June 21st - June 22nd 2008- Hilton Lakes, Hot Creek

Time: Saturday 11:30 - 2:00pm, 9:30am - 2:00 pm
Partly Cloudy to thunderstorms.

Water Temps: Didn't take.
Water Level: A little high.
Water Conditions: Clear.
Moon Phase: Full on previous Wednesday.

Insects Observed: micro caddis at Hot Creek
Hours fished:
Roughly 3 on Saturday, Sunday to 5.5 hours each day.

# of fish caught:  a bunch....and a big bunch at that.
Method: Sight fishing with a 7.5ft 6x leader. Short Line Nymphing without an indicator on the public section of Hot Creek.
Set Up: 8'0"  Medium Action Cane 8ft 4wt rod made my me.
Flies:  Invicta, 16 CDC Caddis Cripple, Size 12 Beadhead Gold Ribbed Black Wet Fly.


It may be difficult to read this story without the impression that I'm telling it with conceit. I hope it doesn't sound that way. I'm not and try as much as possible to retell events as I remember, without exaggeration.

This trip, just happened to find a pattern and/or retrieve that worked on two different waters early on and stuck with it. The result was one of my best days of fishing and probably the best in terms of numbers and size of fish combined.

Since I'm adding a disclaimer, I should also say that I'm a lousy proof reader. If you've read the site regularly you know this........I'll probably catch all the errors the 15th time I've read this, sometime next year.......


Itís hard to beat the John Muir Wilderness for high sierra trout hunting. Easy access day hikes, extended trips, large golden trout fishing, the Sierra Grand Slam, it has it all. Last weekend I found myself, once again crossing the JMW boundary. I am always a bit taken aback when I see a JMW boundary sign and am reminded by how truly large the wilderness is. From the Treasure Lakes, to Florence Lake and Evolution Valley, to the San Joaquin, Mammoth Lakes, the Little Lakes Valley, Iíve only fished a small portion of this vast 100 mile wilderness.

John Muir Wilderness Boundary

This weekend I was able to knock another chain of lakes of my list, the Hilton Lakes. A chain of 10 lakes, one would need several days to fish them all. I only had one day so I planned to fish 3, 4, and 5 but only fished #3. Several conflicting sources put Golden Trout in Lakes 3 or 5, 7, 8,  9 and 10. Iíd seen a beautiful picture of lake 4 and figured it was worth the trip just for the view, even if it was filled with stunted brookies.

The dusty trail to the lakes is reminiscent of the fabled 5 mile walk to school, uphill both ways, in the snow. The trail was free of snow but that didnít stop the hike from being 9.5 miles round trip, uphill both ways. The trailhead starts above Rock Creek Lake and takes you in the downstream direction to just past the Rock Creek Resort, in fact, thereís a shortcut that starts at the Resort and meets the main trail a mile or so down the canyon. Itís a trade off, an extra mile or so of moderate hiking or a much shorter but steep accent to the main trail. I had meant to take the steep accent but missed the trail crossing, ending up instead at the main trailhead.

The trail ambles past a small meadow and then up and over a saddle that takes you along the bottom portion of a large bluff. Once over the saddle, you head down toward lake # 2 before meeting a trail which takes you back up to the opposite side of the bluff. This was a bit annoying as it is pretty obvious that you could simply cross country to the lake from the saddle but a fisherman at the lake would later tell me that he tried it once. The terrain was pretty rough he said AND he ran into a cougar sunning itself on a rock. After hearing that, the trail sounded like a pretty good route.

The Hilton Lakes is far from a secret and is a popular destination for the pack trains of the Rock Creek Pack station. Most folks head to lake #1 (AKA Davis Lake) or lake #2, the two largest lakes and the ones that require no additional elevation gain once the saddle is crossed.

Davis Lake in the distance and Hilton #2 through the trees.

The trail was well trodden and the popularity of the lakes was confirmed when I arrived at lake #3 to find several people fishing close to the outlet. I sat down and strung up my rod as I ate the remainder of my breakfast muffin and tested my new SPOT.

The SPOT is an acronym for Satellite Personal Tracker and itís basically the poor manís PLB (personal locator beacon). For half to one third the price of a PLB and an annual subscription to their service, the SPOT will allow you to provide daily updates on your backcountry trips in the form of a pre-written text message and gps coordinates. It allows you to send 3 basic messages, an ďIím OKĒ message, a ďsend helpĒ message and a 911 message directly to the closest emergency services.

I have a solo backpacking trip coming up so I wanted to test it out and it failed miserably. I suspect that the service may not have process through completely. A test from home this weekend succeeded but 200 feet above the sea level isn't quite the same as 10,000 feet above sea level.

Back at the lake, I struck up a conversation with one of the other fishermen. They were fishing either bait or lures, I didnít pay attention to which. There were fish rising in the lake so I asked how the fishing was. They said that it had been good and consistent for the day and half theyíd been there. I was eager to find out what theyíd been catching and was a bit perplexed when they remarked golden trout and brook trout.

Hilton Lake #3

I had come to the lake in search of goldens but my fish and game source listed rainbows and goldens as the resident species. To me this meant hybrids and though I was hopping for more golden looking hybrids than rainbow, I didnít hold out much hope.

The others hadnít caught any rainbows they said and a golden and brookie lake would ensure Iíd be fishing for goldensÖ.. well I wasnít. I didnít catch one fish that resembled a golden trout. They were all pretty hybridized and I certainly didnít see any brook trout. That doesn't necessarily mean they're not there but given their predilection for flies, I have my doubts. Trout species aside, fishing at the lake was great.

I finished my muffin and watched the cruising fish. We wouldn't technically be fishing the same water but on a lake like this, I didnít see any reason for my fellow fisherman and I to fish within sight of each other or even on the same side of the lake. I crossed the outlet and headed to where I suspected the inlet might be.

Once I was out of eye and ear shot, I sat and watched the water. It wasnít very long before I could see some decent sized fish cruising the shoreline. This was one of those types of sierra lakes with a drop off well within casting distance. Beyond the drop off, the lake was darker than dark and this probably explains the coloration of the fish which at times had a purplish hue. I watched the cruisers for a while and then made a cast with a small dry fly. I donít remember which fly because I would later switch over to nymphs and fish nymphs for the rest of the day. This trout was actually purple in hue.

It didnít take very many casts to get into the first fish, a nice 12 inches rainbow. It also didnít take very long for me to realize that dry fly fishing was not going to be the most productive method here. I switched to a black beadhead fly simply out of curiosity. Itís a fly that I tied up while staying at Hot Creek Ranch. I used it one evening on the public section of Hot Creek and did well.

ďI wonder if it will work well in lakesÖÖ"

Well, I wonder no more. I didnít go more than 3 casts without catching a fish for the next two hours.

During this time I made my way along the bank, sight fishing as I headed toward where I figured the inlet came in. At the far end of the lake there was no proper inlet but a fellow was fishing a large flat. The water here was different than what I had been fishing. The drop off was much further out and there didnít appear to be any cruising fish. This fellow was fishing bait and didnít have much luck. We fished and talked for about 30 minutes. I landed 3 or 4 fish in that time and was keenly aware that this was not the place for me. The fellow was a frequent visitor to the lake  and expected the fishing to pick up about 2pm. We was staying put until then, I went back up the bank to look for active fish.

I eventually found myself near the outlet where the others were fishing. A fly fisher had shown up and I plopped myself between them (in the area the conventional tackle guys had already covered) careful not to crowd anyone. I made a few casts, boom- fish. A few more, bang- another fish.

After about the 4th or 5th fish the fly guyís wife asked me what I was using. I told her it didnít have a name but explained what it looked like. ďItís doing pretty well for youĒ she said. ďYes it isĒ I replied as I spotted a larger fish cruise by.  We talked as I walked around her husband to the other side of the outlet. I donít recall if I showed him my fly or not. Nor do I remember their names but they were a nice couple from Bishop and made my remaining time on the lake very pleasant.

I had noticed the patches of light gravel near the outlet earlier in the day but it wasnít until I caught a plump fish near shore that I realized what they were- spawning beds. I had thought that only brook trout could spawn in lakes but this area was filled with fish and they were obviously spawning. I made a mental note not to cast to the spawning fish and to pull my fly away if I saw one. I worked my way further up the bank to where the beds started to thin out and fished there until I felt that the storm that had been building all day, was at a head and it was best to start the 2.5 hour hike back.

I raced the storm all the way back to the car, maneuvering in and out of showers as I made my way around the bluff, over the saddle and back along Rock Creek canyon. About a mile from the car the thunder started. 5 minutes later it was thundering in earnest, with a loud clap every 45 seconds or so. The last bit to the car is high and exposed- time to run.

Rock Creek Lake on the return.

Hot Creek

I was down relatively early so I decided to fish the remainder of the evening on Hot Creek. Boy am I glad I did. It's 5 days on as I write this and all I remember of that evening is the big fish I didnít catch and the downstream conveyer belt of fisherman. That last bit is rant material, suffice it to say, fisherman wearing bright colors, walking down the bank, waving a big stick donít catch many fish. For those of us crotched along the bank, moving in an upstream direction, the fishing was AMAZING. (I later confirmed this with an acquaintance of mine on a different section of stream at the same time.)

The river was fairly busy when I arrived around 5:30pm, I recall what appeared to be a family, a father fishing and a son, fishing with his mother, the month wasnít fishing, a short Japanese guy that Iíd seen before and some others. I fit myself in where I could and fortunately, my favorite big fish hole was vacant so I fished that.

Once again I fished the new nymph,  the same as on Hilton Lake, this time with the caddis cripple dropper I had fished on Hot Creek Ranch. This time though, I fished the cripple wet. On the 3rd cast to the big fish hole my flies found their way down a slot between the weeds and I promptly hooked and landed a 15 inches fish.

First Hot Creek fish. The witness mark is at 16 inches.

That was a good sign but what was to follow was incredible. The wind was bad, so I replaced the black soft hackle nymph with an identical but heavier nymph. The heavy nymph hit the bottom fast and by allowing my line to catch the wind in a controlled manner, I was able to slow the nymphs down just enough to get a good drift and for the rest of the evening, 16 to 22 inch fish continually slammed my flies. The big fish wanted the flies so badly that I didnít hook a fish under 16 inches for the rest of the evening. I also didnít land many fish either.

In many instances the fish gave themselves away as they worked the heavy caddis hatch and I capitalized on that and often hooked the fish on the first cast. I would approach a section of water I thought would have a big fish and watch it for a little while. A fish would either rise or flash under the surface. Iíd make a cast or two and fish on! It was out of control!

The largest fish generally took off for their protection area as soon as they were hooked. One fish in particular was 10 feet upstream before I had even reacted. I set the hook and found my line ripping through the water upstream. He made 3 or 4 good jumps after he threw the hook, as if to taunt me and say "you'll have to do better than that". My response, said aloud, "Okay, okay, I've seen you. Stop the jumping already....."

Everywhere I thought there would be a big fish, I hooked a big fish.

"There's no way that you can top yesterday" I thought as I walked the canyon trail to Hot Creek on Sunday. In 10 years and probably 50 days on Hot Creek I'd only had one other evening like the one Saturday. It was too incredible for me to convey.

Sunday on Hot Creek wasnít as good. The fishing was consistent but fewer large fish were showing and Iíve got imagine that the constant drone of anglers walking downstream along the bank didnít help much. My last fish was caught 6 inches off the near bank with a 10 foot cast. I had been working the deep tail of a riffle when, as I edged my way up the bank, I spotted a dark shape by the bank. I wasnít sure it was a fish at first so I put my rod down and watched for a while. It was in a pressure pocket, that is, in the pocket of a rock above and sitting in the cushion of a rock below. The whole area was about 24 feet long and 12 inches wide. I watched and saw the fish drift to back towards me. I knew the game was on.

ďI see you.Ē

Typical of Hot Creek, it was breezy. This made the cast difficult; most casts into the pocket followed the main tongue of current on the left, sweeping under the bank. My first casts went that way and  I pulled a 14 inch rainbow out from under the bank. This fish was behind the first and I managed to pull it away without spooking the dark shadow.

I worked the fish for an age. Cast after cast was blown back in my face or pulled under the banks. I even snagged the stream side nettles and crawled on my back to retrieve the fly. I was close to giving up when I made a decent cast. A sixth sense had me set the hook before it consciously registered that the fish had taken my fly. ďGOT HIM!Ē I shouted, probably a little too loudly, as I stood up to play the fish.

I hadnít realized that I had apparently attracted a crowd. Either it had been obvious that I was working a fish or all my crawling around the bank attracted attention; but when I stood up, I soon became aware that people had been watching me. It was a good fish, 16 inches and was happily sitting in heavy current and under the weeds. We had a stalemate, I couldnít pull him out of the fast water and he couldnít get rid of me. So I tried a different tactic, I started pulling him downstream, hoping I could move him into some softer water. Each time I did, he simply headed for the fast water and the nearest rock. I was sure he was going to break off. He started pulling me down stream and after I had gone about 60 feet I called to the guy below me.

ďDo you have a net?Ē

ďI doĒ came a soft voice behind me.

A couple had stopped and watched me as they made their way up the trail and now she was helping me land the fish. It was a team effort. She landed the fish and the guy fishing below me, Mike,  took the picture. I couldnít have asked for a better end of day than that.


The team effort. I hooked the fish, the women seen in the reflection of my glasses landed it and the fellow next to her, took the picture.

Previous John Muir Wilderness Chronicle   Next John Muir Wilderness Chronicle

       Chronicle Index