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 three

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.

Looking down at Crowley Lake from the west, toward Nevada.

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.

Fish on for Gerry in the early and too calm morning.

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.

One of my first Lahanton Cutthroats of the day.

Gerry’s big Lahanton, out of McGee Bay.

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.)

Wayne and Mike headed out in search of fish.

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.

 


For those who missed ’em: Part One and Part Two.

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National Parks Week and appreciating a high-country home

Centennial-Logo-W-Find-Your-Park-LogoOur days were measured by trout caught, bears seen and miles hiked; nights by stars and the embers of a campfire. During those summers we’d rarely see a familiar face, but the place seemed unchanging. We grew a lot during those short visits, climbing granite domes, hiking trails commonly rising 1,000 feet in less than five miles, floating in a river that only a few miles earlier was born of snowmelt.

I was reminded that Tuolumne Meadows was our vacation “home” last week when I posted a photo of my brother and me with a trophy high-country trout, back when our fishing was more about self-sufficiency and every fish ended up in a pan surrounded by bacon. Mornings my brother, sister and I would hike to Soda Springs to capture the naturally carbonated water – and bits of minerals I’m sure – our mother would gently blend with pancake mix to make some of the puffiest pancakes in the world.

Our visits to Tuolumne Meadows were more adventure than vacation. Stories of our exploits of those summers come up frequently: The poor decision to slide down the granite face of Lembert Dome as the sun set. The bear that followed us back to camp after a long day hike. My sister’s discovery that fish were living beings while ironically still fishing but refusing to eat our catch. On tougher hikes, mom’s constant encouragement to discover what might be around the next bend.

TM-Mark and meIt wouldn’t be out of place to say that Tuolumne Meadows, a less visited part of Yosemite National Park, helped form the person I am today. I’ve since returned to Tuolumne Meadows, one time fishing there with my sons, another time hiking up Lembert Dome with my brother and one son. Nature seems to ignore us humans; the changes over the last three decades are entirely ours.

I’ve been lucky enough to have visited Death Valley, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Lassen, Redwood and Mt. St. Helen national parks. Many national monuments, recreation areas and historic sites as well: Alcatraz Island, John Muir National Historic Site, Point Reyes National Seashore, Muir Woods National Monument, Cabrillo National Monument, Fort Point National Historic Site and Golden Gate Recreation Area.

The national park system is America’s Best Idea. Next week is National Park Week. Every national park will offer free admission from April 16th through the 24th. If you can, get to one and #FindYourPark.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”
― John Muir, Our National Parks


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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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a return to the high country with the folks who raised us, some thirty years later

It turns the tables a bit when it’s the kids introducing parents to new places and experiences and revisiting the familiar after three decades is icing on the cake, though there’s bound to be disagreement in our personal memories.

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Mom and Dad at the cabin, for their first visit.

But easy agreement was found in the beauty of the scenery and shared remembrances during a long drive up and over Tioga Pass, along the shores of Mono Lake, before a return over Sonora Pass.

The parents arrived at the cabin late that Sunday afternoon, and after running an errand that took entirely too long for Dad, dinner was enjoyed and we settled in for the evening. Thankfully, the storm that had dumped snow on the passes had dissipated the day before and the warmth of the sunshine had cleared the roads.

Mom, Dad and I leisurely left Twain Harte with a route in mind but absent any planned stops or timetable. The hillsides leaned more toward gold, but were freckled by islands of still-green grass.

I’ve driven this road many mornings, but saw things a bit differently today since I wasn’t preoccupied with wetting my fly line. Miles rolled by, lubricated by conversation. Soon it was time for a stop to stretch our legs. Though there aren’t many hatcheries that will, in my mind, match the magnificence of the historic Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery visited in my youth, there was something familiar about walking around the Moccasin Creek Hatchery with the folks.

After the excitement of gaining 1,500 feet in elevation over the two miles of the “new” Old Priest Grade, it was all new territory for Mom and Dad as we wound through Big Oak Flat, Groveland, and past Buck Meadows. Highway 120 took us from 2,838 feet at Big Oak Flat to Yosemite National Park’s Big Oak Flat Entrance Station at 4,900 feet. Dad was impressed by the tidiness of the towns and the number of old buildings alongside the roadway, many of which are still in use.

If it wasn’t enough to have fantastic weather, traffic was light. By mid morning we arrived at the entrance station, where the purchase of an annual pass got us across the park border. Words in many foreign languages hung in the cool air, reminding me of the many nature blessings that aren’t more than a day’s drive from home that attract visitors from around the world.

I’ve always throught that the changes in vegetation and terrain grow more dramatic once inside the formal boundaries of Yosemite. Heavy forest yielded to granite, which only seems to yield to water in the form of glaciers, ice and liquid. We pushed on to Olmsted Point, taking obligatory photos, then on to Tenaya Lake. Availing ourselves of the facilities near the lake, I made a mental note that I need to spend more time exploring Tenaya Lake and its surroundings.

There’s a drama that comes with finally emerging from the forest to be presented with the dramatic vista of Tuolumne Meadows, then dropping into the meadow itself. This time I was taken aback by the dramatic change in its appearance compared with that of last spring, when my brother, son and I were on our way to a challenging life-affirming hike to the top of nearby Lembert Dome. Last year the meadows were covered with water. This year, the grass was already the gray-brown of late August.

I had to explain to Dad that the Tuolumne Meadows campground wasn’t open yet when he asked why I was parking alongside the highway. He’d never been here so early in the season. (The campground would open two weeks later, rather early.) Though last June there was snow on the ground and big puddles filled with mosquito larvae, there was nothing of the sort this last week of May. A stroll toward the entrance was accompanied by a bit of debate about the differences between today’s visit and our memories of camping trips more than two decades ago. Regardless of the differences of opinion and any discrepancy in our memories, there was more than enough that was still the same to foster a feeling of familiarity.

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Mom and Dad’s triumphant return after 30-some years.

My worries about the water were confirmed during this walk through the campground when I stopped near the same spot from which I took a photo of Lembert Dome in 2011. Last year, there was no discernable difference between the channels of the Tuolumne River and the river itself, and the water was within two feet of the bottom of the Tuolumne Meadows (Hwy. 120) Bridge. This year, the channel nearest the campground was no more than a foot deep, and the river was barely touching the bridge abutments.

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The three of us at Leavitt Falls Overlook.

The reminiscing was further fueled by the sheer rock walls along the descent from Tioga Pass to Lee Vining. The thought of dropping in at Bodie Mike’s for a barbecue lunch was derailed by Dad’s sudden proposition of stopping at the Tioga Gas Mart — that he didn’t recall seeing before — to grab lunch at the Whoa Nellie Deli. A word of warning: Be careful what you order. It’s all big at Whoa Nellie. The Cowboy Steak Sandwich is not so much as sandwich as it is a steak slapped on a roll.

The easy drive north on Hwy. 395 from Lee Vining was a welcome change after such a big lunch. By the time we arrived to the intersection of Hwys. 395 and 108, the urge to nap had passed. A good thing considering the hairpin curves that would take us from 6,765 feet to 9,623 feet at Sonora Pass. Before our main ascent, the Leavitt Falls overlook offered a last opportunity to stretch our legs before the long trip over the pass. The reduced volume of water coming over the falls was another reminder that it’s going to be a dry year in the Sierra Nevada. We posed for photos, then began the long climb.

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Getting a roadside education at Sonora Pass.

This was undiscovered country for the parents, who never had a reason to travel this road. To my eye, Hwy. 108 over Sonora Pass offers much more dramatic transitions. The road rises faster and the changes in terrain and vegetation follow suit. Surprised to find it open, we stopped at the Donnell Reservoir scenic overlook, with a sweeping over the Stanislaus River canyon and the Central Valley. The road from there is bit less remarkable, winding through heavy forest and passing towns that only seem to be wide spots in road.

It was a long but worthwhile day; one that both revived and created memories.

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we didn’t know it should have been scary at the time

This post brought to you by the writing prompt† “My Outdoor Scary
from the Outdoor Blogger Network (OBN).

Lembert Dome

The Target: Lembert Dome, 900 feet of granite.

In all fairness, my dad didn’t see it coming. I blame it on the thin air or the simple joy of being outdoors in God’s country.

For more than a few years, my brother, my sister, and I eagerly anticipated a week or more of camping in the Tuolumne Meadows campground. These trips were filled with hiking, fishing, campfires, hiking that was sporadically interrupted by fishing, and that general freedom engendered by nature’s wide-open spaces.

Many hikes started in the campground or nearby, which meant a starting elevation of at least 8,500 feet and often closer to 9,500 feet. Many of the trails were obvious or followed rivers or streams, and were usually marked on the USGS maps dad packed with the space blankets, water, lunches, snacks and other supplies. Some hikes were long and generally flat, others shorter but a bit tougher on the shorter legs of kids. The trail to Lake Elizabeth gained about 1,000 feet in elevation over 4.5 miles. Getting to Gaylor Lakes required rising 600 feet in what seemed like the first mile of the three. (Gaylor Lakes supposedly offered great fishing, but the inhalation of swarms of mosquitoes that rose with every step on the surrounding marshes cut the trip short.)

Lembert Dome — a 900-foot tall mass of granite — towers above the nearby Tuolumne River. From the meadows one can often see tiny people standing on top. Then, one summer, me, my dad, my brother and my sister saddled up and began an ill-fated hike that would take us to the top of the dome on a relatively easy trail, but one that grows steeper as it ascends the backside.

The trail cut through a forest and over a few streams as it traced the lower edge of the dome, then looped toward the back the dome. All the while we gained elevation, but it’s the last fourth of the 2.8 miles that asked the most of our legs. This climb started with a clear demarcation of the alpine zone. Trees became fewer and shorter, some stunted, and soon we stood on granite. Then it got a bit tricky, with some rock scrambling and careful footwork required before we reached the top.

Half Dome Back When 1

Yes, we made it... (This is the original, unaltered photo. Scroll down for a better colorized version.
And where the heck did I get that belt buckle?)

Standing on top of this massive granite dome, where the air seems just slightly thinner, the deep greens of the meadows and trees contrast with a sky of eye-straining blues and snow-capped mountains reaching 11,000 feet or more. We lingered and marveled; maybe a bit too long.

Not exactly the best boots for hiking.

The hike had taken a little bit longer than expected and dad was a tad anxious about getting back to camp dome before dark. From where we stood, the face of the dome didn’t look too steep. It also looked like a shortcut.

We didn’t know that there was a surprising amount of glacial polish and exfoliation, cracks parallel to the surface that develop with expansion and contraction‡. Our Sears Roebuck and Co. boots would have been more at home on a flat construction site and offered limited grip. (You might know these boots; versions are still sold today under the Diehard brand — the ones with white leather crepe sole with a tread best described as small rolling hills.) Baseball-sized rocks and small BBs of decomposed granite tumbled beside us as we picked our way down.

We’d also find out that the stitching and rivets in our jeans didn’t offer much traction. It wasn’t easy to walk down the steep granite, so we controlled much of our descent with the seat of our pants. Literally. We slid on our bums. I think our pants gave up their last threads that day.

We did make it down Lembert Dome that afternoon and my brother and I hiked back to camp with just a bit of bravado. Dad, no doubt, and probably my sister, were relieved.

We were too young to be appropriately terrified worried that day. Now that age has tempered my bravado, when I think about this, I’m suitably scared for that young man. But I’m always glad that he had this adventure.

Half Dome in Color

...and here we are with the color slightly adjusted. (Forgot that Mark was ever so small.)

Looking out from Lembert Dome

Us kids looking out from atop Lembert Dome. Not so scary...

Us on Lembert Dome

My brother, my son, and I made it back in 2011.
This time there'd be no sliding down Lembert Dome's face.


† This prompt was issued a few days ago, but nothing immediately think came to mind, which I chalk up to a lack of adventurousness the preparedness taught to me by the Boy Scouts.
‡ There is no general agreement among geologists as to the exact cause of this phenomenon.