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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fishing, learning and getting graded by trout

When you mention stillwater nymphing to a group of fly fishermen, you can’t expect more than a quarter of the group to stick around. Certainly, it’s not for everyone. It just happens that a lake offered my most productive fly fishing day ever entre into the sport.

After the drive over Tioga Pass last month, the plan was for Willy, Bill and me to spend that Wednesday with a guide, learning the specifics and generalities of Crowley Lake. Learn we did. Catching, not so much.

The high water this year had the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power monkeying around with the lake level, which, combined with warmer-than-usual fall weather, led to heavy weed growth. Not only were weeds growing up from the bottom, algae floated on top. We’d be parking the boat over a channel created by McGee Creek in search of a literal window through which we might present our flies.

Doug would be more than our guide that day. He would be teacher and cheerleader. Questions wafted through the air with the midges. Discussions centered around the fly(ies) of the day, casting, adjusting the depth of flies, and reading the fish finder to determine boat position.

Unlike most of my experiences on Crowley, conversations went on uninterrupted. The fish were there. Willy hooked a couple of decent rainbows early in the day, but strikes were few. Bill landed a nice brown later in the day, as did I. Violating the rule about moving away from fish, we did, wetting our lines at Green Banks, near Leighton Springs and Alligator Point, only to end up back at McGee.

That learning was put to the test Thursday, when Willy and I spent the day in his boat, searching for open channels and properly positioning the boat. Eight hook ups, with one beefy brown to the net and three rainbows lost — big fish that jumped and cleared the water by a body length or more — suggested we’d done well.

Willy on a fish…

Day two entailed my learning how to launch a boat on a rather shallow ramp, and soon enough we would be on the way. Unlike the previous morning, a nice breeze rippled the water; perhaps the same breeze that pushed the top-water algae to the opposite side of the lake. It was one of those clear, crisp high Sierra mornings when the mountains seem that much closer.

Willy and I had discussed strategy while slowly cruising through the marina with a probably misguided reliance upon my previous experience — five years worth — at Crowley. We’d end up agreeing to revisit the McGee Creek channel, but with my suggestion, which had no basis in any empirical evidence, that we’d push closer to shore and fish in about 10 feet of water.

A few boats and float tubers were already in the vicinity when we both began to carefully watch the depth finder for the edges of weeds and the telltale dip of the creek channel. We crossed it a few times and when we finally anchored, it had taken longer to get into position a few feet away from the channel (so we could cast to it) than it did to make the run from the marina to our destination. We were set to cast.

I felt a bit of a dorky tingle as I locked forceps to my bottom fly — I’d seen guides do this, but never myself — and lowered it over the gunwale to gauge the depth as which to set my indicator. I nervously cast out to where we hoped to intercept cruising fish; thinking that this was a test that would be graded by the fish we landed, or didn’t.

My big shouldered brown.

As often happens on this lake, it wasn’t too long before Willy’s indicator went subsurface. Once the hook was set (and the fish obviously felt it), a big, beautiful rainbow cleared the water by a body length of at least 18 inches, if not 20, and threw the hook. Willy and I gawked at each other in disbelief. For me it wasn’t so much because Willy didn’t land the fish, but for the simple reason that this fish clearly demonstrated that we, on our own, had done something right.

Willy would hook (and lose) another big rainbow later than morning, and we’d both elicit strikes when raising our rods (and flies) to cast, with one fish hitting Willy’s fly just a few feet from the boat. There were a few other fish for me, including one huge brown…not long, but linebacker big, with shoulders and a head big enough to give me pause before reaching into the net.

It wasn’t the wide-open fishing, or even the hot and heavy fishing, that I’ve previously seen on Crowley. It’s not always a numbers game and the difference this time — a huge difference in fact — was that we did it on our own and that the fish seemed to agree that we did something right.


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it boils down to confidence in the little things

If you’re looking to build self-confidence and have taken up fly fishing, there is no shortage of instructional books, DVDs, websites and podcasts. Some folks will proclaim that things like more expensive better rods, a specific brand of fly line and the one killer fly will be the keys to a better fly fishing experience. But the best thing any angler can do is to just keep casting; confidence comes with learning to do things on your own.

Building this necessary confidence took me a while. Those who’ve seen my fishing — specifically my casting — might agree that blind confidence is a much bigger part of the equation than skill.

In casting, confidence requires first believing that you won’t piece a body part and, second, that you’ll get the fly where it needs to go.

When it comes to flies, there’s a prevalent theory that anglers gravitate toward certain flies — and hook most fish with them — because they have confidence in those flies. Confidence or lack thereof can also apply to the landing of or losing those hooked fish. My “confidence flies” are the Zebra Midge, AP Nymph and something like a Copper Chromie, but with red thread and silver wire.

Confidence in flies can be challenged again when you tie your own. The flies that work, the ones in which an angler has the most confidence, will be the ones tied most often. That certainly applies to my tying. (See the list above.)

My confidence was called into question this year, once again, when I hooked that first fish on the rod I built during the winter. My confidence grew with each fish coaxed to the net.

Soon I’ll be testing the limits of that confidence. I’ll be working with knotted leaders.

Yeah, old school stuff. There are folks who eschew modern loop-to-loop connections and extruded knotless leaders and swear by knotted leaders. In my case, I’ll be duplicating a time-tested formula used for stillwater nymphing (3 feet of 1X, 3 feet of 3X and 7 to 10-plus feet of 5X to the depth fished).

It’s my knot-tying ability that’ll be tested…in a lake where 18-inch rainbow, brown or cutthroat trout aren’t uncommon, and often one might get into a 24 incher. It doesn’t help that I have an inherent mistrust of tippet. The formula works; at least when tied by guides I’ve hired.

This time I’ll be me tying the knots, and I’d daresay that any fish I land will be well deserved.