Ignore the looks, don’t forget the waders

(Courtesy jrabold.net)

MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. — It’s hard to get psyched about a shuttle ride to go fishing, especially when it’s mandatory. I’ll hike to fish, drive to fish, bike to fish, oh yeah, all of those, but taking public transport to cast a dry, it just seems odd.

For one thing, do you or don’t you wear your waders while on public transport? Showing up with a rod is odd enough, but trudging past Old Joe collecting tickets in your Simms just seems weird.

But there I was descending on the mandatory Reds Meadow Road shuttle to wet a fly in the middle fork of the San Joaquin, a section of the longest river in Central California. I’d heard it was fast, because of a monster snow that had skiers loving slopes this very morning. That’s right Mammoth is still cooking with only 93 days to go until the next opening day!

As we descended into the Devils Postpile National Monument, I surveyed my companions, including the family from St. Augustine, Fla., dressed out for three days of wilderness mountaineering —  dad, mom and four kids all sporting shiny new ice axes attached to their equally first-trip backpacks.

The standing-room-only bus featured all manner of mountain couture, that cowboy hat that’s shrunk and in tatters, a badge of many successful trips; thick-soled boots showing all manner of soles, from new to gnarly; serious eye protection; poles and packs and approach shoes; over-flappy safari hats and their owners all taking in the wonder of 4 million years of mountain uplift. All the words by all of the writers don’t even begin to capture the view.

And there was a fair amount of trepidation as our driver exited the vehicle to coax an overly cautious Range Rover driver around the bus. True, it was several hundred feet down over the Rover side. Parking brake, please.

But for all the thousands of dollars of gear, new and not so, I didn’t spot a single pair of waders, and I applauded my own stick-to-it-ness as I left the bus, hiked a tad, and entered  the intense current of the San Joaquin. Oh, make that the cold, intense current.

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Only a few feet deep, the flow of this water will still put you down hard. Wading staff recommended. (Jim Burns)

I’d brought both floating and sinking lines, expecting this quickly moving cornucopia of water. Because the real joy of fly fishing is casting a dry, I gently unfolded 6x to deliver a size 16 hi-viz caddis in usual suspect water, a simmering pocket edge. Pleasantly, a very small rainbow found it irresistible. My freezing feet were done at that point, but my mind was not.

Switch to the sinking line and two nymphs, one much bigger with rubber legs. Casting into water with this level of intensity was a thrill, as was watching the line unfold around a couple of river bends. A strike. Was it? Nothing.

Later, I realized I’d left my water bottle on the bank some 10 feet up, so I put my rod down with the nymphs still in shallow, currentless water. When I came back, there was pleasant surprise No. 2, another small rainbow wondering where he’d gone wrong. So much for the expertise of fly fishing!

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The current literally unzipped the bottom half of my pants! (Jim Burns)

My toes told me they were happy for this surprise, but it was time to go. But I told them how it was. Once you get a couple of small fish, you just know that there’s a bigger one out there someplace.

They tried to dissuade me by pretending to go numb. Oh, and the river schemed to get me home early by literally unzipping my left pant leg. I looked down wondering why the river drag had suddenly gotten so much worse and — wow, that’s a new one on me.

But there was really no other solution than to find a welcoming log pile, hop on and get zipped up. I kept thinking about my waders, those comfy, nicely fitted, warm, yummy, waders that I’d left behind, so as not to embarrass myself on the bus.

What do men say to themselves in these tender moments?

I admit to struggling with that zipper atop my precarious perch. I admit to muttering certain epithets to my former self, the fussy one who knows a thing or two about bus-riding fashions.

More or less safely zipped up, I couldn’t resist placing my nymphs under and down from the log pile. And there it was — the bigger trout.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Check out the beautiful colors on this native trout, right, bigger than his cousin. (Jim Burns)

 

 

 

The Sweet Spot: The Gorge

The catch-and-release section of Rush Creek remains a no-go in early summer, unless the water flows change. (Jim Burns).

How’s the old Sam Cooke song go?

“It’s summertime and the livin’ is easy,

Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.”

Jumpin’, that is, everywhere except the eastern Sierra.

Who’s to blame for this atrocity?

Every summer, Bishop, Mammoth Lakes and environs are overrun with bait and fly fishermen, who want to catch as many naturals and plants as possible, from opening day in late April, until season’s end, Nov. 15. You’ll see them wade, float and paddle in the area’s lakes, rivers, streams and private waters. You’ll see them buying up as many worms, dry flies, nymphs and streamers as the sports and fly shops can carry. New expensive rods sell; flashy reels fly off the shelves; tippet and leaders; hemostats and non-felt-bottom boots. Bammo! It’s usually an injection of debit cards and cash for the summer economy.

So this year who’s to blame for fishing that can only be described by this writer as mediocre? That’s after three days on water from the C/R area of Rush Creek, to Hot Creek, to the C/R lower Owens.

Well, here’s the sad truch: It’s not actually who’s to blame, but what.

And that what is Mother Nature.

After a snowpack that was the best in years — 199 percent of normal — and a cool spring, the Tioga Pass, which connects Highway 395 to Yosemite’s eastern gate, finally opened Saturday, June 18. According to the Mammoth Times, Tuolumne Meadows still has a summer blanket of several feet of snow. Rivers are running at ridiculous levels. Maybe some visiting Hollywood producer will make a disaster movie about it in the vein of “2012.”

I mean when’s the last time a guide actually refunded your trip deposit, rather than take you out? It just happened to me.

My son and I watched the white caps on Hot Creek as the water tore through that wind-beaten canyon. You read that correctly — white caps.

So, if you’re headed up for your annual Sierra fix, better check the cfs numbers carefully. The same guide told me he didn’t expect normal flows until August. According to him, last year, which also had unusually heavy snowfall, July was the magical month.

Aside from private waters not affected by the torrent of water coming off the mountains, if you must fish (and if you’re like me, you must), try The Gorge, north of Bishop, off Highway 395. Any fly shop can give you exact directions.

The Browns can be sweet in The Gorge, but you'll work to get down there. (Jim Burns)

Two cautions: it is hot as blazes — expect the high 90s or more — and an unfriendly plant called stinging nettle certainly will make you miserable if you brush against it. Access to the water is down a long, steep, gated road, which means you have to have something left in the tank for the 25-minute or so trudge back up. Long pants, yes; extra water, please, and sunscreen (try the new spray-on from Trader Joe’s. Good stuff.)

Even with the moderate water flows, fishing The Gorge is tough. We managed to catch several browns in several hours; the lengths were more Southern California average than the monsters you’ll find on any local fly fishing Web site. Much as I hate to write this, I probably wouldn’t do it again this season.

As the world’s most honest guide said to me as I signed for my refund, “You fellas are just here at the wrong time, hell, wrong season.”

Which is great news for thirsty Los Angeles after a string of drought years.

See you on the river, Jim Burns