Chalk it up to vanity or lack of maturity as a fly fisherman, but I felt the pressure on our second day to beat last year’s Eagle Lake record of 53 rainbows to the net.
We’d met our competition the guys in the other boat, a father who had gifted his son a guided trip for his birthday, and our guide reminded us that we’d fallen far short of our record the day before.
Things looked good. Scattered clouds, a bit of a breeze and the sun cresting the mountains.
Like nearly any water, the fishing on Eagle Lake can be changeable. That’s to be expected. Calm conditions will kill the bite. A weak breeze that morning put the burden on Don and I to make the most of every strike. We did, but it was a slow start. Atypically, the fish were smaller. It seems as if the big fish had moved off The Mesa during the night, to be replaced by youngsters. (Thankfully, the smallest fish of the day — an eight incher — was landed by Doug, our guide.)
Every time Don would hook a fish, I’d wait. I’ve learned to never recast if my partner just had a strike. More often than not, leaving flies in the water would lead to a double hook up. The proof’s in the video below, courtesy one of small cameras mounted on Don’s hat.
After noon, both guide boats were side by side. Our of the corner of our eyes, we’d all watch for the sudden jerk of a hookset and watch anxiously to see if a fish made it to the net. Don and I were one fish behind our competition.
It boiled down to making the hookset. And we did.
It wasn’t a day of huge fish. It also took some work — twitching the fly here and there, mending and casting to transitions — but the fish were passing by often enough to ensure regular hook ups. Our lead was extended, fish by fish.
In the end, we’d come within touching distance of our record, with 52 fish for the day.
By the end of that day, we were tired. Not tired of catching fish, but our hands and wrists and forearms ached. The sun had exacted its toll. I faced a long drive home. But all was good. It was a great time. It always is at Eagle.
It’s the kind of fishing that feels illegal, immoral and just plain wrong, but so good that you hope the semi-remote location will keep all but most motivated anglers from visiting.
For a second year, fishing buddy Don and I made the trek to Eagle Lake last weekend. Last year we had done so Father’s Day weekend, just as a huge caddis hatch was coming off. Arriving a week earlier this year, we saw only the beginning of the hatch. Regardless of our timing, it was certain that fishing would be good, the catching great, and, now it seems, that I’d pull an annual bonehead move.
For me the trip’s about 270 miles, really not too far, but the last 128 miles of a narrow two-lane state highway twists and turns through canyons. Whatever mapping application or GPS you use will indicate it’ll take roughly five hours driving time, but the nature of those last hundred miles will add just under an hour. The driving is so slow it’s common for folks to get a bit lost thinking they’ve passed the turnoff for Spalding when it’s still miles up the road.
A little sample of Sierra Nevada Brewery's Ovila Dubbel and California Common. Both great.
Last year I drove straight through, which made for a tough haul. This year I heeded the adage of setting short, obtainable goals. Luckily enough, the Sierra Nevada brewery in Chico is about midway between home and the Eagle Lake, and without pushing it, I could arrive just in time for the tour at noon.
Whether or not you’re a fan of Sierra Nevada beers, the hour-long tour’s well worth a stop. Along the tour are offers to taste the toasted malted barley and wort, which tastes of Grape Nuts with a sweetness so strong it implies instant cavities, and a chance to rub and smell whole-cone hops. The history of the brewery is a large part of the tour, and it’s eco-friendliness is dumbfounding.
Good food and beer go hand in hand with fishing, there was no slouching on my part. The Sierra Nevada Brewery Restaurant has some great grub — steaks and burgers from the brewery’s spent-grain-fed 50 head of cattle — and flights of all beers on tap, many of which can’t be found elsewhere. Driving by myself, I asked for a couple of tastes: California Common and Ovila Dubbel. Both were tasty, and the California Common, a recipe created in last year’s beer camp with yeast native to the Golden State, seemed to have a little bit of that unique sourness found in San Francisco sourdough bread. (And personal kudos to Sierra Nevada as I wasn’t charged for the two small tastes.)
Eagle Lake is in the far northeastern corner of California, about 40 miles from the Nevada border and 90 miles from the Oregon border. The nearest town, Susanville, has been called “Prison Town, USA,” as about 40% of its 18,000 residents are housed at the High Desert State Prison and the California Correctional Facility, were actor Danny Trejo served time.
About 20 miles out of Chico, State Highway 32 winds through high desert and scrub to climb into a denser evergreen forest. The highway crosses Deer Creek numerous times and though the water was high, a few fly fishermen were wading in the slower sections. The town of Chester marks the beginning of the last, tortuously slow leg of the drive toward Spalding, which hugs the northeastern edge of Eagle Lake.
There’s not much cell phone coverage after leaving Chico, so it wasn’t until I pulled into Chester that a text message from Don popped up, letting me know he was in Susanville. I acknowledged his message with my location, to get a reply that he had just talked with our guide, Doug, who said the bite had been excellent. I trust Doug well enough that the thought didn’t even cross my mind that he might be setting us up for the big “you should’ve been here yesterday.”
Lunch was big, so dinner that night was a single grilled cheese sandwich and a beer, enjoyed in view of the lake, its water slowly darkening as the embers of a setting sun touched the tips of the surrounding mountains.
Never a Dull Moment
To be clear, I’m usually adequately prepared when it comes to fishing. But there’s something about the prospect of big Eagle Lake rainbows that seems to scramble my brain. Last year I lost track of my fishing license, something guides tend to require clients have in their possession.
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Don on the chilly morning ride to "The Mesa."
This year it was the same but different. As I hoisted my backpack to my shoulder, a pocket I had left that unzipped itself allowed my wallet to be flung to parts unknown. A quick scan of the ground revealed nothing. Thinking it might have fallen out back at camp I told Don and rushed off, thankful that I had arrived at the marina 20 minutes early. Not finding my wallet, I shoved any worries about it to the back of my mind. But confirming my choice in fishing buddies, Don was waiting in the boat with the first big catch of the day…my wallet. Finally I could enjoy a morning that hinted at good weather and gave rise to great expectations. The sky was peppered with white clouds that suggested changeable weather; good news if it brought a welcome breeze to the lake’s surface.
Anglers have been taking fish from the lake since Memorial Day, but as is the case with Eagle Lake, the trout population can make for stupid, silly catching much of the time. It’s a simple matter of being there on the bite with the right flies at the right depths in the right location. Doug has his favorite spots and our first stop was cryptically referred to as “The Mesa.” After positioning and anchoring the boat based on the wind, currents and structure, casts were made and indicators watched.
No matter one’s thoughts on stillwater nymphing, it demands decent casting as well as the mental stamina to discern the exact moment at which to set the hook. Casting two nymphs, split shot and an indicator isn’t elegant, but requires a certain skill to prevent incidental ear piercing.
Those who decry indicators often imply they make fly fishing too easy. But throw out 40 feet of fly line and put 10 feet of leader below an indicator, and it’s not that easy. One has to maintain constant vigilance, watching for the subtle difference between a “drive by” and an actual strike. A strike doesn’t always bury the indicator under water and often isn’t convenient. One learns to pause and pay close attention in those short moments after a twitch or line mends. It can be tough. I’ve heard of one experience fly fisher who went oh-for-eleven on solid strikes during the early morning bite.
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Don and his first-day big Eagle Lake Rainbow.
Don’s the kind of fishing buddy who will quietly sneak up on his partner when it comes to the “body count.” He’s also a great team player. We both bring experience to the lake, and guide Doug was impressed that Don and I as a team achieved an estimated successful hookset percentage north of 95% on Sunday. For our two days on the lake that figure was likely north of 90%.
As I’ve implied, great fishing can be anticipated on Eagle Lake. One guide is fond of saying that double hookups can be expected and triples are common. Even new fly fishers can often look back upon a day of 20-plus fish to the net. Many are in the 14- to 18-inch range; some edge above 18 inches. Given enough good hooksets, a few closer to 20 inches will make it to the boat. The larger fish will bulldog towards the bottom, while smaller fish will fool you with vicious head shakes and long runs, sometimes into the backing. If you’re lucky enough, as Don and I were, you’ll land a few native fish that are beautiful enough to compare favorably with Alaska’s famed leopard-spotted rainbows.
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My biggest Eagle Lake Rainbow – over 22 inches.
There are the Big Fish. During the morning of our first day, Don and I brought a couple in the 22-inch neighborhood to the net. It’s a different challenge to bring these big dogs in; they’re strong and tend to seek the darkness under the boat. Some will even clear the water after that first sting of the hook, as if to intimidate the funny-looking hairy beast on the other end of the line.
The fishing started off strong that first morning with the kind of rapid-fire hookups that give rise to concerns that the bite will taper into nothingness by noon. But this was Eagle Lake, and with some patience and dialing in the aforementioned flies, depth and location, one can expect steady action. Sometimes slower, sometimes not.
Forty-two fish made it to the boat that day. Eleven short of our record last year; but things looked promising for day two. Little did I know how tough it might be.