September 6 2008 Cottonwood Lakes Basin
11am - 2pm
I havenít really been on a standard fishing trip all year; most if not all my trips have been extended trips with Vita or weekend trips with the some creature comforts. Iíve not done a hardcore trip for sometime and I needed to. It used to be that these were the only trips I did. Leaving Friday night, driving some unmentionable distance, sleeping in my car, getting up early, hiking in, fishing for as many or fewer hours as the hike and then hiking out- only to do it again the next day. Some trips were out and back in 24hours and never more than two nights. The Corolla's only good for two nights sleep- one night sleeping on the left side, another on the right and that was about all a body could tolerate. I got older, married, became more settled and those types of trips became fewer and far betweenÖ..
The trip to the Eastern Sierra takes more time than it used to as well. The influx of inhabitants to the Great Central Valley and the accompanying traffic means that it now takes 30 to 45 minutes longer for me to reach Oakdale. Age and common sense also takes it tool. I no longer cruise through Yosemite National Park at 55 MPH- no longer make the drive from the 120 entrance to Tuolumne meadows in 1 hour. Bottom line is that it now takes 5 to 5.5 hours to reach Mammoth Lakes from home and when the drive is beyond thatÖ.forget about it.
It was a pleasant night- Friday. The lights in Lone Pine were dim when I made the right hand turn from HWY 395 on to Whitney Portal road. The roads were quiet and the magnificent view of the Owens Valley that one is treated to during the day was replaced with total darkness this night. I reached the trailhead just after 3:00 am, a full hour later than I had expected. I found a parking space close to the trailhead, spread out my thermarest pad to lessen the troth of the passenger side bucket seat and watched the stars. I often forget how many stars one can see from this elevation- a thousand pin prinks in the blanket of night. Here at 10,000 feet one can see everything, the dimmest of stars, satellites passing by, the nebula of the milky way.
Morning came too quickly and I was up at first light. Pop Tarts and water for breakfast and I was on the trail in no time. The cottonwood lakes trails begins among a grove of Foxtail Pine. Related to the oldest trees in the world, the Bristlecone Pine, I begin my journey among trees that may be older than 2000 years old. A sign says that the fallen timber can be upwards of 5,000 years old. It is really quite something to ponder.
Itís a two hour hike to the lake along a little known trail. Iíve got 3 maps of the area and the trail is visible on only one. Its easy to find and since Iíve hiked back along the trail a couple of times, I had no problem finding it. The trail follows Cottonwood Creek along its entire route. It gradually ascends until a quarter of a mile or so from the lake and then shoots up 500 or more feet. Not as steep as the trail to the Ansel Adams lake I hiked last month but enough to slow you down. The cliff at the top of the trail provides breath taking views of the creek and the valley below.
At the lake I was treated with a scene to delight any high country fly fisher- that of rising trout. The rise forms suggested a mixture of very small and medium sized trout to about 10 inches. I dropped my pack to refuel, take in the scenery and watch the fish for a while. It had been some time since I had been to this particular lake, my favorite of the Cottonwood Lakes area, and I wanted to enjoy it. The area in general is the very antithesis of solitude. I'd already run into two very large backpacking groups and as I sat some distance from the lake, I saw another group heading down the trail. Once they past, my first hour or so at the lake was spent in relative isolation.
The fish were rising regularly just outside of casting range. Normally I'd just look for other fish but due to my increasing habit of wet wading, I brought a pair of Mary Jane style Crocs. Yes, they're women's shoes but they have a duel hold down system and were on clearance and therefore dead cheap. I got the idea from Sir Homey who brought a pair of Crocs on the Tehipite trip. They're much lighter than the wading sandals I own. The stretchiness of the Croc material was a bit of a problem in the mud and I'd say I'd have to try them for a few more outings to determine if they become a permanent part of my gear.
The first several casts of my caddis cripple were all taken but it took several more attempts before I had a solid hook up and landed my first fish. I was standing in water just over my knees, 15 feet or so from shore. A nice little flat with some rocks and a gradual decent into deeper water. The fish appeared to be taking midges but for the first half hour or so, it didn't matter. My fly worked fine.
The goldens here seemed to be in what some call "the silver phase". I'm not sure what that is exactly. Ralph Cutter mentions it in Sierra Trout Guide but I don't recall an actual explanation. Perhaps it's a muted color that female goldens attain during spawning. It didn't take long for all my missed hook ups to put the near by fish down ; so, I went on the prowl for cruising fish. In no time I spotted a nice fish cruising in my direction.
When the fish along the flats stopped taking my dry fly, I switched to a sinking ant with spotty success and as this fish approached, I planned to cast the ant ahead of it, let it sink to the bottom and give the fly a twitch as the fish neared. In theory, the "puff" of the fly rising off the sandy bottom would attract the fish and induce a strike. It's a classic high country lake technique. Unfortunately, I sent the fish scurrying for cover with a voodoo dance meant to untangle my fly line from beneath my feet and the surrounding brush.
I spotted my next fish from a rocky outcropping on the deeper side of the lake. It was a nice golden, easily 14 inches or better and as it approached I made several casts with the ant, the cripple, a black gnat and a parachute adams. Each cast attracted a little interest but no takes. I immediately changed flies, going smaller and smaller to what I thought would be more hatch matching. The fish hadn't spooked, nor had it made more than a half hearted attempt at the flies I offered. A few times it slowly approached the fly and rejected it just as the fly bobbed just over it's nose. I covered all the bases or so I thought. Size, color, profile.... the naturals appeared to be small, so I went small. Small flies sitting above the film, trapped in the film, even under the film. No luck.
I sat for a while, resting the fish and changing to a large black flying ant. A favorite of mine and very often the first fly I put on; but, one I haven't gone to much this year. A small group of hikers watched me watching the fish. The fish swam parallel to the rocky shoreline and then turned away from me and headed to deeper water. I made 2 backcasts and shot enough line to place the fly just ahead and to the right of this large golden. Without hesitation the trout slammed the fly and took off for parts unknown. My reel screamed, music to my ears. I was happy to have hooked the fish not because of it's size and the challenge but because I seemed to find the pattern for this particular lake on this particular day. It's not very often that large golden trout hit a fly with reckless abandon. I was sure to fish this fly the rest of the day.
I didn't land that fish but I was confident in the fly and soon I was confident that I had also identified the proper water to fish. From that point forward, the fish came regularly to every 3rd cast or so. I worked around the lake until I came to a trench between a weed bed and a rocky point. Here there were larger fish and I worked the area for about 45 minutes before heading out. Time after time, cast after cast, strike after strike , I missed each of the larger fish I cast too. When the requisite afternoon sierra thunderstorms appeared to be moving in, I followed the rest of the day hikers in returning to the trailhead. Reeling my line in, I discovered that that the hook had broken at the bend. It was an old fly and possibly rusty, though I don't remember it being so. Perhaps it broke against a rock on a backcast; whatever the case, I'd apparently fished quiet a while without a proper hook.
Returning to the rocky outcropping on my way back to the trail, I made another cast to the fish I lost earlier. The fresh ant fly hit the water hard. The fish again, charged with reckless abandon at the fly, only to turn away at the last instant. "Fool me once....." it seemed to be saying and ignored additional casts. I walked again to the drop off overlooking Cottonwood Creek, taking in the one of my favorite sierra views, before making the steep decent to the meadow and following the creek out of the wilderness.
Driving through Yosemite at a muted speed, I had the largest bear I've seen in quite a while saunter out in front of my car. Later I rounded a corner to find a large buck (8 pointer) standing in the middle of my lane and when I went into the oncoming lane to pass it, it decided it's best escape route was to be found in the direction of my front bumper. Fortunately, the person behind me subscribes to the same philosophy about speeding and tailgating in the park and was well behind me on both accounts and when, just for good measure, another deer shot across the road. It was the first time I'd had 3 such incidents in one trip through the park.