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 one

It’s a day off and I’m awake before sunrise. This time of morning on the West Slope of the Sierra Nevada, it won’t be light until the sun creeps above its soaring peaks. I like it this way. It’s a two-hour drive over Sonora Pass before dropping into the starkness of the Eastern Sierra. It’ll be a murky twilight until I crest the pass.

I shower and dress, gather my breakfast for the road, and quietly close up the cabin. There is just enough light to find my way across the deck and down the stairs. In the pre-dawn stillness, pine needles crunch loudly under my boots.

I pull the car out of the driveway and lock the gate. After two right turns and a left, I’m headed east on Hwy 108. It’s an easy drive this morning. Only four cars on the road, three in the opposing lane and the other only a momentary companion. This is a familiar road, but it’s winding through forests rendered unfamiliar by the need to remove trees killed and now kindling after an onslaught of bark beetles.

There’s no hurry this time. I know a few pockets of the Eastern Sierra. Loosely defined as stretching from Lone Pine in the south to the Nevada state line to the north and east, much more of it remains unknown to me. Secure in the knowledge that I’d hook and land a trout or five – or simply cocky – I had decided that this would be a trip that included explorations that probably wouldn’t include fishing, much less a fish.

Sonora Pass: It’s all downhill from here.

The historical landmark sign at Sonora Pass. The power of heavy snowfall.

It’s become my tradition upon reaching Sonora Pass to stop for a moment. This year, there’s clear evidence of the heavy snows of last winter. One side of the historical landmark sign is leaning about 15 degrees. A few snow fields remain where last year were none. Absent any human traffic, natural noises abound. Birds scurry in the brush. The wind makes that rushing sound that seems to be specific to high Sierra pines. The almost treeless land to the east is lit by harsh sunshine. The west is still in the shadows of the peaks and trees.

Stopping at the Leavitt Falls Vista Point, I look down upon the West Walker River. Even at 7,800 feet, 1,000 feet above the river, I can see that it’s full of water. The first people I see are a few miles down the road – packers at the Leavitt Meadows Pack Station. A short stop at Pickel Meadow Wildlife Area confirms that the West Walker River isn’t ready to be fished.

Leavitt Falls 2017.08.24

Leavitt Falls in the early morning light.

Fog and cows on Pickel Meadow 2017.08.24

Fog and cows on Pickel Meadow.

I drive on. I pass the oddly quiet Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. A right turn onto Hwy 395 marks the beginning of long, flat roads. It’s still cool enough that steam rises from Fales Hot Springs. Soon I’m through Bridgeport, across the East Walker River, and southbound.

Scattered trees give way to dry high desert. Only in the canyons west of the highway do trees – mostly aspens and pines – find enough water.

South of Mono Lake lies the first exploratory attempt. John, the leader of our little group that’ll be spending a few days terrorizing fish in and around Crowley Lake, suggested a stop at Rush Creek. Originating at about 13,000 feet near Mount Lyell, various feeder streams from Marie Lakes and Davis Lakes combine to form the main stem of Rush Creek, which flows through Waugh Lake, Gem Lake, and Agnew Lake on its way to the June Lake Loop. There it enters and exits Silver Lake, then Grant Lake, before finding its way to Mono Lake.

As a teenager camping at the Silver Lake Campground, mysterious fly fishermen would wade downstream and later reappear with big brown trout. Having never returned to June Lake Loop since then, and since I’d become a passable fly fisherman myself, I thought it was about time for a closer look at Rush Creek. Like many creeks and streams here, Rush Creek is lined by brush dedicated to preventing molestation of fish that might be present. If that weren’t enough to dissuade my thoughts of making of a few investigative casts, the creek – which carries 41% of Mono Basin’s runoff – was filled bank to bank with whitewater, the result of accumulating runoff from last winter’s heavy snowfall over its 27-mile course.

I pull back on to the highway and mull over the idea of returning to June Lake Loop in the future without deciding whether that will be on my own or as the leader of a club trip. Once past the northern turn for June Lake Loop, the miles seem to pass quickly. The asphalt here is smooth and the road relatively straight. It slowly rises and falls, passing through infrequent stands of pines. Unimproved roads regularly sprout from either side of the highway. Calling them dirt roads would give the wrong impression; here they cut into an almost white, gravelly, sandy soil.

Cactus Cooler 2017.08.24

It’s become something of a tradition to stop at the Tioga Gas Mart, after a trip many years ago with Christopher, to indulge in this sugary treat.

I turn down one with a sign pointing to Lower Deadman Creek Campground. It’s about two miles before the turn into a small basin that contains the campground and the creek. Here the chaparral gives way to pines. The campground straddles the creek; four of its thirty sites are occupied, but the abundance of water this year makes half the sites unusable.

I geek gear up, stopping to talk with a grad student who’s studying the geology of the area. He points out where he’s seen stocked fish:the likely places – long runs that curve through the campground. Here, towering pines shade this place, allowing the coolness of morning to linger long past sunrise and muffling the sounds of coffee being poured into a mug, a spoon clinking against a cereal bowl, a father beginning to pack the necessities of camping, the grad student strumming a guitar.

Deadman Creek is much like many Sierra creeks I’ve fished. Its clear water ebbs and flows, tumbling over rocks into bubbling pools and carving out channels under tree roots. I think my 3-weight Winston maybe a bit too much rod for this stream but know its length will come in handy when it comes to poking through the brush that lines the banks of this creek.

I’m here looking for the wild trout that are rumored to be in the upper reaches of Deadman Creek, but I can’t help warming up my casting arm tossing my flies to a few of the human-raised rainbows. My cast is rusty but good enough to lay my flies down on a seam that carries it over a few fish fighting for position in the current. There’s no subtlety about the stocked trout. The lead fish slashes at my dry fly and the other fish scatter. The skunk is off.

The hike upstream makes me grateful that I walk every day. The campground is at 7,800 feet, and I’m headed higher. Half a mile upstream I’m alone. Ripe bitter gooseberries stand out among sage, bunch grasses, willows, and rambling wild rose bushes.

The creek from this point and upstream is no more than three feet wide. I find the wild brook trout that lured me here in nearly every plunge pool and tail-out. There’s contentment to be found in a wild place such as this, and when found it’s the simply being in that place that’s enough.

I turn downstream after about two miles gained in small increments dictated by fishable water. In this canyon it’s either night or day, and during the day there is no sense of time passing in its unchanging shade. It’s just before noon when I get back to the car.

Deadman Creek 2017.08.24

One pool on Deadman Creek that gave up a brook trout, as it should have.

It takes less time to travel the three miles of dirt road to the highway than the 23 miles to the Hot Creek Interpretive site, another place of exploration this trip. I’ve fished the canyon section of Hot Creek, but this section is unfamiliar and different. The unwelcome sight of four trucks already parked in the turnout makes me question my decision to stop here. It’s not a long stretch of water, about 2,000 feet, meandering through fields of sedges.

The reports were true; it’s grasshopper season. I disturb half a dozen every few steps. A dry-dropper setup is my go-to option for Hot Creek. A dry fly – in this case a grasshopper dry fly – to get the attention of fish looking up, and a nymph to get the attention of the greater number of fish hiding beneath Hot Creek’s plentiful aquatic vegetation. This vegetation is partially responsible for making Hot Creek one of the most productive wild trout waters in California, and the single reason it can be difficult to fish. (Thankfully, as a designated wild trout stream, no bait allowed, only artificial flies and lures with barbless hooks, and all catch and release.) Even so, it’s one of the most heavily fished wild trout waters in the state.

Two fishermen downstream force me upstream. The flow’s a bit high, and getting a drag-free drift is not easy. After five casts, I move downstream. On Hot Creek, I favor a mid-stream stretch that offers a clear lane between vegetation, close enough that a raised rod can keep most of the fly line off the water. Maybe it’s a confidence thing, but once I find one of those lanes, I get a few takes. It’s a mix of hits on the dry and subsurface flies, but all come up short.

Hot Creek 2017.08.24

Great day on Hot Creek. Not so great catching.

It’s not until I’ve leap-frogged past the two fly fishermen – who haven’t moved since I arrived – that I find more willing fish. Just above the fence that marks the private Hot Creek Ranch property, a number of fish hide in the weeds. A fly placed close enough elicits strikes and, with enough casts to the right place at the right time, it’s inevitable that I land one. It’s a small fish by Hot Creek standards, maybe 10 inches, but satisfying.

The sun’s high in the sky now, suggesting that it’s time to meet the rest of the guys at Tom’s Place, just a few miles down the road. Along the way I pass McGee Creek and Crowley Lake. Both are brimming with water this year, and I plan to fish both.

Part two can be found here.

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tying flies requires courage

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.

One creek where my flies fool trouts.


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the promise of wet weather

Keeping little guys comfy.

Keeping little guys comfy.

The yard was dusted with frost this morning and the drive to the office was made a bit more exciting by a patch black ice on the Petaluma River bridge. California’s in between storms and a chill has fallen from painfully clear skies.

There are now feet of snow in the Sierras – infinitely better than the inches anxiously counted last year – and a new hope. During the last few years of drought I’ve stayed away from my favorite skinny waters, those little streams where Mother Nature passionately paints trout with dazzling colors; wild fish willing take anything above or below the surface that looks like food.

The prospect of revisiting these little guys, who’ve likely faced struggles of their own with limited water, is exciting and worrisome. They’re physically small and sensitive. They’re not “hero shot” fish. And the creeks in which they live are too small to wade and deeply entrenched, with the occasional waterfall and deep scour pools.

Keeping these trout wet presents a problem. Perhaps it’s time to add a small photography aquarium, aka “photarium,” to my kit.

Here’s to hoping I’ll need to.


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sometimes it’s the place

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

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.

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.

2016.06.25.6.Little Walker River

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?

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.


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fly fishing can make you feel older than you are

Having been indoctrinated into fly fishing at an advanced age, there’s not enough time left for me to become that ‘old timer’ who can dispense advice between cigars and streamside naps. This is fine with me; I don’t like cigars and naps only make me grumpy.

What I don’t like is this getting older business. That I even know about and have a personal acquaintance with patellar enthesopathy is unsettling. It’s bad enough that there is no quick remedy for this ‘syndrome.’ It comes and goes, sometimes interfering with my regimen of walking eight to ten thousand steps every day. The idea that it could prevent wading into my favorite streams is unacceptable, though I may not have a say in the matter.

It’s annoying more than anything, but there’s hope that I’ll soon stand in those streams in which the cool, therapeutic water was snow just days before. The fish may not miss me, but it’ll be good for my body and soul to remind them I’m still around.

Fly fishing amplifies one’s observations of the aging process. Any difficulty tying knots can be dismissed to poor lighting. But when it begins to seem that the eyes on hooks are smaller than they were last year, it’s time for bifocals. Then the noises start. While silence is golden when wading to avoid signaling your presence to the fish, each step now elicits some sort of involuntary creak. Slowly, grunts become a necessary component in bending over to tie boot laces. The short hikes to secret spots seem longer. Banks become steeper.
Fly Fishing TherapyEven with age, all is not lost when it comes to fly fishing. Wading in cool trout waters is excellent therapy for sore knees. Aches and pains fade away with one’s focus on the flies, even if that means watching an indicator (aka bobber). If it ever comes down to needing a more sedentary mode of fly fishing, I’m lucky enough to enjoy stillwater nymphing and have suitable waters not too far away.

I know a few guys who have quite a few years on me and still thoroughly enjoy fly fishing. I’ve been on three- and four-day trips with some of them. They fish every day: perhaps an hour in the morning and another hour or two in the evening. In between they tell stories, slap together a sandwich, drink beer, chew on a cigar and maybe take a nap.

These guys make becoming an older fly fisher seem not so bad.


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steelhead weather, mountain trout, and a strong chance of no more opening days

It soon became clear that I had fooled myself.

My fly rod rested, unmoving; my head shook in disgust as discouragement took root.

Being a high-country angler at heart, solace is found in solitude. While this opening day morning was marked by lonely weather, with steel gray clouds and drizzling misery on all below, it was snowing above 5,000 feet. That prevented everyone who had hoped to cross Sonora Pass to fish the eastern Sierras – myself included – stuck to fishing limited waters on the west slope.

My early arrival allowed seclusion for only so long. And if trout had eyelids, I would have argued all but a few had shut their eyes to my flies. But it was nice. All sound was dampened by wet pine needles. Low-hanging clouds induced a preternatural calmness. Drops of rain filtered through the overhanging branches of dogwoods and cedars to finally gather together in larger drops before falling and pockmarking the stream with miniature geysers.

The crunch of tires on gravel sliced through the trees, tearing me from my musing. A first, second, then third vehicle pulled up. Camouflage-clad fishermen, with rods almost as long as the stream is wide, hauled out tackle boxes that could double as streamside seating, and each tipped their hat to me and lined up a few feet away. Hooks were buried into bright red salmon eggs and lines were cast.

I remained stationary. It’s not uncommon to see bait or hardware fisherman travel in packs, but this had caught me off guard. In this spot, however, I am usually alone with a rare visit by one other fisherman.

The small pools I knew were upstream were, despite the drought, rendered temporary inaccessible. Getting to those pools required clambering over a rocky outcropping, and the rainfall during the night – downpours woke me more than once – raised the stream just high enough to make it too dangerous for one who’s not so young anymore. Downstream was a canyon that wasn’t much safer for the same reason.

Snow dictated I head downslope, where there were few options.

Though opening day may nowadays be more routine than tradition, I was on a mission to shake off the rust of winter, to prove that I could still cast and was still fast enough to set a hook (and correspondingly adjust my hook set, whether it was my dry fly or nymph that fooled the fish). And so it was that I was committed to spending the day attempting to reassure myself that given the opportunity during the coming summer and fall, I wouldn’t look like an idiot swinging a stick on a river, creek, stream or lake.

There are a number of waters along Hwys 108 and 120. It would have been preferable to head away from the opening day crowds, likely as far as Goodwin Dam, where its 4-mile stretch of tailwater forms the Lower Stanislaus River. But that would require a steelhead report card that I didn’t think I’d need this year. I wasn’t driving something that could go off road, eliminating a large percentage of other waters. Other possibilities were still closed off by season gates.

There are never-ending debates about the differences between hatchery and wild trout, but wanting fish to fool meant wading into a put-and-take fishery.

By the time I arrived, sunlight was peeking through parting clouds. This is one of those west slope year-round creeks around which is created an oasis of vegetation despite the surrounding dry hills, on which this year the grass is already gold. It’s frequented by meat fishermen who I always hope paid their license fees just as I did.

Opening Day Trout, 2015

Opening Day Trout, 2015

Until the heat of summer, most folks fish the south side of this creek. Waders allow me to access the north side, dropping my flies into seams on the edges of pools and riffles. Fish were there and, hatchery-born or not, seemed to have an appetite for something that looked a bit natural. My catch rate vs. everyone – while not always the case, but often repeated – was about three to one. I have to admit a look of bemusement might cross my face now and again when other anglers scramble to try to duplicate my style or squint at my size 16 and 16 flies, which they likely can’t see from where they are.

More important to me than the numbers was the ratio of fish hooked and those landed. Better than most opening days, I hooked fish on about eighty percent of the takes I saw and of those landed most. A fellow across the way lamented that he didn’t bring his fly rod, but spin casting was the best way to keep his son engaged. That brought back memories in me and a gratefulness that I tried over the years to acquaint my kids with a sport that can bring a lifetime of good times.

This was the first opening day for me in quite a few years. Previous years I spent opening day weekend helping to teach aspiring fly fishers.

My thoughts now have shifted to thinking it would have been better to teach this year’s opening day weekend and instead of waiting for a single day each year, get off my duff and avail myself of the growing number of year-round moving trout waters in the Sierras, both on the west and east slopes.

Lesson learned.


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it’s wet all over but not enough

It was a dark and stormy night…more accurately, a morning.

Remember a few weeks ago when California was drier than a cork leg? That ain’t so true anymore, though The Drought is not over by a long stretch.

My drive to work at 0545 yesterday was dark and slow, musically accompanied by pounding rain. Traffic moved at about 40 mph in a 65 mph stretch of highway. Lakes and ponds formed where none had existed for 10 or more years. Later, flooding closed my route home by early afternoon. Flooding also removed the option of a more northerly alternate route.

Arizmendi Bakery's fruitcake, called the drunk uncle of fruitcakes. (Definitely a bounty of brandy.)

Arizmendi Bakery’s fruitcake, called the drunk uncle of fruitcakes. (Definitely made with a bounty of brandy.)

I instead decided to play chauffeur for the afternoon, heading to San Francisco to pick up Karen and meet our son. It took a bit longer than expected as half the signalized intersections along my route were dark, a result of storm-induced flooding. An underground PG&E substation at Post and Stockton streets exploded that morning as a result. Union Square and surrounding neighborhoods were without power well into the evening. Those dark signalized intersections offered abundant evidence that too many of today’s drivers don’t know how to react to a flashing red signal or in-operational traffic signals.

We snacked leisurely, watching waves of rain wash the streets. We also found the Christmas fruitcake I was looking for, then dropped the son at his place and picked up some casual carpoolers. These people had been waiting in the dark, in pouring rain, for 50 minutes. We picked ’em up thinking that it would make for a more rapid trip home in the HOV lane. Based on the lack of traffic — some folks had left work early and others didn’t go to work at all — it was unnecessary. Call it a mitzvah

This morning wasn’t bad except that Hwy 37 WB was closed and the detour through Novato added 20 minutes to my commute. The rain has let up so far today, but we clearly got enough rain to soak the ground and the temporary lakes and ponds are only slowly disappearing.

Through all this, my attention is on the weather radar, hoping to see snow accumulating in the Sierra Nevadas. It’s said we need at least five more storms of this magnitude to remove the specter of another drought year.

I say bring it on.