California is the Golden State not just for what can be found in its streams, but for its many discoveries, opportunities and treasures. In the Eastern Sierra at this time of year, discoveries glisten everywhere.
On a recent trip to the Eastern Sierra, I joined fishing guides Scott Flint and Jon Carlton from the Troutfitter on a Jeep trip to high lakes just south of Mammoth Lakes. Accompanying us were Scott Brown of Chrysler, Paul McFarland of Friends of the Inyo and several members of the Outdoor Writers Association of California. We were in search of California’s native freshwater fish, the Golden Trout, though the chances of catching one of these elusive fish were not good.
Visiting the Troutfitter the previous day, a salesman said he’d heard the Goldens were swimming deep and that the dry flies I planned to purchase would be useless. I’d need to use wet flies, roll cast them and let them sink, something I’d never done. It seemed unlikely to this occasional fly fisherman that I’d have any luck. He said Scott and Jon would bring what they thought would work, though I resigned myself to the trip being more an adventure, than one on which I’d catch a Golden Trout.
We drove in a caravan led by a new Jeep Grand Cherokee, two-door and four-door Wranglers, and a Ram Power Wagon. Turning off U.S. 395, we stopped briefly as Brown briefed those of us who had not done much off-roading as what to do. The road we took was wide enough only for one vehicle, it crossed a 10,300-foot summit and was strewn with boulders.
I was assigned a snazzy, new Gecko-green Wrangler with a manual transmission. I hadn’t driven a stick in 15 years. “It’s like riding a bike,” I thought, “Once you’ve done it, you never forget.” I hadn’t considered that we’d be climbing a steep, one-lane, backcountry road. Like my infrequent fly fishing, I was an off-road dilettante.
Soon, we were off, climbing toward the promise of Golden Trout in remote Sierra lakes. Behind us, the Long Valley caldera’s volcanic wasteland spread east toward the barren White, Glass and Sweetwater mountains, the Mono Craters and Bodie Hills. Fragrant sage and brilliantly yellow rabbitbrush surrounded us. Ahead, quaking aspen climbed beside drainages, their heart-shaped leaves fluttering in speckles of deep green, lime and yellow.
North and south of Mammoth Lakes, canyons such as this lead to the High Sierra. They follow drainages, like one we were paralleling. The most famous canyons – Whitney Portal, Bishop Creek, Rock Creek, Convict Lake, Mammoth Lakes Basin, June Lakes, Lee Vining, Lundy, Virginia Lakes, Twin Lakes, Sonora Pass, Walker River and Monitor Pass – are aflame with red, orange and gold, right now.
California’s fall color is as varied as its landscape. Aspen are not just yellow, here, but boldly multi-colored. Fallen leaves lie like scattered jewels on the ground and washed up against midstream rocks. For the Californian who says the state has no seasons, I answer, “You don’t know what you haven’t seen.” Head to the Eastern Sierra, as seeing is believing.
Beyond us, a wall of autumn color rose thousands of feet into the High Sierra toward the Golden Trout others said would be difficult to catch. The Grand Cherokee led our train in a deliberate and surprising manner, a city wagon at ease rolling over boulders as if on a drive to the fish market. My inexperience handling the stick showed, as I stalled the lime-colored Wrangler. Several stalls later, Brown showed me that had I put the Jeep in four low, it was possible to get into gear hardly touching the clutch. From then on, the steady and slow drive over the summit into God’s country was effortless.
Once at the lakes, our guides showed us how to set up a sinking line with tantalizingly tied morsels. From the tippet (the ultra-thin end of the fishing line) hung a crystal bugger, a scud and a zebra midge. Fly fishing is one of the most satisfying forms of fishing, from all its dimensions. First, there’s the pure idea of it… that you imitate what fish are then eating, with a tiny barbless hook, fur, feathers and iridescent thread. Then, you enter the fish’s realm, wading or floating out to them, so as to keep your line and fly clear of anything they might snag.
Casting is a dance. Dry fly casting is a therapeutic cadence. The long, flexible, fly rod whips the fly gently through the air as not to rip it free, yet increasingly hurls it farther out, eventually to reach the signs of rising fish. The roll cast we would use involved bringing arm and rod up, then hammering them down, so that the line would whip forward, eventually to settle where the Goldens might be patrolling.
An indicator on the leader dipped and I lifted the rod quickly… a strike, but no gold. It happened three more times. Then, I cast toward a sunken log. The line pulled downward and I lifted the rod instinctively. The Golden ran. “Let him run,” Carlton said excitedly while directing me to let go of the reel, “This is where the fun begins!” The fish would dive and I’d let him go, then I’d reel in when he backed off. He ran four times before giving up.
“He probably saw the midge first, took that, then went for the scud,” Carlton said. “They’re looking for food and strike instinctively. If it doesn’t feel right, they spit it out. Yours didn’t.” A couple of photographs later, we released him. “That was one ‘sick’ fish,” Flint complimented.
Before heading back, we picked up 5 pounds of trash that other fishermen had discarded or thrown in the water: empty bait tins, fishing line, beer cans. Why are a few lazy or selfish people purposefully abusive to so fragile, pristine and special a place? None of us had an answer. Our state is full of golden discoveries, as long as we don’t tarnish them.
For more about experiencing the Eastern Sierra, go to visitmammoth.com, monocounty.org, theothersideofcalifornia.com, thetroutfitter.com or friendsoftheinyo.org.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.