fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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the 2013 Eastern Sierra Expeditionary Force, part 3

My last full day in the Eastern Sierra was planned around a mid-afternoon visit to Mammoth Brewing. John — a multi-year attendee of this outing — was keen on the idea, so we planned to spend the morning fishing and the afternoon…um…let’s call it “beering.”

We got an early start driving up Rock Creek Canyon to the Mosquito Flats trailhead, at about 10,000 feet. It was a typically crisp fall morning when we geared up and begin hiking, which for stretches was more akin to climbing. It stopped every once and a while to catch my breath admire the scenery.

Looking downstream (east) as Rock Creek exits Heart Lake.

Looking downstream (east) as Rock Creek exits Heart Lake.

We had no particular goal, so about an hour in we departed the trail and headed to the inlet of Heart Lake, which is about a mile and quarter so up the trail. John dropped down to the trail-side of the inlet; I hiked to the opposite side of the lake. Quite a few years ago I hiked this trial, a bit further, fishing the lakes along the way. That year I caught nothing. I know now that it had been too late in the day.

This early morning, however, there was plenty of interest, particularly if I could cast my orange humpy (dry fly) within a foot or so of the reeds lining the lake. There were spots, near inlets and outlets, where I would land half a dozen brookies, most colored up for the fall spawn. Most would slowly emerge from the depths or from behind a submerge log, and either lunch at my fly or flamboyantly refuse it.

Typical brook trout, one of many, caught in Rock Creek and its lakes.

Typical brook trout, one of many, caught in Rock Creek and its lakes.

We’d fish Rock Creek between two other lakes as we descended with the creek. I’d hook an occasional brown trout and stop often to just enjoy where I was. It was a beautiful day, with an ever-present breeze that kept things cool. The sun would be obscured every once and while by dark clouds; the almost black clouds I’ve only seen in the high country. John’s movement would mirror mine for the most part, though he did have to return to the trail to hike over a huge granite outcropping that prevented his following the edge of one lake.

Throughout the morning we met other folks, mostly hikers with a few fly fishermen among them. There was a noticeable absence of hardware or bait fishermen. While the casting is easy on the lakes, greater stealth was required in the close quarters of the creek. Most of the time I would cast downstream about ten feet, piling up some line to allow for a relatively drag-free drift for another five to ten feet. Any closer and my footfall would spook any unseen fish.

By the time we returned to the trailhead, it was time for lunch. My plan included a quick shower — I was going into town after all — and to meet John in Mammoth. We arrived just about the same time and it was easily decided to share a flight of regular beers as well as one of the seasonals. We had a good time talking with a server who worked the summer at Mammoth Brewing and would be heading back to Murphys (where The Wife and I enjoy the fruits of local winemaking), where he’s help with the grape harvest at his family’s winery. I walked out the door with a growler of Floating Rock Hefeweizen and one of Imperial Root Beer.

Both the beer and root beer (which, to my taste buds, is easily one of the best root beers around) are long gone. The fish have forgotten who I am. This just means I’ll have to return.

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the 2013 Eastern Sierra Expeditionary Force, part 2

I think the most rewarding fish I ever caught was vivid wild rainbow from Hot Creek, one cold fall morning a few years ago. It wasn’t the biggest fish and it wasn’t the first. It was the one that confirmed I was doing something right. There have been quite a few fish since then, but this is one that stands out.

Early morning on Hot Creek, looking west to the Sierras.

Early morning on Hot Creek, looking west to the Sierras.

I’ve described Hot Creek as a personal crucible that draws me back whenever I’m near. It’s the kind of place you’d return to regardless of the fishing. Early in the morning, before the sun rises above the canyon walls and less hardy fisherman show up, it can be a meditative place. The last four years I’ve been alone during this time, at least without human company. Deer will eye me while slowly munching on weeds from the creek. Birds of all shapes and sizes fly over and flit about the stream as caddis begin to hatch. Dark shadows of trout slip between the weeds.

Hot Creek is a gift plunked down in the middle of some of the most gorgeous country. It flows for about 3 miles through a huge meadow of wildflowers and tall grasses — which has been under the private ownership of Hot Creek Ranch for decades — and is surrounded on one side by the Sierra Nevada Mountains and on the other by the high desert of the Long Valley Caldera, which stretches about 10 miles to the Glass Mountain Ridge. The most fished public stretch flows through Hot Creek Gorge, below the ranch.

This year the creek offered a special challenge: low water and weeds. Hot Creek is known for the weeds that make it such a prolific stream; weeds that necessitate good casts to small lanes if one is to expect a decent drift.

This year those lanes seemed to be half as wide and half as long. Most of the fish where either hovering at the beginning or the end of these lanes, or just at or under the edges of the weeds. Some could be seen. Others were revealed as they fed on something too small be seen.

Solitude on Hot Creek.

Solitude on Hot Creek.

If there’s one consistency at Hot Creek, at least during the fall, it’s the size of the flies that work best. A favorite among our group this year was a small Zebra Midge, but for me it was a size 20 CDC Caddis. I needed help seeing a fly that small, so this day it would trail a decent sized grasshopper pattern.

These days I tend to use dry flies more often as indicator in slower moving waters. I did so during my first visit to Hot Creek. Not because I wanted to, but because everything I had read and been told about this stream deemed it “highly technical.” I still don’t really know what those words mean when used to describe a river, stream or creek, but they were scary at the time.

These days, Hot Creek treats me fairly. Choosing the proper fly, casting well to the right spot and getting a good drift is generally rewards one with a strike. Whether or not that fish makes it to the net is up to me. This year, of about a dozen fish hooked, I’d lose half of them in the weeds. Others would throw the hook after going airborne. Only three would make it to hand for quick release.

I spent all of the morning and much of the afternoon fishing and exploring, visiting a lower section of the creek for the first time, and eating lunch about 30 feet above the creek while watching rising fish and mesmerized by the vivid landscape around me. It took more effort than usual to leave.

Somewhere along the line I read about a guy who fishes the Eastern Sierra, and on his vehicle is a bumper sticker that reads, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Appropriate for Hot Creek.


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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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a confession

To be honest, I left home yesterday (actually left from the office) not as fired up as usual about the annual club fishing trip to the Eastern Sierra.

Now that I’ve been on “the Eastside” for about 16 hours I know why.

I didn’t get out with the fly rod often enough this year. I had forgotten what it meant to be standing in the clear water of a mountain stream so intensely focused on fooling that one fish that every other concern or worry melted away.

Leading up to this re-realization was a pretty unique — or special — morning.

The traffic ran into during my commute was entire comprised of bovines. Yes, I had to move into the other lane to pass cows.

My first stop was at the West Walker River, and as I contemplated the river, reveille echoed over the meadow, marking the start of the day at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. (To quote a Facebook friend, “Hoo Ahh to that! What a great day to be fishing in the USA!”

It was.

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P.S. This entire post was composed on my iPhone, so please excuse any sloppiness. And I really don’t know how I feel about being able to do so.


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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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an annual one-day tour; many waters fished, some not

The Oldest Son and I kept tradition alive with the Annual One-Day Tioga/Sonora Pass Tour last week and found a few Sierra Nevada rivers and streams running a bit too high for easy fishing, despite the lack of snow this year.

This excursion — passing through Yosemite’s high country and over two passes exceeding 9,000 feet — was marked this year by a deliberate slowing down. As always, the plan was to fish along the way. This time, however, there was an acceptance that fish would be there, or not, when we arrived. Perhaps it’s maturity. Perhaps overconfidence in my abilities. Whatever the case, it would open our eyes to new sights and new fishing possibilities.

The Tuolumne Meadows general store being assembled for the season.

The Tuolumne Meadows general store being assembled for the season.

We left the Family Cabin later than usual but quickly covered our longest continuous stretch of driving before arriving at Yosemite’s Big Oak Flat entrance station. Less than an hour later we pulled into the Tuolumne Meadows campground parking lot. A crew was stretching canvas over the wood frame of the campground’s general store. The meadows were already exposed and beginning to brown. The upside: it’ll probably be a relatively light mosquito season. But if you have any inclination to fish high-country streams or rivers, the season will be about a month head this year. Don’t be fooled; it was still cold.

We wadered up and spooked a few trout in one river, wrongly thinking that they had forgotten about fisherman during the winter. We explored a few other streams just past Tioga Pass. Reading a roadside monument, I learned of Bennettville, a mining town that never produced ore during its existence from the 1870s through 1933. It did, however, give birth to the Great Sierra Wagon Road, which later became Hwy 120 and the Tioga Pass Road.

The Tuolumne River, with Sean in the far background.

The Tuolumne River, with Sean in the far background.

The morning spent, we headed down to the Tioga Gas Mart and after picking up a few bottles of Mammoth Brewing beer, stopped for a barbecue lunch.

A few more miles behind us, we stopped on the bridge over the Little Walker River. I judged it just on the verge of being fishable and expected Molybdenite Creek, which feeds into the Little Walker, to be in similar shape and worth the time to show Sean this favorite place for the first time. Disappointed to find two other fisherman, we hiked around them before dropping down to the creek.

The Bennettville Marker near Saddlebag Creek. The town is about a mile west.

The Bennettville Marker near Saddlebag Creek. The town is about a mile west.

My favorite spots on this creek are pools usually created by piles of brush or the ledge of a small waterfall. Eventually, I hooked a couple of wild fish, lost most on dry flies that were just a bit too big, but finally landed a nice brook trout. Downstream, Sean also hooked a nice brookie.

We worked our way downstream, exploring the confluence of the two creeks, then began the return upstream, revisiting suspect water. Sean landed another brook trout from the pool I had fished.

The other fisherman had left, leaving upstream water open. Through a thick stand of pines and aspen I found a curve in the creek that created a pool and nice looking tailout. Trees crowding the edge of the creek limited casting to short casts parallel to the stream. Reaching the tailout required letting a fly drift under an overhanging log. But it was too good to pass up. A few drifts netted a decent brook trout.

Once my focus was off the tail out, a small pod of fish working at the head of the pool came into focus. It was pretty clear they were stocked trout, and while their domesticated appetite might not present a huge challenge, their position did, requiring casting from a crouched position and underneath an overhanging birch branch. Sean joined me later, and despite losing three or flies between the two of us, it was a fun casting and fighting fish in close quarters.

On the way toward Sonora Pass, we skipped the raging West Walker in favor of the upper North Fork of the Tuolumne, on the west slope. There we’d find stock rainbows willing to hit stimulators well into the evening.

In the end, we fished places unfamiliar and usually unfishable this time of year.

The spirit of exploration spilled over to the next day…

More on that next week.


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on becoming one of those guys

Opening day of the general trout season in California is this Saturday.

But I won’t be on the water. I will instead sacrifice the first opportunity to be skunked on my favorite stream for the greater good. (Very Vulcan of me, right?)

The first two years after I picked up a fly rod — some seven years ago — I would start preparing for the new trout opener a few weeks after the closing of the previous season.

I do still care about the trout opener. It opens wading access on the west slope of the Sierra usually long before the passes to the eastside are cleared. Being on the water at the earliest legal minute had become tradition. Even back when I was throwing hardware, it wasn’t about filling the freezer; it was simply about being out there, working the rust out of skills unused during the winter. Four seasons ago I accepted the invite of a fellow forum contributor to join him opening day in chasing down backcountry trout. He would provide the four-wheel drive truck, I provided flies. It was a day filled with good friendship, great weather and beautiful country unseen by most. Unfortunately, any trout that may have been in the half dozen streams we visited remained unseen.

The biggest influence in my changed opening day perspective is also one of the bigger rewards that have come with fly fishing. Notwithstanding the excitement of a big Eagle Lake rainbow taking me into my backing, I’ve find an unquantifiable pleasure in helping bring others into the sport. My contributions to the club’s novice fly fishing class aren’t huge, but the enthusiasm imparted by the instructors, including myself visibly, sparks something in the students. The payoff often comes a few weeks or months later, when one of those students, all smiles, presents a photo of the fish caught because of something learned in class.

So, while I’m not retired, but I’ve become one of those guys for whom the trout opener only marks the point in time that most trout water is wide open to fishing. I’m lucky enough to have a place in the Sierra foothills available to me most any time, and I have grown content to head up the week after the opener, often to find welcome solitude on most rivers and streams. I have also taken to the challenge of finding the ‘smarter’ fish left behind after the crowds of opening day.

When I finally do make that first cast for trout this year, it’ll be later, but for good reason.


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tie once, pay twice

I’m not the best fly tier. Most of my creations might be ranked as mediocre. I can tie decent flies — some have fooled some pretty crafty wild trout, though hunger might factor into this more than I care to admit. Most importantly, tying my own flies allows me to stock up on patterns I can’t buy in a fly shop. I’m a casual tier, not the crazy old guy who will tie two dozen hopper patterns in a single sitting. With the last kid still at home, I don’t yet have a fly tying room, so I’m relegated to an old TV tray in the corner of the den.

I have read a few fly-tying instruction books, some are pretty good, but aren’t as thorough as they could be. For instance, when I start to tie a fly it goes something like this: select a hook, usually a smaller one about size 20, then drop the hook. If I’m lucky, I find it immediately rather than two days later embedded in my bare foot. I’m thinking my fly tying room will have white tile flooring and a custom desk with magnetic strips inlaid near the edges.

This last weekend I went through the ritual of tying a few dozen flies of the coming trout season in the Sierra Nevadas. I had procrastinated more than ever this year and it was the prodding of the fly fishing club’s auction chairman for donations that finally got me to spend a day at the vise. This auction is held every year and is our single biggest fundraiser. The money raised goes to organizations such as CalTrout, Project Healing Waters, Putah Creek Trout and United Anglers of Casa Grande High School, as well as a club-sponsored scholarship.

The fact that some of these flies would be on public display — with an expectation that other folks might buy them with real money — has always been a good motivator. In the end, I deemed about every other fly worthy of such an honor.

The other, not-so-pretty-flies, ended up in the fly box. I am sure they’ll still fool the fish.

But I can help thinking that I’ll have to buy back the better-looking flies at the auction…


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think not, do (and why I think one can trust their feelings…after a bit of real-world learning)

I don’t remember how it was learned. There has been a lot of trail and error, fishing trips and advice from guides and fly fishing friends. It certainly wasn’t during my first year of fly fishing, when it was all new and mysterious — and happiness was fooling a single wild trout. Mistakenly filled with a dream of never being skunked again, all virgin water held promise, particularly without the knowledge that is only gathered with time on the water. Maybe, at first, this knowledge is founded upon a dog-eared book authored by Whitlock, Humphreys, Cutter or Rosenbauer. But over time, those written words merge with experiences to become more instinct than reason.

Only lately did it become clear — while reflecting on fishing an Eastern Sierra river a bit more than a few weeks ago — that my approach to water, at least assessment of it, was without conscious thought that day. A first trout that came to the net early that morning would be the only fish for a period of time longer than I liked. But there was a lot of water to fish. It wasn’t too long before the burble of the river, the lowing of cattle and the rhythm of casting encouraged giving in to just being there and trusting in my strategy.

I no longer feel frustration (I’ll admit to a bit of irritation) when the net remains dry and the fish don’t respond to sound tactics. Digging a bit deeper often reveals a smidgen of an idea that I may be employing the appropriate tactics, just not in the right place. If asked, I usually can’t describe the right place, but I’ll know it when I see it.

I saw that right place that morning on the Upper Owens River, but it wasn’t until long after the fact did I recognize my knowing that it was the right place. At the moment, it simply felt right. It was a small bend where the water tumbled over and through a few polished rocks, with enough speed to carve underneath the bank a small undercut. Above this bend, a confluence of two braids would funnel any food to where fish should be waiting.

What those books don’t tell you, and can’t if they hope to find new readers, is that as insight is accumulated, at sometime it’ll be a gut feeling telling you that you’re in the right place, at the right time, casting the right fly with the right technique. With a lot of luck, you may even feel that a drift is so right that a hook up is almost — almost — guaranteed. That day half a dozen trout from that bend would end up in my net.

It took some thinking about that day before I realized that it was following a feeling, a learned intuition perhaps, and that not overthinking worked out pretty well.


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the conundrum of working-class guy’s fly fishing vehicle

Ask around, do a little research and you’ll likely find that the question “what’s the best vehicle for fly fishing” is often answered “truck.”

But I’m still paying into social security so others can fly fish when they want a working stiff. I need transportation that is, first and foremost, reliable, and just as important, economical. I have to spend money on gas to make money, and the less I spend upfront the better.

During better weather, the Honda CB750 and its 45+ miles per gallon is a fine option. But it’s difficult to load the necessary fly fishing gear, and the cooler of post-fishing beer, on a motorcycle. I’ve tried.

Being a bit obsessive about conducting research on anything that will cost more than $50, I’ve been thinking — probably too much according to those around me — about the vehicle that, in about 1½ to 2 years, will replace my current 2003 Honda Accord. Since I’ll likely buy a certified pre-owned car, it’s going to be something currently on the market. My current car gets 30 to 32 mpg most of the time, and on long trips to fishing venues, I’ve seen 34+ mpg. But over 80% of my driving is commuting to and from work.

I’ve debated the merits of various models, including sport utility vehicles and all-wheel-drive cars. A hybrid is out of the question; too heavy and not enough clearance for the occasional Forest Service road. Subaru is a commonly offered up make as an all-encompassing solution. But I’ve noticed two things: most Subaru owners talk about the sportiness of the ride, the go-almost-anywhere capability, but rarely praise their cars’ mpg, and it seems to be a roll of the dice when it comes to build quality. That might be said about any make, but that’s my experience.

Despite the fact that I’ve been a Honda owner for well over 20 years, I opened up my consideration to other options, particularly now that the mpg on midsize sedans is edging up.

But, and a bit ironically, it’s fly fishing that helped firmed up my decision. At least for now.

I’ve driven my Honda on a good many, only slightly improved, Forest Service roads. Sometimes for miles, over the relatively soft dirt along the Upper Owens River, for example, or over rocks on my way to the Little Walker River, and on washboard roads in the hills behind the cabin.

Still, the doggone car doesn’t squeak or rattle.

I’m hoping this will still hold true for my next car, until that someday when I can justify a dedicated fishing truck.