Friday, December 30, 2011

Brookie Bash

At the time of my first journey into the wild in search of my first trout on a fly, I was experiencing failing eyesight due to cataracts.  I was trying to tie flies, but anything smaller than a 2/0 hook was just too small to focus.  It was time for the surgery whether I liked the idea or not.  Fortunately my eye doctor is a good one, and the surgery went smoothly, but for about 4 or 5 months my vision prevented me another opportunity to stalk the ferocious wild trout.  Then came the new glasses about a week before the annual “Brookie Bash.”

Each year the Long Beach Casting Club puts together a weekend trip to the Mammoth Lakes/Bishop area of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range.  The idea is to catch (and release) in one weekend all five of the trout species found in the area.  The trip is named after the Brook trout found in Rock Creek, and the Brook trout must be taken from that particular drainage (also known as Little Lakes Valley); however, the remaining four species can come from just about anywhere else that can be reached that weekend. 

I drove up there on an uneventful Thursday, stopping at every restroom, uh, rest stop (yeah, that’s it—rest stop) along the way to, uh, enjoy the scenery.  It had been many years since I drove north on Highway 395 along the eastern Sierras, and I had forgotten just how far it is between, uh, rest stops.  I arrived at Mammoth Lakes in the mid-afternoon, found the condo the club had rented, moved my things in, and fell asleep for a couple of hours.  I went out for a bite of dinner later that evening, and when I returned to the condo, several of the other members had arrived and were sitting around talking and strategizing about the next two days.  These members were accomplished fly fishermen, so I listened to their strategy while making my own. 

It seemed to me that a lot of time could be wasted at a single location catching and releasing fish just for the enjoyment of it.  Not that this kind of fishing was a waste of time, but I was here to catch the grand slam, and if I caught one of the species from a location, and if there was no other species at that location, I would move on.  Catching fish is great fun, but I was on a mission.

That night I had trouble sleeping.  I went to bed about 10:30pm and woke up every hour reworking my strategy.  Finally I got up about 5:00am and headed over to the local fishing store for some advice.  I had seen them the day before when I was searching for the condo and noticed the sign on the door stating they opened at 6:00am.  And they really were open.  After discussing my strategy with them and purchasing a handful of beetles and ladybugs and Sierra Bright Dots and…   I felt better about my choice of targeting one fish at a time at each location.  Unless of course there were more than one species at that location.  Not much of a plan, but it took me all night to work it out, and it made sense to me at the time.

The Lahontan cutthroat is found in McLeod Lake above the small town of Mammoth Lakes.  At the end of the road is a parking lot near the very dead Horseshoe Lake, and from there a 1-mile uphill hike brings a person to a wonderful lake filled with the required cutthroat.  The only problem with the hike is that the nearly 9,000-foot elevation starting point is much higher than sea level where I reside.  Then it goes uphill from there.  I made the hike up to McLeod Lake, but I was definitely searching for oxygen molecules along the way.  And I caught my cutthroat.

For the first 15 minutes or so I watched several cruisers swimming around me, and I thought they would make a quick, easy catch.  I cast out two or three different dry flies to discover that were just not interested in the standard fare.  Then I finally tied on a beetle.  About 6 casts were all that was needed to hook a nice 13-inch cutthroat.  I expected a fight, but it seems this trout knew the routine.  He understood that the quicker he was landed, the quicker the hook would be removed, and he would be free to swim again.  So he swam over to me and waited.  I believe he had been through this process more than once.  Well I had the cutthroat, now it was time for something else.

From McLeod Lake I drove down to a place known as Hot Creek.  Again I was unprepared for the situation.  I followed several other members who had been there many times and knew where they wanted to fish.  This time the climb was only a few dozen yards downhill to the creek (and a few dozen yards uphill back to the car) to meet up with some of the pickiest fish I’ve ever encountered.  Finally I caught a small brown trout, but the rainbows in the water were not interested in anything I had to offer.  At the end of the day I let the rainbows win.

That one brown trout was not enough for me.  Although I needed to catch a rainbow while I was at Hot Creek, the brown was a welcome change after the lethargic cutthroat I caught that morning.  This brown was a fighter, and I needed a fight.  After it was over, I wanted another fight, but it didn’t happen.  Oh, well.  I now had two of the five species checked off the list, and it was time to retreat for the evening.

That night once again I had trouble sleeping.  I kept waking up wondering if I would manage to land the three remaining trout.  Eventually I got up and wandered outside to visit the morning.  The sun was very much hidden behind the mountains and the sky was dark gray but rapidly getting lighter.  I watched as two blue jays fought over some morsel, losing ultimately to a crow or raven.  I heard a door close and looked over to another condo to see someone standing outside in his underwear smoking a cigarette and scratching the various parts that needed scratching.  He wandered over to a SUV and extracted something from the back end of it, then disappeared back inside the condo not realizing he could have been on that television show about funny home videos—if I only had a video camera. 

The sky changed from a very light gray to a dark cloud mass within a minute or so, and the sun moved up to just below the top of a mountain.  The sky turned red and ugly, and my mind recalled some old saying about “red sky at morning…”.  Then the sun made its appearance, the red went away, and the day was perfect in my estimation.  I was ready to fish.

It was Saturday, and it was the last day of the Brookie Bash.  I got into my car and drove to the appropriately named Mosquito Flats at Rock Creek.  My shirt covered me well, and the gloves and buff and hat took care of most of the other exposed parts of my person.  Just to be safe I sprayed on some mosquito repellent.  I am certain I heard a high, shrill whistle and a shout from one of the mosquitoes as she summoned all of her friends to dinner.  I guess this particular repellent was especially attractive to these bugs.  Within seconds I was a walking mass of little hungry critters.  At least I had enough layers of clothing between their mouths and me. 

About 150 yards downhill from the parking lot was a bridge where the road crossed Rock Creek.  Just at the end of the bridge to the right was a ridge separating me from Serene Lake where the golden trout were supposed to be hiding, and that was the fish I was targeting at the moment.  I was told to look for the goat trail up the ridge, and that after reaching the top of the ridge, the lake would be visible just a few yards in front of me.  Goat trail my ass!!  No sensible goat would have considered climbing that ridge.  But I am no goat, so up I went.  About the time I came to the same understanding the goat would have reached much earlier, I was at the top, and there was the lake. 

I stepped into the water and waded out about 30 feet.  About 15 yards in front of me was a submerged log, and I could see some movement just on the other side of it, so I made it my target.  I tied on a #18 ladybug and cast to the spot.  One cast, one golden trout.  I stayed there a while longer casting a semi-circle around me searching for the rainbow trout that was supposed to be here and came up with another fish.  I took it to be a rainbow at first, but even though it had the pink stripe down the side, the bright red belly dots were all wrong, and the fins didn’t look right either.  I decided it had just been a long time since I had looked a rainbow in the eye, and I had forgotten what one actually looked like.  I now had four of the five trout.

The goat trail my ass had completely disappeared on the return trip to the parking lot.  I looked down that vertical slope and just hoped that someone would find my body within a few days.  At one point I saw a car coming down the road from the parking lot and thought a well timed jump would land me just in front of the car and very quickly put an end to this nonsense.  But as I contemplated the timing, I realized the car had speeded up, and I was too late to make it work.  So I continued down grasping onto anything that looked as though it was well anchored to the ridge face.  At last I was at the bottom.  I still had my rod, my pack, my wading staff, and my life.  The only thing to do now was to hunt down a brookie.

From the parking lot, I walked about 30 feet to the edge of Rock Creek and tossed in the ladybug I still had on my tippet.  Almost immediately I had a strike.  It came so quickly I couldn’t react in time to set the hook.  After that, I found brookies to be had every few casts.  This was fun, but the more I thought about that “rainbow”, the more I had doubts about its parents.  This thing had to be some kind of hybrid, so I couldn’t actually count it as one of the five trout I needed to finish the grand slam.  I got into the car and headed back to Hot Creek.

This time at Hot Creek I decided to avoid the gorge area and fish the flat meadowland above it.  This was the ultimate in picky fish.  I ended up tying on a 9-foot 4x tapered leader with a 3-foot 5x extension and a 3-foot 6x tippet.  To this I tied a ladybug (they worked in Rock Creek) and drifted it across a dark spot I could see up stream.  Immediately there was a rise and a hit.  I didn’t catch the first fish, but I was persistent, and that ladybug or one of its sisters nailed about 6 or 7 browns in the 10-inch to 14-inch range.  I managed to hook 2 or 3 much larger fish, but my excitement overpowered the 6x tippet, and I never brought them to hand.  And I still didn’t have my rainbow.

I was about to give up and try the Upper Owens River when I remembered someone saying the elk hair caddis was his “go to” fly on Hot Creek, and I had a few of them with me.  I opened up my fly box, and looked through the collection to find only 14’s and 16’s.  I wanted something smaller, but the 16 would have to do.  I tied it on and drifted across many of the dark spots that had given up the browns to my ladybug, but nothing was happening.  I walked up stream about 30 yards and as I cast my line, the wind came up.  Great!  Just what I wanted.

I decided to keep trying in spite of my inability to handle wind.  (I’m still a novice, remember?)  I managed to place that fly just about everywhere but in the water; however, occasionally it found the running liquid and drifted over a dark spot.  Then it happened.  I got a good hit, and I set the hook.  This fish was a fighter, and on his first jump I knew it was not a brown.  I just needed to bring it to hand to have my fifth trout.

I was nervous.  This was a few inches longer and it felt much heaver than any of the browns I had landed.  I also had very fresh memories of breaking off several trout of similar size over the past few hours on that 6x tippet.  But the trout was allowing me to do my job.  Unlike the cutthroat, this rainbow fought me, but like the cutthroat, he seemed to know that once this was over the hook would come out of his mouth, and he would be free to swim again.  I managed to bring him to the edge of the bank and reach down and remove the hook.  I’m quite certain he smiled and winked at me before swimming back to his home in that dark spot.  A cutthroat, a brown, a golden, something weird, a brookie, and a rainbow.  I headed back to the condo, kicked off my shoes, found a beverage, sat down, and fell asleep.

This was the culmination of 60 years of fishing.  As I write this, I am preparing to have long overdue shoulder surgery, so my next outing will be a few months away.  I can wait.  I am after all a fly fisherman.  Oh, the joy!

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