fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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the 2013 Eastern Sierra Expeditionary Force, part one

Ask anyone who attended my club’s Eastern Sierra trip about the fish that made it to the net, and he’s likely to tell you it was about 18 inches. And that will be the truth.

For some of our group that was the length of one rainbow trout. For others, that total of 18 inches was the cumulative length of six brook trout. That’s just how it can play out in the Eastern Sierras.

The nice thing about an annual trip is that there always seems be to a landmark at which everyday life melts away and the focus shifts and sharpens to living in the present.

Morning above the West Walker River.

Morning above the West Walker River.

In this case, it occurs once the descent from Sonora Pass begins and the high desert stretches out in front of me. The route of choice this year was Hwy 108, as Hwy 120 (Tioga Road) was closed through mid September due to the Rim Fire. The usual commute traffic was there. Twice I would weave between cows meandering on the asphalt.

There are two maxims that apply to my fly fishing: (1) Get the skunk of as quickly as possible and (2) shaving serves no purpose. To address the first adage, I stopped at the West Walker River earlier than most fly fisherman would even take their first sip of coffee. Early enough to enjoy the stirring experience of hearing reveille echoing from the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center before my first cast.

Most people head for “the bend,” knowing that pods of planted trout can be found and, occasionally, a bigger fish might be found under a cut bank. But upstream, pocket water is a bigger draw for me.

West Walker Wild Rainbow

West Walker Wild Rainbow

Pocket water slows me down considerably, and it’s a good thing. Besides the obvious, avoiding a fall and at least a sprain if not a broken bone or two, the pocket water in the Sierras tends to be favored by the better-looking wild fish, and they need to be stalked. With a slow and low approach, I found plenty of wild rainbows willing to play.

When the sun was high in the sky and hiding my profile consigned me to shade and leg cramps, it was time to head down Hwy 395 to Tom’s Place Resort, , which if you’ve ever been, is a bit more basic than the name implies. But the price is right. The rest of our group, totaling 12, would filter in throughout the afternoon.

After that, the real fishing would begin, to be followed by free flowing homemade beer, good food and plenty of lies.

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don’t know what to expect this trip

It’s been a bad year for water in California. The April opener was one of the best in years thanks to low water levels.

Next week we’ll see for ourselves what Eastern Sierra rivers and lakes look like four months later.

One guide recently referred to Bridgeport Reservoir as a “pond.” Bridgeport is so low that its outflow into the East Walker River has been tainted by algae — algae that usually floats closer to the surface of the reservoir — and now the river is regularly off color and weedier than usual. Lake Sabrina in the Bishop area is so low that the front (manmade) lake no longer exists. The level of Crowley Lake is better than might be expected, but low enough to concentrate fish in the deepest areas.

The route taken by myself and guys from the club will be dictated by the Rim Fire. Hwy 120 remains closed. An expectation that the fire might not be fully contained until Sept. 20 doesn’t lend any clarity as to when it might open.

That’s not a big issue for me. I usually head over Sonora Pass via Hwy 108, with stops at the West Walker River, Little Walker River or Molybdenite Creek.

Thankfully, there will be water to fish when we settle in at Tom’s Place Resort (which certainly isn’t the resort you might think it is). The Upper Owens is supposed to be in good shape. The Middle Owens is flowing at an unseasonably high level. I may head to the high country, visiting alpine lakes and streams where I hope the fish are already preparing for a long winter.

However it works out, there will be lies told over beer and good grub.


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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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a few days to fish (and learning that life will find a way)

There was exploration, fish caught, and the folks who raised us would revisit an old vacation spot at 9,000 feet — all despite weather last week that threatened to put the kibosh on all of it.

I started a mini-vacation two Fridays ago with a run up to the cabin, for once not battling traffic for any of the 142 miles. The plan was to get in a bit of fishing before the parents arrived Sunday afternoon and a drive over Tioga and Sonora passes on Monday. Besides an introduction to the cabin, history was the main reason for this tour. Our family typically spent vacation in one of the best possible venues, outdoors and many summers that meant Tuolumne Meadows.

But as of Friday, both passes were closed as late-season snow fell under dark gray clouds.

Brown Trout on a DryWilling to gamble only so much on the weather that afternoon, I set out for the ol’ irrigation canal, knowing it offers shelter and, if needed, a quick exit. During a few short hours the shifting weather offered sunshine, rain, hail and even a light flurry of snow. The fishing was as expected; my flies were hit mostly by wild browns and only the smartest stocked rainbows that hadn’t fall victim to salmon eggs or spinners. The stink of a possible skunking lifted, I retreated to a hot dinner and prepared for the next two days.

Instead of huddling inside, I was up before the sun on Saturday counting on the early hour and cold weather — about 48°F — working to my advantage. I choose wisely. Although I was on a well-fished creek, it was just me, the trout and couple of ducks for three hours. Fortitude and toughness won me solitude and a good number of fish that morning. Or, perhaps, it just proves that early bird adage.

By midday I was cleaned up and headed to the Moccasin Creek Hatchery for Trout Fest; the only time of the year that anyone is allowed to put a hook in its raceways. The grins of the kids were contagious; the K-9 demo of a quagga mussel search pretty amazing, and the general mood was generally festive. A local fly fishing club offered casting instruction in another raceway, allowing folks to cast an all-to-big fly to trout with appetites bigger than their four or five inches. I talked up a few of the hatchery personnel in hopes of lining up my plans for Sunday morning.

Those conversations suggested a return to the lower North Fork of the Tuolumne (near Basin Creek), a section of the river I had first visited about four years ago and enjoyed as an early season venue. This section is deep in a canyon and quite beautiful, despite its relative closeness to civilization. Most of the fish I caught back then there were stocked and in the intervening years that section of the Tuolumne had fallen off the stocking list as the result of an environmental lawsuit. But the word was that there were wild trout to be found.

Usually I’m up and out the door at the crack of dawn, but I’d reserved that Sunday morning for leisurely exploration of Forest Service roads outside of Long Barn. I was surprised to find much of my route paved with asphalt, and after marking a good-looking creek or two on the GPS, I headed to Tuolumne City and the four-mile descent to the lower North Fork of the Tuolumne.

Like so often happens, a small, nice looking wild rainbow slammed my dry fly on the first cast. (They always seem to do that when I’m least prepared.) I missed that first fish but managed to find almost dozen other little rainbows, scattered in the likely spots.

After a morning of rewards, I headed back to a hot shower before the arrival of the parents. But the folks’ visit will have to wait until next week.


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a PSA that you’d better get up country to fish now

If you have any inclination to fish the high country in the central Sierra Nevada, now’s that time to get going.

The two pictures below of the a side channel of the Tuolumne River were taken from roughly the same position in the Tuolumne Meadows campground, looking toward Lembert Dome. The left-hand photo was taken last week (May 28, 2012). The right-hand photo was taken during late June 2011.

Tuolumne River 2012 vs 2011

You be the judge.


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how to know you’ve taught a son well (and he’s thinking, “When I left you I was but the learner. Now I am the master.”)

We knew the weekend warriors were gone. We also knew they’d have hit hard a creek that’s always fun in terms of catching. Our plan was to find all the fish too smart for everyone else.

As we geared up that morning, the count favored Sean, and I trailed by a considerable margin but refused to bring up the excuse that I had relied on a dry fly for much of the previous day while he took the easy way out used nymphs.

We go to this creek when we want to catch something, enjoying our tax (and licensing) dollars at work. The rainbow trout stocked here are generally of the Eagle Lake strain, a hard fighting fish that often entertains with acrobatics. Fishing here stacks the deck if you’re measuring success by the number of fish caught. I’ll admit to also enjoying the look of astonishment on the faces of other fishermen, the ones not using flies, when in 15 minutes Sean or I pull out three fish to their one. So, please, shelve any debate about “missing the point,” this is a place of pure fun.

As we walked down to the creek, it was clear that we’d have it to ourselves. Sean headed upstream. We’d both be nymphing — I’ve not known stocked trout to look up much — and this section offered plenty of deeper runs and pools. It didn’t take long for either of us to hook up.

With the intensive fishing over Opening Day weekend, I expected the catching to be a bit slower. I wasn’t disappointed. With a bit of work and a change to a favorite red chironomid, I regularly elicited strikes, particularly with a slow lift at the end of a drift. Catching had slowed for Sean, so he headed downstream to a fast run.

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Sean's first big Opening Day trout.

Though a bit later I saw Sean’s rod go “bendo,” I knew the water he was fishing was fast and a fish of nearly any size would have an advantage in the current. I had no worries. Over the years during the too infrequent trips with me, Sean has become a better fly fisherman, enough to venture out on his own last year to find success on some streams in Yosemite’s high country. (There’s some fondness in my memory of a Reno telephone number showing up on my caller ID, only to find it was Sean resorting to a pay phone to call me with the news that he had landed his first wild brown on a fly.) After I saw him bend down with the net, I refocused on my fishing.

In the meantime, Sean had started upstream, and when I finally looked up, even at a distance I could see that the fish on his stringer wasn’t a cookie cutter stocker. With a grin to match, he held up a rainbow that measured an honest 18 inches. After the obligatory photo, he headed back downstream.

As often happens, I became lost in the fishing. Testing every edge and riffle, rewarded with strikes where expected and others that came as a total surprise. A bait fisherman took a seat on the opposite bank, asked about the fishing, then, after telling him it had slowed down, I landed three decent fish in less than ten casts.

Sean had returned while I was distracted. Suspiciously happy, he announced that he decided that first fish wasn’t big enough and hoisted up a 20-incher that had been added to the stringer.

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Sean with a fine mess o' trout.

If our little father-son competition was to be measured by inches, those last two fish would put Sean over the top.

However, we weren’t measuring in inches, and my count had long ago surpassed Sean’s. Nevertheless, this was probably Sean’s best Opening Day. Ever.


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