Weather: Sunny and Mild
Well, it looks like I’m skunked when it comes to Golden Trout this year. A “Golden Skunk” of sorts. I’ve made two ventures to remote “Golden Trout” lakes this season and come back empty handed both times.
This past weekend I backpacked up the Barrett Jeep Trail to Barrett Lake to meet my brother- in- law (Chad) and his family. I’d been to Barrett before, knew what to expect and looked forward to it. From Barrett there are several trails to about a half dozen other lakes southwest of the Crystal mountain range, most of which appear too shallow to hold fish through the winter. DFG doesn’t stock these lakes anymore but there are several lakes with barely self sustaining populations of fish.
I say barely because even though the lakes are full of Brook Trout, which are known to overpopulate a lake, they’re also at the end of a very popular trail and thus see their fair share of “harvesting”.
At 5:00 am on a Saturday morning, the Barrett Lake trailhead is a quick drive from the Bay Area and I was on the trail at 8:30am. The trail is a true “jeep” trail; only folks with super high clearance vehicles can make it through the boulder fields that are the trail. The boulders make hiking difficult and create scrap metal out of poorly prepared vehicles and their drivers. Oil stains and broken tail light shards are common place.
It takes as long, or longer, to drive to the lake as it does to hike to it. I did the hike (7 miles I believe) in 2hours and 30 min. Chad and the others drove in on “quads” and it took them 3hrs. The travel time balances out as it took me 2hrs and 40 min to hike out and took the quads 2 hours or 2 hours and 15min. to drive out. A mountain biker I ran into told me it takes him 1.5 hours.
I arrived at the camp at about 11am and was surprised to see other campers. This late in the year the lake sites are usually empty but it seems folks wanted to get their last 4x4 run of the year before the trail closed on Monday. Sunday morning we had 5 groups of campers including ourselves. The last group from what I understand drove in at 12 am Sunday morning with radios blasting. Needless to say, they had some words with their neighbors. I was oblivious however as Chad had given me ear plugs for such an eventuality.
It’s strange sleeping in the wilderness with ear plugs. At night, asleep in your tent, sound is your only contact with what’s around you, your only sensation, the only thing that tells you that yes, you are sleeping in the wilderness- you’ll be waking up every few hours thank you very much.
It was a strange feeling. At first my soul seemed to crave sound and searched my body for other sensations. I couldn’t sleep over the loud pounding of my heart and the heightened physical sensation of my heart beating. Eventually sleep came. I woke several times that night. If I didn’t open my eyes, I was totally oblivious to everything except the cold chill from shifting in my sleeping bag and the constant numbness in my left arm. My sleeping position kept putting my left arm to sleep. Eventually, the discomfort of the arm would cause me to wake and shift it to another position, only to wake a couple of hours later and do it all again. I didn't seem to have this problem in Tehipite.
I arrived at an empty camp. Chad and the gang were away, either hunting or fishing, so I set about the routine tasks of filtering water, eating and setting up my tent.
When I left camp I eagerly anticipated fishing Top Lake. Top Lake is filled with Brook Trout but may also contain Golden Trout. I say “may” because the lake has very poor spawning conditions for Goldens. On my last trip, I saw only two large Golden Trout, a sign that planting hasn’t occurred in 3 or 4 years and that reproduction isn’t occurring. I hoped that the lake by some small miracle still held Golden Trout but first I had to get there.
I know exactly where Top Lake is. You wouldn’t know that by this day’s mishaps. I left the camp site via a small trail that I knew lead to Lawrence Lake. From Lawrence, it’s a simple matter of walking to the far side of the lake and walking up this giant granite slab. There are other ways to Top but on the last trip I found the aforementioned route the easiest.
I’d forgotten that the Lawrence Lake trail split. The low trail leads to Lawrence Lake and the high trail leads to some other lakes and in my case, off the map. At the fork in the trail there was a small spring and a seasons trampling foot steps created a large mud puddle. Concentrating on avoiding the mud and not looking for a trail split, I missed the lower trail.
I kept hiking up and up. 30 min into my hike I remarked to myself that I didn’t remember the walk to Lawrence taking this long. Confident that I was on the right trail, I convinced myself to trust the trail, it will take you to the lake. 15 minutes later as I passed a giant granite slab I thought to myself, “I should probably be going up that”. Strangely, I could see the spur that Top Lake is under moving further and further away. I could see up ahead that the trees thinned and there appeared to be a lake. “Trust in the trail”, I said to myself again. Eventually I came to a totally unexpected lake.
It was a nice lake, too shallow to fish with reeds lining the shoreline and large boulders scattered throughout. “I don’t remember this lake” I thought. At this point I should have turned around but I’d come this far and maybe my memory was faulty. I continued on and came to a small rise with another lake. Perhaps this was Lawrence.
I scrutinize the lake very carefully. Except for the near shoreline, I can only remember Lawrence from pictures and I strain now to remember those pictures. This lake is too small, it’s not Lawrence. “Where the heck am I?” I walked to a break in the trees. I can’t believe my eyes. “I am at the end of the ridge”, I say to myself shaking my head. “I can’t be at the end of ridge” I say in disbelief. But I was, I at the very end of the ridge and Top Lake was on the other end. I took it all in. I’d never been out this far so I decided to enjoy it. The trail split again and I followed the trail as it switch backed up toward the top of the ridge. "Maybe this will take me to the top and I can travel the ridge to the lake. "
The trail went up and over a small saddle. At the top I decided to go off trail and follow the ridge line as far as possible. I’d hike along the edge of the saddle until I hit the ridge proper and continue to Top. I hiked over boulders and through the brush until I hit the ridge. I could now see Top Lake. I had two choices: follow along the ridge or hike down, traverse the valley and then climb back up to Top. I was high enough that if I followed the ridge I could traverse latterly and drop down into the basin holding Top.
The way down would be pretty easy. It was pretty much a straight shot down a large granite slab, across a small hidden valley (at mid level to the ridge) and then up the high portion of the large slab I would have traveled from Lawrence Lake. I was feeling strong, incredibly so given the fact that I probably had walked 10 miles and I didn’t feel like going down simply to go back up again. The way across the ridge looked fairly simple and benign.
Of course it wasn’t. Initially the going was easy but the closer I came to Top Lake the steeper the slope became. The terrain turned to loose talus that slid at the slightest touch. I chose my steps carefully. The terrain below was very steep. I spotted a route up and across some soil and plants and headed for that. The talus now mixed with pulverized rock-sand which also slid as I stepped. Everything I stepped on slid or was slippery. The rocks and soil slid, the leaves of the plants were incredibly slick and the rocks that didn’t slide where covered with sand.
The view was incredible but the terrain was treacherous and I realized that if I had taken the low road, I would have been at the lake in the time it had taken me to traverse barely half the distance. Going down would be faster and safer than continuing across the ridge. Getting into the valley itself was not easy. The trekking pole I picked up a few weeks ago works wonders and made descending much easier than it would otherwise be. From the ridge I could see also Lake No 9- a lake I would not normally have visited but since it was in my travel path, I gave it a shot.
Lake No 9, certainly seemed deep enough to support fish but it was hard to tell. All of the lakes in this area are incredibly dark with woody detritus. I fished for 30 min and then moved on. At 3pm, nearly 3 hours after leaving camp, I finally reached Top Lake.
The lake level was low and it lacked the two inlets I fished during run off. The eastern portion was overgrown with small reeds and the rest of the lake seemed a dark void. I fished the areas that had been most productive on our last visit. I didn’t see a single fish or get a single strike. The lake seemed barren. I doubt it was but the fish were either very deep or patrolling the reeds which were too marshy for me to fish. I worked around the lake to the far side, the side closest to Barrett Lake. I could clearly see Barrett. From Top Lake, it’s a straight shot to Barrett down a granite slab. I knew I couldn’t actually hike down the slab to the lake but the view was amazing so I decided to descend down the slab as far as I could.
I reached a small bluff, which I probably could have climbed down but I knew that further down there was another drop that one would have to repel down. I traversed the slab up and a bit to my right and headed down toward Lawrence Lake. I knew I could get down by heading to Lawrence and about half way down I ran into a trail. I followed the trail and it put me at exactly the spot where I expected to be when I climbed the trail from Barrett earlier in the day. From Lawrence, the trail to Top Lake wasn’t clearly marked. You had to know it was there and then it was easy to follow. I made a mental note of it’s position for the next time I visit. I will not forget.
It was about 5:30 and I figured I could fish Barrett for about a half hour before I needed to start back to camp. I patrolled the bank looking for cruising fish. As I approached the outlet dam, two fish large fish swam quickly in my direction. They swam into some shade and were obscured by the glare on the water. In this low light condition they were hidden to me. Thinking that I could intercept them with a roll cast, I dropped my fly in the water and proceeded to wiggle out slack like. I watched the shadow for some sign of the fish and as I began to roll cast, I looked down at my. Both fish were on my fly. They had moved so quickly through the shadow that I had not noticed them and as I looked down, one fish had just spit out the fly and other one was following it as it zig- zagged back and forth with the motion of my fly line. I noticed the fish too late. It saw me and turned away.
I fished Lawrence for a bit more, casting to the occasional rise with no success and then headed to camp. At Barrett, Chad and his brother Brian were fishing spinning gear on the far side of the lake. Brian had caught what Chad described as a “Golden Trout”. Stunned, I rushed over to Brian to see this fish. Imagine my chagrin if after 6 hours of combined backpacking and hiking I could have caught Goldens right at the camp site.
The fish wasn’t immediately identifiable and at a distance I thought “Dolly Varden”. The fish was extremely dark and Brian pointed out the golden orange belly and white tipped fins. I knelt next to the fish, red within blue spots. “Looks like a Brook Trout.” The fish was perfectly camouflaged within its environment and its dark coloring made it difficult to see what for me is the distinguishing mark of brook trout- the vermiculations or wavy marks on it’s back. I pointed these distinguishing marks out to Brian so that he could identify the fish in the future.
That night I feasted on hot dogs and chocolate milk. Soda? V8? Chocolate? Cashews? They had it all and not in small backpacking sized quantities. No, they had ice chests full of food. I also ate the pasta that I had brought in. Nitrates don’t fuel the body well and I did need the carbs for following day’s hike out
The next morning I planned to prowl Lawrence Lake for cruising fish but instead was trapped on the creek in camp. I spent 45 min casting to a pod of fish that could care less about what I was throwing at them. I did manage to land one fish. He made a motion for my Red Fox Squirrel Hair Nymph and I snagged him with my PT dropper on the hook set. An inauspicious way to end my high country season to be sure.