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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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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a week of fly fishing, part two: a personal challenge (or, an unfamiliar approach to familiar waters)

There are times when the catching is good, but the fishing still unsatisfying. I was felt this way on Hot Creek, just a bit, during this last club trip to the Eastern Sierra.

I may not eagerly jump out of bed on a work day, but by nature — likely because I’m in tune with nature on most fishing trips — I’m an early morning fly fisher.

It’s a strategy that works for me. It puts me on the water long before almost anyone else. Nymphs work well for me in the twilight of the morning. The darkness lends the fish in my net a a mysterious, ghostly quality.

But this last trip, after that aforementioned conversation with the guy from Cabo, I thought it was time to change it up.

That’s what put me on Hot Creek about mid afternoon on a Thursday.

It was nicer than I expected, with a mid week crowd comprised of a single fisherman and myself, and the normally frustrating winds almost nonexistent. Caddis coated the bushes. An errant mayfly dipped up and down in the air.

I’d been told that a certain crane fly imitation would work well. I didn’t have one. The hoppers that were suggested didn’t get even a glance from fish clearly seen to be eating. For a time I watched the graceful and economical movements of a pod of trout, rising to feed and falling back to the bottom. Obviously, there was something that I couldn’t see bringing them to the surface.

Like most any water, Hot Creek comes with its own piece of counseling: go small. And in the afternoon, dry flies.

Normally I’d head upstream and work my way down, but after a friendly conversation with older gent already fishing (and giving him a size 20 caddis for use as an indicator above a trailing something about size 22-24), I decided to stick and move as I worked my way up the creek.

I rigged up in similar fashion, with a black caddis trailing a size 24 parachute Adams. This time of year, tactics at Hot Creek are often dictated by the abundant weed growth. A soft footfall serves one well, and I carefully picked my way around bushes while watching the “lanes.” In the past, I bypassed these areas under the pretext of one excuse or another. (My casting isn’t good enough, I won’t get a long enough drift, too many people, etc.)

It wasn’t too long before I saw that first nose, more of a bump in the water, a tell-tale sign of a feeding trout.

I cast well upstream. It took a few more casts, but with some skill luck, a good drift put the fly where it needed to be.

Hot Creek Brown/Small Fly

It still amazes me that a nice Hot Creek brown like this can be landed on so small a fly.

I’d repeat this more times than I care to recall but was rewarded with eight beautiful trout, mostly browns, all of which were no less than 13”. The biggest and prettiest crowded about 24” of beauty into 15” of fish.

Next year, I think this place will deserve an entire day of my attention.


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a week of fishing, part one: wherein I learn to slow down, enjoy Hot Creek and have fun with small dry flies

This year’s annual club trip to the Eastern Sierras — organized by yours truly — came a tad bit later this year, but its planning nearly nine months ago couldn’t anticipate the snowfall that wouldn’t arrive last winter. From afar I watched the guide reports and river flows, but all of that was forgotten two Sundays ago, once an amazingly fat brook trout slammed the first dry fly cast into a suspect pool.

This is a good time of year to be in the Eastern Sierras. Fewer people, perhaps only the hardier (and those without kids), remain to fish, hike and camp. Being a bit more mature, our group rents a couple of rustic cabins, though we do cook dinner ourselves (clam linguine one night). The days are often cloudless and, at an elevation of 7,000 feet, this expanse of high desert warms up fast. Temperatures swing the other direction just as fast, dropping to the mid-to-low 30s in the evening. Startlingly brilliant stars illuminate the clear nights.

Once over Sonora Pass, my first stop was on the Little Walker River. This small water is often overshadowed by its bigger brethren, the East Walker and West Walker rivers, which offer bigger and more fish. A year after discovering the charm of the Little Walker, and during my first turn as “fishmaster” for this trip, I fished this creek with the club’s outings chairman. We had a wonderful time finding wild brook, brown and rainbow trout exactly where they should be. Jim has since passed away, but the Little Walker reminds me of his broad smile.

Little Walker Brook Trout

It surprised me to see a brookie so big in the Little Walker.

It was with Jim that I first explored Hot Creek, one of the waters that would be frequented during the week. Since I’d have six full days to fish, and in light of Hot Creek’s popularity, the plan was to fish it during midweek. It was a sound philosophy; avoiding as many other fly fishermen as possible and hoping that reduced fishing pressure over a day or two would improve my chances.

Hot Creek Morning

Hot Creek Morning.

Hot Creek has been the marlin to my Santiago. It’s a spring creek with a high fish population, estimated to be 8,000 to 10,000 trout per mile. But these are highly educated trout that have probably seen every fly in the catalog. Throw in clear, low water and weeds that limit opportunities to small lanes and the chance of a drag-free drift, and this fly fishing heaven can become hellish, particularly late in the year. Most descriptions of Hot Creek include words that tend to scare me: “technical,” “attentive mends,” “drag-free drifts,” “multiple hatches.” That first visit with Jim five years ago didn’t dispel any of my trepidation, despite my landing two decent fish.

Although I was on the road Tuesday morning later than intended, I descended into the canyon well before the sun was fully on the water. A single fly fisherman had arrived before me. Reminding myself that there was no need to rush, I slowly and softly walked upstream, taking time to stop and watch the water. In the absence of light, the water was dark and unyielding.

Trusting to my experience that fish would be in a familiar spot, I finally stopped to cast a size 16 dark brown-bodied caddis trailing a smaller dropper (maybe size 22, or 24); a red-butt zebra midge type of fly made up during a fit of madness inspiration at the fly-tying vise. This was truly blind casting. There was a lane big enough to allow for a decent drift of about two feet. I kept my false casts short and out of view of the trout I hoped were there, and used a single-haul cast to finally lay the flies on target. The caddis dipped on my third cast and a good-looking 11 inches of brown trout went airborne. I don’t know if it’s the lack of depth in the creek, but I don’t think I’ve seen brown trout as acrobatic as those in Hot Creek.

Hot Creek Brown

Hot Creek Brown. Love that pectoral fin!

With the first fish to the net, my pulse finally began to slow and my body relaxed. My casting settled down. Two more fish made it to my net during the next hour, one a dark-hued rainbow of about 14 inches. There are bigger fish in Hot Creek, but any decent fish hooked, played through the mass of weeds, and landed, is still a pretty big deal in my book.

Soon the first few caddisflies and mayflies appeared in the air as sunlight began to warm the water. The sunlight also revealed pods of fish, some hovering between weeds, others just on the edge.

Hot Creek Rainbow

Yes it was dark, but this wild fish also has a dark cast to it.

I downsized my caddis fly to a size 22, hoping that it might get a look or two. It did, but only in passing. I would land a total of six fish that morning and walk out of the canyon feeling pretty good about it. But it was a conversation — with a friendly guy who toughs out his year splitting time between fly fishing the Eastern Sierra and running a scuba shop in Cabo San Lucas — that had me pondering a return in the evening.

But that’s another story for another time.


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part of the why there was no post last week

Hot Creek Brown (9/20/2012)

Small dry flies, nice fish. (Hot Creek Brown — about 13-14 inches — on size 22 Parachute Adams.)


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time well spent on new water, part two (or, why it’s best to go sooner, not later)

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Looking up Beaver Creek.

As alluded to in my last Friday post, the excellent fishing just over a week ago was often centered on a certain little red humpy. Accompanying the good fishing was good weather. I couldn’t have asked for any better; it was in the mid 80°s those four days. The following week the average daily highs climbed above 100°.

When it comes to fishing unfamiliar waters, I’m a big fan of hedging my bets. While specific locations and tactics will be obfuscated in conversations with just-met fly fisherman, and stops at local shops often require filtering out hyperbole, it’s usually fellow fly fishing club members that will usually — with a caveat that certain tidbits never be shared — give the most accurate information.

That’s what led me to Calaveras Big Trees State Park to check out Beaver Creek and the North Fork of the Stanislaus River.

I’ll get the North Fork of the Stan out of the way first. I fished it later in the day and did land a few fish. It’s not my favorite type of river. It’s certainly scenic, shadowed by groves of ponderosa and sugar pines, incense cedars, white firs, mountain dogwood and, of course, giant sequoia redwoods. It looks to offer a great opportunity for rafting and I probably should reserve final judgment until there’s a chance to visit when the water is lower. But it’ not the easiest stretch of water to fish as it tumbles through truck-size boulders that mean edging a few yards downstream might entail a half-mile hike just to get around those boulders.

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Missed hatch on Beaver Creek.

Beaver Creek, however, was a reminder of why I enjoy fly fishing smaller waters; they require a more personal involvement with nature. Though it took bushwhacking to move upstream, Beaver Creek offers the intimate style of water I favor, and that certainly made any difficult terrain less of a burden. My hope was to find the wild fish I had been told about, but if they were there, they weren’t as aggressive as the stocked rainbows. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by a wild brown that nailed the humpy only seconds after it landed near a likely seam.

I fished a few other less remarkable sections of the Stanislaus, revisited Herring Creek, and wet a line in some of the ol’ regular spots. It was a good few days. And when the humpy didn’t work, one of my “confidence” flies, a stimulator of nearly any color, did.

I’m glad I went exploring when I did; it’s likely that within a month some of these creeks will be a bit too skinny.

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When it doubt, Stimulator!