As part of a “gift of experiences” to my brother we found ourselves in Anacortes, Wash., accompanied by his friend Eric, just after sunup. The plan was to spend the day chasing lingcod. While the fishing was sporadic, we did land a number of rock fish (no take allowed), two lingcod that were too small, and lost at least one big lingcod. The pictures really tell the story of a day not wasted on a beautiful day in the splendor of the San Juan Islands.
There’s a mental fortitude required to sit down and whip out a couple dozen flies, knowing that too many won’t return to my fly box.
My attrition rate for dry flies is much lower than that of sub-surface flies. Dry flies have an affinity for shrubbery and tree branches but nymphing necessitates aggressiveness. As the adage goes, “If you’re not snagging bottom every once and a while, you’re not fishing deep enough.” Striking at any and all tics and twitches guarantees a strong hook-set in every stick and rock.
Depending on the stream or river, losing at least three flies a day can be expected. But this loss of sub-surface flies – and the hooking of more fish – is the only proof you’re getting nymphs deep enough.
There’s no proof that I’m saving much money tying my own flies. Materials aren’t too expensive, and except for thread and hooks, most of my materials were given to me from other fly tiers, either excess materials or those no longer used because they’ve moved on to something better. But recovery of the initial investment in a vise and the cost of hooks would require I fish more often.
It could be worse. Innumerable blogs and articles will tell you of the advantages to tying flies rather than buying them. Building durability into flies is cited as one big benefit, all it takes is more head cement (more dollars). One suggests using Kevlar thread (more dollars). Or better hooks (more dollars).
The biggest benefit to tying my own flies is the ability to create or duplicate any pattern, specifically those not available in the fly shops near home or on the road. It’s a good guess that all fly tiers have created their own variation of traditional patterns; one of mine is my “confidence” nymphs, a Red-Butt Zebra Midge. A simple pattern inspired by other, more complex, patterns more commonly used in lakes in British Columbia. But it’s often deadly on many streams on the east and west slopes of the central Sierra Nevada.
My flies won’t win a beauty contest, but it’s only the trout’s opinion that matters.
I held it off as best I could, tried to put some of my favorite waters out of my mind. In the end it was hope, more than gasoline, that propelled me over Sonora Pass a couple of weeks ago.
Over the years I’ve spent many days walking the banks of babbling creeks in the Eastern Sierras. The first to give up wild trout – Molybdenite Creek and Little Walker River – top my list. This is where I landed by first sizable wild rainbow trout.
I can’t think of these places and others like them without an intensifying need to return. These are familiar places become less so if not visited every year. Often it’s the memory that fades. Sometimes nature exerts its will on the landscape.
It was clear that this would be the first year in a while that runoff from more abundant – but still not plentiful – snowpack would make many rivers and streams unfishable. But a limited amount of vacation time, and hope, were enough of an excuse to make the trip.
I came in from the west across Sonora Pass, early enough that morning to be alone for the 20 miles between Kennedy Meadows and the Pickel Meadow Wildlife Area. It’s a serpentine road that demands attention, a ribbon of relatively new asphalt that twists and turns, rising through stands of pines to wind-scoured fields of granite before dropping into the starkness of the Eastern Sierra.
Six miles beyond the Sonora Pass summit but before my descent into Pickel Meadows, Hanging Valley Ridge comes into view. The morning sun is still low and the ridge still casts a shadow over much of the meadow. From my vista point, distance masked any audible anger, but the torrent of water working itself into a lather over Leavitt Falls offered a clue as to the difficulty to come.
The first glimpse of the West Walker River was both encouraging and discouraging. It was good to see high waters scouring the river bed and suggesting good summer fishing to come. It also hinted that there’d be little fishing and likely no catching in any of the Walker watershed’s moving waters.
This day there would be more hiking, exploring and simply being in the mountains. Contrary to the anger on display as water crashes against rocks, the sound is soothing. Delicate flowers sway in winds that predictably funnel through most mountain canyons.
It was a day without fishing, but not wasted.
At the recommendation of my brother, I picked up a copy of Scott Adams’ “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big” about a week ago. Yes, it’s an actual book with words printed on pages. Adams is the creator of the Dilbert cartoon.
I’d usually dismiss this type of book. Too often advice or self-improvement books reflect on an author’s early years, that period of time when one can afford to fail, eat broke food and sleep on a friend’s sofa.
One of the precepts presented early in Adams’ book is the idea of adopting “systems” as opposed to focusing on goals. The argument is that “…goals are a reach-it-and-be-done situation, whereas a system is something you do on a regular basis… Systems have no deadlines, and on any given day you probably can’t tell if they’re moving you in the right direction.”
It’d be absurd to suggest I have a fly fishing ‘style.’ I do have a system. All fishermen do, whether dunking worms, chucking hardware or casting flies.
Whatever the form of fly fishing, it’s a system that counts on a systematic approach. Tenkara requires a specific simple fly fishing system – consisting of a rod, level line (nylon, monofilament or fluorocarbon) and a fly – while a classical fly fishing system adds a reel and a tapered fly line made of PVC, vinyl, polyurethane or other similar materials.
When it comes to getting on or in the water, every fly fisher has an approach, a system. Oh, we like to claim we can adapt to changing conditions – and we can – but that adaptation is part of a system, whether entrenched in the scientific study of entomology or simply successes or failures of past fishing excursions.
Reading “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big” got me to thinking about the evolution of my system.
In the early years of my fly fishing career, I focused on out-fishing everyone around me. My brother tends to try to quantify various aspects of life, and he observed after I took him on his first real fly fishing experience that even he, with limited skills and even less technique, was hooking about three fish to every one brought in by the bait and hardware anglers within view. Full disclosure: I took a little evil pleasure in catching and releasing enough fish to make the meat fishers almost livid, particularly when I slipped fat fish back into the water. I sort of still do.
Numbers offer an easy measurement of how much one wins. However – and there’s no pinpointing when it happened – somewhere along the line my idea of “winning” shifted to a competition between myself and the fish. A new system, if you will; one that wasn’t aimed at landing a fish. This one focused on an internal challenge: becoming a better fly fisher. Milestones – not a goals – marked by fooling a fish. Often a specific fish…that one that no one else could tempt.
Without a deadline, without a focus on an end goal, the greater reward is the experience and the milestones along the way. Here’s hoping that this season there will be more experiences and milestones.
What’s your system?
Our days were measured by trout caught, bears seen and miles hiked; nights by stars and the embers of a campfire. During those summers we’d rarely see a familiar face, but the place seemed unchanging. We grew a lot during those short visits, climbing granite domes, hiking trails commonly rising 1,000 feet in less than five miles, floating in a river that only a few miles earlier was born of snowmelt.
I was reminded that Tuolumne Meadows was our vacation “home” last week when I posted a photo of my brother and me with a trophy high-country trout, back when our fishing was more about self-sufficiency and every fish ended up in a pan surrounded by bacon. Mornings my brother, sister and I would hike to Soda Springs to capture the naturally carbonated water – and bits of minerals I’m sure – our mother would gently blend with pancake mix to make some of the puffiest pancakes in the world.
Our visits to Tuolumne Meadows were more adventure than vacation. Stories of our exploits of those summers come up frequently: The poor decision to slide down the granite face of Lembert Dome as the sun set. The bear that followed us back to camp after a long day hike. My sister’s discovery that fish were living beings while ironically still fishing but refusing to eat our catch. On tougher hikes, mom’s constant encouragement to discover what might be around the next bend.
It wouldn’t be out of place to say that Tuolumne Meadows, a less visited part of Yosemite National Park, helped form the person I am today. I’ve since returned to Tuolumne Meadows, one time fishing there with my sons, another time hiking up Lembert Dome with my brother and one son. Nature seems to ignore us humans; the changes over the last three decades are entirely ours.
I’ve been lucky enough to have visited Death Valley, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Lassen, Redwood and Mt. St. Helen national parks. Many national monuments, recreation areas and historic sites as well: Alcatraz Island, John Muir National Historic Site, Point Reyes National Seashore, Muir Woods National Monument, Cabrillo National Monument, Fort Point National Historic Site and Golden Gate Recreation Area.
The national park system is America’s Best Idea. Next week is National Park Week. Every national park will offer free admission from April 16th through the 24th. If you can, get to one and #FindYourPark.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”
― John Muir, Our National Parks
The second day of my Memorial Day trip was undecided until I rolled out of bed that morning. A lot of the time, my angling is a solo affair. There was initial hope that Sean might join me — hitting the high country together is nearly an annual affair — but as happens with kids, they get jobs, take on other responsibilities and interests, and simply can’t always get away. Funny how that works: just as a parent gains a bit more freedom, children tend to lose theirs.
A lack of soreness from the previous day’s hiking encouraged the consideration of another adventure, this time one that would harken back to the adventures of the younger me. During the family vacations in Tuolumne Meadows, we’d often hear about the trail along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, but a trail I can’t recall ever hiking.
Lingering was nice that morning, but the trail head was about two and a half hours away. I’m pretty practiced at whipping together a lunch and getting the gear ready. The previous day had shown that my Orvis day pack would serve me well, and with only one rod, the other rod pocket kept a water bottle handy. I was on the road about 7:00 a.m. That’s late for me, but today wasn’t to be rushed.
Having traveled the route so many times, it could be said that I’m able to make the drive to Tuolumne Meadows with my eyes closed. But that would be a waste. Though I know what’s around that next corner, each visit offers a new revelation. The Sierra Nevada was called the Range of Light by John Muir for a reason; every view changes, depending upon the season and time of day.
Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of the camping season, but campsites in Tuolumne Meadows are usually still covered in snow or flooded by snowmelt. There was still traffic, mostly comprised of rock climbers itching for that first touch of that unique Sierra Nevada granite, and sprinkled with the usual sightseers passing through on their way to the valley.
I pulled into the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center just before ten. A line of hopeful backpackers wound around the building, but parking was easy to find. Pack secured and confirming I had the proper map, I hit the trail a few minutes later.
The trail was both familiar and unknown. Many high Sierra trails must look the same at the onset. About a mile along, landmarks revealed this was new ground. There were the rusted steel signs pointing to various destinations, the two bridges that lead to the opposite side of the Lyell Fork, and the river itself, meandering through meadows and twisting through and over the batholith that forms the core of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
This is the type of country that refreshes the soul.
After a mile, I was alone on the trail. The hike was easier than expected. I was inclined to chalk that up to hard-won improvements in my physical fitness — particularly with a trailhead elevation of 8,600 feet — but later determined that the elevation gain was less than 500 feet. Roughly two miles in I left the trail to follow the course of the river. It wasn’t easy. Down trees, boulders and the Lyell’s long elbows required numerous detours.
About four miles along I came to a narrow canyon. Continuing up river would require a long detour. But I had started a bit late, and daylight can be precious when in the wild.
I rigged up the 3 wt. rod and began that slow walk downstream, presenting my fly to suspect water. The river was high, limiting where a cast could be made without immediate drag.
This is the type of country and the type of fish where stealth pays off. I spooked fish with every step. Where possible, I’d cast four or five feet from the bank, with only a few rises to show for it.
The course of many high Sierra rivers is dictated by huge granite outcroppings, creating pools. In midsummer these pools attract swimmers, but this early in the season it was still too cold for such nonsense. I found one such monolith that directed the Lyell Fork almost ninety degrees from its course, creating a deep pool that offered a feeding lane and overhead protection. Up against the granite was slack water, from which decent sized brook trout would intermittently rocket to the surface.
I tend to avoid putting myself in position to hook a fish without an easy way to bring them to the net. A fishless morning, however, changed my outlook. Moving away from the water and giving the fish a wide berth, I quietly and slowly crept to the top of the outcropping. Carefully peeking over the edge, I could see about half a dozen trout about fifteen feet below. Counting on the height to conceal any false casts, I laid a stimulator in the seam that would funnel insects to the trout. A fish rose, inspected my fly, and dismissed it. That was the pattern on subsequent casts.
Offering a break for both myself and the fish, I sat down to tie on an Elk Hair Caddis. That’s all it took. A nice-sized brook trout nailed it and went wild. It jumped like a rainbow and shook its head like a salmon. My excitement began to change to panic with the realization that there was about twenty feet of line between me and the fish and that I had to lead it thirty feet to my right if there was any hope of getting it to the net. It was a thrilling fight for all of about forty seconds, and I did get a good look at what could’ve been about twelve inches of healthy Salvelinus fontinalis before a not-so-long distance release.
The tug of that fish — and the fact that I once again was able to fool a wild fish (an accomplishment that continues to amaze me) — made the day seem brighter. I wandered downstream a bit, trying to sneak up on fish in the meadows, and after a few hits but nothing solid, I sat down in the world’s best dining room for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
I met more people on the hike out, followed a marmot for a few hundred yards and lingered here and there. It was another day of personal accomplishment. No knee brace was required and my breathing wasn’t labored like it was last year.
Now, I hope to get back when the water’s lower and the fish hungrier.
My family spent many summer vacations in Tuolumne Meadows. These trips were a family affair and in the interest of keeping everyone engaged, it was more than fishing. We’d spend the days hiking to higher elevations — the campground was at 8,600 feet — and sometimes we’d end up at nearly 10,000 feet. Mepps spinners would be cast into water along the trail and sometimes the destination was a lake where fishing was rumored to be amazing. Mom would keep the troops focused by wondering out loud about what might be around the next bend. My brother and sister and I would spend countless hours exploring the banks of the Tuolumne River, watching the occasional bear that wandered into the campground, and waiting for the rare treat of visiting the campground store, where we’d get to pick one comic book and maybe enjoy an ice cream.
Idealization taints memories but, for me, the Sierra Nevada high country has always lived up to my recollection. That’s what fueled the rest of my plan for Memorial Day Weekend 2014.
First-hand reports made it clear that water would be high in the Walker River Basin. But I had a plan that tied into two keywords in my last post: “maturity” and “adventure.” Not to get too personal, but I’m no spring
chicken rooster, and for more than five years I’ve worn a compression brace on my right knee. Years ago, while carrying a bag of cement on my shoulder, I stepped into an unseen depression, twisted my knee and fell to the ground. I was young then, so shook it off. It was only years later that I began to feel a bit of pain after long walks. This year I finally got out of my rocker to walk every day. Not Forrest Gump style, but about five miles a day. That, in combination with weight loss, has eliminated the need for the brace.
Cautiously optimistic, in planning for this trip I had decided to walk up the Little Walker River, hoping this would rekindle my enjoyment of high country hikes. I enjoy fishing this creek’s small water, though most of my experience had been limited to the stretch through and downstream of the campground. Sticking to my plan, I ignored warnings of high and muddy water. The drive over Sonora Pass would take about two hours, but it’s one drive that’s always enjoyable as the terrain changes with the elevation and, particularly this time of year, snow still dusts the pass. This day the drive was even more pleasant; being a weekday I saw only four cars at lower elevations, and no one above 6,000 feet.
The section of Hwy 108 between Twain Harte and the junction with Hwy 395 rarely runs straight. It’s a good road and relatively fast considering the twists and turns. On the eastside, after beginning a descent into the high desert, there are at least four severe hairpin turns. It seems that every year I either run into a cattle drive on the highway or a semi-trailer truck stuck at a hairpin. This year it was another truck. I waited about 10 minutes as the driver unsuccessfully tried to free the drive wheels, which had sunk in the loose dirt on the inside of the turn, before walking up to ask if it would be okay to try to drive around on the shoulder. He helped me move a few big rocks. After getting past, I was talking with the driver, emphasizing that this hairpin was only the first, when assistance arrived in the form of a Ford Police Interceptor Utility in California Highway Patrol colors.
The longest part of this drive always seems to be the three or so miles down a washboard dirt road to the Obsidian Campground in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. It’s not a bad drive, and was made nicer this year by a late-season storm that dropped enough rain to keep the dust down. Best of all: I was the only person there.
I began hiking where a bridge crosses the Little Walker. Topographical maps showed a nearby trail, but that trail would only appear intermittently during my hike. This part of the river flows through a narrow canyon, and since my preferred tactic is to hike as far up as possible and return by slowly fish downstream, I headed for high ground. This is terrain marked by small and rounded granite cobbles, perhaps glacial debris, sandy loams and decomposed granite. Willow and quaking aspen grow along the creek, replaced by conifers and mountain hemlock, which tolerate a drier environment. Hiking was relatively easy. There’s not much underbrush and the only hurdles — literally — were the many downed trees.
After about an hour I emerged from the canyon to find the wide-open expanse of Burt Canyon. Here the Little Walker meanders through stands of willows. The mountains that looked so far away when I started at about 7,400 feet seemed to be within reach. That was clearly an optical illusion as I was at about 8,600 feet and those mountains scraped the sky. The hiking was easy here and I continued on for about another hour.
I find solitude to be refreshing, so I pulled up a boulder and sat. Handfuls of raisins fed my body. The silence of the mountains, the sound of birds and gurgling water, and the unfathomable history of this place, fed my mind and soul. It was as if I was one of only few humans to pass this way.
Shaking off such romanticism, I rigged up the 3 wt. rod. This is the type of water that begs for a dry fly, with the usual small dropper. I fished suspect water, sneaking through willows as best I could, but apparently not well enough. I re-entered the narrow canyon of the Little Walker River with only a single rise so far.
It took a combination of hiking, climbing and crawling to follow the course of the creek, which wound around boulders, under fallen trees, sometimes cascading ten feet. The water was indeed high. Side arm casting, parallel to the creek was the best option. The fish were there, and a few rose to my fly, but none with enough an appetite to bite. If you fish, you know that there are those special spots that you know must hold fish. During high water flows, those locations change, and observation is the name of the game.
I had taken to hiking above the narrowest sections of the canyon and noticed one such spot. A large boulder was forcing the creek to bend almost ninety degrees, so that even at high flows, a pool was created. A large pine offered shade and security.
Hugging the conifer to hide my profile, my first cast fell into place and the fly slipped along a seam. I let it flow around the boulder until out of sight but before my fly line could spook any fish higher up in the pool. On the third or fourth cast a fish slammed the dry. This wasn’t a long pool, so the fish was resigned to head shaking and circling, but it did stress my little rod. I hadn’t expected to find a thirteen-inch holdover rainbow, but that’s what I was looking at in the net. That pool gave up a few more small fish, wild rainbow and brook trout of no more than eight inches, before I moved on.
Confident these fish could be fooled, it was time to stop for lunch in a small meadow passed on the hike upstream. The entrée was a jelly sandwich — I forgot to buy peanut butter at Twain Harte Market — accompanied by pretzels and raisins for dessert. During this repast, telltale rises in a slow bend caught my attention.
Lunch finished, I crept up to the edge of the creek. I made my first casts while still a few feet away; the high water had fish hugging the banks. The fish landed was a bright wild rainbow. A cast to the far bank brought up a couple of brilliantly colored brook trout. Feeling accomplished, I started to hike back to the car.
The bridge where I had parked came into sight, and below another fly fisherman, dappling a small pool. In short order he had hooked a big hatchery rainbow. His problem was getting it in the net. The pool was at the limit of the reach of his 5 wt., maybe nine feet, and the skinny water in this wide spot of the creek meant the rod often had to manage the full weight of the struggling fish. It wasn’t until I was on the bridge and ready to render aid, that he had the fish in the net. We chatted briefly before he headed off to clean his lunch.
That morning, in my focus on the adventure ahead, I hadn’t taken a good look at the water around this bridge. Now I could see that, directly underneath, it offered some interesting water. I clambered down. Fish hit my flies cast after cast. The hatchery rainbows were numerous and hooking one was a non-event. It was the occasional brook trout that made it fun. The challenge was getting my flies past the rainbows at the top of the run so the brookies at the bottom could get a look. I’m not complaining about having a chance at numerous fish, but I had come here for the wild ones.
On my way to the Little Walker, a quick look at the West Walker revealed it was running high, but clear. Knowing that time was limited if I was to get back over the pass before dark, I packed up and headed to Pickel Meadow. During the regular season the Pickel Meadow dirt parking lot would have half a dozen cars in it. This early in the season there were only two cars and three fly fisherman.
They had been fishing all morning and had found fish stacked up in a few bends. High-stick nymphing had worked best. And clearly, these guys have a more class than I; they were setting up a table and chairs for lunch, with all the fixin’s for Dagwood sandwiches. They also gave me explicit directions on how to get to the best spots (walk to the second willow and cast downstream) and told me to have at ‘em.
Perhaps it was laziness, but I decided to stick with a dry dropper. The fish were easy to spot, and I’m sure I was from their point of view, so I tried to hide behind a third willow while casting upstream. Helped by a twelve-foot leader, good drifts prompted rises to the dry fly. Proving that hatchery fish tend to be dumber, I had landed almost a dozen in less than an hour.
About then, one of the gentlemen from the parking lot walked up and asked what I was doing to hook so many fish. He was new to fly fishing, but enjoying it so far. We talked tactics and I again found myself in the role of teacher. I shared some flies with him and recommended other nearby waters. Then it was time to head back to the cabin.
It’s taken me seven-plus years to take “catching” out of the equation of fishing. Now I’m able to hike, if not with the energy of my teenage self, at least without getting (too) winded or an aching knee.