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.

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