Unhurried, we turned what could have been a three-hour drive into an easy-going, day-long expedition. Hours were spent exploring thin blue lines on maps and the unfamiliar dirt roads that would get us to hopefully fishy water. That time was rewarded with wild fish. One of us had to be satisfied with drifting a fly well enough to at least provoke strikes. We stumbled over boulders and walked through cold, clear waters on both the east and west slopes of Stevens Pass. Passed up less welcoming waters and greedily eyed a pod of big fish, fish too smart or wary to tempt. We stayed where we wanted as long as we wanted, and when the urge struck, we again headed east for a few or more miles before searching new water along another dirt road.
Often the best aspect of a destination is the journey required to get there. It’s all the better if that travel takes you out of your comfort zone. That’s now part of the nature of our Bro’ Trip™.
It was during June eight years ago that the rough outline – or at least the possibility – of an annual Bro’ Trip™ took form. Such traditions don’t just happen. They require work.
Back in 2008, our trip was about taking Dad fishing in Alaska, something he’d talked about but never followed up on. We spent four days of fishing for salmon and halibut out of a Kenai River lodge. Today, our Bro’ Trip™ is more modest but still adventures that include discovery and often take us to new places.
We easily throw trip ideas back and forth at the start of a new year before getting down to the real work: scheduling. We’re not retired or self-employed. Mark has two young boys. Side projects – Neighborhood Watch, college classes, and website work for my fly fishing club and the IWFF and NCCFFF (two other fly fishing groups), demand my regular attention. We both try to plan family vacations each year. Mark takes the boys camping and the whole family to various destinations. My wife likes cruises. Thankfully, both our wives support the allotment of some time for brothers to be brothers, and to sometimes act like boys.
After my banzai run up I-5 and the visit with the parents, I met up with Mark and family Sunday evening. He was barbecuing kokanee that was swimming earlier that morning. I was pretty ready to roll out the next morning. Mark wasn’t. It didn’t bother me much that he wasn’t ready. I’ve made a conscious effort over the years to avoiding worrying when it’s not necessary. And it’s definitely not necessary on vacation.
By midmorning the next day we turned off Hwy 2 and headed down a Forest Service Road toward Money Creek. Like many of the waters we’d fish that week, Money Creek is small pocket. The type of creek that attracts very few people, most likely fly fishermen with self-esteem issues. But its small dry fly water is worth a few casts. We were a bit too heavily armed, perhaps optimistically, with 3 wt. rods. We agreed to meet at the next bend to decide on whether we would extend our stay.
The weather was warm enough to allow wet wading but the water cool enough for the fish. Dense forest shaded both banks, their branches demanded care when casting unless we stepped into the water to make an upstream cast, which is my favorite tactic on previously unvisited water. The first step into the water was mildly shocking.
It’d been too long since I last laid hand to a fly rod, but the old muscle memory came back fast enough to generally place flies where trout might be looking. Without a visible hatch and expecting these to be wild and relatively unmolested fish, both Mark and I had tied on stimulator flies of one kind or another: Mark’s with an orange body, mine in yellow. The color didn’t matter; both were about size 16.
Quick strikes confirmed my guess; the trout were there. However, a lack of hookups suggested my fly was too big.
The benefit of not being a “purist” allows me to easily adopt strategies that other fly fishermen might frown upon. Rather than replace my size 16 fly, I tied a piece of tippet, about 10 inches, on to the stimulator, onto which I tied a size 20 Elk Hair Caddis. The biggest benefit to this setup is that the larger stimulator would give me an approximate location of my smaller, almost invisible fly.
That’s all it took. Later, Mark reported numerous strikes but not one fish to hand. I had landed half a dozen or so. The largest was about eight inches. It was a promising start. During the day we’d fish other creeks. We’d pass up others, usually because the footing was too treacherous for two not-in-their-prime guys. We found willing fish in the East Fork Miller Creek, before it merges with the Tye River to create the South Fork of the Skykomish River. Other waters on our list included Foss River, Rinker Creek and Quartz Creek.
Just after noon we had run out of easily accessible water and headed over Stevens Pass to make the descent into eastern Washington. We were talking like brothers can and munching on snacks, and the scenery whizzed by. That should have been a clue. The state trooper in the oncoming lane turned on his lights and made a U-turn. I couldn’t see any other cars headed east.
In retrospect, I found it heartening that I didn’t feel my stomach dip or my heart flutter with the realization those red and blue lights were for me. A quick check of my paperwork, an admonishment to slow down, and we were off again.
Mark interrupted our descent toward Wenatchee, suggesting we pull over to check out Nason Creek, which slips in and out of sight of the highway for many miles. This was a spot he’d checked out before. It was a broad, flat bend in the creek, its slow water hemmed in by broadleaf trees.
I half looked for signs of fish. This is the best way to spot a fish. This looking/not-looking – unfocusing on what you want to see – reveals subtle movements at the edges of your vision. Shadows, formerly rocks, start to sway back forth. Just above, the streamlined body. First one, then two, and a third and fourth. I pointed them out to Mark.
Then my jaw went slack and I went silent. An impossibly large trout swims into view. Larger dots along its back suggest it’s a brown trout. It would be former brood stock beyond its prime breeding years, but I’d rather believe it’s a wild and clearly piscivorous fish.
Before heading into Leavenworth for lunch, we sought out access on Icicle Creek, but hunger, fatigue and unfamiliarity with the area made beer and lunch more attractive. We stopped and walked a couple of blocks to Icicle Brewing Company.
The heat of eastern Washington was unlike anything I’ve felt before. It’s terribly dry. Even a small breeze feels like sandpaper. Shade offers only minor relief.
We lingered while munching on a pretzel, landjaeger and a meat and cheese platter, critiquing the beer and musing about unimportant things. (Who matched pretzels to mustard in the first place?) From Leavenworth it should have taken about 75 minutes to the house in Chelan but construction delays added about 40 minutes. Enough time for Mark to get in a nap.
Chelan was still baking in the afternoon sun when we arrived. We’d bake the rest of the week.
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.
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
Having found a burger joint on Yelp, Karen and I decided we could stroll from our hotel to a dinner spot. An earlier-than-expected arrival in San Pedro allowed time to get a few kinks out and unpack, and a walk would be welcome relief after six hours in the little CR-Z.
There’s no denying San Pedro’s connection to the sea. It’s on the south side of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, with two sides directly adjacent to Pacific Ocean. Now a working class community (it’s within the city of Los Angeles), it has roots in the fishing industry and from 1919 to 1940 was home to the United States Battle Fleet. The battleship USS Iowa (BB-61) remains in San Pedro as a museum ship.
Walking the streets of any city offers an upfront education of both the neighborhoods and the people who live there. The character of the local area was revealed as we walked the six blocks from our hotel to Bunz Gourmet Hamburgers. (Yes, “gourmet” is thrown around a lot in the culinary world and I’m always skeptical, but we do love our hamburgers.)
A couple of blocks away from the hotel, a strip shopping center partially revealed the character of this neighborhood. At one end, you could get some money at a check cashing store and with that cash you could step a door down to purchase vapes and/or medical marijuana, get a tattoo and, if inclined, buy lingerie (not the Victoria’s Secret kind). Buildings in the next block were occupied by a liquor store and a vacant car wash. Across the street were three national fast food chain restaurants. One more block down was another marijuana dispensary. This was the theme on this stretch of Gaffey Street.
Bunz Gourmet Hamburgers is a about half a block off Gaffey, down Fifth Street, in a nondescript stucco building painted an adobe pink color. Tucked between apartment buildings and homes now used for commercial enterprises and medical offices, Bunz is one of two tenants in what appears to originally have been a dedicated retail building. While signs clearly point out the restaurant, the space occupying the other side of the building was devoid of any indicator as to its purpose. It was dominated by the type of plate glass windows that formerly displayed wares for sale but now obscured by curtains.
Bunz is decidedly a neighborhood joint, small and focused. The menu is easy to figure out, with plenty of options for building a burger. The easy-going atmosphere is aided by a fun music selection and friendly service. Our order placed, we took seats at a table outside, watching the world go by as we waited.
Karen could see the other side of the building. It seemed vacant. Until someone walked up to the door, went in, and walked out a few minutes later.
Then a young woman hopped out of her car with a dour look on her face. She took her young daughter into Bunz, where one of the wait staff gave the girl a drink while mom went next door. The woman emerged with a smile on her face. This pattern would repeat, every two to five minutes, the entire time we ate lunch. Thankfully there was a light breeze that allowed us to eat relatively odor free.
Then we got a whiff – urban skunk.
Thankfully, the wind had shifted by the time our burgers arrived. “The Paradise” for me, loaded with pineapple, bacon and teriyaki sauce, and it was pretty fantastic. For Karen it was a basic burger, the “control” by which she judges all burger makers. The burgers were good and the fries close to excellent.
The walk back to the hotel was interrupted by a stop at a local doughnut place, ‘cause doughnuts can be dessert. Racks displayed all varieties of doughnuts and related sweet pastries, but some lonely cronuts caught our eye. There was nothing but empty air behind the counter, and Karen called out quite a few times before an older woman appeared. We inquired about the cronuts only to be assaulted by the woman’s brutal honesty that they probably weren’t the best choice this late in the day. Intent on not leaving without sugared dough, we settled on half a dozen mini doughnuts that disappeared before we returned to the hotel.
Being that we were on vacation, we spend some time that evening at Jackson’s Place, a fun little lounge that offers beer, wine and table top games. Though only three blocks east of the old neighborhood surrounding Bunz, Jackson’s Place is closer to the port and on the edge of San Pedro’s historic downtown, which seems to be undergoing a revitalization effort. Buildings in the area show a mix of updated architecture designed to echo the history of the area and buildings clearly in need of repair, while established trees and new street lamps line the streets.
Being on vacation when others aren’t, particularly in a town that’s not a vacation destination, can be odd. Only a handful of people were scattered about Jackson’s, lending a low-key feeling to the place. That’s not to complain; we got more than a fair share of the bartender’s attention. After a few games of Uno, it was back to the room to sleep.
The next day our ship would sail.
a fall vacation, part one – finding where there are no Starbucks
The last Monday in September, Karen and I loaded up the two-seater and started our vacation by heading south. This trip would include stops in San Pedro and Avalon, Calif.; Ensenada, Mexico, and ultimately end back in Los Angeles.
To get to our first destination, we made our way out of the Bay Area to that soulless ribbon of road, Interstate 5. It’d be nice to say we left early, but oh-dark-thirty is the usual time we depart for work. Luckily, that means missing most commute traffic. Thankfully, Karen and I enjoy each other’s company and once and a while we can still hold a substantive conversation, a big plus when droning down I-5.
The last few years we’ve developed a rhythm when it comes to traveling. We outline plans, flesh out an itinerary, make reservations, and pack. (Inside and quietly, my 10-year-old boy still finds it hard to believe I am old enough to make and manage all of these arrangements.) While I still like to outline the stops along the route and the timing, I’ve come a long way in simply letting the journey play out as it will.
We generally make good time on any highway, even stopping when we want or need to, usually for fuel, for both us and the car. This stretch of the trip would total 402 miles and end at the Best Western Plus San Pedro. Running through California’s San Joaquin Valley (aka Central Valley), I-5 bisects some of the state’s richest agricultural areas and is the origin for about 10 percent of all U.S. agricultural production. Visible from the highway are fields of grapes and orchards of citrus and stone fruits, almonds and pistachios. On any given day, you can also find a bump crop of freight trucks on I-5.
This highway is the main corridor between northern and southern California. Over the years, I’ve driven it all hours of the day. The traffic is constant and never seems to thin out. Between the two of us, to put it politely, Karen is the speedier driver and three times we passed the same truck after quick stops. There’s not much to see in the 160 miles from Gustine to Grapevine, and we discovered that there is no Starbucks in the 60 miles from Kettleman City to Buttonwillow.
The weather was beautiful. The uncultivated terrain was dry. The grass was not “California gold” dry; it was an ugly, dead color. When not conversing, we had podcasts to listen to during the more desolate expanses.
A few landmarks can’t be missed. Harris Ranch is heralded by the stink of a nearly 800-acre feedlot and the cattle that inhabit it. Weathered, faded and grammatically incorrect homemade signs calling the Central Valley a “CONGRESS CREATED DUST BOWL” pop up once and a while. As if taunting, The California Aqueduct periodically snakes into and out of view. One can’t miss the iconic windmill towering over Pea Soup Andersons. (Once the sole eatery here, it now competes with no less than six chain restaurants.) The 77-foot tall windmill also marks the off-ramp for the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery, home to California Korean War Veterans Memorial and the bronze 11th Airborne Memorial.
Soon we were climbing The Grapevine. (For those unfamiliar with California, The Grapevine is the section of highway – named either for a local creek or the vineyards that once dotted the area – that crosses the mountains of the Transverse Range and over the Tehachapi Mountains to peak at 4,144 feet.) With a 6 percent grade, The Grapevine rises about 1,500 feet over 5 miles. A collection of roller coasters at Six Flags Magic Mountain marks the far edge of urban sprawl.
After the long descent into the Los Angeles Basin one’s ability to navigate is tested by a collection of convoluted interchanges. Near the outskirts of San Fernando, it became difficult to resist the urge to refer to highways in the local vernacular: “the” 405, “the” 100. The lack of traffic was welcome, however, and we arrived at the Best Western Plus San Pedro earlier than expected.
There’s often a pregnant pause and disapproving look when you tell people familiar with the area that you’re staying in San Pedro. It didn’t seem that bad.
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.
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.