“What do we do now?” I asked.
“Take a deep breath, then exhale slowly,” Dave said.
“I have no idea!”
Fishing buddy Dave Cole and I were headed up to fish Laurel Lake, high in California’s eastern Sierra Nevada. As experienced offroaders, we were part of a caravan of three vehicles, the occupants of which were embarking on a Labor Day weekend fishing and camping trip. Charley Cornelius, veteran high Sierra trout man was in the lead with his vintage Ford 4×4. Just behind us in a 4×4 Ford Ranger were Dave’s son, Jeremy, and Ray Fundura, vice president of Leer, manufacturer of truck caps and hard tonneaus. Dave and I were sandwiched in between in a two-wheel-drive Nissan Frontier in which we had installed a rear locking differential from ARB. Ordinarily, a two-wheel-drive so equipped can successfully navigate 90 percent of the obstacles found when driving offroad trails. Unfortunately for us, we had ventured into the dreaded 10 percent–a narrow, steep trail that turned from dirt and rock into a nasty sluice filled with fist-sized stones that offered no traction whatsoever. Compounding the problem was a manual transmission not geared for offroad duty.
So, we did the only thing we could; we left the truck and pushed on in the other two vehicles. No one wanted to lose valuable fishing time fooling with the stuck truck. We’d deal with the problem on the way down.
At the top of the trail was one of the nastiest hairpin turns I’ve ever seen. One miscue, and you and your truck roll down to the water’s edge–but when you finally get to the lake, oh, what a view. In the early morning, before the sun broke over the top of the mountain, the surface of the lake looked like a mirror, one that was occasionally pockmarked with the unmistakable rings of rising trout. Across from us rose a large cirque. Even in early September, some snow and ice clung tenaciously to the upper rim.
“You know, skiers will come up here to ski down the face of that,” said Jeremy, pointing to the cirque. “A guy I know fell and broke his leg. He said it was real tough getting out of here.”
End of story. Sometimes you don’t want any more information.
We broke out the rods and began fishing. Though we saw numerous rises, the fish remained tantalizingly out of reach of our canoe and belly boats.
At midday we reassembled and decided to cut our losses.
“Let’s head back down,” said Dave. “We’ll pick up the truck and fish another watershed.”
When we got to the stranded Frontier, Dave expertly turned the vehicle around and pointed down the trail. How he did this without rolling off the mountain remains a mystery to me.
Later, Charley and I decided to fish a meandering creek–actually the intake to North Lake near Aspenville–next to a public-access parking lot. It was the sort of creek that gets pounded all summer long. In order to fish it properly, you had to crawl through the willows and carefully peek through the cover to spot a finning trout. If the fish caught any sign of movement, it instantly dove for cover.
Frustrated by the superwary fish (the situation wasn’t helped when I broke a really nice ultralight spinning rod in the process), I moved to a new spot (with my fly rod now) and crawled back into a quiet, dark bend. I stared at the cutbank for a moment. And then I saw it. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Under the bank was a big rainbow, one that would go 18 inches, easy.
I attempted one drift, but the fish flitted away the moment the fly hit the surface. As I sat there, hoping the fish would come back, I spotted two more large rainbows tucked in under the cutbank. The fish were perfectly positioned to intercept any hapless bug that might float by and to see any approaching interloper.
I walked out and told Charley about the fish. Immediately, he walked into a meadow and began catching sunning grasshoppers. Then he ripped off his shirt–“so it won’t hang up in the brush”–and with his rod crawled in on his belly.
About 30 minutes later he came back, minus his hoppers.
“Unbelievable,” he said. “Who would have thought that on a small creek pounded as hard as this one that you’d see any large fish, much less one that had to go 20 inches?”
“Could you get a rise out of any?” I asked.
“No dice. Way too wary. But that just means I’ll have to come back here when the crowds thin out. I can’t pass up these fish.”
We had one more stop before returning to our campground.
We drove over to lower Lee Vining Creek. The creek parallels the road and as a consequence gets pounded hard all season long. And yet, Charley, Jeremy, and I caught enough fish for dinner. The secret is to squirm your way into the tight places and fish water that most anglers pass up. For instance, I crawled partway out on a tree trunk that had fallen across the creek. There was no room to cast, so I dapped a Royal Wulff on the surface of the pool underneath the trunk. A nice rainbow nailed the fly just before it slipped into a riffle. A bit farther upstream, Charley was sneaking through tight shoreline cover and dropping short, effective casts into great-looking pocket water.
In no time at all he had three good-size rainbows on his stringer. Below us, Jeremy expertly threaded cast after cast through heavy cover to pick fish as well. We broke for dinner, built a roaring fire, and sat back to enjoy the evening. Soon enough we were enjoying what Dave calls “The Brotherhood of the Fire.” Mainly, it involves telling stories old and new in the light of dancing flames, a ritual as old, and as enjoyable, as hunting and fishing.
Fall in the Sierra Nevada
Base camp for our Labor Day trout extravaganza was a U.S. Forest Service campground outside of Mammoth Lakes, California. From there we roamed north toward Bridgeport, west toward Yosemite, and south toward Bishop. All of the fishing was on public water, accessible via paved roads or trails.
Fishing the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada at this time of year is not a solitary affair, but the weather is ideal for camping and offroad trips. The best way to handle the crowds is to keep your temper and move around. If you cover enough ground, and are willing to hike in to some creeks, you’ll find decent fishing.
To get to Laurel Lake, take Sherwin Creek Road (dirt road off of U.S. 395) to Laurel Lake Road. It’s straight up after that. North Lake is about 20 miles west of Bishop off of State Highway 168. Lee Vining Creek runs parallel to State Highway 120. We fished the section in Tioga Pass. For more information, go to www.easternsierrafishing.com.
by Slaton White