Saturday, September 22, 2012

Guest Post: Fly Fishing the High Sierra

Zach was a roommate of mine back in college and was one of the only guys who was down to get a line wet any time of the day, any time of year. The man had a great background in fly fishing based on his outdoorsman soul and niche for being out in nature. Zach and his brother Andy, who I also went to college with, hiked the JMT out in California this summer and fished for California Golden Trout the entire way through the High Sierra, here's their report...

By: Zach Cureton

Fly Fishing the High Sierra (Thru fishing the JMT)

Fishing Equipment-
Reel: Allen Trout Reel (2)
Rod: Eagle Claw Spin/Fly “Hybrid” Medium Weight (Explanation to come)
Line: Orvis Hydros Powertaper
Flies: A pretty standard box with a lot of caddis, adams, parachute adams, royal wulff, terrestrials, gold ribbed hare's ear and prince nymphs. There was a selection of sierra specific flies that we purchased right before we started. These flies along with caddis and adams were the majority of the flies we were successful with. 

Specialty flies:

Sierra bright dot

Blue Damsel

Sierra Hopper

Guide Book: Trout-Fishing the John Muir Trail by Steve Beck

This is a report of the 21 day hike me and my big bro Andy took on the John Muir Trail, specifically the fishing we did along the way. A couple things to note, most of the pictures shown were taken either by Andy or myself, but we had some battery problems so I had to borrow some pictures from the internet. Also, a bet was placed between Andy and me. Whoever catches more fish gets a big batch of margarita provided by the one who lost.

Day 1: 8/5 Happy Isles to Panorama cliff (4.5 miles)
The trail starts in Disney world. The overly crowded, paved trail with high school kids wearing skinny jeans and flip-flops everywhere. However, once we made it to Nevada Falls the crowds thinned out some.

Due to some permit issues we could not go any further and actually had to take another trail about a mile back in the opposite direction. So we spent the afternoon at the stream above the falls. The stream had some nice holes and seams that appeared to hold some fish, so I got out the fishing gear excited to get my first taste of Sierra fishing. 

As I went to assemble my 5 piece rod I realized that I only had 4 piece. The 5th piece was laying somewhere in my garage. Awesome. So, I grabbed a knife and began to shave of some graphite off so I could put the pieces together without the missing piece. The rod was reinforced with duct tape, sewing needles and zip ties. By the time I finished, it was time to look for a place to camp. So I was unable to test out the rod.

Day 2: 8/6 Panorama Cliff to outside of Sunrise Creek (10.5 miles)
Very tough hiking day as we continued our climb out of Yosemite Valley. This day was one of the hardest of the 20 days. The trails were still pretty crowded with Half Dome day hikers. No fishing on this day.

Day 3: 8/7 Outside of Sunrise Creek to Cathedral Peak (7 miles)
After the tough day of hiking the day before we had almost hiked completely out of Yosemite Valley and Little Yosemite Valley (nearly 6,000’). We had a relatively short hiking day to get to Cathedral Peak, where we would get our first taste of fishing a Sierra alpine lake. 

Cathedral Peak is one of the more stunning places I had ever seen. It was a perfect chance for Andy and I to get our first taste of lake fishing on the trail. There are few things better then fishing at a place as beautiful as this. Unfortunately after about 20 minutes of casting, the repaired rod broke. To add insult to injury as we were cooking dinner a bunch of morons caught a trophy rainbow on a spinner, and were so amazed by the catch the decided to keep it out of the water and take 100 pictures and eventually killed the fish. And to make things even worse we over heard him ask one of his buddies “Is that a trout?” Unbelievable. It was such a bummer to see something like that in such an amazing place. We were excited to get out of Yosemite and leave the crowds. Hopefully we would find a replacement rod and things would began to change tomorrow when we stopped in Tuolumne Meadows (the other main attraction in Yosemite National Park).

Day 4: 8/8 Cathedral Peak to Tuolumne Meadow (5 miles)
Started the day with a short hike down to Tuolumne Meadow where there was a shop and restaurant, and yes… the shop had a rod. At $29.99 this yellow “hybrid” was exactly what we needed to see. So after a much needed burger, and a couple of logistical issues to take care of we hit the stream in search of our first fish. It was here at Tuolumne River that Andy caught the first fish of the trip and the first golden trout we had ever seen. 

The golden trout is unique to the Sierra, and with in the Sierra there is great variety in the golden’s appearance. Some have a red line along their side. Some have more dots then others. Most are smaller (5-8 inch range). But all of them are beautiful.

Day 5: 8/9 Tuolumne Meadow to 10,185’ on Donahue Pass (Lyell Canyon) (11.1 miles)
The fishing prospects were finally looking up. After constantly hearing how we were going to kill it and only having one fish after day four we were finally at a stretch of trail in which we followed a quality fishing creek (the Lyell Fork) for several miles. This was our first true “fishing day”, and it was a success. We both brought in some fish as he hiked through Lyell Canyon on a very relaxing day.  

After taking a number of fishing breaks along the Lyell Fork we had reached the base of Donahue Pass. It was relatively early and we decided we were just going to hike up until we were tired. We ended up at an alpine lake over half way up the pass. Finally, the crowds had thinned out and almost all the people we saw were thru hikers. As the sun started to go down, Andy decided to put on the sierra bright dot and have a couple cast. He ended up catching 4 goldens in about 6 casts. Then put down the rod as we watched an unbelievable sunset.

Day 6: 8/10 Donahue Pass to Garnett Lake (10.2 miles)
We went over two passes (Donahue and the smaller Island Pass). On the other side of Island Pass was 1,000 Island Lake. A large beautiful alpine lake with lots of small islands and the huge granite peaks of the Ritter Range looming overhead. We went a little further and stopped at Garnett Lake for the night.

We had read that the fishing at Garnett was pretty darn good, but due to some high winds, the fishing that night was tough and we didn’t catch anything.

Day 7: 8/11 Garnett Lake to Reds Meadow (first resupply) (14.4 miles)
We started with some downhill until we reached Shadow Lake. The climb out of shadow Lake was a tough one but it was the first 1,000’ stretch we did without breaks and it felt good to get that under our belt. Once we got over it we cruised down hill into Reds Meadow. This was our longest travel day to that point. On the way into Reds Meadow we hiked through Devil’s Postpile, a pretty wild rock formation. 

We also got some pretty good tacos for dinner and a couple of beers to wash them down. No fishing today.

Day 8: 8/12 Reds Meadow to Deer Creek (6 miles)
In the morning we got up and took a shuttle bus into Mammoth Lakes to get some breakfast and some supplies we needed. Once we were done in Mammoth we headed back to Reds Meadow and then took off to get a couple miles done. We ended up pitching the tarp 10 yards from Deer Creek. We got there pretty late and didn’t have much time to fish, but I put on a dry/dropper set up with a hopper and a zebra midge. On my first cast I had a little guy attack the hopper, but didn’t get hooked. A few casts later I pulled out our first rainbow.

Day 9: 8/13 Deer Creek to Purple Lake (8 miles)
It seemed like weather was starting to catch up with us. We thought once we got out of Reds and away from Mammoth the weather would stop and we would get back to the dry sierra weather. Unfortunately this would be the start of several days of afternoon storms. We had a long downhill into Purple Lake right when the clouds started rolling in, but we got there and set up the tarp without getting rained on. We had another chance to try our luck at lake fishing. Unfortunately we had the same result as before. Our luck would change soon.

Day 10: 8/14 Purple Lake to Lake Edison Junction (15 miles)
This was going to be the only day that we had to go over a pass in the afternoon, but because of the afternoon storms we’ve been getting we decided to get an extra early start and get over the pass before noon. 

It worked out perfectly and we got to the summit of the pass right as the clouds started to roll in. As we started our decent the rain picked up and we spent the next 8 miles hiking in the rain. Fortunately it was all down hill. Once we got to the place we were going to camp we set up the tarp and waited out the rest of the storm.

Day 11: 8/15 Lake Edison Junction to Rosemarie Meadow (10.8 miles)
We started the day with probably the worst climb of the trip, Bear Ridge. It was 2,000’ all enclosed in a forest with not much of a view of anything. But once we got up and over the ridge we made it to Bear Creek for some nice creek chill time. No fishing at this creek stop. Just a nice relaxing 2 hours of lying down and swimming. 

Once we moved on from Bear Creek we only had a few miles to go to get to our camp spot of Rosemarie Meadow. This was one of my favorite places on the entire trip, a beautiful meadow with a nice little creek going right through it. Right when the sun started to go down the hatch started. First, I put on the bright dot. After a few casts with no luck and fish rising everywhere I changed it up to a small caddis. On the first cast I got a beautiful little brookie, and by little I mean maybe 4 inches. But when the fish is this pretty it’s just nice to be able to look at it for a couple seconds. 

After 2 more brooks and 2 goldens (these being a little bigger), I handed the rod over to Andy and he brought in 4 goldens also in the 5-6 inch range. These goldens were different then any of the others we had caught. The orange under their belly ran all the way up to the under side of their mouth, and it was such an intense and bright orange. The panels that ran along the side were a little more faded, but they had a lot more dots on their back then the other goldens we had caught. After Andy’s go, it was back to my turn. I moved down stream and put on a parachute adams. At this point the sun was really starting to set and the granite peaks that surrounded us were blowing up with the granite turning from its usual tan-ish color to purple and pink. 

I had walked down to a stretch of the stream that was much more calm and I gave the parachute adams a try. After a couple takes and misses I continued the trend. I finished the night with 1 more brook and 2 more goldens, still in that smaller 5-6 inch range. But still, it’s hard to complain when you’re pulling out these fish in the middle of a sierra sunset. Did we want bigger fish? Sure, of course we did. But we were certainly content with everything about the situation we were in.

Day 12: 8/16 Rosemarie Meadow to Piute Creek (Seldon Pass and Muir Trail Ranch Resupply) (12.8 miles)
In the morning we only had a few miles to get over Seldon Pass, and reach mile 100 of the trip. Once we got over the pass we had a short decent down to the Sallie Keys Lakes. We had been hearing about this place from other hikers and were hoping it was more then just trail talk (like Garnett and Purple Lake). Aside from Andy killing it at the lake below Donahue Pass, we had yet to have success at a lake. As we approached this group of lakes (3 total, all connect with little channels), I was praying we would catch some fish. After last night, confidence was high and once we got to the bank of one of the lakes and we saw some nice sized goldens swimming around we were ready to get our line wet.  After a couple of casts, I spotted a golden and put a royal wulff about 3 feet ahead of him. As soon as the fly hit the water he went right after it. Finally, a bit of a fight with this one. I pulled him out and stoke was high. 

My next cast I put in front of a rainbow and he jumped clear out of the water, but unfortunately I lost him. After a couple minutes a spotted another, this one a little bigger then the others. It took a couple casts but I got him to take it. It was in the 10-12 inch range and just like the other one, it put up a nice fight.

Unfortunately we could only spend about an hour there before we had to head to the Muir Trail Ranch for our final resupply. We got our package and a couple things at the store then moved on to get a couple more miles done. We went to Piute Creek where we left John Muir Wilderness and entered Kings Canyon National Park. Evolution Valley was up next and we could not wait.

Day 13: 8/17 Piute Creek to McClure Meadow (5.4 miles)
We started the morning with climb up into Evolution Valley. As we got closer we could see the cascading falls of the lower stretches of Evolution Creek. Once we got over the rougher water we made a fishing stop. This stretch of the creek was nice fast moving water through some decent sized boulders. There were several nice looking holes. Andy was up first and brought in 3 more goldens. Then I went and put up a goose egg. We had a few miles left to McClure Meadow and decided to just head over there. As soon as we got to the meadow we pitched the tarp and it started to rain. We waited out a storm for a couple hours and then we got out and started fishing evolution creek in one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. 

Over the next few hours we killed it. Im not sure what the exact numbers were but we both caught a good amount of fish. As we sat to cook dinner we watched one of the coolest sunsets I have ever seen. The light, the color… everything was perfect. As we sat there a hatch started and it looked like the creek was boiling, but neither of us made a move for the rod. We just wanted to sit and watch.

Day 14: 8/18 McClure Meadow to Sapphire Lake (5.5 miles)
Very short day of hiking. Evolution Valley/Creek was our “vacation.” We were planning to spend he entire day fishing Evolution Lake and Sapphire Lake, but the weather had other plans. We got up to Sapphire Lake with just enough time to set up the tarp to wait out another storm. 

Because we were around 11,000 feet, the storm was a little more intense. The rain was harder, which eventually turned to hail. The thunder was unlike any thunder I’ve heard. It was long and very loud. Once the rain stopped we got out of the tarp and explored around the lake a little. We did some scrambling and bouldering right along the lake. We got to bed a little earlier. Our next day was going to be a big one.

Day 15: 8/19 Sapphire Lake to Deer Meadow (Muir Pass) (18 miles)
We started the morning with one of the major highlights of the entire trail: Muir Pass. After leaving Sapphire, the next lake passed was Lake Wanda (named after John Muir’s daughter).

We moved past the lake and headed to the final push to the summit of the pass, which is at 11,980 feet. At the top of the pass is the Muir Hut, a shelter built for waiting out storms. 

After spending a few minutes in the hut we moved on with a huge chunk of miles ahead of us. We hiked down Le Conte Canyon, which was one of the most amazing sections of the trail we had seen. So far Kings Canyon National Park has been a couple levels ahead of everything else in terms of beauty and scale. This was where we found most of the high alpine terrain that we were looking forward to. Once we got to the bottom of the canyon we had a little bit of uphill to get to Deer Meadow. With an 18 mile day in the books, it didn’t get any easier. The next day we had the Golden Staircase and Mather Pass.

Day 16: 8/20 Deer Meadow to Lake Marjorie (Mather Pass) (14.8 miles)
We finally made it to the base of the Golden Staircase, which isn’t an actual staircase but rather a series of steep switch backs, that when looking down on them, reminds you of a staircase. 

To say there was a little anxiety was an understatement. But as soon as we started all of that went away. The picture doesn’t quite grasp how amazing of an engineering feat this trail is. The fact that we are hiking up the face of this mountain with relative ease was amazing, and it actually made it a pretty easy climb. You don’t focus on pain or being tired when you’re hiking up something as amazing as this. Once we got up and over the golden staircase (about 1,500’), we made it to lower palisade lake. We continued past the upper palisade lake and stopped to fill up some water about 1,000’ from the summit of the pass. This water was magical. You think I’m joking, but I’m not. It was the best water I have ever had and it stayed ice cold for several hours. Magical. Anyways, we reached the summit and let out a big yell, which had become our tradition on every pass. 

The view from the top was amazing. At 12,100’ we were looking back at both of the Palisade Lakes and the 14,000’ Palisade Mountains. The stoke was definitely high. The decent was effortless. It felt like I was in neutral. Then we got to the base of Pinchot Pass and cut that in half by hiking all the way to Lake Marjorie. We ended up doing more miles then expected but we were in the zone. Camping with an amazing view of where we had just come with another beautiful sunset was a perfect end to the day.

Day 17: 8/21 Lake Marjorie to Woods Creek (Pinchot Pass) (9.3 miles)
Another morning pass, this one at 12,130 feet.

We had a relatively short day with only about 7 miles left after the pass. At the bottom of the pass we crossed Woods Creek over the famous (one person at a time) suspension bridge known as the “Golden Gate of the Sierra.”

We got to Woods Creek in the afternoon and spent the rest of the day hanging out along the creek, our last afternoon creek hangout. No fishing on woods creek, but tomorrow was the much anticipated Rae Lakes. Which we had read was the best fishing on the JMT.

Day 18: 8/22 Woods Creek to Rae Lakes (5.8 miles)
A half-day of hiking with a 2,000’ climb stood in front of the fishing show down. This was likely our last chance for fishing, with the count at Andy: 19 and Me: 23. There are 3 Rae Lakes: lower, middle and upper. We went right to the short 30-yard stream that connects the middle and upper lakes. 

We decided to do 30-minute heats. Unfortunately, the weather was threatening. Overcast with not a lot of blue skies when we started. Andy went first. He had one really strong hit but it didn’t stay on. As soon as it was my turn the clouds broke and the fish started rising. I put on a caddis and the fish were going crazy for it. I got 4 brookies and 1 rainbow. One of the brooks was a baby at only 3 or 4 inches, but the other fish were as big as anything we had caught and fought harder then anything we had caught. I have never caught a brook trout as pretty as these. The design they had on their back didn’t look real, and the color was ridiculous. Unfortunately with all this weather, we couldn’t charge batteries so we didn’t get a picture of one of these brooks (major bummer). Once my 30 minutes was up the clouds rolled back in and it started to rain. We headed back over to the tarp to wait out the storm. Once the storm passed Andy took his second round, but the walk over to the spot we were at was a little far and the clouds were still threatening. So Andy fished right off the bank 20 yards from the tarp. He brought in 2 brookies and a rainbow, which brought the count to Andy:22 Me: 28. At that point we were both content with cooking dinner and watching a pretty wild sunset with all the clouds.

Day 19: 8/23 Rae Lakes to 11,230’ on Forester Pass (Glen Pass) (11.7 miles)
Another morning pass, this one at 11,94’. There were a ton of small little lakes on both sides of the pass, and the summit of the pass was a super narrow path that was pretty exposed, which was very cool. After we got over Glen we headed down to the base of Forester Pass. Our last pass of the trail and also the biggest and highest pass of the trail. So we wanted to get pretty far up it. We ended up stopping just above timberline in a small little meadow at 11,230 feet. We were camping at a real sweet spot. It was super wind protected which was necessary being above 11,000 feet.

Day 20: 8/24 11,230’ on Forester Pass to Guitar Lake (Forester Pass) (18.3 miles)
We crushed the top half of Forester in the morning, reaching the summit (13,200 feet) pretty early. 

The backside of Forester was a pretty cool trail. It was blown out of the side of the mountain. 

You would think being one day away from summiting Whitney, we would be able to see it, but the Diamond Mesa was in the way. 

Now we had reached our final approach but we had nearly 16 miles from the top of Forester Pass to Guitar Lake. It was certainly a tough day, but the end was near. The closer we got to Guitar Lake, the more hikers we saw, and once we got to the lake we had seen more tents then we had seen in a long time. Everyone was getting ready for the summit of Whitney.

Day 21: 8/25 Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal (Summit of Whitney) (15.2 miles)
We had an early alpine start with a 4:30 am alarm. A cold morning. We had a 2,000’ climb to get to trail crest, the junction where the trail splits to either the summit of Whitney or down to Whitney Portal. 1,000’ and under 2 miles left to the summit and the end of the JMT. That last 1,000’ was a pretty amazing hike. Aside from just thinking about the last 21 days and everything that has lead to this point, we were hiking to the highest point in the continental United States and surrounded by some amazing mountains. Once we reached the summit at 14,505’ we decided to just hang out up there for about an hour. It was pretty cold, but wasn’t terribly windy. 

This was officially the end of the John Muir Trail (YES!). However, we still had over 8 miles and about a 7,000’ descent to get to Whitney portal. We crushed this last bit and got to Whitney Portal by 2 pm, where our parents picked us up and we were back to civilization.

Well, that was it.. Fishing in the sierra was amazing. These fish were hungry and even the small guys would hit the fly hard. However, the best part was probably where we were fishing and what we were doing. I always like to say if it’s only about catching fish then you’re missing the point. Which, I know, sounds cliché but its true, even on the days when you kill it.

Hope you enjoyed this.. stay tuned for some Colorado fishing reports with mine and Andy’s search for our first green back cut throat.


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