Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Pink Diamond Creek

Originally written September, 2005.

Ever find yourself suddenly – gloriously! -- FREE for a day? I did; very recently in fact.

There’s a modest drainage in a relatively non-descript area of a somewhat overlooked southern California National Forest that has been drawing me back time and time again this year (this was my 3rd trip to the region this year, my 2nd as a fly fisher). It’s a very small stream, the area is loaded with biting blackflies, and, overall, the place is kind of scruffy; however, there’s a certain color -- and spunk -- to the wild fish that inhabit this stream, and I find it delightfully intriguing.

So, on my unexpectedly free day, I found myself driving the 87 miles from my doorstep to this stream, carrying – for the first time – a 6’6” Diamondback Diamondglass 3-wt small-stream rod, one which a very kind soul on this board has let me “try out” for a season, just to see how I like it.

After arriving around 11:00AM and slathering myself in my favorite wilderness cologne – Eau de Deet – I made my way upstream, up good old Pink Diamond Creek:

As usual, it took me a solid, frustratingly fishless hour until I began to “dial in” the stream. I always seem to be a bit impatient when I first hit a stream, and this day was no exception. At first, I tried this, that, and the other fly (stimulators, streamers and nymph-and-indicator, in that order), to no avail. I began to doubt myself and my techniques.

My manhood came into question, frankly.

When I spooked an absolutely gorgeous, red-banded-and-purple-parr-marked wild rainbow from under a log in an otherwise totally exposed location, I began to think that I’d be eating skunk this fine autumn day. Listen: that spooked fish had absolutely beautiful coloration – I saw her every marking in the crystal-clear waters – and she was easily 12”. Damn these eyes!

Then I stumbled onto a larger-than-average pool and proceeded to switch to a classic fly: a tan-and-yellow #16 EHC. Before I knew it, I had caught and released four lovely, wild rainbow trout – all of them dinks (2”-4” range). I KNEW the pool held bigger fish – I saw an 8”-er rise not 5 feet in front of me – but I had been spastically reckless in my approach and, in all likelihood, had spooked the big ‘uns under a big rock near the tail.

From that point on, I took extra pains to be stealthy. I started crawling up to locations, keeping my profile low and my body crouched against the horizon. I tried not to make a noise. I stopped breathing for a moment, then decided to start again.

Guess what? It worked.

The stealthy “I am a predator” Ted Nugent(tm) approach –as I always seem to stupidly forget – paid off. I began catching some of the larger denizens (the largest was nine inches in the Measure Net) of this sweet little babbling brook. This one was taken from a pool that was about head-high, upstream from me as I stood in the spray of a small waterfall, tossing my EHC into the sunny pool at eye-level, the others were found in similar locations (wow, what a challenge!):

And so went my afternoon, spent in a haze of dry-fly drifts and spunky trout fights.

Good times.

By the way, the Diamondglass RULED! What a fantastic small-stream weapon. This thing worked like a dream, casting with distance – such as it was -- when I needed it, and mostly used for “flipping” my dry fly from the end of the drift back to the head of the pool (again, this is TINY water). Nice rod, very nice. I like it. Now, if only it were a four-piece instead of a two-piece.

Later, on the way out, this fine tarantula was spotted:

Nothing like the feeling of another wonderful day alone spent with a fly rod in hand, taking home a head full of wild trout memories. Gee, I think I'll invite about 8 buddies on an overnighter here soon -- spreading the word is what it's all's a shot of the road to help you guess where this is...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Fork of a Fork Creek

Originally written July, 2006.

I hit a popular local watershed yesterday with an eye for silver-tinted trout.

While the waters were low and warm in this pretty canyon, I threw caution to the wind and decided to teach the slippery little beasts some necessary life lessons.
Got up there at 7AM in the pull-out on that one particular road. This particular watershed has a lot of downed trees as well as lots of heavy brush lining the banks of the stream, so I took my time exploring various runs, riffles and pools, and eventually settled into a nice, relaxed routine.

Eventually, the clouds began to dissipate, and the warming summer sun enveloped the canyon in a deep amber glow. The ice-blue waters of the small stream danced between boulders, over fallen trees, and through notches in small granite gorges, revealing numerous prime trout lies every dozen yards or so.

I was using a Diamondglass 6’ 3WT this fine day; the conditions were perfect for this excellent small-stream rod. The rod worked like magic and, for the first time since I’ve had it in my possession, I was able to give it true, hard-core work out. It’s a blast to cast this thing on these tiny waters, and, honestly, I fell in love with the it. Yes, I love my rod.

I came upon a particular plunge pool visible from above that I simply had to fish – it looked perfect, a bathtub-sized hole right smack in the middle of the log jam. I made my way over, under, and through the deadfall, and soon found myself drifting a #16 beadhead Prince nymph through the pool. On my third drift, I was the lucky recipient of a vicious strike, and I found myself laughing out loud as I fought a typical Southern California dink in the tumbling waters:

Moments later, in another nice pool below the bathtub, the Prince yet again worked its regal magic:

A couple hundred yards upstream, I came upon a solid granite gorge with a nasty current splashing alongside one of the rock walls, featuring an absolutely delicious-looking eddy below a boulder at the top of the run. I cast my Prince near the eddy and was immediately hammered by a fish, which I had on my line for a brief moment until the trout decided to disconnect the call. “No big deal“, I told myself, and proceeded to work the eddy again. This time, a nice-sized ‘bow took the Prince, and she jumped, revealing a broad swath of red down her ample sides, with absolutely gorgeous, large speckles all over her top and sides. She was shaped like the business end of an oar, a fat, long rectangle with fins. D-a-m-n, I wish I’d have landed that beauty! That image of her in mid-jump will haunt me until the next time I return and successfully nail her.

This was, apparently, one of those locations that gives hapless fly fishermen chance after chance after chance. I hooked into fish over the next dozen or so casts, losing them each and every time, much to my dismay. However, this generous pool provided me with the rare opportunity to fine-tune my approach and, eventually, I managed to bring home my “fish of the day”, a healthy 13”-range beauty:

With that out of the way, I made my way car-ward and soon found myself sipping Horchata in AZuza. And here I’d been told the WF was a waste of time. Guess it’s how one chooses to look at life, right guys?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Caltrans Creek

I haven't been on a fly fishing backpack since last November (2008) and I figured it was about time to get out in the brush with a buddy ("J") and hit some waters.

J and I had independently visited this particular canyon in the range of 12 - 15 years ago; we'd both seen lots of fish and it seemed a good bet that things would still be the same today.

We left the trailhead at 6:00AM Saturday morning, hiking in gorgeous sunlight and enjoying several dozen species of wildflowers along the way. It's about a five mile walk down to the stream, and the time passed quickly.

Before you could say "Caltrans", we'd reached the campsite where we intended to spend the night.

At this point -- about 8:45AM -- we rigged up and took off downstream, anticipating a good day's fishing.

It wasn't long before we stumbled upon a big, glacial-blue pool; I thought it was rather strange as I definitely hadn't seen this pool a decade ago. Hey, things change.

It became apparent to us both that a major debris flow had ripped this place to shreds within the last few years; looking up-canyon from the big pool, this is all we could see:

It looked to me like Caltrans had bulldozed the place; looking at the right side of the picture, imagine the debris flow blocking a stream coming in from the right. This band of mud and rock must've cut-off the flow of the main creek, creating a nice pool. Here's J wetting a line in it standing on the wall of debris (note the outlet flowing over the debris upper right from J):

Sad to say J farmed about three fish out of that pool but was ultimately unable to connect, so we headed downstream to see how far the debris flow went.

We walked almost two hours down a landscape that looked like this:

Note the dead alder trees buried in the debris.

It became painfully obvious that there was to be no fishing here; instead, we observed a young stream striving to recover some semblance of stability -- a rarity in these rapidly decomposing mountains. The stream bottom was covered in a fine layer of silt, and little or no algae or vegetation was to be found. There were a few sections of "original" streambed that retained mature cover, but mostly it was all-but-barren save for some young alders here and there.

Also, there were no pools to speak of; the stream still hadn't time to scour out the typical riffle-run-pool sequence; instead, there were small plunges that immedately turned to shallow riffles.

Not prime trout habitat, that's for sure.

In spite of all this, we found some first-stage caddis nymphs as well as blackfly nymphs in the mineralized waters; the barren banks were also crawling with small grasshoppers.

To add insulin to injury, the sun disappeared behind a dark line of storm clouds, and a gentle but cold rain began to fall. The temperature dropped and we both were forced to put on additional clothing. After two hours of walking on this "concrete" with no signs of fish, we decided to head back to the main pool, where I proceeded to catch a couple of 8"-range wild raindbows on some type of stonefly imitation.

As the rain came down harder and the clouds dropped lower, J and I made the decision to call the overnighter off and hike back up the mountain, five long miles and 2,000 feet elevation gain. Had the weather been pleasant, I would've been content to stay and enjoy the views, but the cloud cover obscured everything and obviously there was no place to fish other than the big pool.

So we headed back up the mountain, stopping to wet a line in a tributary (J brought a handful of small trout to hand), dodging raindrops and keeping a steady uphill pace.

We reached the trailhead at 5:00PM, where the temp was hovering around a balmy 40 degrees.

All told, we caught about half-a-dozen trout, hiked over ten miles, and covered approximately 4,000 feet of elevation gain/loss in an eleven-hour period.

I can safely scratch this watershed off of my list for at least another five years; although the trip might be considered a failure, it was, in all, an interesting look at the ever-changing landscapes of our beloved local mountains.

Thanks, J, for a great day; we'll get those carne asada tacos and garden pico de gallo next time.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

In Hot Water

Originally written in 2005 - FBW

My fly fishing friend "Evening Rise" has been fishing Hot Creek Ranch for several years now; this year, he was kind enough to invite yours truly to tag along for a couple of days of world-class trout fishing. I must say it was an honor and a privilege to have been invited to fish this classic stream; my heartfelt thanks and gratitude go out to my mentor and friend, Evening Rise. Thanks so much, my man.

I left Los Angeles mid-Monday afternoon, in the midst of one of the hottest weather of the summer so far. You haven’t lived until you’ve driven the LA-to-Mammoth route in 110+ degree heat in the middle of July in an old beater car with no air conditioning.

Well, maybe you have.

Considering this was the car that, a couple of months ago, couldn’t make it to Frenchman’s Flat without overheating, I had my share of doubts and concerns. With my AAA card, a credit card, and a cell phone, I figured I was as well prepared for mechanical failure as could be expected, and I set off with a cooler full of ice, water, and soft drinks, with visions of fat wild trout tail-dancing in my mind. A wet towel draped over my head, mid-eastern style, kept me cool during the brutal drive, although my curious get-up elicited several strange glances from passing motorists.

A side note: I stopped for a break at the rest area between, I believe, Big Pine and Bishop, and noticed a small stream running through the area. To my surprise and delight, I spotted a handful of trout in the stream, one looking to be about 9” or so. Very interesting. I considered rigging up, but the heat got me down, and I reconsidered.

After a blissfully uneventful drive, I arrived at Hot Creek around 7:30PM, finding myself in the midst of a beautiful, crystal-clear evening. I figured Evening Rise would be out on the ranch portion of the stream fishing the, um, evening rise, so I decided to bypass the ranch for the moment and try my hand on the public section of the stream. I hiked down to a section of stream that, surprisingly, I had completely to myself, and tied on a #18 olive bead-head wooly bugger (incidentally, I chose to go with a streamer because I knew I’d be fishing dries-only on the ranch the following day; I figured, why not mix up my presentations a bit?). With great anticipation, using my Sage 8’6” 5-wt (thank-you-thank-you-thank-you oh nameless benefactor) I cast my streamer into one of THE classic Sierra streams.

Unbelievably, I had a strike on my second cast.

On my subsequent cast, I had another strike; this time I set the hook quickly, then played and landed a nice 12”+ brown trout, my first brownie on a fly:

“This is going to be a piece of cake”, I giggled to myself, and, just to prove the point, proceeded to catch another, smaller 11” brown, again on the olive wooly bugger:

Ecstatic, I fished a short while longer, eliciting a strike here, a strike there, generally enjoying the heck out of the moment: the steep cliff walls, the fragrant smell of sagebrush, the almost-full moon rising above the scruffy hills, the massive purple wall of Sierra peaks rising to the east, the gurgling of the stream.

It was, in a word, beautiful.

As dusk sunk its teeth into the warm flesh of the evening, I packed up and headed to Hot Creek Ranch to meet up with Evening Rise. Once there, we drank a few beers, talked trout, and made tentative plans for the following morning. Evening Rise turned in early, having spent the day successfully fishing for goldens in the mountains high above Lone Pine while en route to Mammoth; I wandered down to the stream, drenched in moonlight, beer in hand, headphones playing some of my favorite music (“Bridge Across Forever” by a progressive rock band known as Transatlantic), and thought about trout. I hit the sack around midnight and slept like a juniper snag.

The next morning, after a quick breakfast of coffee, toast, sliced tomatoes, and scrambled eggs, Evening Rise and I hit the stream; here’s the setting:

Old timers will note that the water level is about twice as high as is normal for this time of year; I overheard a couple of veteran guests complaining about the high levels, but, to me, the stream seemed utterly fish-able.

Immediately upon our arrival on the grassy banks of this absolutely gorgeous, classic meadow stream, Evening Rise pointed out a full-blown caddis hatch in progress. Small winged creatures floated above the surface of the stream virtually everywhere, but, strangely, no trout were seen rising -- at least not obviously. This was the first time I’d ever witnessed a bona-fide hatch in progress, by the way, and it was something else, let me tell you. It was absolutely amazing to witness these creatures emerging from the stream, flying above it, dapping on the surface, in great whirring clouds of life.

Logic dictated that I tie on an EHC (size #18) and get to fly fishing, which I soon did. With Evening Rise acting as guide, I was led to a likely-looking stretch of water, one with several “working” fish rising consistently on the far bank, dappling the smooth surface of the stream as their greedy mouths sucked in the morning feast. The hatch was still going strong and it seemed more and more fish were starting to take notice. Using the excellent Sage 8’6” 5-wt, I was able to easily place my fly in the glassy water on the far bank; a strong current between me and the bank had me honing my mending skills; somewhat surprisingly, I was able to get in some nice drag-free drifts and, after a few moments, I had a nice-sized brown trout rise to my fly. I was ridiculously late in setting the hook – frankly, my mind shut down and I froze like a deer in headlights – and, of course, the fish got away clean.

Once again, I thought to myself, “This is going to be easy.”

Famous last words.

We spent the better part of the morning under brilliant blue skies, working section after section of the gentle stream. We spotted fish – some extremely sizeable, some smaller, all beautiful and strong looking – in nearly all types of conditions (pools, riffles, oxbow bends, undercuts). Evening Rise soon settled into a deep groove, slipping into a trance-like state, working the water with his trademark thoroughness, meticulous attention to detail, and uncanny-yet-logic-based selection of flies:

It wasn’t long before he began catching trout, starting off with a nice 14” brown (we didn’t take a lot of pictures this first day, instead simply focusing on the fishing). Soon, he had another fish on, this one an insanely huge 18” (minimum, I am not kidding you) wild rainbow with some of the most amazing coloration I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing. Unfortunately, this magnificent fish slipped out of my net at the last possible minute (I was Evening Rise’s “net boy” for a good part of this fine day; the pleasure was all mine, I’ll have you know), but not before putting him through a veritable clinic of human-avoidance tactics. This fish knew its stuff and knew it well. What an incredible specimen! Evening Rise took the lost fish in stride and continued working, working, and working some more. Eventually, I lost count of how many fish he netted somewhere after the one-dozen mark; this photo is representative of the larger fish he coaxed into his well-worn net:

Meanwhile, yours truly continued to work the water as best as I could, meeting with the occasional rise and the even more occasional take. I learned the joys of adding a dropper to my rig, using a smaller (#22) EHC under a larger (#14) EHC which not only doubled my chances of a take, but also acted as a strike indicator of sorts. There were more than a few instances where I had a fish on my barbless hook for several moments – some were definitely sizeable, adding insult to injury – but, for the life of me, I could not seem to close the deal. I learned very quickly that my bigger fish-playing skills are sorely lacking. Sorely. I also lost an amazing number of fish due to faulty knots. I have had the phrase “check your knots” beaten into my head repeatedly over the years; truly, for the first time ever, my knots (or lack thereof) were put to the test and failed, utterly.

I was humiliated but, in a way, it was a good feeling. I was learning a few things about bigger fish that, quite simply, I had never experienced before on my beloved local streams with their smaller populations.

After the hatch was finally over (around 11:00AM or so), we decided to call it a morning, grab a quick bite for lunch, then head over to the public access section of the stream to try sub-surface techniques during the heat of the afternoon (it was close to 95 degrees even at 7,000’ elevation), when the fish on the ranch would most likely not be rising for dry flies (or anything else, possibly). Once again, Evening Rise put on a clinic, landing several beauties in the span of a couple of hours utilizing a nymph-and-indictor set-up. My streamer approach, unlike the evening before, drew no attention whatsoever from the resident fish, so Evening Rise suggested I set up using a combination scud imitation suspended below a caddis fly nymph, itself suspended below a split-shot and an indicator. On my second cast, I tied into a large (I estimated it to be 16”) rainbow trout, proving Evening Rise’s ability to choose the right fly for the circumstances. However, once again, my fish-playing skills failed under the scrutiny of this large trout, and, at the last possible moment -- just before Evening Rise could get in position to get a net on her – I lost the fish.

Are you sensing a pattern here?

Later, back on the ranch, we fished the evening rise and, as you can guess, the experience was much the same as the morning: Evening Rise consistently catching fish and me consistently losing them. Let me state that throughout the day, the fishing was not wham-bam-thank-you-trout; we were not latching onto trout “cast after cast”, not by any stretch of the imagination. No, these fish required hard work, and even proprietor Bill mentioned that he’d spent considerable time patiently working locations for payoffs.

These were -- at least historically -- challenging conditions on Hot Creek.

As dusk settled over the meadow, I worked a beautiful oxbow bend by myself. In desperation, I had tied on the largest dry fly in my box, a #8 monstrosity that looked like a dust-ball on steroids, and, as the fly drifted through the bend, a huge fish rose up and inhaled it, leaving a whirlpool/vortex in its wake. I set the hook and I had the fish on my line for what seemed like forever, me desperately trying NOT to lose the fish as opposed to playing it intelligently and patiently. The thing felt like a boulder on the end of my line and played me for the fool that I was (or am). The clincher? My knot attaching my tippet to my leader eventually gave way, and the fish swam off, sadly, probably with about three feet of 6X tippet trailing from it’s mouth, I’d imagine. Stupid me. Stupid, stupid me.

I was a bit of an emotional wreck, but I did my best to keep things in perspective (ie. beautiful mountains, amazing stream, good company, rises and takes, etc). These fish were having their way with me; all I could do was accept that simple fact and deal with it.

That night, exhausted, we both hit the sack relatively early (10PM or so). I set my alarm for 5AM and had a great night’s rest.

The following morning found me up before Evening Rise – in fact, I had the stream to myself – and drifting a #14 Madame X pattern over an incredible location along a rather non-descript stretch of the creek. I had “discovered” this “hole” the prior day and had spotted what looked like at least a dozen large trout consistently holding along the bottom. Much to my delight, as I was lifting the Madame X up and off the water in preparation for another cast, a rather feisty and large brown trout became airborne in an attempt to take my fly. Drats, another fish missed! Can you find the “hole” along this stretch? It’s not obvious, at least to me:

This glorious morning started much the same way as the prior day: me getting – then ultimately missing -- strikes. However, this morning I was feeling fantastic, no pressure on me to do anything, just in an incredibly serene mindset where all seemed right with the world. Lost another fly in the waist-high grass? No problem. Miss a strike? Sure, bring on another. Having a hard time threading that parachute Adams? No worries. I’m fishing Hot Creek by myself and nothing can take that away from me.
Soon I was joined by Evening Rise, just as the first hatch of the day was starting. Evening Rise identified it as a trico hatch, so we dug into our fly boxes and tied on the appropriate flies (I used a #14 EHC as an indicator with a #18 trico as a dropper). We moved to a classic location -- this, on a stream consisting of nothing BUT classic locations -- where fish were rising by the dozens along the far bank. Evening Rise began to work the stretch intently, while I worked a nearby bend where conditions were somewhat similar. Momentarily, I heard Evening Rise yell “fish on!” and I raced over to find him embattled with this glorious 18” wild rainbow on his line:

Wow. Just, wow. For the thousandth time on this stream, I asked myself “What am I doing wrong?” when I SHOULD have been asking “What is Evening Rise doing right?”
As I continued to work the miniature bend in the stream, I found myself casting to three or four different rising fish, coaxing occasional rises, refusals, and missed strikes. Eventually, one of my intended targets took my trico and I had the fish on my line. Somewhat desperately, I yelled to Evening Rise “how should I bring this fish in?” and he graciously coached me: “get him on the reel”, “keep your rod tip UP”, “watch for those weeds”, etc. Finally, after almost two days of hard fishing, I had this to show for my efforts, my first – and only – Hot Creek Ranch brown trout:

Sure, he was a skinny little guy for a solid 14” incher, but let me tell you, I have never, ever worked harder for a fish in my life, nor been as grateful for one as this. I let out a sigh of relief as I released him back into the water, all smiles and good times, laughing at the absurdity of it all. I thanked Evening Rise for helping me acheive this worthy goal.

Momentarily, the trico hatch ended and Evening Rise noted that PMD’s were suddenly emerging. We both switched over to PMD patterns and soon Evening Rise had another nice rainbow in his net, this one in the 16” range. I, too, locked into a fish, this one yet another large ‘bow, but, true to form, I couldn’t hold on to her and she spit the hook and swam free.

This time, I was happy.

The happy feeling didn’t last too long, because the time had come for me to return to Los Angeles and face my responsibilities. I said farewell to Evening Rise (he was staying on for a couple more days) and bought a ranch t-shirt just for grins. After a great lunch at La Casitas in Bishop (classic Mexican food), I rolled into Van Nuys at around 5:00PM, greeted by rainshowers of all things. I put my boots in the freezer – gotta kill off those New Zealand mud snails, don’t you know – and proceeded to sleep for 12 hours straight.

So what did I learn from fishing this world-class technical water?

1) Selectivity. Evening Rise proved without a doubt that these fish feed selectively, and switching appropriate fly patterns at the right time results in more fish.

2) Reading water. This stream was unlike any of the freestone streams I’ve fished. I learned a bit regarding reading some of the more “non-descript” sections that, indeed, held fish. Not an easy stream to read, but not impossible.

3) Knots. It’s been said before and I will say it again: TIE SOLID KNOTS and check ‘em constantly. No skimping or cheating. You WILL lose large fish if your knots aren’t up to snuff. I am embarrassed at how easily my knots failed me, and how often. Ugh.

4) Playing large fish. This was the hardest lesson of all. Fishing local waters almost exclusively, I have never really tied into seriously large fish. These bigger fish – and, without trying to sound like I am bragging, because I am most certainly knot (haha), but I KNOW I hooked into some 18” range trout – require special handling and care, and constant attention and focus. The slightest break in concentration resulted in fish coming off. I lost a half-dozen bona-fide monsters due to my lack of experience. Note to self: start catching bigger fish just for practice.

Thanks again, Evening Rise, for sharing this one-of-a-kind fly fishing experience with me.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Tube of Miso Creek

Yet another report from days gone by...NK, you would've died on this trip. Puthy. Here we go...

My buddy Krudler and I had been planning an overnight backpack for what seemed like weeks and, sure as sugar, every weekend was either rainy or, gasp, snowed out. Rescheduling became a part of our normal routine, and I began to wonder: will we ever make this trip happen?

Early last week, the long-range weather forecast called for a semi-partly cloudy Saturday with a 30% chance of sprinkles, with Sunday appearing to be sunny and warm. It seemed like a good time to get a little Black Diamond adventure under our belts, so plans were laid, so to speak. Another buddy -- Jon D. -- managed to pull a few favors with the wife – god only knows what that poor man had to go through – and was able to join us on the trip.

I don’t know about you, but I really love our local mountains when they’re drenched in sunshine, accompanied by a gently, warm San Gabriel breeze blowing through the big cone Douglas firs. However, upon our 8:00AM arrival at the trailhead (yeah, we got an early start, hehe), we were somewhat surprised to find it foggy, and damper than Paris Hilton after an all night rave. Here’s a shot you might recognize from de facto Black Diamond Trout Society leader Sir Homey (and his trusty sidekick Jake)’s earlier posts:

As you can see, the clouds were rolling in and, in fact, did so, not only all day Saturday, but all weekend.

What’s a Black Diamond fly fisherman to do? Cheer up, chum, and carry on, that’s what.

The hike into this canyon is like cheesecake with extra sour cream and blueberries; it’s about four miles, descending all the way to the bottom (as seen in the picture above); not super tough, but it’s a bit of a walk. It didn’t take us very long to reach the bottom, and I believe we each enjoyed the damp, fresh splendors the hike provided. The trail generally follows an extremely sweet looking tributary, one which looks very fishy, but none of us were able to spot and trout from the trail high above.

Once we hit the confluence with the main stream – Tube of Miso Creek – I led the guys off-trail to a small, hidden campsite (one of my favorite places to spend a night), where we stashed our overnight gear and rigged up for some fly fishing. It was about this time that it started to drizzle, not heavy, just enough to soak the brush and adding an uncomfortable chill to the mountain air; here’s a dismal shot of T.O.M. creek as we found it:

Hey, at least the water was clear – if I’d had some lemons on me, I’d have made lemonade. Instead, I fortified my resolve with a shot of Southern Comfort and headed upstream, visions of strawberry-cream wild trout filling my head.

We settled into a pattern of spreading out over the stream, sometimes fishing together, sometimes on our own, and it wasn’t long until I had my first Southern California dink sitting in my numb hands, courtesy of one of Krudler’s fine “Petey Nymphs” (ask him about the origin of that name some time); obligatory dink shot:

A short while later, this chunky little Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup came to find me; I fell in love with the late 1960’s swirling, Dali-esque parr marks and a toothy grin on this little fattie:

Krudler – patient fly fisherman that he is – intently worked one crazy deep pool whereupon he had seen a fourteen-inch range trout in lurker’s clothing, so I gave him some room and soon hooked up with Jon. Jon and I stumbled – literally; it was freaking WET, people – upon a nice pool with a sizeable fish seemingly protecting its territory from a handful of smaller fish. Jon, being a gracious sort, offered me first cast at the fish, so I tossed a #14 purple beadhead woolly bugger in the pool, and started a quick retrieve; amazingly, the “daddy” fish followed my fly, then opened its mouth, taking a swipe at the bugger. Predictably, I missed the strike.

Then it was Jon’s turn. I think he made all of one cast – I recall the “Petey Nymph” was Jon’s fly – and BAM, the fish was on. What a fight this noble warrior gave! Jon must’ve spent ten full minutes – maybe more; the clouds and fog were in my mind as well as upon the hills – before I was able to get Jon’s net under him. Here, first, is a shot of the fish during the fight, and the “net shot” follows:

What a gorgeous specimen! Folks, that fish almost topped the thirteen inch mark in Jon’s measure net, a fine, healthy, strong warrior that all but made my day. Nice work, Jon!!!

A little while later, Jon watched as a nice sized trout – perhaps eleven inches –took my #14 Red Humpy (which I was using as an indicator) and began to battle me; in a flash, an even larger trout came out of the depths and charged my #16 beadhead Prince nymph dropper. For a moment, I thought the Trout Gods were going to bless me with a two-fish hook up, but, alas, it was not to be. Not one but BOTH trout soon shook my flies off and left me standing there, damp and fishless, silently weeping, as Jon tried – unconvincingly, I might add – to console me.

After flogging the upper stretches of T.O.M. creek for about five hours, we met back at the campsite and compared stories. Krudler told of landing a twelve inch fish, then losing a fourteen inch alligator in the next pool below. As he told us this, tears welled up in his eyes. I brought out the pack stove and whipped up a batch of hot tea for Jon and me to ward off the chill, then we all gathered our gear and moved a quarter mile or so to the “main” campsite – a sprawling, football-field sized flat with some incredible oaks (which blocked the drizzle which had by now turned to rain), a huge fire pit, and several sheltered flats for sleeping. Snack lunches were consumed, and the rest of the afternoon was spent with each of us individually working the lower stretches of the stream.

As the day drew on, it got progressively colder and wetter, and the fishing seemed to slow down, although we each managed a fish or two. Round about 6:00PM, I headed back to camp, found Krudler gathering firewood, and proceeded to do the same, gathering a nice pile for the long, cold night ahead. Having not expected rain, I had brought along a simple tarp shelter, and, as I set it up, I hoped it would be sufficient to keep me dry throughout the night.

We spent a great evening cooking dinner and then hanging around an absolutely spectacular, roaring campfire (started courtesy of some of Jon’s cookstove fuel), talking and sharing various libations (Southern Comfort, Jack Daniels, some weird-named Irish whiskey, and a Guiness or two). It was a pleasure to get out of my wet fishing clothes and into some dry camp clothes and shoes, let me tell you. We partied like crazy and soon it was the midnight hour; miraculously, the clouds had parted, revealing a starry night sky. We bedded down in our various shelters with visions of a warm, sunny daybreak. I, for one, slept like a log, and my “minimalist” shelter – as Jon called it – kept me snug and dry, much to my delight.

We awoke to cloudy skies, but at least it wasn’t raining. On the mountains around us, about 500’ above, the trees glistened with frost and a dusting of new snow. Jon made chilaquilas for breakfast – ground sausage scrambled with eggs and tortilla chips, topped with fresh salsa – and then we broke camp and proceeded to fish, downstream, for several hours.

The fishing this day was a lot better than the day before. We spread out and pretty much fished solo all morning, leap-frogging and leaving everyone plenty of water to explore. I managed to land a couple of nice fish from some typical runs, most of which were incredibly brushed over (this shot is typical of the stream):

I pulled this sweet “stocker” from a tight little run:

Later, an olive beadhead woolly bugger started performing miracles, and I took this, my “fish of the day”, from a deep pool between two fallen logs, as tough a spot I’ve ever fished:

In fact, let me state here that T.O.M. creek was probably one of the most difficult places I’ve ever tossed a fly; obstacles were EVERYWHERE, with brush alongside, above and in the water. I lost more flies on this trip than on my past ten trips combined. The challenge was a blast, though, and these spooky fish made it all worthwhile.

We headed back to the cars in the late afternoon, actually hiking up into the clouds, and made a strong, steady pace. Along the way, Jon and I were talking about how many beautiful fish we’d spooked, and we came up with a patch for the Black Diamond Trout Society Spookers, which is simply a solid Black Diamond.

I dunno, it seemed funny at the time.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Return Engagement

Round about twelve, fourteen years ago, I backpacked into quite a few local canyons, sometimes ultra-light spin-fishing, other times bringing no gear at all, content to merely observe the resident trout, and to splash about in sunshine and solitude.

In one particularly delightful sylvan sanctuary I once saw the one of the biggest local trout I had ever seen. I remember it like it was yesterday...

It was a late April Saturday morning, and our beloved San Gabriels were alive with wildflowers, honey bees, deer, rattlesnakes, coyote, bobcats, birds, and countless other living, wild creatures. A warm spring breeze greeted me at the trailhead, like the breath of the mountain herself. Heaven.

Having hiked down, down, DOWN into the canyon very early that morning – by dawn’s first golden light – I had quickly established a stealth camp and replenished my energy reserves, wolfing down trail mix and granola bars, enjoying the sweet filtered stream water (flowing nicely – NICELY! -- with her springtime bounty).

With a day’s worth of exploring ahead of me, and no fishing gear along for this particular trip, I intended to enjoy a leisurely morning safe within the cool confines of the creek, splashing around in shallow pools and walking among riffles and runs – often doubled-over to avoid overhanging branches and streamside growth.

Hoping to spot trout.

I’ll never forget the pool. You know the one. There’s a small tributary on the east – EAST, I tell you – side of the main stream, a feisty little thing full of froth and fury, which feeds a veritable swimming pool, a sparkling, oxygen-clear reservoir that shimmers like a mirage under the spring-green alders. A true pool, an emerald gem, a prime lie.

Trout habitat.

As I approached the pool from upstream, I saw it: an alarmingly large black torpedo which quickly dashed -- frankly, the words “quickly dashed” do not do justice to the speed with which that trout moved -- from the base of the pool, immediately taking cover under a flat, circular boulder that sat at the upper edge of the pool, directly next to the two-foot inlet waterfall that churned the cold waters into ice-blue fury.

I was astounded. “That was a big fish”, I told myself, somewhat understating the situation.

Sometimes having no wrist watch, no schedule to adhere to, can be a good thing. I made myself comfortable on the flat circular rock and decided to out-wait the fish. I figured I could do worse things on a Saturday morning than relaxing on a nice smooth boulder alongside a beautiful stream with a large wild trout lying virtually under my feet, sight unseen.

The brook continued to babble watery nonsense; I continued to listen.

The thing with having no timepiece is, sometimes you lose track of the hours. One could conceivably doze off, perhaps for so long that one might miss seeing the fish as it leaves the safety of the lair and resumes feeding in the shallow outlet, eventually disappearing under an embankment before you arise. Or, on the other hand (hand, as in hands on a clock, as in the passage of time), one might lose track of the actual time spent waiting for the trout to appear, so much so that one begins to have doubts as to the fish’s very existence.

Either way, you eventually leave the pool for other sparkling passages, for other fish to fry (so to speak), but you never, ever forget that dark torpedo; your brain never, ever forgets the adrenaline rush that accompanies such a sighting.

You never forget these things.

I was young and full of energy then, full of enthusiasm for my local wilderness and my secret trout populations. And, with the torpedo very much in mind, I found myself back at the pool – you know the one – the following weekend, the first weekend of

May: the month of possibilities. The month that can’t quite let April go, but isn’t quite ready for June just yet.

Tiny blue wildflowers – I called them San Gabriel Blues, but they have a more common name which I can’t recall at the moment – decorated the trail where last week there were none. Transition in progress. Shaggy red cedars provided welcome shade from the brash spring sun. Water called to me as I wound my way down the switchbacking trail and into the riparian canyon below.

Same stealth campsite, same routine: rest, relax, refresh.

The eastside – EAST, I tell you -- feeder stream was a little smaller, a little less feisty, this weekend. Spring travels fast in these arid landscapes. But the pool was still there, shimmering like a diamond a few dozen yards below me, as I stood, observing, as yet unseen by the torpedo feeding in the shallows.

Forgive me, my fellow fly fishermen, for I have, in a past life, donned the spinning rod and bail-style reel overflowing with two-pound test line, languidly tossing the smallest lures money could buy -- barbs crimped and trebles snipped -- side-arm style, aiming the dazzling engagement rings under willows, into alder thickets, behind boulders, hoping to attract trout.

Such were my intentions this fine May morning. Forgive me, my brothers and sisters.

Okay, there’s a big rock at the head of the pool. If I’m quiet and stay low, I can walk right along the west bank of the stream, and the big rock will shield me from the torpedo. I know she’s there. She has to be.

Splish. Splash. One watery step at a time. My back hurts but I’m almost to the rock. I haven’t even seen the surface of the swimming pool yet; I don’t dare. She’ll see me, and she’ll dash under the rock and I’ll never see her again this day, sure as sugar.

I’m there. I still can’t see the torpedo pool; I’m safe behind the big grey boulder, and if I so much as let a fraction of my sun-hat into view, she’ll spook. Mustn’t have that now.

I’m already rigged up and ready to cast; in fact, I rigged up at breakfast, double-checking my double clinch knot, sharpening the single barbless hook that I’ve attached to the ½” Red Devil spoon (deadly on these small streams, I’ve learned -- at times, anyway).

I’ve only got once chance, one cast. My heart is racing. “Let’s go”, I tell myself, unhooking the lure from the foam handle of the telescoping spinning rod, the one I bought at Target for $9.99 (plus tax). I used to pride myself on my ragtag gear. I’ve gotten over that.

I draw the rod backward, simultaneously lifting the bail, freeing up the line, then make a sharp forward cast, effortlessly tossing the lure twenty feet or so, at what I am imagining is the bottom of the swimming pool. I still can’t see; I’m still in hiding.

I crank the reel, snapping the bail shut, securing the line. I’m shaking. I begin a slow retrieve; too slow, I think to myself. I crank a little faster, then stop. “Let it sink.” I retrieve again, this time faster, and, suddenly, like that, I’m into trout.

I can’t believe the weight of this thing; it’s like trying to reel in a Boeing. Being careful not to tumble over the inlet waterfall, I stand up, exposing myself to the pool, just in time to see a fat, colorful fourteen inch wild rainbow trout dancing in mid-air. I’ve got her!

Now the hard part. I can’t bring her in from where I’m standing; she’s too fat, too heavy, to risk hauling her up two feet on this light line. I’m convinced she’s securely hooked; if that head-shaking jump didn’t free the hook, nothing will short of letting her dive. Mustn’t let her dive.

I carefully make my way around the big sheltering boulder – the boulder that made catching this fish possible; thank you boulder, I love you boulder, please marry me boulder – eventually reaching the poolside proper.

There she is, waiting for me, shining like a rainbow diamond. The biggest fish I’ve ever caught, let alone seen, in all of the San Gabriels. It’s like a taste of the late 1800’s, when Pasadena gentlemen-fly fishers would catch hundreds of sixteen-inch wild rainbow trout out of a single pool, except it’s only one. That fact makes her even more treasured to me.

I gently grasp the heaving beauty – what a healthy, gorgeous fish, and heavy! – and, using my hemostats, remove the single hook lure from her upper jaw, freeing the fish. I hold her steady in the shallows with one hand, grasping for my camera with the other. I revive the monster trout and she begins to show signs of recovery. She makes s-curve motions that my clumsy fingers can barely control.

Gratefully, and with as much respect as I can muster, I thank the creator of the universe and release the torpedo back into the pool. She darts in the direction of the circular rock and disappears into the silver shadows.

Please forgive me for holding this awesome 'bow by the jaw -- I was young and stupid back then (now I'm just stupid).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Quest for SoCal Brown Trout

I was recently involved in a moderately strenuous – don’t be fooled by the word “moderately” (famous last words!) – backpack undertaken by my buddy Krudler and yours truly to a hard-to-reach, seldom visited section of a local watershed.

This particular stream is one I have avoided for years, mainly because it seems to draw a lot of attention from fly anglers in our area. It’s by no means an unknown fishery, yet it remains (apparently) pristine due to the difficult access (4.5 miles one way, 2,000’+ elevation loss/gain, about a 3 hour walk each way no matter how you slice it). Regardless, I was highly anticipating visiting this water for the first time, not-so-secretly hoping to achieve a personal goal – catching and releasing my first Southern California brown trout.

After an ungodly early departure (4:15AM), I had a leisurely, traffic-free drive during prime sunrise time, enjoying the ever-changing light as it illuminated the local mountains in shades of orange, amber and rust. The sweet morning scent of “scotch broom” (an invasive plant, mind you) perfumed the air, occasionally mixed with essence of pine; birds went about their business as they always do. A hearty breakfast at a local mountain coffee shop had me fueled-up and ready to begin the adventure, and soon Krudler and I made our rendezvous at the trailhead, both of us about fifteen minutes ahead of schedule – which meant an extra fifteen minutes of fishing (every moment counts)!

For this trip I was going fairly ultra-light (at least as ultra-light as my modest budget can afford); the weather was forecast as being hot, hot, hot, so, in lieu of a sleeping bag, I packed a small fleece blanket; I also left my canister gas stove at home, opting instead for a classic old school Esbit cooking set-up (solid fuel cubes). A swath of mosquito netting and a small plastic sheet would suffice for shelter. The combined weight of these items reduced my normal pack weight by about eight pounds, and I felt confident that I could endure the trip with a minimum of discomfort while retaining a few luxury items (ie. bourbon, CD player, swim trunks). I also packed, for the first time, my 6’6” 3WT Diamondglass rod; at two pieces, it’s a bit bulky, but I managed to secure it to my pack and was later delighted that I had brought it – it was the perfect rod for this tight little stream.

There’s not a lot to say about the hike down except that it’s long and non-stop, not much shade, overgrown in places, no water at all, with stunning views out over the flat-lands. Stupidly, I forgot to re-tighten my boot laces when setting out (a tip: if you’re about to embark on a long downhill hike, always tie your boots as tightly as possible to minimize your toes smashing into the boot tip), so my feet took a bit of a beating on the way down, although I wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary until later that evening. Krudler and I enjoyed the fresh morning air and the forever views, talking about trout strategy and anything else that came to mind, and soon enough – after one short rest break – we could hear the stream not too far below.

Upon reaching the stream (at about 9:00AM), we were greeted by an unusual sight: in the pool at the trail crossing I spooked what looked like a small rainbow trout swimming on its side. “That looks rather strange,” I thought, and for a moment I was confused until I realized that what I had seen was actually a brown trout with a dead ‘bow in its jaws – Duraflame(tm)! The sighting encouraged us to no end, and with renewed vigor we hiked the remaining half-mile to our planned base camp alongside a gorgeous little tributary. The site – shaded by oak, maple, alder and pine – had a small fire pit and a makeshift rock table complete with “chairs”. It was flat, close to the tributary, and had a great view of the surrounding canyon – a great place to spend a weekend.

It didn’t take long for us to get our day-packs together and rig up for our prime objective: fly fishing (what else?). We decided to spend this first day exploring upstream, the planned objective being an almost-impassable waterfall a mile or so up the canyon, one with a massive pool at its base. Starting at the Duraflame(tm) Pool, we began dealing with the task at hand, each of us experiencing that unique mindset that first accompanies hitting a stream: what should I tie on first? Are there risers? Where are the prime lies? What are these fish feeding on? Do I have everything?

I was extremely lucky in choosing a small (#14) olive bead-head woolly bugger as my first fly, as I caught and released three ‘bows and a small brown within the first half hour of fishing. As excited as I was with “my first Southern California brown”, the largest bow – about 11” or so – really stoked my fires. It was taken out of a nice frothy plunge pool and tried exceptionally hard to make me look bad by jumping and running directly at me. However, after a few tense – but highly enjoyable – moments, I brought this classic SoCal ‘bow into my waiting net:

Flush with this early success, little did I know it would be literally hours before I got into my next trout. The action seemingly stopped dead at around 11:00AM or so -- typical summer behavior for these hardy canyon survivors – so Krudler and I tag-teamed our way upstream, enjoying the day and spotting fish for one another. One long pool we approached had what looked like a dozen or more fat trout holding in the tail-out; a massive boulder created the bottom of the pool, making a perfect stealth position to target the pod. Krudler gave me first shot at the pool, but my casting skills – getting better but still rudimentary – were such that I was unable to make a viable presentation. Krudler took up position, made one perfect cast, and pulled out this nice brown, taken on a #16 red humpy if I’m not mistaken:

The rest of the afternoon was spent in this delightful fashion, each of us getting into fish slowly but consistently. As the afternoon wore on, we tended to switch to dry flies as browns were on the rise; many splashes were induced, some actually resulting in netted fish. As classic pool after classic pool were revealed, we took turns making presentations, spooking monsters, laughing at our foibles and grinning at our successes. Throughout the warm afternoon, thunder clouds threatened rain (it actually sprinkled for a few muggy moments), but the cloud cover made the heat tolerable, and the wet-wading kept us cool.

A typical scenario went like this: we’d spot the tail-out of a nice pool upstream, many of them protected by a head-high plunge one could easily hide behind. We’d sneak up to the tail-out then to the rocks, now eye-level with the upstream pool. If you were careful, you could poke your head above the rocks and see a trout feeding only a couple of feet away, unaware of your deceptive intentions. Looking behind you to see if there was casting room – there often wasn’t – you’d lob your dry fly over your head, gently landing it a few feet upstream of the fish you’d targeted. Then – my favorite part! – you’d watch the buoyant, brilliant fly drift towards you, right in line with the trout. If you were lucky, you’d witness the fish lazily rise to inhale the fly, quickly submerging before realizing it was hooked. After a nice reel-singing fight, you’d land something like this:

We eventually made it up to the near-impassable waterfall with its remarkable pool, and spent a good half-hour working the crystal clear deep-green waters. A more beautiful sight you’re not likely to see, but I have been warned with penalty of death should I post a photo of it here. Although the pool was clearly loaded with some very fine trout, only Krudler managed to land anything, a nice 9” range ‘bow with classic colors.

We soon headed back to base camp, relaxed for a while, set-up for the evening, then proceeded to enjoy a fantastically fun twilight hour catching small, exceptionally dark-colored trout from the sparkling Tolkein-esque pools of the tributary. I hit the first pool and nailed a ‘bow on my first cast; Krudler did the same on the second pool. Third pool, I repeated the process, and on the fourth pool, Krudler again nailed a ‘bow on the first cast. On the fifth pool the pressure was on, and I blew it by catching a fish on my third cast (gasp). It was just a ridiculously good time, “anti-fishing” for these small, aggressive, gorgeous trout, the polar opposites of the relative beasts in the main stream not far below.

My dinner was delayed by the exceptionally slow time the Esbit took to heat my water – a failed experiment, for sure. While cooking, I tended to my suddenly-sore toes, patiently waiting for dinner; eventually my meal was cooked, and we enjoyed a drowsy evening fireside, sharing a little bourbon and recalling the events of the day. We both hit the sack around 10:00PM, a canopy of sparkling stars twinkling overhead, a mild breeze cooling the canyon, the white-noise of the stream lulling us to sleep. We slept soundly until the ridiculous hour of 9:30AM the next morning – a luxury afforded by the shady campsite.

Awakening appropriately sore and tired, we consumed our respective breakfasts and eagerly gathered our day-packs and gear together for another day’s fishing. The plan was to let the heat of the day pass while we fished, tackling the long, steep hike out of the canyon at around 4:30PM or so, leaving the better part of the day free to explore downstream.

We basically fished alone for most of the day, each of us working various stretches of excellent looking water. I “discovered” an enchanting, tiny unnamed tributary, and hiked up it a short length when I stumbled upon this gorgeous waterfall and pool:

In the pool, clearly visible to my disbelieving eyes, was what had to have been a 16” rainbow trout. As I crouched behind a rock, voyeuristically, the monster trout chased two smaller trout away from the tail-out, then saw me and spooked under the falls. For the 1,001st time this trip, I found myself saying “Awww d-a-m-n!” as the fish took deep cover. This trout had the most pronounced red slash I have ever seen on a fish, incidentally; the thing was absolutely incredible. Undaunted, I repeatedly tossed my red humpy into the foamy water, in the general direction of where I saw the monster ‘bow dart, again and again. After about ten drifts, to my astonishment, I watched the big ‘bow break water and inhale my fly – and the fight of my life was on!

The monster took me on a personal guided tour of the pool, trying to saw me off under a sharp edge, jumping enthusiastically into the heart of the falls, stripping line from my reel when she decided to take me deep, etc. etc. ad infinitum. However, this was not to be my day; during a crucial moment, my knot failed and I found myself, fishless and fly-challenged, standing under blue skies, alone with my defeat. Opportunity lost!

Leaving the tributary, I found this dead mouse on a rocky ledge, hence the title of my report:

Nearby was a jawbone I was unable to identify, obviously unrelated to the dead mouse:

Later that morning, back on the main stream, I again lost a fish due to knot failure, this time on a #12 black bead-head woolly bugger. I had lost my magnifying glasses the day before and, apparently, I can’t tie a clinch knot without ‘em to save my life. However, I managed to tie on a #16 stonefly nymph and enjoyed a few mind-clearing moments of drifting the thing around and around the pool, when I was suddenly hit by a severe strike – fish on! After an absolutely hellacious battle, I managed to net my “fish of the trip”, a classic “strawberries and cream” ‘bow that was easily 14”. As I revived the fish and reached for my camera, she made a last-ditch effort for freedom and managed to turn my net sideways with her weight and slip free. Heartbroken and ecstatic at the same time, I watched her torpedo back into the safety of the pool, happy for the chance to have connected with such a gorgeous specimen.

As the afternoon slipped away, I found myself looking at my watch – well, cell phone, actually – keeping track of the time. Having only a few moments to spare, I carefully worked my way up to a nice pool and began my presentation, this time a #18 black ant with an orange parachute, the first ant pattern I tried on this trip. Immediately upon hitting the water, the ant was inhaled by a nice-sized brown trout that made a habit of diving deep into the rocks; many times, I thought my tippet had hung up, only to be carefully worked free. The persistence of the brown was admirable, and, eventually, I brought this fish to my net:

I moved on to another pool and repeated the process; once again, the ant was instantly inhaled, and another, nicer brown trout took me into the rocks time and again; after an immensely enjoyable battle, I landed my largest brown of the trip:

With that, I headed back to camp and arrived mere moments before Krudler, who’d had himself a fine day as well. We broke camp, ate lunch, filtered water, and said our goodbyes to our weekend retreat, intent on tackling the long, steep hike out. We took our time walking, with me taking very slow, deliberate steps, making the ascent one step at a time. Sure, it’s a long, steep haul, but if approached with the right mindset, it’s not that bad. After one short rest break, we made it to the once-distant crest and were back at our cars by 7:00PM, in plenty of time to get home at a decent hour. Chalk up another successful Black Diamond adventure.

For me, this trip was a milestone in a few ways. As mentioned above, I’ve been itching to catch my first Southern California brown trout, which I did (I ended up with a total of five brown trout netted this trip). I also broke the “hundredth fish caught this year” mark (for some reason, I am keeping track of every fish I net during this, my first full year of fly fishing), so that was kind of cool. If I incur a 10% fish mortality rate, then this year I’ve most likely killed ten trout (after the fact) and released ninety to live another day. I can live with that, I think. I also downsized my backpacking gear considerably and survived, comfortably, with the exception of the relative failure of the Esbit stove.

Lastly, I’ve been excited to fish this stream for some time now, and it wildly exceeded my expectations, hands down.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

February at Our Feet

(Photo by Ben R Sandoval, used with permission)

I was sitting at my desk at work yesterday; the sun was shining, and there wasn’t a cloud to be found anywhere – not even in the Yellow Pages (I looked, under “Clouds”). For the first time in literally weeks, it felt like spring. Unbelievably, it’s supposed to rain tomorrow; how could rain be in the forecast with this high pressure system firmly lodged over the Southwest, all but baking us to a delightful crisp? Preposterous!

Something stirs in my soul, like a trout swirling underneath an emerging mayfly, inhaling all negative thoughts of work, and exhaling an undeniable desire to find myself, laughing, stream-side.

I examine my workload: nothing much pending. I check with my co-workers and confirm that, indeed, there’s nothing work-related to justify my presence, nothing that can’t wait a day.

A thought forms: can I swing an afternoon off for a little piscatorial pursuit? After all, I haven’t been on a stream with a fly rod in what, two long, interminable weeks? My soul, it appears, is in dire need of rejuvenation; trout provide an answer to an unasked – but clearly felt – question. Thought leads to action: I ask -- beg, actually -- for the afternoon off, and am rewarded with a positive answer from the boss.

It’s on...

I rush home, grab some gear-n-grub, and hit the remarkably sparse freeway at full throttle, anxious to reach my home waters; after all, I haven’t fished these waters in ages (at which time, I morosely remind myself, I’d been skunked). I’m just happy to be headed to the stream for an afternoon of splashing around in warm, caressing sunlight.

The home waters are unpredictable; I never know what’s in store for me until the moment I arrive at the stream: will the water be low, with algae-covered rocks exposed in what is “normally” – as if the word “normal” could ever be applied to this stream -- a fantastic run? Or will it be blown-out, scary, fast and furious?

This place can be a miniature Kings River at times -- I’ve seen it myself on more than a few occasions. I admit it: the uncertainty of this place tickles me to no end, drives me to somehow make sense of it’s many moods, to try and get a handle on what makes it tick.

Speaking of ticks, it feels like full-blown summer upon my arrival, with one major exception: everything is green, green, green. What a difference a month – and several late-season storms – makes; I have trouble finding the trail, what with all of the new growth that has sprouted since my last visit. No worries -- I know the way – so I battle the brush in the unrelenting, unseasonable heat, black flies in my ears and eyes, and a song in my heart.

Well, well, well, what do you know: the stream is in perfect form, flowing at just the right level, one that often finds trout in the riffles and runs in addition to the almost-always reliable pools. My heartbeat quickens a little and my excitement level rises a notch or two, but I remain uncharacteristically calm. There’s no sense of urgency today, just an overriding sense of peace.

I decide to hit the Walmart hole just for old times sake; after my experiences on "1972 Plymouth Roadrunner Creek” with my buddies "B" and Evening Rise, I have a strong feeling that today is the day when the woolly bugger will finally draw some attention here on the home waters, so that’s what I tie on, that’s what I drift down-current and then strip-back, and that’s what absolutely nothing touches -- for the entire day, in fact.

Oh well, it’s just as important to know what doesn’t work on a given stream as well as what does. Or so I tell myself.

I play it safe and tie on a tried-and-true home water special: a #14 bead-head Prince nymph. With the sun beating me to a citrus-y, nicotine-hued pulp, I revel in the moment, my eyes fixed on my lemon-yellow indicator bobbing around in the choppy waters of the hole; I am delighted to be alive and on the water. Having left my waders at home – on purpose – my wet Levi’s feel cool and comforting as I bask on a rock, sipping a beer, lobbing my rig again and again in the milky-green waters, waiting for something to take the fly.

I begin a retrieve in anticipation of another lob; am I hung up on the bottom? I gently pull back on the rod – my lovely Sage 5WT – and feel something move; I am most definitely NOT hung up.

Without warning, I am battling a trout – a nice one, from the feel of things. The fish takes me directly into the rapids, a dangerous class III chute of churning whitewater that can spell L-D-R in the wrong hands. I pull an Evening Rise move and swish my rod to my left, guiding the trout away from the rapids. Then, with my line peeling off the reel with that wonderful “zzzzzzing!” sound, the fish dives – DEEP. I didn’t realize how deep this pool actually is; this diving warrior gives me an indication. Wow! The strength of this thing makes me certain it’s a 20” monster, the fish of my dreams. She all but jerks the rod out of my hands with heavy, strong moves, time and again.

I keep the pressure on, suddenly catching a glimpse of flashing purple-silver in the water at my feet. Nice looking fish, but not as big as her strength would indicate. She takes off for the depths again, and again I hold on – with both hands. I feel no sense of panic, no sense of urgency; all seems natural and right and, if she throws the hook or my knots fail, I’ll still be ecstatic just to experience this incredible display of strength.

Eventually, with much switching of the rod from side to side, taking in and letting out line, the fish tires and I guide her into my net; she’s absolutely beautiful, about 15” long, completely wild, and healthy as a horse. I try snapping a quick picture, then go for another; my camera displays the “memory full” message and I remember I’ve got pictures from my last three fishing trips in the memory. As I frantically delete a couple of old photos, the fish makes a desperate lunge for survival and escapes my net, vanishing like a spirit back into the milky-green waters.

I feel relaxed, happy. I move upstream with a certain deep run in mind. I’m singing an old REM song in my head: “This one goes out to the run I love...” The run is as delicious and sexy as ever, even more so with all of the new growth alongside, making a lovely home for a trout or two. Once again, I’m lobbing the Prince nymph and, once again, I think I’m hung up when, in fact, I have a fish on. This time, I hook – then lose -- a small rainbow trout that looks to be in the 9” range (pretty small for this stream, actually). The relentless sun bakes me dry and I take a little lunch break, pondering the stream and my place in the scheme of things. A warm breeze washes away my cares and, for a brief, wonderfully Zen moment, I forget who and why I am.

The afternoon passes in amber waves of water and sunlight; I see no other humans on the stream. I can’t believe I’m here, practically within sight of Los Angeles, with this remarkable place, with its unlikely, hard-fighting wild trout, all to myself. Life is good.

Before I realize it, it’s almost dark. Once again, time has passed through that strange zone that defies what my watch tells me, causing me to shake my head in disbelief. I have one last run in mind to fish, and I make my way over loose boulders and through scattered brush towards it (it’s a tough spot to reach, really brushed over, with fly-snagging willows strategically placed all around (as if by the hand of God), and one lovely rock to stand upon). Sticking with the Prince nymph, I make a half-dozen drifts and am rewarded with a fine fish for my efforts. She fights like a warrior, surprising me with her heft, and scaring me when she plops over a plunge at the bottom of the run. She’s heavy, and I worry about how I’m going to fight her back into the relative safety of the run from below the nasty plunge. Somehow, I do it, the feisty trout tires, and I bring a nice 14”-er to net.

A gorgeous, full moon rises above the ridge to the east; to the west, a hint of the storm to come lingers on the horizon. As I sit outside at a table at a run-down burger joint, enjoying a well-earned meal, I reflect on my unexpected day off and give thanks to the Creator of the Universe for blessing me with such a beautiful, eternal day. It was, in a word, marvelous.

As I sit here writing this report, with rain coming down (just as was forecast), I realize my incredibly good fortune with regard to the timing of my little adventure. Was something telling me, yesterday, “Go fishing today, for tomorrow it may rain?”

Thursday, February 5, 2009

I Like Dreaming...

I originally had this dream way back in June, 2005; sit back, fire one up, and let me tell you about it...

It had been one of those days, the kind where you wake up dreaming and never fall back asleep.

After smoking El Skunko brand cigars during my last two trout dreams, today’s agenda was Serious Business 101. No bullshit. Get it on, get it off, and get it over with. I was focused like a cheaply shot wedding photograph and it showed.

I dreamed I woke up at 4:08AM and -- groggily -- threw on my fishing clothes; next thing I know, I’m dreaming that it’s 5:03AM and I’m hiking streamside, my vision aided somewhat by my headlamp. My dream looked a little like this, sort of gun-metal blue mixed with Navy black:

Still apparently dreaming (I couldn’t tell), I humped it – emphasis on hump – along the stream; as sometimes happens in dreams, I floated above-ground for long distances with little or no effort. Looking down, I could see plants and birds and rocks and things rush by a few feet below while I followed John Lennon's excellent advice: relax and let your mind float downstream.

Try it sometime, you'll like it; maybe one day you, too, will surrender to the void.

As I floated back to earth, I started bouncing, rubber ball-style, from boulder to flat and back to boulder again, deliberately bypassing what I knew were decent, consistently producing waters, all because of the memory of the Money Hole. The Money Hole was the place where my evil spin-fishing twin threw a Rapala during a previous dream and latched onto something considerable, something, ahem, of size.

That memory – solitary and utterly unadorned -- propelled me along in my purple-haze morning dream; I executed a series of back-flips in mid-air due to the complete lack of gravity. "Imagine how far I'll be able cast," I belly-laughed, the sound bouncing off of the cliffs above as if they, too, were laughing.

Time can either fly or crawl in dreams; this morning, it was flying. At the hour of 5:43AM, there I was, looking at it, ass-deep in it, smelling the sky, feeling the water boiling in my blood -- the Money Hole:

Weird how streams can look purple-pink in dreams, isn't it?

Still fast asleep, I rigged up silently, quickly, watching for signs of wildlife around me in the rapidly lightening sky. I tied on something so weird, so ridiculous, that, in the dream, I had a sub-dream wherein a friend of mine laughed at the fly -- then at me – before he morphed into a streamside cottonwood. I laughed right back at him (it felt weird laughing at a cottonwood, as much as I love those grand old trees) and tossed some line into the plastic air, out onto the water. My backcast stretched for m-i-l-e-s in the weightless environment of the dream. I re-awoke, suddenly back in the first dream, and made what I’d call a textbook streamer retrieve (it was difficult keeping the streamer underwater; the lack of gravity was starting to get annoying). Regardless, I had so much fun I did it again and soon found myself grappling with this gnarly son of a bitch:

Not exactly the monster two-by-four of my realities, but, heck, for a dream, she was everything I needed.

Suddenly the dream was all about streamers: olive bead head wooly buggers, purple bead head wooly buggers (those Prince-purple babies didn’t draw so much as a follow), and some other weird streamer-thingie, one I’m sworn to secrecy about (sheesh, my fly-tying friends are so weird). It was like radio station KSTR: All Streamers, All The Time. “I like streamers, ‘cause streamers can make you mine”. The radio station was playing a song whose name escaped me, by a hot new band called Royal Wulff and His Drag Free Drifts. Small fish floated in and out of my conscious mind:

No size queen, me -- they’re ALL dreamy.

Then I started to wake up, but quickly fell back asleep; I resumed dreaming about fishing a shallow riffle -- in fact, it was the riffle at the head of the Money Pool. It was sure a pretty little riffle, and so I cast (again, for miles and miles), retrieved, cast, retrieved -- still in a dream-state (California?)-- and had my patience rewarded thusly:

In dream inches, this fish measured at least thirty, maybe thirty-five. She sure was fat, and she sure was strong – I can still feel her taut body writhing against my grip: confident, powerful, alive with the spirit of wildness -- and she sure looked mad at me when she swam off into the depths of the stream, hopefully a little stronger, a little wiser, a little sadder, a little madder, someone get her a ladder.

And so my dream morning progressed, cumulating in a total of a dozen or so fine, finned fish brought to net, bookended by one feisty resident who played me like an air hockey game – I was the puck – and lost me in a sea of orange-purple algae, and another goofy trout who went ballistic and jumped about eight feet out of the water (dream feet, that is; in reality she really probably only jumped about a foot) and simply floated away into the lime-scented sunlight.

I missed ‘em both –- the dream suddenly turned nightmare.

Even so, it was one of the best dreams I’ve ever had; then I woke up and all I got was this stupid blog.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

I Am Not Addicted...

I am not addicted to fly fishing. Not even close; wild trout, however, are another matter altogether.

You see, where there are wild trout, there is wilderness, and where there is wilderness, there is life.

Life, my friends, is the real addiction -- the unquenchable thirst for experience, whether social or solitary.

As for fly fishing?

It’s an engaging pastime, an enjoyable way to connect a little deeper with the waters that grace our canyons, a chance to spend time on a river blissfully distracted from the “real” world. It is not a lifestyle; rather, an escape.

Never mind that the process is painfully time-consuming: tying on leaders, browsing absurdly detailed collections of flies searching for the “magic” bullet, setting up one of the multiple rigs some seem compelled to carry, ad infinitum. I speak from experience when I say that, when fly fishing, large chunks of time in the wilderness are spent with eyeglasses on, the mind intently focused on tying knots or playing with endless paraphernalia; meanwhile, you just missed seeing two risers over by that back eddy and the red-tailed hawk who’s been eyeing them.

It’s the obsession with the minutia of fly fishing that has begun to wear thin for me. Whatever happened to tying on a store-bought Red Humpy and casting a Cabela’s Three Forks into a local trickle with a good buddy?

Unfortunately, for many, it’s not that simple. It seems some folks would rather endlessly debate the merits of this or that line, or debate river vs. stream fishing, or attend presentations where “experts” freely share information which is hungrily consumed by empty minds eager for more, more, more, or hire a “guide” to expedite the learning process (or at least fix 'em lunch), bypassing the very elements that make personal growth so satisfying.

Hey, to each their own, right? It’s not my place to judge -- there is room for everyone in this ever-crowding world.

That fish are killed in the process of fly fishing is a fact of life, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with killing fish, mind you, but for me, personally, I’d rather see ‘em swimming in the current than thrashing in my net. I told a friend recently that I’d brought enough fish to hand in two years of fly fishing to last me ten lifetimes, and it’s the gospel truth. I mean, how many trout does one need to exhaust, land, photograph, and release?

I recently spent a glorious autumn week on a California river and had one of the best times “fishing” I’ve ever had – all without a speck of gear, save for a pocketful of bread. I found that the perfect drift can be achieved by eliminating the fly line – simplicity itself.

For me, the thrill has always been about enticing fish to respond, to see rises and splashes, and – ultimately – to catch a glimpse of a fish on the prowl. While on the river, I asked myself, “Self, do you really need another fish photograph? Do you really need to exhaust another fish for your own ego’s sake? Do you really need to prove to other fishermen that you can catch fish too?

The answer to all of these questions – as found in the waters of the river -- was a resounding “no”.

So the next time you’re heading for your favorite stream, leave your gear at home, but don't forget to bring your brain (and a sandwich (unless there’s a guide around to fix one for you)).

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Four-Letter Words That Start With "F"


The putrid smell emanating from the trunk of the car was overwhelming, especially considering the heat -- it had to have been close to 100 degrees this fine May afternoon. The San Fernando Valley hummed with the sound of half-a-million air conditioners purring like wildcats, the streets eerily quiet in the searing, unseasonable heat.

As I quickly pulled away from the open trunk – my eyes actually stinging from the ammonia-and-body-odor stench wafting upward in deadly waves – I blindly grabbed the pair of hot, stinking boots and flung them across the wall, landing with a clatter in the dumpster of the apartment building next door.

I can always get a new pair,” I rationalized.

As I continued unpacking the car, an assemblage of various smelly items thrust themselves into my range of perception: one blood-and-sweat-stained t-shirt, four extremely foul wool socks (dried to a stiff, leathery consistency), the aforementioned stinky boots, a befouled hand-towel, one pair of exceptionally filthy and torn pants, and the smoldering wreckage of what appeared to have once been boxer shorts.

Based on the smell alone, I could tell someone had had themselves one heck of a good time.

The High Country Slam

My buddy Joe is one of those rare gentlemen who dreams of remote canyons and small-but-gorgeous wild trout; he’s also one of the few people I know who possesses the skills -- and mindset – to successfully access those ridiculous locations where all the primary conditions are met. It seems logical that over the past couple of years we’ve developed a rapport, and, quite frankly, we’re becoming one heck of a team – between the two of us, there’s been no backcountry situation we haven’t been able to figure out.

So far, anyway.

When I recently mentioned 4-Letter Creek to Joe, I should’ve known he’d come up with a plan – there’s something about the way his eyes glaze over when we’re talking about new, uncharted waters; you can tell the tumblers are turning somewhere behind those piercing black eyes.

When I received an email from him a couple of days later, I had to chuckle: Joe’s plan for a local High Country Slam – complete with a stop at the rarely-visited 4-Letter Creek – was picture-perfect; genius, if I may be so presumptuous.

Here’s the plan he presented:

Wednesday afternoon we’d meet up at a local campground, arrange a car shuttle between two different trailheads (about 15 road miles apart), eat BBQ, and drink brews; Thursday we’d hike up the BBC (aka Baby Brown Creek) fishing along the way to gorgeous Kuni Lake; Friday, we’d bushwhack our way to 4-Letter Creek and explore the fishery; Saturday we’d further explore and fish 4-Letter Creek, then hike to Rainbow Creek Divide late that afternoon; Sunday, we’d fish Rainbow Creek before completing the shuttle and returning home.

All told, the plan involved three watersheds (the “slam” would consist of catching fish from each stream), one high-country lake, 4,500’+ elevation gain and loss, and 20+ miles of backcountry walking, much of it across deep tongues of late-season snow and barely-seen trace trails winding through oceans of buckthorn.

It sounded like fun.

Day 1 -- BBC Creek to Kuni Lake

Here’s a bit of advice I can offer you, the prospective High Country Slammer: never party like a rock star the night before a slog.

I awoke Thursday morning accompanied by dry heaves and an achy, pounding head; I felt disoriented, dimwitted, discouraged. Vague memories of a roaring campfire and several bottled beers washed down with Vicoden danced in what was left of my brain. Regretfully, I had to decline the breakfast of sausage, eggs and hash browns Joe thoughtfully prepared – I could barely breathe, let alone eat.

However, there’s nothing better than a five-mile uphill walk with a 35 lb. backpack strapped to a pair of aching shoulders to purge evil toxins from the body, and, by the time Joe and I reached the BBC late that morning, I was starting to feel like myself again – my senses were working overtime and I was feeling near-human. That could mean only one thing: time to fish.

The BBC is a tiny, meandering stream that flows year-round with a chip on its shoulder; it sports the attitude of a much larger river. It is, in a word, a smartass. Its combination of wide-open waters and brush-choked tunnels make it both a joy and a challenge to fish. As Joe led us a mile or so down the garden path – sunshine splashing down on clear waters, robins and blue jays soaring above – I spied deep pools and gnarly runs: perfect trout habitat.

The BBC was strictly dry fly water, so we both tied on fluffy #18-ish patterns, mine an EHC, Joe’s a hand-tied custom Humpy. It wasn’t long before Joe let out a whoop and landed a couple of colorful miniature browns:

(Photo by Joe)

(Photo by Joe)

With that, it was game on, and I proceeded to dial it in after a few frustrating pools where the brush got the best of me. As always, it takes a little time to adjust to having a fly rod in my hand, especially in tight, small confines, but I rose to the challenge. In one aggressively splashy pool, I hooked into a sweet brownie that bent my rod like a fish twice its size, and fought like a steelie:

(Photo by Joe)

With phase one of the slam complete, my now-grumbling stomach cried – screamed, actually -- for nourishment, so we broke for lunch on a streamside boulder, watching trout rise to naturals under the shimmering pines, the canyon awash in warm breezes carrying the scent of juniper and sage.

Duly nourished, we headed up the ever-climbing trail to our destination for the night, Kuni Lake, resting high in a mountain-enclosed bowl:

(Photo by Joe)

This picture was actually taken three days later as we made our way to Rainbow Creek; on this first day on the trail, we’d hiked up the draw and valley visible just above the lake proper, losing the trail to snowdrifts in places:

(Photo by Joe)

Once camp was established, Joe surprised me by preparing a meal consisting of skirt steak, fried potatoes, homemade red beans, fresh grated cheese, and sliced fresh avocado, all wrapped in a steaming flour tortilla – heaven on earth (thanks, dude!). After dinner, I brought out the Barcardi 151 and we sipped tea and rum, marveling at the view spread out before us:

(Photo by Joe)

It had been a gorgeous day with six long, uphill trail miles underfoot, and I slept soundly as a near-full moon illuminated the valley for the better part of the night.

Day 2 -- Kuni Lake to 4-Letter Creek

Awakening early on a frosty morning at altitude has a way of kicking things into high gear; after a quick hot breakfast (consisting mainly of leftovers from the night before), Joe and I saddled up, anticipating a tough snow-slog up to a high-altitude saddle. We’d brought crampons in case the steep slope was totally buried in snow, but we somehow managed to make it to the saddle without them by navigating carefully and avoiding any direct exposure. Eventually, we reached the saddle only to find waist-high sun cups everywhere:

(Photo by Joe)

Beautiful to look at, but another story altogether to traverse. The things we do for trout...

Cresting the saddle was a milestone for us; we’d been unable to gather any good beta on the snow conditions up that way beforehand, so we were both sweating it out; not cresting the saddle meant not making it to 4-Letter Creek, and neither one of us was having any of that.

Things took a turn for the better on the other side, where, after a handful of relatively easy miles, we crested another saddle and were immediately greeted with our first views of not only 4-Letter Creek, but far-off desert vistas as well:

(Photo by Joe)

Then things got a little weird; you know the old saying: when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

You see, below the second saddle, there is supposedly – key word: suppose – a trace trail leading two miles to 4-Letter Creek and its lovely streamside camp. However, try as we might, we were unable to locate the track – there was simply too much brush and not enough trail. So we bushwhacked down the left side of the canyon as shown in the photo above. Down, down, down we trekked, battling manzanita, buckthorn, and unstable scree slopes.

With the weather warming and our water getting scarce, we plodded onward, eventually reaching a small meadow where we collapsed in the inviting, soft spring grass. After a brief rest, we scanned the canyon and recognized what appeared to be a landmark indicating 4-Letter Creek camp, just across the meadow on the other side of a small draw.


Revitalized, we headed off on what we thought would be an easy jaunt into camp and wild trout.

Unfortunately, the short distance to camp was fraught with buckthorn, a nasty plant that can cover acres of land with its tough, spiny limbs. Here’s what the trail looked like from where we stood:

(Photo by Joe)

Incidentally, we’re both still sporting dozens of cuts and scrapes from the experience – it wouldn’t be the last time we’d have to “swim” the buckthorn, please believe.

All bad things eventually come to an end, however, and, a half-hour later, we finally reached 4-Letter Creek camp, a sweet little flat spread out among the Jeffrey pines and willows, complete with a small, sparkling tributary running alongside. We dropped our packs, rehydrated, refueled, and rested. I watched as a hummingbird chased away sparrows while a hawk circled overhead; deer watched the spectacle from afar.

I’ve always had a fascination with this watershed: it’s remote, difficult country, somewhat dry and sporting desert influences, but something about the place intrigued me. No one I’ve ever known has been there, let alone fished it, and neither Joe nor I knew for sure if it contained a population of wild trout. A major reason for this trip was to find out for certain.

As late afternoon approached, we gathered ourselves for our initial recon of 4-Letter Creek. Optimistically rigged for trout, we slowly made our way through the brambles downstream, occasionally catching glimpses of the gathering creek below:

(Photo by Joe)

It wasn’t too much longer before Joe stopped dead in his tracks, pointing to a sweet little pool far below. He simply whispered, “Trout.” There, in the gravel-strewn tail-out, were two 10” trout holding side-by-side in the current, lazily sipping naturals off the surface. It was a joyous sight, let me assure you, and, with renewed vigor, we continued another ¼ mile downstream and began plying the waters of 4-Letter Creek.

(Photo by FishBreaksWater)

(Photo by Joe)

Ah, the sweet, fishy smell of success!

We made our way slowly upstream, catching fish left, right and center, all of them exceptionally colorful, some closely matching the red-orange rocks of the streambed. Conditions were among the tightest I’d ever fished, but we managed a fine, fun afternoon down there, laughing, alternating turns at various fishy locations, and having an absolute blast.

This, my friends, is Black Diamond trout fishing at its best.

With phase two of the slam complete, we stumbled into camp at dusk, exhausted from a long day’s work, enjoying a piping-hot dinner under a canopy of twinkling stars; below us, the lights of some anonymous small desert community sparkled on the horizon. After a couple of very strong tea and rums, we felt like we were standing on the edge of the planet.

Perhaps we were...

Day 3 -- 4-Letter Creek to Rainbow Creek Divide

Awakening at first light, the plan was to explore 4-Letter Creek as far downstream as possible. We both knew -- based on the prior day’s experience -- the going would be difficult at best. After sufficiently exploring, we’d head back up to the crest and proceed to Rainbow Creek Divide. But first, downstream beckoned.

We made it as far as we had the prior day with relative ease, but going further down-canyon proved to be a test of wills. If we weren’t swimming through buckthorn, we were battling walls of willows; if we weren’t dodging willows, we’d be navigating steep drop-offs and crumbling slopes. “A twisted ankle here would be a kiss of death,” I told myself -- repeatedly.

It was the buckthorn, however, that proved the most difficult obstacle. One could actually walk on top of the stuff if one had sufficient momentum; however, loss of said momentum resulted in being stranded in a sea of thorns:

(Photo by FishBreaksWater)

Suffice to say it took a solid three hours to “hike” perhaps a mile down canyon. Even then, the stream remained discouragingly out of reach, hidden behind walls of dense undergrowth and impassable deadfall. We managed to find one of the more accessible pools, where we took turns drifting dry flies downstream; here’s the pool with me being stealthy:

(Photo by Joe)

Looks like fun, doesn’t it?

The pool turned out to be loaded with fish and, much like the prior day, we had absolutely no problem enticing willing trout from the waters. As morning stretched into afternoon, we battled our way back to camp (fishing wherever possible), intent on resting up for the long slog back up the mountain.

Around 2:30PM or thereabouts, we shouldered our packs and bid a fond farewell to little 4-Letter Creek, both of us certain we’d never pass this way again, happy with our efforts in proving the existence of fish in the drainage.

Retracing our steps through the buckthorn sea, we reached the soft-grass meadow, then set about finding an “easier” way back up the canyon. On the west wall we managed to locate a semi-decent trace trail, which, thankfully, crossed a few snow tongues; in the afternoon heat, the snow was a lifesaver (supposedly, it was 105 degrees in the basin that day). A hat-full of crunchy water made for a much cooler trek up the slope.

(Photo by Joe)

By 5:00PM, we’d reached the crest; we debated spending the night here – we were utterly exhausted, mind you -- but instead decided to continue three more miles to Rainbow Creek Divide. This stretch was marked by the largest snow obstacles of the entire trip, and, once again, we managed to stay on trail through the snow without the aid of crampons. Occasionally we’d post-hole, plunging thigh-deep through the drifts; getting out was always an event. But, as new vistas began to unfold before us, we found the energy to continue.

(Photo by Joe)

We reached high altitude Rainbow Creek Divide at 7:30PM, battle-scarred and weary; there’d be no tea and rum this night. Instead, we hastily rigged our camps, melted snow and filtered water, made our last trail dinners of the trip, and watched the valley in the west turn yellow, orange, pink, and, finally, a deep blue-black. We both hit the sack while there were still traces of light, grateful for the end of a long, entirely thrilling day.

Tomorrow, the adventure would come to an end.

Day 4 -- Rainbow Creek Divide to Rainbow Creek

The genius of Joe’s plan was that this final day would be relatively easy – just under 6 trail miles, most of ‘em all downhill, featuring one last drainage to fish: Rainbow Creek.

We arose at first light, anxious to hit the trail. A warm, gorgeous morning accompanied us as new vistas unfolded with every step:

(Photo by FishBreaksWater)

Switchbacking our way down the mountain, the miles flew by, and, by 9:00AM or so, we reached Rainbow Creek, a tiny little thing that, frankly, had me wondering if it had any fish in it at all.

(Photo by Joe)

It turns out we had nothing to worry about. According to what now seemed like a divine plan, it didn’t take Joe too long before he had a fish on, a sweet little wild trout with colors to die for:

(Photo by Joe)

As Joe dialed it in, I once again found myself in a battle with the brush; these high country streams are anything but easy. We came upon an absolutely spectacular pool, shrouded in brush, looking to be about 3 feet deep – a monster pool on this little trickle. We both knew there had to be fish in there, so we took turns working the waters. Eventually I landed my final gem of the trip:

(Photo by Joe)

And with that, the slam was complete. Mission accomplished:

It was an easy walk back to the waiting shuttle car, and, in no time flat, we’d made it back to Joe’s truck, where we shared a well-earned ice cold beer under the pines. Down in the valley below, cheeseburgers and burritos awaited, as well as showers and soft, comfy couches in front of television sets.

All in all, it had been one of the toughest -- yet most rewarding -- backpacking trips I’ve ever embarked upon. Great company, fantastic scenery, lots of new backcountry explored and charted, and wild, willing So. Cal. trout.

Stinky boots aside, what more could a man ask for?