August 3 2001- 20 Lakes Basin

Saddlebag Lake revisited.

I love high country fly fishing and…… I’ve not been able to do enough of it this year. Normally, I’m fit with anticipation of a trip like this. A high country trip to some golden trout lakes but let’s face it….I’m afraid of the Twenty Lakes basin. There, I’ve said it. That’s my confession. Yep, I’m fearful, chicken, yeller. What is it that strikes such fear in me? I wish I knew. The place just wipes me out, physically. Sure the altitude plays into it but I’ve been above 10,000ft a couple of times this year with no problems. Whatever it is, I figure I’ve got 50 plus years to figure it out. J

Similar to last year, we set off Friday night not knowing where we’d stay the night. My calendar predicted a full moon so Susan and I decided to go the long way to Saddlebag. This involves taking HWY 108 over Sonora Pass, the views of which are spectacular under a full moon.

We arrived at Saddlebag sometime after midnight and made the obligatory drive through the campground at the lake.  As we drove the two miles from HWY 120 to the Lake I made mental notes of possible camping spots. Last year Gino and I spent an hour looking for a “real” campsite, after which we were tired and cranky. I wasn’t about to do that again.

Not surprisingly the lake campsite was full. We were on a mission though and quickly found a turnout to share with a fellow in an SUV.  A quick survey of the moonlit hillside revealed that the SUV fellow chose to sleep in his car. We found a flat spot on the hillside and quickly pitched Susan’s comfy, 4-season tent.

The next morning we awoke to a howling wind, an absolute gale which Susan’s tent shrugged off as though it were a whisper. The night was uneventful and extremely comfortable. Susan definitely owns a 4 star tent, easy to set up, stable, roomy and warm (with no condensation build up). It’s definitely in the “gotta get one” category.

We hiked our way up to the Conness Glacier that morning. The day was fair and breezy and the hike up to lake 1 quite leisurely. We stopped at Conness Creek shortly. I, to throw a few casts, and Susan to snap some pictures. Susan’s a real shutterbug so I’m guaranteed to have some great shots for the Pish Page. After several more vista stops, we finally arrived at Conness 1.

Conness 1 is a High Sierra basin lake,  with a florescent blue green glow similar to the McCloud River. I’m guessing that the milky color is caused by glacial silt that mixes with the melting snow and ice during the summer. On the boat taxi ride over the lake, the boat captain warned me of the tough fishing conditions. “Windy” he said. I gave him one of my “I’ll manage” looks and he said, “If you have trouble in the lake, give the creek a try.”

Well, I’m no fool. I tried the creek first. “Conness” Creek flows out of Conness Lake 1 into Greenstone Lake. It’s a pleasantly small, shallow stream with narrow riffles and small pockets. The stream is treeless, with seemingly no obstacles.

I underestimated the wind.

I brought with me on this trip two rods. A 7’6” 4-5 wt custom made Diamondback, which has become my defacto high country fly rod of choice and one of my beloved Tonka Queen “High Quality Bamboo Fish Rod”. The Tonka Queen was my back up rod and was left in the car. Unfortunately, I could have used the backbone of the TQ to fight the wind. I found the fishing nearly impossible without it. Still, between hurricane gust created by the funneling effect of the of the basin, I was able to get a few good drifts and garner a few strikes.

I underestimated the fish.

In most “road side” Golden Trout fisheries, you’re fishing for small, stunted fish. This is not the case at Conness, these fish have shoulders and the first fish I hooked took full advantage of my hubris. It was a good-sized fish, 7 or 8 inches and would have been my first Golden of the season.

After lunch, Susan and I set off for Conness 2. We ended up at Conness 3. The map was pretty clear about where Conness 2 was but the topography suggested we go to Lake #3, whether we wanted to or not. When we reached Lake #3, a short climb to the left most ridge confirmed that we’d missed #2 and that there was no easy way of getting there.

Within a couple of hours, Susan and I had circled the lake. I had managed to rise only one fish and was ready to take a shot at Lake #2. Conness 2 was supposed to be the best fly-fishing lake but it’ll have to wait for another trip. In our attempt to reach the lake, we came to a slight cliff which put an abrupt halt to our progress and forced us to return to lake 1 and try an alternate route.

Back at Lake 1 I fished the creek as we walked. Here, a single good cast, a little stealth and light wind were rewarded with the only landed fish of the day and my first golden of the season. (Better late then never, right?)

Just about now is when I bonked. I looked down at my water supply and said to myself, “half a bottle is more than enough”. In truth it was more like 12oz and I should have drank it and pumped more. “Drink 16oz an hour” is my common mantra when hiking in the mountains but when I fish, I hardly drink. I can’t be bothered with having to go to the bath room I guess. Whatever the case, what turns into a slight buzz of dehydration at sea level can be down right deadly at altitude. I knew this and thought I was drinking just enough. Just enough to keep me hydrated without having to go the bathroom every half hour.

I was wrong and I crashed fast. No longer was I looking up toward Lake 2, I wanted to get down- now. Susan and I made our way back to the boat launch. I filled my water bottle at the first opportunity but it was too little to late. We arrived at the boat launch early. We had reserved a specific pick up time and the earlier boats were filled with folks who missed their earlier appointments. We waited. Susan soaked her feet while I lay across several course, oddly shaped stones. To tired too move and too nauseous to sleep. The 20 Lakes Basin had crushed me again.

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