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 two

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.

Rock Creek

Early morning, looking upstream on Rock Creek.

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.

Little Lakes Valley Trail

The Little Lakes Valley Trail after cresting the first rise. It continues into the far off mountains.

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.

Mack Lake

Looking down Rock Creek, toward the inlet to Mack Lake.

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.

Brook Trout

A prime example of a wild Rock Creek brook trout.

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.

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is one California too much, or how do you feel about buying multiple fishing licenses?

Though it’s a remote possibility that the proposal by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper to divide California into six states would make it over the many required hurdles — from gathering signatures of 807,615 registered voters to put the measure on the ballot to final congressional approval — it presents a conundrum for a native Californian.

This is a big state, one of diversity. Every once and a while that diversity bubbles to the surface; one example is the Jefferson state movement that is revisited every decade or so. Boards of supervisors in Modoc and Siskiyou counties, which are near the Oregon border, approved measures in support of the Jefferson state declaration. Tehama County, one county south of Modoc and Siskiyou, has placed a similar measure on the ballot.

California is one of the few places where five major climate types can be in close proximity. From my home, it’s a four-hour drive to the high Sierras, the Humboldt redwoods or the southern coastline. The same goes with fishing: steelhead to the north, Striped bass to the east, trout to the northeast and southeast, saltwater fish to the west.

Setting aside all the pros and cons about and difficulties of creating smaller California state, it raises the possibility, just to fish for trout in place I enjoy, that I’d have to buy three separate licenses. Saltwater fishing could require a fourth. This may be an accepted part of living in smaller states, but not something I look forward to.

One upside might be the possibility that the proposed state I would live in, “North California,” could regain its water rights. I’m sure we’d set a fair price for all that water needed down south.


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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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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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it’s amazing I don’t have a big head, and what does ‘technical’ mean when applied to fly fishing water?

Actually, I do. I wear a size 7¾ hat.

But that’s not the point this week.

When I decided to step into the light and embrace fly fishing a few years ago, certain waters came to my attention. Many were governed by regulations limiting fishing to un-baited, single-hook, artificial lures. Others were specifically deemed zero-limit barbless hook fisheries. It was exciting.

A relatively short section of a certain Sierra Nevada creek was particularly alluring. Tales abounded of big browns and hefty rainbows. Most important to a novice fly fisher, only a few fly-eating trees follow its course. All this was gleaned from photos.

Then I read the associated article, and shuddered. It took only one word, an adjective often casually thrown around by old timers, to stop me in my tracks: ‘technical.’ I immediately visualized streamside judges waving numbers in the air, giving low-digit scores to my casting.

My discouragement mounted as the research piled up. There was no consolation to be found in other articles, books or discussions with more experienced fly fishermen. Much of the season this creek requires accurate sight casting, with presentation made difficult by heavy weeds that limited the ‘natural’ drift of your fly. In a nutshell, I was told, it was a creek only to be fished by those who had paid their dues.

But there I was, still in my first year of fly fishing, standing on its banks. I was asked by a more seasoned fly fishing club member to join him on this creek. He was one of the guys who had taken me under his wing, and it seemed to me that a refusal of the invite would have been rude at the very least, and would call into question my ability to absorb the knowledge he had thus far imparted.

The creek wasn’t as wide or as deep and I had envisioned. Most places one could cross in three or four strides without the water rising much above the knees. The water clarity fit that timeworn description ‘gin clear.’ We’d set out for his favorite spot, and I was upstream a few yards.

On the trail we had discussed flies. He told me he’d be using dries but that I’d be fine with a dry-dropper combination and lowering his voice, added that a lot of guys might have a fancier cast, but this fishery often rewarded the spirit and stick-to-itiveness of an angler, not the casting. Fish don’t judge casting.

It wasn’t until I landed that first brilliant rainbow that my fear fell away. Sure, it took more than a few casts to find the lane, but the abundance of trout ensured that any adequate presentation wouldn’t be ignored.

Rainbow on That Creek

That first rainbow that rewarded this fly fisherman with a strong fight and great colors.

In the end, both my dry fly and nymph elicited strikes. I had taken on this Creek of Fear and won. Recently, one guide went so far as to say this creek is a good place for novices, a place that demands hard work but quickly rewards. I’ve since fished this creek half a dozen times. I netted nice brown and rainbow trout each time, but only after putting in the work, even if just sitting, watching and learning the day’s lesson before the first cast.

I’m still a bit intimidated when good casting or technical prowess is mentioned as necessary to success in any fishery. But perhaps I am not as unaccomplished ( [uhn-uhkom-plisht] adj 1. not accomplished, incomplete; 2. certain angler of the Pacific Northwest*.) as I think, though there will be lot of learning before I too can “snicker at the new guys.


* Kirk’s Kickstarter campaign is funded! He and Olive must feel so accomplished! Now the real work begins. To help Kirk feel less unaccomplished, join in the Kickstarter campaign that could launch his book character Olive, the Woolly Bugger and friends into the digital world with an iPad app. There’s only three days left. (In full disclosure, I’ve contributed in the hope of getting my complimentary copy of the app, so I’d also appreciate any contribution that would get me something out of this deal.)


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textbook fly fishing (when the fish do everything they should)

It didn’t take long after high winds brought an early end to our adventures on Crowley Lake to decide that it was the perfect afternoon to introduce Willy to the wonderfully willing brook trout in an upper section of Rock Creek, just below the lake.

Caddis on Rock Creek.

It was late when we arrived, but nearly magic hour on this wide spot. In a voice hushed for no other reason than wonderment at the beauty of where we were, I described what to expect. Every pool, tailout, rock and bend prompted a memory of a fish that rose to a fly in the seasons before. Colors grew more vivid as I described the 13-inch wild rainbow that surprised me and my 3 wt. rod during the spring a year ago. Willy headed downstream, I went up.

Fall in the eastern Sierras is a feast for the eyes; the low sun filters through the yellow and orange leaves of the quaking aspens, the evergreens seem to take on a darker hue, and through a bleak and gray winter may be nearing, for now the sky is a brilliant blue.

It’s that time of year when small brook trout flame with spawning colors. Willy, a striped bass fisherman of note who’s landed big fish of many species, broadly smiled while cradling one of these gems in his hand; reminded of how fun and beautiful these trout can be.

The numbers of fish we landed was lost in concentration as we targeted specific fish. I’d started with a dry/dropper combination, but soon opted for only a small humpy, for no other reason than the excitement of surface grabs. I’d end up climbing, literally, upstream, targeting small whirlpools tucked between the rocks. Nearly every one gave up a fish.

This time of year just as colorful as the trees…

With the tops of the tree shadows reaching the far side of the creek, we both ventured upstream, where Willy pulled a few fish out of a plunge pool that offers a small, but textbook example of the effect of currents on the drift of a fly, with almost intimate takes from fish less than three feet away.

Thinking we’d already had too much fun, we found our way back to the road, from which Willy could get a good look at the lake. The plunge pool we’d been fishing was the outlet for the lake, and as if an illustration from any good fly fishing book, signs of rising fish dotted what was in essence the tailout for the lake. This was feeding activity that couldn’t be passed up by any fly fisherman.

The wind, accelerating down the canyon, made casting difficult, at least for me, but we both got flies out far enough and every decent presentation earned at least a strike, and a few rainbows were landed.

It has been a textbook day, and the trout did everything they were supposed to do. It’s the best way to learn.

As I figure it, I have a lot more learning to do.