just in front of the rocks at the end of the run, is what catches my attention. I cast and drift the fly, starting near the bank in front of me and repeat, working towards the opposite bank.
Disappointment begins to eat at my confidence. Fly fishing isn’t for the pessimist. It requires work, even for the smallest of unseen fish. Knowledge is one thing but optimism drives us.
After too many casts and now almost inattentive, I make one more to a far seam. A splash at my fly and my optimism is replenished. It feels like a decent fish, perhaps a ten-plus inch brook trout. But hooking trout in moving water, even small streams, can be misleading. Without a reel, I have to step back, raise the rod high, then grab the line. In a creek well known for a vast population of brook trout, I’ve found Salmo trutta, a brown trout. It looks nicer than most of the brookies, which tend to always look hungry. This brown trout, in contrast, looks muscular and well fed.
It’s a nice stroll down hill when John and I leave. It’s late morning and the parking has filled to capacity as day hikers begin their ascent. We talk of exploring Deadman Creek east of the highway. The day before, I fished to the west of the highway, closer to its headwaters.
It’s the special regulations that piqued our interest in that section of Deadman Creek: limited take of two fish, each of which must be at least 18 inches in length, with gear restricted to artificial lures and flies with single, barbless hooks. Clearly there’d be no need for such regulations of big fish weren’t there.
We both made the short trip there and explored different sections. When I was able to squeeze through the brush lining the banks, I found a few small fish. It only dawned on me later that the special regulations were likely to protect spawning fish, since Deadman Creek is the main feeder stream of Upper Owens River, up which fish from Crowley Lake come to reproduce. It wasn’t time wasted; Forest Service roads look me along ridges separating sizable canyons, red, dry and dotted with pine trees and scrub. At the crest are views of the Long Valley Caldera.
The promise of cold beer and another good meal eventually calls all of us back to Toms Place. Appetites sharpened by a long day of hiking, fishing, and simply being outdoors, we dug into Wayne’s taco casserole, more pie and more cheesecake. Before, during, and after, the great knot debate rages on.
Tomorrow the fishing would on stillwater. Water that would be too still.
It’s a day off and I’m awake before sunrise. This time of morning on the West Slope of the Sierra Nevada, it won’t be light until the sun creeps above its soaring peaks. I like it this way. It’s a two-hour drive over Sonora Pass before dropping into the starkness of the Eastern Sierra. It’ll be a murky twilight until I crest the pass.
I shower and dress, gather my breakfast for the road, and quietly close up the cabin. There is just enough light to find my way across the deck and down the stairs. In the pre-dawn stillness, pine needles crunch loudly under my boots.
I pull the car out of the driveway and lock the gate. After two right turns and a left, I’m headed east on Hwy 108. It’s an easy drive this morning. Only four cars on the road, three in the opposing lane and the other only a momentary companion. This is a familiar road, but it’s winding through forests rendered unfamiliar by the need to remove trees killed and now kindling after an onslaught of bark beetles.
There’s no hurry this time. I know a few pockets of the Eastern Sierra. Loosely defined as stretching from Lone Pine in the south to the Nevada state line to the north and east, much more of it remains unknown to me. Secure in the knowledge that I’d hook and land a trout or five – or simply cocky – I had decided that this would be a trip that included explorations that probably wouldn’t include fishing, much less a fish.
It’s become my tradition upon reaching Sonora Pass to stop for a moment. This year, there’s clear evidence of the heavy snows of last winter. One side of the historical landmark sign is leaning about 15 degrees. A few snow fields remain where last year were none. Absent any human traffic, natural noises abound. Birds scurry in the brush. The wind makes that rushing sound that seems to be specific to high Sierra pines. The almost treeless land to the east is lit by harsh sunshine. The west is still in the shadows of the peaks and trees.
Stopping at the Leavitt Falls Vista Point, I look down upon the West Walker River. Even at 7,800 feet, 1,000 feet above the river, I can see that it’s full of water. The first people I see are a few miles down the road – packers at the Leavitt Meadows Pack Station. A short stop at Pickel Meadow Wildlife Area confirms that the West Walker River isn’t ready to be fished.
I drive on. I pass the oddly quiet Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. A right turn onto Hwy 395 marks the beginning of long, flat roads. It’s still cool enough that steam rises from Fales Hot Springs. Soon I’m through Bridgeport, across the East Walker River, and southbound.
Scattered trees give way to dry high desert. Only in the canyons west of the highway do trees – mostly aspens and pines – find enough water.
South of Mono Lake lies the first exploratory attempt. John, the leader of our little group that’ll be spending a few days terrorizing fish in and around Crowley Lake, suggested a stop at Rush Creek. Originating at about 13,000 feet near Mount Lyell, various feeder streams from Marie Lakes and Davis Lakes combine to form the main stem of Rush Creek, which flows through Waugh Lake, Gem Lake, and Agnew Lake on its way to the June Lake Loop. There it enters and exits Silver Lake, then Grant Lake, before finding its way to Mono Lake.
As a teenager camping at the Silver Lake Campground, mysterious fly fishermen would wade downstream and later reappear with big brown trout. Having never returned to June Lake Loop since then, and since I’d become a passable fly fisherman myself, I thought it was about time for a closer look at Rush Creek. Like many creeks and streams here, Rush Creek is lined by brush dedicated to preventing molestation of fish that might be present. If that weren’t enough to dissuade my thoughts of making of a few investigative casts, the creek – which carries 41% of Mono Basin’s runoff – was filled bank to bank with whitewater, the result of accumulating runoff from last winter’s heavy snowfall over its 27-mile course.
I pull back on to the highway and mull over the idea of returning to June Lake Loop in the future without deciding whether that will be on my own or as the leader of a club trip. Once past the northern turn for June Lake Loop, the miles seem to pass quickly. The asphalt here is smooth and the road relatively straight. It slowly rises and falls, passing through infrequent stands of pines. Unimproved roads regularly sprout from either side of the highway. Calling them dirt roads would give the wrong impression; here they cut into an almost white, gravelly, sandy soil.
I turn down one with a sign pointing to Lower Deadman Creek Campground. It’s about two miles before the turn into a small basin that contains the campground and the creek. Here the chaparral gives way to pines. The campground straddles the creek; four of its thirty sites are occupied, but the abundance of water this year makes half the sites unusable.
I geek gear up, stopping to talk with a grad student who’s studying the geology of the area. He points out where he’s seen stocked fish:the likely places – long runs that curve through the campground. Here, towering pines shade this place, allowing the coolness of morning to linger long past sunrise and muffling the sounds of coffee being poured into a mug, a spoon clinking against a cereal bowl, a father beginning to pack the necessities of camping, the grad student strumming a guitar.
Deadman Creek is much like many Sierra creeks I’ve fished. Its clear water ebbs and flows, tumbling over rocks into bubbling pools and carving out channels under tree roots. I think my 3-weight Winston maybe a bit too much rod for this stream but know its length will come in handy when it comes to poking through the brush that lines the banks of this creek.
I’m here looking for the wild trout that are rumored to be in the upper reaches of Deadman Creek, but I can’t help warming up my casting arm tossing my flies to a few of the human-raised rainbows. My cast is rusty but good enough to lay my flies down on a seam that carries it over a few fish fighting for position in the current. There’s no subtlety about the stocked trout. The lead fish slashes at my dry fly and the other fish scatter. The skunk is off.
The hike upstream makes me grateful that I walk every day. The campground is at 7,800 feet, and I’m headed higher. Half a mile upstream I’m alone. Ripe bitter gooseberries stand out among sage, bunch grasses, willows, and rambling wild rose bushes.
The creek from this point and upstream is no more than three feet wide. I find the wild brook trout that lured me here in nearly every plunge pool and tail-out. There’s contentment to be found in a wild place such as this, and when found it’s the simply being in that place that’s enough.
I turn downstream after about two miles gained in small increments dictated by fishable water. In this canyon it’s either night or day, and during the day there is no sense of time passing in its unchanging shade. It’s just before noon when I get back to the car.
It takes less time to travel the three miles of dirt road to the highway than the 23 miles to the Hot Creek Interpretive site, another place of exploration this trip. I’ve fished the canyon section of Hot Creek, but this section is unfamiliar and different. The unwelcome sight of four trucks already parked in the turnout makes me question my decision to stop here. It’s not a long stretch of water, about 2,000 feet, meandering through fields of sedges.
The reports were true; it’s grasshopper season. I disturb half a dozen every few steps. A dry-dropper setup is my go-to option for Hot Creek. A dry fly – in this case a grasshopper dry fly – to get the attention of fish looking up, and a nymph to get the attention of the greater number of fish hiding beneath Hot Creek’s plentiful aquatic vegetation. This vegetation is partially responsible for making Hot Creek one of the most productive wild trout waters in California, and the single reason it can be difficult to fish. (Thankfully, as a designated wild trout stream, no bait allowed, only artificial flies and lures with barbless hooks, and all catch and release.) Even so, it’s one of the most heavily fished wild trout waters in the state.
Two fishermen downstream force me upstream. The flow’s a bit high, and getting a drag-free drift is not easy. After five casts, I move downstream. On Hot Creek, I favor a mid-stream stretch that offers a clear lane between vegetation, close enough that a raised rod can keep most of the fly line off the water. Maybe it’s a confidence thing, but once I find one of those lanes, I get a few takes. It’s a mix of hits on the dry and subsurface flies, but all come up short.
It’s not until I’ve leap-frogged past the two fly fishermen – who haven’t moved since I arrived – that I find more willing fish. Just above the fence that marks the private Hot Creek Ranch property, a number of fish hide in the weeds. A fly placed close enough elicits strikes and, with enough casts to the right place at the right time, it’s inevitable that I land one. It’s a small fish by Hot Creek standards, maybe 10 inches, but satisfying.
The sun’s high in the sky now, suggesting that it’s time to meet the rest of the guys at Tom’s Place, just a few miles down the road. Along the way I pass McGee Creek and Crowley Lake. Both are brimming with water this year, and I plan to fish both.