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?