fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


1 Comment

exploring before it’s all over

As if it hasn’t been a figuratively dry trout season for me, a long trip last weekend over three passes, along rivers and over two reservoirs showed that things are literally drying up…

This was my last and only second trip to the Sierras during the general trout season. It was happenstance that kept me off the water and only sheer determination — and a desperate desire for a break from every-day life — that crammed a 400-plus mile drive and not enough fishing into a single day.

Firsthand reports dashed any hope of great fishing. Small streams were trickles, meaning wild fish were off limits. State-stocked waters that normally received a few buckets of fish before the end of the season didn’t.

Another view of the sunrise from Sonora Pass.

Another view of the sunrise from Sonora Pass.

Optimism being the most overused tool in a fly fisherman’s arsenal, I still hit the road over Sonora Pass before sunup. If there were few fish to be had, at least a sunrise at 9,000 feet doesn’t disappoint. This late in the year, a sunrise seems to last longer.

Looking a bit southwest from Sonora Pass.

Looking a bit southwest from Sonora Pass.

There was unexpected company on the West Walker River, a couple planning to soak bait. They went their way, I went mine. I’d have pocket water all to myself, whitefish on the mind, and the sound of reveille arising (a bit too late in the morning this time?) from the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center.

My "office" for the morning. (West Walker River)

My “office” for the morning. (West Walker River)

Just like that “confidence fly” most fly fishermen keep tucked away, there are pieces of water one comes to expect to hold fish. My expectation held true this morning. It didn’t take long before a fish was fooled with my favorite red-butt zebra midge pattern. While not large, white tips on smooth fins suggested it was a more educated trout. Even if was a hatchery fish, it had spent enough time in the wild to learn a few things while it’s pectoral and caudal fins healed. There would be no whitefish this year and nothing big, but all of the trout I found were feisty.

This isn’t the time of year that these trout rise to dry flies, but the water level requires stealth, a dry-dropper setup, light casts to small seams and short drifts. It’s hard to disagree that this type of rig might be a reflection of my middle-of-the-road nature, mixing the oft-look’d-down-upon tactic of nymphing with the loftier technique of dry fly fishing. Deep down I hoped for a rise to the dry fly, but ice crunching underfoot suggested it was not to be.

My plans called for crossing Monitor Pass on the way to the East Carson River, then over Ebbetts Pass, and finally completing a twisting and oblong course over the man-made New Melones Lake. Unfamiliar with the route and wary of unpredictable delays, I was on the road again before noon.

Many times I’ve enjoyed driving — whether a car or motorcycle — over Tioga and Sonora passes many times, during the spring, summer and fall. Any threat of snow brings about closures, but during this trip Tioga and Sonora pass, as well as Ebbetts and Monitor pass had reopened after brief snow closures earlier in the week.

Looking west from near Monitor Pass.

Looking west from near Monitor Pass.

The landscape and vegetation of each pass is unique, with stark changes as one gains elevation. Over Monitor Pass, Highway 89 twists between and over numerous peaks, alternating between barren high desert to east and the fir and pine forests on the western slopes. Once over the summit, the road quickly descends to meet Highway 4, then crosses the East Carson River.

This was first visit to the East Carson River. The wild trout section was low and slow, and out of the shadows of the high canyon walls. Sunlight reflected off nearly every eddy, riffle and pool, and, as might be expected, the fishing was great but the catching not. It was suggested after the fact that I should have fished upstream, where a summer of stocking might mean a few stupid willing fish would remain. I chalked this visit up to exploration. Since it wasn’t too far away, I drove to Markleeville. I had to drive through town a second time; I blinked and missed it the first time through.

Colors along Highway 89, just south of the East Carson River.

Colors along Highway 89, just south of the East Carson River.

The route over Ebbetts Pass is more adventurous than the comparatively high-speed Highway 108 over Sonora Pass and Highway 120, which winds through Yosemite and over Tioga Pass.

Driving over Ebbetts Pass is not for the faint of heart. Sandwiched between a full-width, two-lane state highway is a section reminiscent of the descriptions our parents and grandparents might offer of roads built only wide enough that two Model Ts could squeeze by each other. This middle section, from Lake Alpine to Silver Creek, is a barely two-lane road. There is no center line or fog lines. Shoulders are a rarity. Steep curvy portions, precipitous drop-offs and vistas of pristine landscapes are plentiful. If the narrowness of this road isn’t enough to reduce one’s speed, the beauty was. Lack of planning meant I couldn’t linger. Plans are already afoot to return with a greater abundance of time.

Ebbetts Pass tarn.

Ebbetts Pass tarn.

The rest of my drive was in relatively civilized areas. I’d pick up apple cider outside of Arnold, then wine and special spices in Murphys. I crossed New Melones Lake, which looked more a river at flood stage (it was formed by the damming of the Stanislaus River). Back in Twain Harte early, I cleaned up and planned to attend to a few items on the to-do list, figuring I’d walk to the local Ace store for a halogen bulb and any other necessary item. During the walk I began an exploration of a different variety. More on that next time my fingers are willing to dance on the keyboard…

Leavitt Falls, late in the fall.

Leavitt Falls, late in the fall.

All of the photos, and some more:

Advertisements


1 Comment

on the progeny of planted parents (or, can a wild trout be a good substitute for its native cousin?)

There’s something wonderfully satisfying about the surprising fight-per-ounce ratio of a wild trout that is followed by a revelation of coloration more vivid than man might create. That’s doubly true when the wild fish is native.

There are purists who would dismiss the progeny of planted parents, but earlier this week, Mark Kautz raised an interesting thought about a possible decline of opportunities to catch wild trout on his Northern California Trout blog as the California Department of Fish & Wildlife’s stocking program shifts to triploid trout.

Shelving the wild vs. native fish discussion for a bit, if I can’t chase native trouts, I’m just as happy stalking their wild brethren. Wild trout are the reason I took up fly fishing. There comes a point in every fishing career that you develop an affinity for a style of fishing, or a species, and often both. It can happen unexpectedly and unconsciously.

With me it began on a little creek in the Walker River watershed, with a spinning rod and a size one spotted Panther Martin teardrop. The cookie-cutter planter rainbows are the standard fare downstream, but my recent rediscovery of the benefits of hiking a bit farther than most weekend warriors had convinced me that whacking through dense stands of cottonwood could be worth the effort.

Trout are one species that adhere to the adage that “life will find a way,” and there’s no better example that the wild fish that often can be found upstream of the ruts created by the DFW’s live-haul stocking trucks. That day it was a cast to riffles in the shade of streamside willows that introduced me to a sizeable wild trout, at least by my standards. Until then, my familiarity of trout with parr marks had been limited to fish measuring less than six inches; this one was about twelve inches long. That wild trout was my gateway fish to appreciation of native populations.

As Mark observed, it’s likely that many folks expect to stock their freezers with trout poundage with a value equal to the cost of a fishing license; perhaps by any means necessary and without knowledge of or concern about the toll on wild and/or native trout. Perhaps it’s fed by the illusion of self-sustenance, even if for only a few days each year. It’s just as likely those fish won’t be replaced as the DFW’s triploid trout — chosen in response to a legal action challenging its hatchery and stocking operations — can’t reproduce. In the long-run, this should be a good thing for California’s native fishes. (It should be noted that the California DFW hatchery system has been gearing up production of native fish for selected waters.)

Still, it’s hard not to wonder if meat fishing, especially in a state as populous as California, would decimate populations of wild fish that have gained a foothold where native fish don’t exist. Also, with California’s now minimal sustainable populations of native fish, it could eventually impact native fish without stronger enforcement of regulations. That, or we have to hope, as Mark alluded, that meat fisherman will be more inclined to drive a few miles to grab some steaks than clamber over rocks, descend into a canyon or even walk a few thousand feet upstream.

Thank you, Mark, for the thought-provoking discourse.


Leave a comment

a different type of enrichment

In my newsfeed this morning was a refreshing article about a kind of cool plan for Native Americans to take ownership of a section of land in Northern California through which flows a wild trout stream. According to the Sacramento Bee:

A group of Maidu Indians has succeeded in its quest to be named the official owner of Humbug Valley, a 2,325-acre area in Plumas County that is the last remnant of their once vast homeland still in relatively pristine condition.

The Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council unanimously recommended that the Maidu Summit Consortium hold title “in perpetuity” to the grassy meadow laced by a wild trout stream seven miles southeast of Chester.
Sacramento Bee

Nice.

I really don’t have much of an opinion on Native American gaming, but more than once, almost in the middle of nowhere, I’ve passed huge Native American casinos on my way to a trout stream. (I do hope that the parking garages are designed to capture any runoff tainted by the drippings from the Buicks, Cadillacs, Lincolns and Crown Vics.)

While I wouldn’t lump myself in with tree huggers, I am also aware of the fact that modern remediation isn’t always as successful as might be hoped. What’s encouraging is a plan to use indigenous understanding and traditional techniques to restore this land.

The Maidu will work with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop a comprehensive land management plan that includes restoration of forest and meadow habitat as well as Yellow Creek, a state-designated wild trout stream. Earlier this year, the two groups were partners in a project designed to restore wet meadows in Humbug Valley.

Charlton H. Bonham, agency director, was part of that project and has publicly endorsed Maidu ownership of the valley. Humbug Valley presents a historic opportunity to demonstrate how traditional ecological knowledge can complement the modern scientific approach brought by state agencies, he said.

I fished Yellow Creek in solitude a couple of years ago and consider it one of my best experiences on a wild trout stream. It’s an intimate creek marked by undercut banks, with numerous twists and turns that reward stealth.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.


Leave a comment

tweet


5 Comments

coyote, rattlesnake and turkey, oh my! (wild trout too.)

Sean lining up a putt on hole four at Twain Harte Miniature Golf.

Sean lining up a putt on hole four at Twain Harte Miniature Golf.

When it comes to the oldest son, the easiest way to level the playing field is to chase wild trout. While there may be some claim that genetics would ensure that he’d be at least half as good a fly fisherman as his old man, the truth is that there’s no substitute for experience.

The day after our Annual One-Day Tioga/Sonora Pass Tour, we had an agreement to take it easy, meaning no alarms. We were still up and out at a decent hour, though long after the sun had begun to warm things up. This Friday being designated a “Man Day,” our first stop was for convenience store coffee and breakfast. The day would later include miles of dirt roads, a lot of hiking, and a whole heap of fly fishing. Manly stuff indeed.

We were headed northeast to Arnold, cutting across the dry, now golden Sierra Nevada foothills once scoured by ‘49ers. We passed the time during the hour-plus drive with conversation, the usual good-natured ribbing, and a good playlist. The focus of the day was a small freestone stream rumored to be well worth the effort. It could be easily accessed through a state park.

We didn’t want easy.

After inquiring about this stream a few months back, a club member cryptically described in a hushed voice a series of left and right turns leading to a serviceable Forest Service road that eventually crossed Stream X. His tale of the wild trout that lived there was peppered with warnings of fast-moving logging trucks and rattlesnakes.

With the help of a National Forest Service map of the area, I had determined the most likely route. But there’s nothing like local knowledge. We stopped at Ebbetts Pass Sporting Goods for guidance and picked up a few flies from one of the best selections I’ve run across. Bill, owner and long-time resident who’s hunted and fished the area for some 30 years, is always willing to take the time to offer advice. (Based on our conversations, I now have a list of rarely fished and not-so-easily accessed waters.) Bill’s confirmation of our route also included some obfuscation…the first left was after a city limits sign and our destination was near the bridge.

The paved road extended farther than expected. The vegetation here was a bit greener and denser than that around the Family Cabin and a welcome change. Soon enough we were on the dirt road. Not your typical Forest Service road, rather one made more drivable thanks to constant compaction by heavy truck traffic and frequent watering.

It became clear during our pre-fishing ritual — changing into waders and checking rods — that we were in the right place at the right time. Chance would have it that I looked up just in time, over the top the car and through the trees to a bend in the creek about 50 yards away, to catch a glint that could only have been from a jumping fish. An added bonus: it was just us.

Sean was on the stream first and hooked a trout in a small pool. It was about nine inches, and coloration and big parr marks confirmed it as wild. Looking over this stream, it was clear this would be a day of pocket water. At the end of the day, about 75% of the water we’d fish was pocket water and more than 90% of our takes would be on dries.

In typical fashion, we leapfrogged past each other as we headed upstream. Sean lagged behind at one of the better shaded pools in this section. Upstream was a wide, sweeping bend. Trees provided shade on the inside. The outside of the bend must be scoured during heavy runoff, leaving a big field of rounded stones of all sizes. Tire ruts leading down to the stones were left by the logging company’s watering truck and — as evidenced by a pod of obviously stocked trout darkening the center of the bend — a DFW stocking truck. Temptation got the best of me and I got a few planters to take a big stonefly pattern. Sean had since emerged and I moved upstream, only to be halted by a fence extending through the stream and up both banks.

Returning to the bend, Sean and I agreed that, with the two other fishermen who had since arrived, it was suddenly too crowded.

A rainbow trout that's a bit bigger than expected in this small creek.

A rainbow trout that’s a bit bigger than expected in this small creek.

Nice surprise in a small creek.

During my time upstream, the driver of the watering truck had chatted up Sean. While sucking water from a beautiful stream that’s habit for wild trout is uncool, at least the driver offered up details about how to get to a more remote and less-fished section upstream. Following his recommendation, we picked our way down a less-frequented road. This isn’t your graded road, but rather a barren section of forest sprinkled with stones and crisscrossed by fallen branches. The type of road that wouldn’t necessarily require four-wheel drive, but where I would have been thankful to have a bit more ground clearance than offered by my (trusty) Accord.

It was slow going. The road meandered away from the stream and gained elevation before a fork dropped us down to a wood bridge.

Here the character of the stream changes. It’s nearly all pocket water. And skinny.

As expected, the fish were spooky. We didn’t really see the fish; we caught flashes of fast-moving shadows in the periphery of our vision. This is the kind of stream that tests one’s ability to pick out suspect water and adequately present a fly. There might be strikes on your first two drifts. After that, it was time to move on. Thankfully, there was a lot of stream available.

My first cast was to ideal pocket water behind a large boulder. Water tumbled past the boulder into a pool that while not deep, was dark enough to hide fish. That first drift netted a brilliant eight-inch rainbow. This was repeated often as we hiked upstream, with nearly every fish chasing our dry flies.

It’s likely we could’ve spent all day moving upstream. But we did have to pick up a wine club shipment in Murphys, so we headed back to try fishing downstream of the bridge. There were a few spots but it wasn’t too far before the stream enters a canyon narrow enough to encourage a solid risk/reward assessment before continuing.

A not-so-nice surprise.

A not-so-nice surprise.

Sean, who wasn’t aware of my decision, was hiking along a deer trail above the stream while I headed back upstream. There was no scream or shout, and it wasn’t until he caught up with me that I learned of the first rattlesnake sighting of the season. Sean was foolish coolheaded enough to linger long enough to take a photo.

We debated stopping to fish again on the way out but decided otherwise. Our drive back to the highway included sightings of a coyote and turkey. After a stop at Ebbetts to report on our success (suitably suppressing how excellent it really was), it was time for a post-fishing beer. Luckily, Snowshoe Brewing wasn’t more than 15 minutes away.

We completed the day picking up that wine, tasting some of that winery’s products, and grabbing decent-but-not-great burgers at a place adjoining a gas station. Music and banter continued on the drive back, with a promise to keep up the illusion that this really-not-so-secret place was our little secret.

I did outfish the boy. I also whooped him in a game of mini golf. Even so, I think he had a pretty great time.


3 Comments

restoring environmental damage, one criminal at a time

I’ve always thought that lacking a contemporary ‘Australia’ to which convicted lawbreakers might be shipped, widespread use of chain gangs might be a better answer than sending less violent criminals to prisons in which privileges once used to encourage good behavior have become expected and perhaps undeserved perks. Sure, some states charge for the cost of incarceration, but work instead of cash would be better and more direct method of repayment.

This thinking resurfaced while I watched ‘Wild Justice’ on television a few nights ago. I’m convinced that there is no risk that the poachers, idiots and outright criminals suspects shown on ‘Wild Justice’ will learn much from their televised arrests; after all, ‘COPS’ has been on the air for 23 years and still the stock answer from nearly any suspect is either “they’re not my pants” or “only a couple of beers.”

A segment showing California’s Fish & Game wardens clear out a Mendocino County marijuana ‘grow’— with an estimated street value of $28 million, cultivated by surfers and a woman who claimed to have grown disillusioned when trying to reconcile the salary she was paid as a college graduate in corporate America with the money to be earned growing ganja — was a reminder of the often overlooked environmental damage inflicted by these criminal operations. This was a particularly nasty one; a gravity fed irrigation system delivered all sorts of chemicals to the grow, ultimately trickling downhill into the local watershed.

Toxic Marijuana

In addition to 300 pounds of pesticides, the cleanup of 335 California national forest marijuana grows (note this was only in national forests) in 2010 entailed the removal of 130 tons of trash, 5 tons of fertilizer and 260 miles of irrigation piping.

Even just the illegal grading of roads into these grows and the denuding of hillsides is now seen as having an impact on salmonids equal to that caused at the height of logging in Del Norte, Humboldt, Mendocino, Trinity and Siskiyou counties. The profit margin is huge, and the lure, for a mix of growers: Mexican nationals with or without cartel or gang connections, Emerald Triangle natives growing just enough without attracting law enforcement attention, and a network of smaller growers.

Much of it is grown on national and state forest and park land, and with no cost to use the land or siphon off the water that flows there, it’s a high-margin crop made more lucrative by a distribution network that’s grown with the state law allowing limited possession of marijuana for medicinal purposes and an apparent reduction in marijuana crossing the border. (A Mendocino County-commissioned study estimated that marijuana accounts for up to two-thirds of the local economy. It’s also estimated that three quarters of the marijuana sold in the U.S. is grown in the Golden State.)

Without taking a position on either the growing or use of marijuana (or the collision of state and federal laws), I can’t help but think that the folks who wreak this environment damage — suspecting that some of the home-grown variety may be self-styled environmentalists — might be better ‘re-educated’ in cleaning up of the mess they leave behind. Besides, they’ve already built hovels in which they can be housed during the clean up. But, if they want one, they’ll have to pony up their own cash for the hazmat suit.


2 Comments

can calling it a native fish make it so? or: how you can learn to stop worrying and love the fish that eats a fly

This week, I might be stepping into quicksand. If nothing else, it’ll be entertaining for the rest of you to watch.

While a good many local anglers applauded the California Fish & Game Commission’s decision at its Feb. 2, 2012 meeting to strike down proposed changes to striped bass regulations, changes that, at the very least, would degrade the quality of a fishery that supports considerable segments of the local economy, there was a curious footnote to the proceedings.

A desire to declare striped bass, introduced from the East Coast, as a ‘native’ California species.

California Fish & Game Commission’s then-Director Daniel W. Richards summed up the issue:

Another great comment that I heard today was this issue of what is native. [California Department of Fish & Game] Director Bonham and I had great conversation just yesterday about this. We are regularly, and just several months we were being challenged with a frogs and turtles matter of non-native species…it’s controversial and there’s both sides to it, and these striped bass have been here for 130 years. At what point in time do we…and some of the analogies we gave I thought were terrific, especially when you take it down to the human level, who’s a native Californian and who’s not. I thought it was really very apropos. I mean, they’ve been here 130 years, that’s, I don’t know, what is that, that’s three or four generations I think you’d probably call that. [Striped bass] starts to be fairly native to me.

After that, then-President Jim Kellogg, after pointing out that he worked on the first pump station on the Delta (1966-’69) and saw the numbers of fish those unscreened pumps dumped into the canal announced in his last act as president:

…because nobody’s got an answer as to how this is done, or who declares it or something like that, I’m going to declare the striped bass a native species in the state of California.

Central to the proponents of the new regulations painted striped bass — asking it be considered an invasive species — as largely responsible for the decline of the state’s salmon stocks. Opponents cited striped bass’ long history in the California Delta (declared a sport fish in 1935) and its coexistence with salmon and Delta smelt over that time. (The definition of ‘coexistence’ may be considered ill-defined in the absence of any hard, long-term, historical data.)

While most will agree that these proposed changes to the striper regulations was a thinly veiled water grab, it does bring to light a conflict that can arise between native and now wild populations of introduced fish, particularly without a firm scientific understanding that can overwhelm any argument from either side of the debate. And while the predation of introduced species changes ecosystems, there’s no scientific model to predict the consequences of eliminating such a long-entrenched species.

In the short span of our lives, does ‘native’ becomes anything that was here before us? Big brown trout and competitive rainbows have so well supplanted Lahontan cutthroat trout — it and the Eagle Lake Rainbow were once the only trout in the Easter Sierra — that rarely does one hear of an angler landing a decent Lahontan, expect those in Crowley Lake and the Upper Owens River. And it’ll be a shame when Lahontan cutthroat no longer exist in California, which is likely to happen.

But it’s hard to label the non-native trout that provide us so much recreation as ‘invasive.’

In any case, might these naturally reproducing fish populations better fit a status similar to that of ‘historical (living) landmark?’ Is there an appropriate measure of time before anyone can declare an introduced species to be a ‘naturalized citizen?’ And will the difference between native and naturalized fish populations eventually become indistinguishable, legally or otherwise?

Regardless of the answers, I’ll be the one overlooking the illegal immigration status of the trout that eats my fly.


If you’re interested, the video recording of the meeting can be found here; click on the link for Feb 2, 2012 and fast forward to about 1:35:00 for the start of the striper discussion.