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.
Moon Over the Little Walker River
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.
Sonora Pass with more snow than last year. Still not enough.
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.
See the path, right there?
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.
Sonora Pass with more snow than last year. Still not enough.
Looking out to the West Walker River from the Leavitt Falls overlook.
I’d never thought of myself as a fair-weather fisherman until last month. The truth is that the timing of my fishing trips — most of which take place within a few hours drive of our cabin in the Sierra foothills — is more often dictated by the level of water and the appetites of the trout in it. There are plenty of sources for information that will give you an idea of what might be expected when you get where you’re going, but usually doesn’t match up with the reality of being there.
Last month I had left the cabin on an outing that began like any other early-morning trip over Sonora Pass. I left before sunrise, the roads were vacant and it was about 40 degrees F. The general idea was to visit previously unvisited areas of a nearby watershed, with no specific plan in mind.
The elevation of the cabin is about 3,600 feet, where autumn is generally makes its presence known in a pleasant manner. Leaves are beginning to change and there’s a nip in the air. Short sleeves are still comfortable most of the now shorter daylight hours.
The temperature fell as I began to climb toward the pass, and blotches of yellows and reds more frequently peeked out from behind the evergreens. By the time I arrived at Kennedy Meadows (elevation 6,700 feet), it was about half an hour past sunrise, but in the shadows of this piñon-juniper forest, it was 27 degrees. In 10 more miles I climbed another 3,000 feet, emerged from the tree line, and the temperature would rise about 25 degrees.
I have a fondness for the high country — because its beauty is one of stark contrasts, in some ways harsh but fragile in others, with dwarfed pines scrapping out an existence against a background of granite — and this dramatic variation in temperatures is one of the most observable influences on that beauty. The simple expansion of water as it becomes ice slowly breaks down granite. The melting of that ice, and snow, as well as a general weathering of the landscape, breaks that granite into pieces that, through weather and the activities of insects and animals, can be mixed with decomposed plant matter to create a thin and rocky soil. It’s truly amazing that such infertile soil supports numerous conifers of all shapes and sizes.
The descent on the east side of the mountains leads down to the high desert, where desolation of this shrubland is interrupted by strings of trees, usually aspens in the canyons and pines elsewhere, following the course of the rivers and streams of the Walker watershed. The sun gathers strength here, but this morning its power would be contested by a layer of cold air that had established a foothold during the night.
River-side ice at 26 degrees that morning.
There’s always that time, between emerging from the artificial environmental cocoon of a vehicle and before the cold really starts to bite, that the air temperature never seems that cold. When I pulled alongside likely looking water, it was 26 degrees. I had given serious consideration to the idea it would be chilly, but now worried I hadn’t considered it seriously enough.
So with the thought that I had come too far and retreat wasn’t an option, I began the layering that I hoped would suffice. This was comprised of fleece pants under the waders, a wind-proof wading jacket over a fleece sweatshirt that was on top of my long sleeve shirt, and a well-worn, wide-brim canvas hat. Later I’d realize that my fingerless fishing gloves would have been a welcome addition.
As long as I kept moving, I avoided the long shadows that persisted as the sun hung low along its autumnal path. The water was 58 degrees, at the low end at which trout will be active, so I didn’t linger too long in one spot and moved frequently to cover as much water as possible.
This was an entirely new experience. My breath hung in the air, lingering as puffs of white. Skim ice crunched underfoot. My guides iced up within fifteen minutes. It was cold. So cold that I almost — almost — hoped that wouldn’t have to plunge my hand into the water to unhook a fish.
I would leave this first spot about an hour later, skunked but feeling that for that brief time, more than ever, that I couldn’t escape being part of nature.
Last week in a nutshell: Trout weren’t caught where expected; a good many others landed where only a few were caught before. One river was frustrating; another too low; one just right. Fellow fly fishermen were met and their company enjoyed on the water.
Some folks won’t understand the almost 200 miles traveled to catch and release the trout I finally found. But a quiet sense of urgency seems to settles in after the summer solstice, an urgency that leads to miles of driving before sunup.
With water in many Sierra rivers, creeks and streams low this year, this urgency demanded a trip, however quick, to the Walker River Basin. It’s a watershed I’ve visited less than I should, considering the beauty of the country traveled distracts from the time it takes to get there. Breakfast is light and handy, the air cold and crisp as I crest the Sonora Pass. Horizon-to-horizon cloud cover dulls the day.
Morning commute traffic means something entirely different here. Before reaching the high desert of the Eastern Sierras, the two lanes of Hwy 108 winds through forests of pines and aspens near the Leavitt Meadow Campground, and though its twists and turns demand slower speeds, both lanes are usually vacant. But not this morning.
Thanks were muttered to the mechanic who last worked on my brakes as a cowboy sidled alongside to suggest it best that I pull to the side of the road and wait. I did and prayed just a little as a herd of cattle gave me the close up and personal experience I never wished to have, as well as one of those encounters that makes a journey all the more memorable.
A few miles more and two hours after my departure, an internal debate of where to fish the East Walker River was quickly settled by the absence of vehicles near the “miracle mile.” After a few wrong turns (caution is warranted driving a sedan on these dirt turnoffs), it was time to gear up. A lack of competition other fishermen tends to eliminate a subconscious desire to rush this process, and I stood there looking like a sausage standing on end while wishing another angler “Good morning.”
The single East Walker brown that came out to play…and on a red-butt zebra midge tied by yours truly.
His accented response was explained in the resulting conversation. He was visiting from France, working his way up the Sierras, and with admiration in his voice told me he enjoyed a quite a time on Hot Creek the day before. We talked techniques, and in a bit of name dropping I mentioned that three-time French Fly Fishing World Champion Pascal Cognard had recently spoken at a club meeting. (The French team has been ranked #1 by the International Fly-Fishing Federation for a number of recent years.) I mangled Pascal’s last name but once it was clear I was talking about competitive fly fishing and who I talking about, my new friend told me that he had competed against Pascal. Small world.
We spent a bit of time within sight of each other and I spent time watching his strategy. That French nymphing brought the first fish to the net within half an hour before I wandered downstream.
The East Walker has become my nemesis. It’s never not given up a fish and admittedly I haven’t spent much time fishing it. This day I poked and prodded likely pools, riffles and runs, with only one small brown to show for four hours of effort. Hungry and a bit frustrated, it was time to retrace my route, with stops at the Little Walker and West Walker rivers.
Though “little” is in its name, the Little Walker was too low for my tastes since I was hoping to fish stretches holding the wild trout that live there. It was back down another dirt road to the highway.
Rewarded will be a nice cast to within a foot or so of this bank on the West Walker…
The idea of unknown possibilities kept at bay a creeping despondency that was nourished by the still overcast sky, an unwetted net and the aches that come with age exertion. The West Walker is typical of the rivers in the Eastern Sierra…you might miss it if you didn’t know it was there. It winds through high desert terrain, below banks that conceal its course. Parking the car alongside the handful of trucks emblazoned with one military insignia/motto or another, I loaded up and headed out the half mile to a bend that seemed to interest a handful of anglers.
The number of fishermen made it a less than optimal situation, but my eye was drawn to flashes on the surface, near the tail of the bend and just below a lone fly fisherman. I walked quietly to a position downstream and behind him. Our conversation began when he stopped to replace a lost fly. He’d arrived at the nearby U.S. Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center only two days ago, heard that the fishing was “on” and now stood on the shore of the West Walker in his fatigues.
He was enjoying himself. Though stocked rainbows, a long pod of fish had stacked up against the opposite bank, next to reeds and in deeper channels, and were earnestly feeding on the surface. Every other cast was welcomed with a bump, slash and, best of all, a solid strike. I was invited to join in and set up on a small point just downstream.
The next three hours were filled will double hook ups and an inevitable comparison of our fish, talk of flies and home, and rain, wind and sun. Good fishing makes triumph seem easier in the face of a challenge, and despite powerful wind gusts — gusts that didn’t help casting but allowed the sun to shine — we continued fishing. Sidearm casts two feet off the water got flies close enough to feeding lanes. We never exchanged names but were fast friends in fly fishing that day.
Breaking my rule of never leaving willing fish, I headed back over the pass. My sister and her family were joining me for a three-day weekend, and though fishing is a big part of my time in those mountains, it had been a while since they’d been to the cabin and there was family fun to be had; fun that would be a bonus on top of that day on the three Walkers.