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.
I held it off as best I could, tried to put some of my favorite waters out of my mind. In the end it was hope, more than gasoline, that propelled me over Sonora Pass a couple of weeks ago.
Over the years I’ve spent many days walking the banks of babbling creeks in the Eastern Sierras. The first to give up wild trout – Molybdenite Creek and Little Walker River – top my list. This is where I landed by first sizable wild rainbow trout.
I can’t think of these places and others like them without an intensifying need to return. These are familiar places become less so if not visited every year. Often it’s the memory that fades. Sometimes nature exerts its will on the landscape.
It was clear that this would be the first year in a while that runoff from more abundant – but still not plentiful – snowpack would make many rivers and streams unfishable. But a limited amount of vacation time, and hope, were enough of an excuse to make the trip.
I came in from the west across Sonora Pass, early enough that morning to be alone for the 20 miles between Kennedy Meadows and the Pickel Meadow Wildlife Area. It’s a serpentine road that demands attention, a ribbon of relatively new asphalt that twists and turns, rising through stands of pines to wind-scoured fields of granite before dropping into the starkness of the Eastern Sierra.
Six miles beyond the Sonora Pass summit but before my descent into Pickel Meadows, Hanging Valley Ridge comes into view. The morning sun is still low and the ridge still casts a shadow over much of the meadow. From my vista point, distance masked any audible anger, but the torrent of water working itself into a lather over Leavitt Falls offered a clue as to the difficulty to come.
The first glimpse of the West Walker River was both encouraging and discouraging. It was good to see high waters scouring the river bed and suggesting good summer fishing to come. It also hinted that there’d be little fishing and likely no catching in any of the Walker watershed’s moving waters.
This day there would be more hiking, exploring and simply being in the mountains. Contrary to the anger on display as water crashes against rocks, the sound is soothing. Delicate flowers sway in winds that predictably funnel through most mountain canyons.
It was a day without fishing, but not wasted.
As if it hasn’t been a figuratively dry trout season for me, a long trip last weekend over three passes, along rivers and over two reservoirs showed that things are literally drying up…
This was my last and only second trip to the Sierras during the general trout season. It was happenstance that kept me off the water and only sheer determination — and a desperate desire for a break from every-day life — that crammed a 400-plus mile drive and not enough fishing into a single day.
Firsthand reports dashed any hope of great fishing. Small streams were trickles, meaning wild fish were off limits. State-stocked waters that normally received a few buckets of fish before the end of the season didn’t.
Optimism being the most overused tool in a fly fisherman’s arsenal, I still hit the road over Sonora Pass before sunup. If there were few fish to be had, at least a sunrise at 9,000 feet doesn’t disappoint. This late in the year, a sunrise seems to last longer.
There was unexpected company on the West Walker River, a couple planning to soak bait. They went their way, I went mine. I’d have pocket water all to myself, whitefish on the mind, and the sound of reveille arising (a bit too late in the morning this time?) from the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center.
Just like that “confidence fly” most fly fishermen keep tucked away, there are pieces of water one comes to expect to hold fish. My expectation held true this morning. It didn’t take long before a fish was fooled with my favorite red-butt zebra midge pattern. While not large, white tips on smooth fins suggested it was a more educated trout. Even if was a hatchery fish, it had spent enough time in the wild to learn a few things while it’s pectoral and caudal fins healed. There would be no whitefish this year and nothing big, but all of the trout I found were feisty.
This isn’t the time of year that these trout rise to dry flies, but the water level requires stealth, a dry-dropper setup, light casts to small seams and short drifts. It’s hard to disagree that this type of rig might be a reflection of my middle-of-the-road nature, mixing the oft-look’d-down-upon tactic of nymphing with the loftier technique of dry fly fishing. Deep down I hoped for a rise to the dry fly, but ice crunching underfoot suggested it was not to be.
My plans called for crossing Monitor Pass on the way to the East Carson River, then over Ebbetts Pass, and finally completing a twisting and oblong course over the man-made New Melones Lake. Unfamiliar with the route and wary of unpredictable delays, I was on the road again before noon.
Many times I’ve enjoyed driving — whether a car or motorcycle — over Tioga and Sonora passes many times, during the spring, summer and fall. Any threat of snow brings about closures, but during this trip Tioga and Sonora pass, as well as Ebbetts and Monitor pass had reopened after brief snow closures earlier in the week.
The landscape and vegetation of each pass is unique, with stark changes as one gains elevation. Over Monitor Pass, Highway 89 twists between and over numerous peaks, alternating between barren high desert to east and the fir and pine forests on the western slopes. Once over the summit, the road quickly descends to meet Highway 4, then crosses the East Carson River.
This was first visit to the East Carson River. The wild trout section was low and slow, and out of the shadows of the high canyon walls. Sunlight reflected off nearly every eddy, riffle and pool, and, as might be expected, the fishing was great but the catching not. It was suggested after the fact that I should have fished upstream, where a summer of stocking might mean a few
stupid willing fish would remain. I chalked this visit up to exploration. Since it wasn’t too far away, I drove to Markleeville. I had to drive through town a second time; I blinked and missed it the first time through.
The route over Ebbetts Pass is more adventurous than the comparatively high-speed Highway 108 over Sonora Pass and Highway 120, which winds through Yosemite and over Tioga Pass.
Driving over Ebbetts Pass is not for the faint of heart. Sandwiched between a full-width, two-lane state highway is a section reminiscent of the descriptions our parents and grandparents might offer of roads built only wide enough that two Model Ts could squeeze by each other. This middle section, from Lake Alpine to Silver Creek, is a barely two-lane road. There is no center line or fog lines. Shoulders are a rarity. Steep curvy portions, precipitous drop-offs and vistas of pristine landscapes are plentiful. If the narrowness of this road isn’t enough to reduce one’s speed, the beauty was. Lack of planning meant I couldn’t linger. Plans are already afoot to return with a greater abundance of time.
The rest of my drive was in relatively civilized areas. I’d pick up apple cider outside of Arnold, then wine and special spices in Murphys. I crossed New Melones Lake, which looked more a river at flood stage (it was formed by the damming of the Stanislaus River). Back in Twain Harte early, I cleaned up and planned to attend to a few items on the to-do list, figuring I’d walk to the local Ace store for a halogen bulb and any other necessary item. During the walk I began an exploration of a different variety. More on that next time my fingers are willing to dance on the keyboard…
All of the photos, and some more:
My family spent many summer vacations in Tuolumne Meadows. These trips were a family affair and in the interest of keeping everyone engaged, it was more than fishing. We’d spend the days hiking to higher elevations — the campground was at 8,600 feet — and sometimes we’d end up at nearly 10,000 feet. Mepps spinners would be cast into water along the trail and sometimes the destination was a lake where fishing was rumored to be amazing. Mom would keep the troops focused by wondering out loud about what might be around the next bend. My brother and sister and I would spend countless hours exploring the banks of the Tuolumne River, watching the occasional bear that wandered into the campground, and waiting for the rare treat of visiting the campground store, where we’d get to pick one comic book and maybe enjoy an ice cream.
Idealization taints memories but, for me, the Sierra Nevada high country has always lived up to my recollection. That’s what fueled the rest of my plan for Memorial Day Weekend 2014.
First-hand reports made it clear that water would be high in the Walker River Basin. But I had a plan that tied into two keywords in my last post: “maturity” and “adventure.” Not to get too personal, but I’m no spring
chicken rooster, and for more than five years I’ve worn a compression brace on my right knee. Years ago, while carrying a bag of cement on my shoulder, I stepped into an unseen depression, twisted my knee and fell to the ground. I was young then, so shook it off. It was only years later that I began to feel a bit of pain after long walks. This year I finally got out of my rocker to walk every day. Not Forrest Gump style, but about five miles a day. That, in combination with weight loss, has eliminated the need for the brace.
Cautiously optimistic, in planning for this trip I had decided to walk up the Little Walker River, hoping this would rekindle my enjoyment of high country hikes. I enjoy fishing this creek’s small water, though most of my experience had been limited to the stretch through and downstream of the campground. Sticking to my plan, I ignored warnings of high and muddy water. The drive over Sonora Pass would take about two hours, but it’s one drive that’s always enjoyable as the terrain changes with the elevation and, particularly this time of year, snow still dusts the pass. This day the drive was even more pleasant; being a weekday I saw only four cars at lower elevations, and no one above 6,000 feet.
The section of Hwy 108 between Twain Harte and the junction with Hwy 395 rarely runs straight. It’s a good road and relatively fast considering the twists and turns. On the eastside, after beginning a descent into the high desert, there are at least four severe hairpin turns. It seems that every year I either run into a cattle drive on the highway or a semi-trailer truck stuck at a hairpin. This year it was another truck. I waited about 10 minutes as the driver unsuccessfully tried to free the drive wheels, which had sunk in the loose dirt on the inside of the turn, before walking up to ask if it would be okay to try to drive around on the shoulder. He helped me move a few big rocks. After getting past, I was talking with the driver, emphasizing that this hairpin was only the first, when assistance arrived in the form of a Ford Police Interceptor Utility in California Highway Patrol colors.
The longest part of this drive always seems to be the three or so miles down a washboard dirt road to the Obsidian Campground in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. It’s not a bad drive, and was made nicer this year by a late-season storm that dropped enough rain to keep the dust down. Best of all: I was the only person there.
I began hiking where a bridge crosses the Little Walker. Topographical maps showed a nearby trail, but that trail would only appear intermittently during my hike. This part of the river flows through a narrow canyon, and since my preferred tactic is to hike as far up as possible and return by slowly fish downstream, I headed for high ground. This is terrain marked by small and rounded granite cobbles, perhaps glacial debris, sandy loams and decomposed granite. Willow and quaking aspen grow along the creek, replaced by conifers and mountain hemlock, which tolerate a drier environment. Hiking was relatively easy. There’s not much underbrush and the only hurdles — literally — were the many downed trees.
After about an hour I emerged from the canyon to find the wide-open expanse of Burt Canyon. Here the Little Walker meanders through stands of willows. The mountains that looked so far away when I started at about 7,400 feet seemed to be within reach. That was clearly an optical illusion as I was at about 8,600 feet and those mountains scraped the sky. The hiking was easy here and I continued on for about another hour.
I find solitude to be refreshing, so I pulled up a boulder and sat. Handfuls of raisins fed my body. The silence of the mountains, the sound of birds and gurgling water, and the unfathomable history of this place, fed my mind and soul. It was as if I was one of only few humans to pass this way.
Shaking off such romanticism, I rigged up the 3 wt. rod. This is the type of water that begs for a dry fly, with the usual small dropper. I fished suspect water, sneaking through willows as best I could, but apparently not well enough. I re-entered the narrow canyon of the Little Walker River with only a single rise so far.
It took a combination of hiking, climbing and crawling to follow the course of the creek, which wound around boulders, under fallen trees, sometimes cascading ten feet. The water was indeed high. Side arm casting, parallel to the creek was the best option. The fish were there, and a few rose to my fly, but none with enough an appetite to bite. If you fish, you know that there are those special spots that you know must hold fish. During high water flows, those locations change, and observation is the name of the game.
I had taken to hiking above the narrowest sections of the canyon and noticed one such spot. A large boulder was forcing the creek to bend almost ninety degrees, so that even at high flows, a pool was created. A large pine offered shade and security.
Hugging the conifer to hide my profile, my first cast fell into place and the fly slipped along a seam. I let it flow around the boulder until out of sight but before my fly line could spook any fish higher up in the pool. On the third or fourth cast a fish slammed the dry. This wasn’t a long pool, so the fish was resigned to head shaking and circling, but it did stress my little rod. I hadn’t expected to find a thirteen-inch holdover rainbow, but that’s what I was looking at in the net. That pool gave up a few more small fish, wild rainbow and brook trout of no more than eight inches, before I moved on.
Confident these fish could be fooled, it was time to stop for lunch in a small meadow passed on the hike upstream. The entrée was a jelly sandwich — I forgot to buy peanut butter at Twain Harte Market — accompanied by pretzels and raisins for dessert. During this repast, telltale rises in a slow bend caught my attention.
Lunch finished, I crept up to the edge of the creek. I made my first casts while still a few feet away; the high water had fish hugging the banks. The fish landed was a bright wild rainbow. A cast to the far bank brought up a couple of brilliantly colored brook trout. Feeling accomplished, I started to hike back to the car.
The bridge where I had parked came into sight, and below another fly fisherman, dappling a small pool. In short order he had hooked a big hatchery rainbow. His problem was getting it in the net. The pool was at the limit of the reach of his 5 wt., maybe nine feet, and the skinny water in this wide spot of the creek meant the rod often had to manage the full weight of the struggling fish. It wasn’t until I was on the bridge and ready to render aid, that he had the fish in the net. We chatted briefly before he headed off to clean his lunch.
That morning, in my focus on the adventure ahead, I hadn’t taken a good look at the water around this bridge. Now I could see that, directly underneath, it offered some interesting water. I clambered down. Fish hit my flies cast after cast. The hatchery rainbows were numerous and hooking one was a non-event. It was the occasional brook trout that made it fun. The challenge was getting my flies past the rainbows at the top of the run so the brookies at the bottom could get a look. I’m not complaining about having a chance at numerous fish, but I had come here for the wild ones.
On my way to the Little Walker, a quick look at the West Walker revealed it was running high, but clear. Knowing that time was limited if I was to get back over the pass before dark, I packed up and headed to Pickel Meadow. During the regular season the Pickel Meadow dirt parking lot would have half a dozen cars in it. This early in the season there were only two cars and three fly fisherman.
They had been fishing all morning and had found fish stacked up in a few bends. High-stick nymphing had worked best. And clearly, these guys have a more class than I; they were setting up a table and chairs for lunch, with all the fixin’s for Dagwood sandwiches. They also gave me explicit directions on how to get to the best spots (walk to the second willow and cast downstream) and told me to have at ‘em.
Perhaps it was laziness, but I decided to stick with a dry dropper. The fish were easy to spot, and I’m sure I was from their point of view, so I tried to hide behind a third willow while casting upstream. Helped by a twelve-foot leader, good drifts prompted rises to the dry fly. Proving that hatchery fish tend to be dumber, I had landed almost a dozen in less than an hour.
About then, one of the gentlemen from the parking lot walked up and asked what I was doing to hook so many fish. He was new to fly fishing, but enjoying it so far. We talked tactics and I again found myself in the role of teacher. I shared some flies with him and recommended other nearby waters. Then it was time to head back to the cabin.
It’s taken me seven-plus years to take “catching” out of the equation of fishing. Now I’m able to hike, if not with the energy of my teenage self, at least without getting (too) winded or an aching knee.
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.
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.
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.