fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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no longer just fair-weather fishing

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

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.


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the 2013 Eastern Sierra Expeditionary Force, part 3

My last full day in the Eastern Sierra was planned around a mid-afternoon visit to Mammoth Brewing. John — a multi-year attendee of this outing — was keen on the idea, so we planned to spend the morning fishing and the afternoon…um…let’s call it “beering.”

We got an early start driving up Rock Creek Canyon to the Mosquito Flats trailhead, at about 10,000 feet. It was a typically crisp fall morning when we geared up and begin hiking, which for stretches was more akin to climbing. It stopped every once and a while to catch my breath admire the scenery.

Looking downstream (east) as Rock Creek exits Heart Lake.

Looking downstream (east) as Rock Creek exits Heart Lake.

We had no particular goal, so about an hour in we departed the trail and headed to the inlet of Heart Lake, which is about a mile and quarter so up the trail. John dropped down to the trail-side of the inlet; I hiked to the opposite side of the lake. Quite a few years ago I hiked this trial, a bit further, fishing the lakes along the way. That year I caught nothing. I know now that it had been too late in the day.

This early morning, however, there was plenty of interest, particularly if I could cast my orange humpy (dry fly) within a foot or so of the reeds lining the lake. There were spots, near inlets and outlets, where I would land half a dozen brookies, most colored up for the fall spawn. Most would slowly emerge from the depths or from behind a submerge log, and either lunch at my fly or flamboyantly refuse it.

Typical brook trout, one of many, caught in Rock Creek and its lakes.

Typical brook trout, one of many, caught in Rock Creek and its lakes.

We’d fish Rock Creek between two other lakes as we descended with the creek. I’d hook an occasional brown trout and stop often to just enjoy where I was. It was a beautiful day, with an ever-present breeze that kept things cool. The sun would be obscured every once and while by dark clouds; the almost black clouds I’ve only seen in the high country. John’s movement would mirror mine for the most part, though he did have to return to the trail to hike over a huge granite outcropping that prevented his following the edge of one lake.

Throughout the morning we met other folks, mostly hikers with a few fly fishermen among them. There was a noticeable absence of hardware or bait fishermen. While the casting is easy on the lakes, greater stealth was required in the close quarters of the creek. Most of the time I would cast downstream about ten feet, piling up some line to allow for a relatively drag-free drift for another five to ten feet. Any closer and my footfall would spook any unseen fish.

By the time we returned to the trailhead, it was time for lunch. My plan included a quick shower — I was going into town after all — and to meet John in Mammoth. We arrived just about the same time and it was easily decided to share a flight of regular beers as well as one of the seasonals. We had a good time talking with a server who worked the summer at Mammoth Brewing and would be heading back to Murphys (where The Wife and I enjoy the fruits of local winemaking), where he’s help with the grape harvest at his family’s winery. I walked out the door with a growler of Floating Rock Hefeweizen and one of Imperial Root Beer.

Both the beer and root beer (which, to my taste buds, is easily one of the best root beers around) are long gone. The fish have forgotten who I am. This just means I’ll have to return.


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hiking through history

We snuck out of the Bay Area on the Thursday a week ago for long weekend, planning to cram a bit of everything into the time we had.

Railroad ties at the West Side Rail Grade trail head.

Railroad ties at the West Side Rail Grade trail head.

In a new spirit of exploring unknown parts of familiar territory, we ended up on the West Side Rail Grade the next morning. The trail — really a former narrow-gauge railbed — begins on Buchanan Road in Tuolumne City and is carved into the hillside above the North Fork Tuolumne River, on the north side of the canyon. It was christened in 1898 as the Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valley Railroad under the ownership of the West Side Lumber Co., which used narrow-gauge railroads in the Sierra Nevada Mountains until the 1960s. The HH&YV was primarily employed to haul fresh-cut logs from the sugar pine forests of eastern Tuolumne County to the West Side Lumber Mill in Tuolumne City.

The trailhead is just outside of town, and the first 100 yards are marked by decomposing railroad ties that look like worn steps. After that, most of the trail is exposed, which left us to bake in a remarkably hot morning sun. There are a couple places where benches and tables allow for a break in the shade, and a sprinkling of poison oak along the trail encourages one to stick to the well-worn path.

Though I’m not a history buff, per se, it’s a pleasant surprise to find remains of history in situ. About a mile down the trail we came across long portions of ties and rails, with the trail occasionally shifting from one side of the tracks to the other.

Rails of the Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valley Railroad.

Rails of the Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valley Railroad.

The grade slopes gently downward, at least for as far as we hiked, and it would be a great place to break in some new boots. Had we continued the full 4½-plus miles, we could have soaked our toes in the North Fork of the Tuolumne River, near Basin Creek. (I originally discovered part of the West Side Rail trail while exploring Forest Service land above Long Barn, and while fishing an upstream portion of the Tuolumne, but have since determined that was another section of the trail that stretches from Hull Creek to the Clavey River, that that’s another hike for another time.)

Hot and happy dog.

Hot and happy dog.

We met a few folks along the way: an overachiever who was jogging uphill and a few women who walk it almost every day, one of whom had made a dramatic move from the northern California coastal town of Bolinas to the much drier Sierra foothills.

With the full heat of the sun soon approaching, we left the exploration of a last blind curve for another time, and headed back. This day we had the dog with us and I don’t know if it was he or I who was panting more in the heat.

I have a feeling, though, that we’ll see more of this trail in the spring.

 

 


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you may have to carry a fire extinguisher to hike high enough to find Sierra Nevada trout

ICCC Report CoverFollowing up its good news/bad news report on Lake Tahoe, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment paints a bleaker picture in its August 2013 Indicators of Climate Change in California.

To sum it up, analysis of monitoring data and scientific research from throughout the state outlines the effects of climate change: The spring runoff in the Sierra Nevada has declined over the last century. The period of time when winter temperatures in the Central Valley are cold enough for the development of fruit and nut tree flowers has been decreasing since 1950. River runoff declined during the 20th Century:

River Runoff Percent Decline
in 20th Century
Sacramento River System* 9%
San Joaquin River System 6%
Kings River 6%
Kern River 8%
Mokelumne River 7%
Trinity River 8%
Truckee River 13%
Carson and Walker rivers 5%
*includes the Sacramento River and major tributaries, the Feather, Yuba and American rivers.

Changes in average temperatures have led to die-offs of native vegetation at the lower range of various species’ elevation range (during the last six decades Sierra Nevada conifers have clearly retreated upslope) and is pushing about half of the small mammals in Yosemite National Park to higher elevations. The annual acreage burned by wildfires in the state increased since 1950, with the three largest fire years occurring during the last 10 years. The acidity in the coastal waters around Monterey Bay is increasing at a rate greater than that in the open ocean near Hawaii. The average annual temperature in mountain lakes, including Lake Tahoe, has risen over the last few decades.

And butterflies are emerging earlier during the spring in the Central Valley.

Yet, there’s no real trend that can be discerned from the data. The rise in the sea level rise along the California coast is bucked the global pattern and has be relatively constant during the last two decades.

Cheery stuff.


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will El Niño save the coming winter/next season?

We were fooled once before — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) predicted a wetter than normal 2012 winter for Northern California last fall — but the same agency’s Climate Prediction Center is now predicting a 50 percent chance that El Niño conditions will develop in the next few months. (The original NOAA synopsis is here.)

If it does, there’s likely to be flooding in this neck of the woods but next summer’s small stream trout season might look a bit more promising.

According to International Research Institute for Climate and Society Chief Forecaster Tony Barnston we’ll know soon enough:

The development of El Niño depends greatly on what happens in the coming two months. If we do not get at least some development by the end of August, then the chances of getting development later become much lower.”

Here’s to hoping for a snowpack that more than makes up for what was lacking this year.


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…and eventually they’ll plant banana trees next to former trout waters

Us fly fishers can safely assume trout will be where we left them last season, but the clock ticked a minute closer to the Outdoor Apocalypse with the new version of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Plant Hardiness Zone Map.” Welcome news for gardeners at more northerly latitudes, to be sure, but I for one am not looking forward to roses and magnolias crowding the banks of Sierra streams any time soon.

And though the USDA website notes…

Climate changes are usually based on trends in overall average temperatures recorded over 50-100 years. Because the (new map) represents 30-year averages of what are essentially extreme weather events (the coldest temperature of the year), changes in zones are not reliable evidence of whether there has been global warming.

– via USDA Agricultural Research website

…the new hardiness map shows a decided shift north nationwide.

And while these warmth loving plants won’t give triffids any competition, by the time they show up next to my favorite trout waters, it’s likely the trout will be gone and the water rendered unfishable by an invasion of members of the Centrarchidae family.

The USDA interactive map can be seen here.


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Mother Nature wins, but it’s okay (and accumulatingmy 15 minutes of fame, a few seconds at a time)

The thought last weekend was to get away for a rare five-day retreat, spending some time at the family cabin, entertaining ourselves with visits to wineries in nearby Murphys, squeezing in a bit of fly fishing on one of the few open rivers in the Sierra foothills and generally stepping away — far away — from the everyday.

We had enjoyed three weeks of spring-like weather prior to our departure, but the moment we publicly announced our plans, Mother Nature decided she knew better.

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A better use of snow.

The drive that got us up to Hwy 108 was easy enough, with stops along the way for lunch and gwaking at Bass Pro. It was after the last stop at Covers Apple Ranch that Mrs. Nature gave us fair warning with steady snowfall as we wound the seven miles to the eastern (and higher) edge of Twain Harte. By the time we reached town, the inches of snow that frosted the familiar with a fresh coat of newness also dictated extreme caution.

While I don’t mind clearing the white stuff to pull into the driveway or the nearly two feet of snow that that muffled and covered the world outside the next morning; I didn’t like the resulting power outage, the excavation of that 60-foot driveway a second and third time, and the increased release of water in the only nearby and fishable tailwater. Though we were thankful for the propane-fired heater, stove and water heater, the lack of power for 48-plus hours wasn’t fun. It was dark by 6:00 p.m. and it’s difficult to read, much less tie flies, by candlelight. Fishing was out of the question the next day as flows on the Stanislaus rose in 40 hours from less than 250 cfs to nearly 1,100 cfs.

We surrendered about 42 hours after our arrival. In that time I learned the value of a snow blower after shoveling the driveway three times, clearing an estimated accumulation of four feet of snow. (My arms agreed with rusty mathematics that suggested I moved over 1,900 cubic feet of the stuff.) Proving that Mother Nature maintains a healthy sense of irony, we were greeted by blue skies just as that last of the gear was packed into the car.

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Mother Nature, The Joker. The skies cleared after nearly four feet of snow snuffed out
the power and we went about departure preparations. (More photos below.)

However, we both enjoyed being in a winter wonderland for a while, spending one afternoon tucked into The Rock resaurant with a good draught of Smithwicks ale, a few appetizers and a cozy view of dime-sized flakes floating to earth. I personally enjoyed introducing The Wife, for the first time in her life, to real, heavy snowfall. We also learned that the Prius can do well enough in the snow.

I don’t begrudge Mother Nature for cutting our trip short with piles of snow; it’s the resulting runoff that’ll keep the trout happy and make for excellent Sierra fishing in the late summer and fall.

A Few More Seconds of Fame

It’s nice to know that Orvis Fly Fishing Guide Podcast host Tom Rosenbauer thought enough of my comment on Facebook to mention it in his latest podcast. If you’d care to listen, you only have to wait until about 1:30 into the podcast.
[audio:http://media.libsyn.com/media/orvisffguide/15_tips_on_Sight_fishing_for_Stripers.mp3|titles=Orvis Podcast-2/22/2011]

I responded to Mr. Rosenbauer’s podcast of a week ago, “Gear Maintenance in the Off-Season and Ten Tips for the Aging Angler,” with a personal anecdote that there are indeed exercises that could help the aging angler. Though I have yet to be officially recognized for my longevity, a gym membership put to good use during the last year or so seems to have improved my balance during wading, something I attribute to core exercises, namely crunches, bridge, planks and rotational movements.

Admittedly, as a generally lazy meditative lot, exercise may be foreign to most fly fishermen, and the most widely practiced workout is casting, which coincidently builds up muscles used to also hoist a beer or scotch.


More of what we saw during our shortened stay at The Cabin last weekend:
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