Labor Day weekend my fishing buddy, Scott, and I made a long put-off trip to a part of the Golden Trout Wilderness. Our goal was to check out some camp grounds, explore the viability of a backpack trip, and to explore a few nearby streams for Golden Trout.
We both took Friday off and crossed our fingers that the entirely first-come-first-serve campground wasn't full to capacity. Scott had a few alternate ideas in his back pocket should we find the grounds full, but it turned out we had the pick of spots, having arrived at 10:00 a.m. sharp.
At 10,000 feet, every movement resulted in amusing moments of breathlessness. First, we set up tents, and as surprisingly difficult as that was, it was good we did, because at noon a thunderstorm rolled in and dropped rain and hail on us for an hour or so. I took the opportunity to catch up up on some sleep.
After the rain stopped, Scott suggested we go try out a nearby meadow for some small-stream trout stalking. We drove over to the trailhead and made the short walk to the first stream we came across. Scott spotted fish almost immediately, so we strung up our rods. Scott had a 2 wt. and I have a short 3 wt. I'd been advised to bring a rod as small as a 00 wt., which I wasn't even able to find, at a reasonable price, online. Golden Trout, especially stream dwellers, are far to the small side of the wild trout scale. Palm-sized jewels of the trout world. Mostly golden, they tend to have round par marks down the side, a thick, reddish swath down the lateral line, and often have bright orange bellies.
Being in a meadow, with little in the way of cover, these goldens are pretty skittish. We spent a lot of time peering around rocks, over tufts of earth and grass, or on our knees in the soft meadow grass. Scott got a fish right off, using a (grass) hopper pattern. I'd tied on a similar dun-colored "stimulator", that drew some voracious hits, but I had a hard time sticking the tiny fishes.
Intermittant rain and hail followed us up and down the beautiful little stream. A piercing chirp dogged us as well. I swiveled my head looking for a bird that could be making the sound. Then I turned around to look into a field of gravelly earth and boulders, to see a marmot, poking its head over a granite boulder. Marmots are organized in their defense of home grounds. The "chirp" is known as a "chuck" and is a warning to other marmots, mainly family members.
It was pretty fun watching the little trout blasting out of their hiding spots, in the shade of a boulder or bush, and attack my little dry fly. Frustratingly, it rarely resulted in a hook-up, and most that did get hooked, quickly came off. I brought one to hand early in the day, but that's all I could manage. I believe Scott landed four.
The night ended with freeze-dried meals and beers by the camp fire. My Pad Thai was woefully undercooked. But I'm still hearing about how good Scott's chili mac was. Sleep was fitful at best, on the ground, our first night at altitude. I was happy when the sun came out so I could get off the ground.
Saturday was the main focus of the trip, a hike out to Cottonwood Lakes. The hike was about 5 miles each way, it began at 10,000 feet, and it was going to push the two of us to the limits of our "fitness," but it pretty much had to be done. The lakes are known to have a larger average size of goldens, and also to be in a beautiful area.
For the most part the hike is fairly level, meandering through a beautiful pine forest. I wish I'd taken the time to research the type of trees and birds we might encounter up there. It's too bad people don't treat strangers on the street as well as hikers treat each other on the trail. Nearly every group or individual we encountered stopped to chat about the weather, the trail, each other's destination, or just to get an idea of where they were in their day's hike. Valuble information, sometimes encouraging, sometimes not is gathered in these short conversations, and it shaped our day in both directions. The last mile of our hike accounted for about half of the 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Some of the stone steps were enough to stop us in our tracks, gasping for air. We ran into a younger couple who told us we were within yards of the top, and after a chat, we made it over the top.
After chatting with three gentlemen who were warming up for Whitney, we staggered to Lake 1. We found a place out of the persistant wind, and basically dropped our gear and collapsed onto our backs for a while. Getting back up was embarrassingly difficult. Like two big turtles, we stiffly struggled to right ourselves, grunting and chuckling. Then we strung up our lake rods (both 5 weights, I think). I had to hop from stone to stone to reach a large rock to use as a casting platform. Getting my feet wet would not have been acceptable with such a long hike back to camp. My first cast drifted near some grasses, and a trout about 8 to 10 inches bolted out of the shade and blasted my fly. It really only succeded in knocking it away, but it gave me the impression I was in for some good fishing. The wind was pretty gusty at times, but settled often enough to cast. I did get a few wind tangles, which required sitting on the rock I was casting on and concentrating on tiny 6x tippet when I really wanted to be casting.
The largest snafu of our trip was that we each thought the other would bring a map of the area we intended to hike. Not the biggest of deals, the trail is unmistakable, and well-travelled, but it limited our options once we arrived at the lake. We'd gotten word from other hikers that Lake 1 was surrounded by swampy grasses, and would be hard to cast to, but that Lake 3 was surrounded by rocks, and easier to reach from shore. We'd also heard that Lake 3 was about a half mile from Lake 1 (though this was from a woman who asked if she was near the campground, and was still a good 4 miles away).
The lake was in a very shallow basin, surrounded by marsh and meadow, then pines, and the whole area was rimmed by bright granite crags. The lake basin was shallow enough that in some locations it was difficult to even see the lake. I'd imagine the surface area of the lake changed dramatically with the seasons. Occasionally a marmot would bark at us, or a huge raven would wheel across the sky, but there wasn't much else in the way of wildlife. We were mercifully spared the annoyance of mosquitos or black flies the entire weekend. Occasionally, I'd look around and not see another soul, then moments later, a line of hikers might file past on one trail or another. The sky remained deep blue and cloudless the entire day.
We took a break from our current spot to try our hand at the outlet of the lake. The wind was blowing towards the outlet, and our hope was that moving water, and insects blown towards that end of the lake might afford more productive fishing. We never really were able to get close enough, due to the marshy ground, and our lack of a map required a decision to be made. Neither of us were willing to wander too far in search of the lakes, not wanting to waste energy we'd surely need on the way back. Being that we'd found fish where we were, we went back to our previous casting positions, agreeing that at 3 p.m. we'd begin the trek back to camp. I think Scott landed a few more fish, but as the day before, I had more missed strikes than ones that stuck. Even the few that stuck came off the hook pretty quickly. I ended up not landing any fish at the lake. But as is often said, sometimes it's about the fishing, not the catching, and the privilege of being in such amazing place, having so much fun, was more than good enough for me.
We'd decided to take an alternate route back down from the lake. The route we'd come up was short, and steep, rising around 500 feet in the space of a mile. Much of the uplhill journey was a step or two, then rest, struggling for air. The hikers who were prepping for a Mt Whitney hike told us the route they'd followed was a little longer, but a more gradual incline. That sounded much less knee-crushing than stepping down the granite steps on our route in.
Mirroring my experience hiking Mt. Whitney, as the day wore on, the preparedness, and expectations of the hikers we encountered had to be questioned. It seems as the afternoon wore on each successive group seemed... well, we became concerned when we met a European family, the mother whom, I'd guess was in her late 50s, was dressed in shorts, a tank top, and flip flops. She asked how far the lake was. I'd say they had a good 3 miles to go and no visible tent, sleeping bags, or anything to protect them from what I'd guess were nights in the mid to high 40s. And this was around 4 o'clock in the afternoon.
We pressed on, and after a short stop to filter some water, a couple hours hiking - including some out-of-body moments - walked into the campground at a few minutes before 6 p.m. Beers were opened, and butts were parked. I think we were both a little surprised at our accomplishment, and the fact that we weren't in need of any medical attention. Blistering was even kept to one each, I think. I was pretty wiped, and after dinner of curry rice, and some beers, I hit the sack. Again, sleep was difficult on the ground, but I got much more sleep than the previous 2 nights.
We got out of our tents, stiffly, a little after 6 a.m., and stood around trying to wake up. Scott's espresso maker was in a bear locker a couple feet from the entrance to someone's tent. When another camper went ahead and opened it, Scott took the opportunity to get the essentials of coffee making out. We decided just to get all of our stuff out, and began slowly breaking down camp while the water heated for morning shots. I became less and less stiff as I gathered gear and rolled up sleeping pads, stuffed my sleeping bag, and dismantled my tent. I actually felt pretty good for having slept 10 hours on the ground after a 12-mile hike. We took our time cleaning, packing and reorganizing gear, in no hurry to go anywhere.
After packing up the truck, we had one more stop to make. I got a tip from a friendly angler from a trout-fishing website, on a spot to try some stream fishing. The spot is a stream away from the regular area spots. We parked, lined up rods, grabbed tackle kits, and GPSs, and scrambled down to where we could hear rushing water. Almost immediately we split up, as access to the water was limited. I looked for a place to cross to the other side, fighting through dense brush, and finding the ground to be surprisingly marshy. Because we were so close to driving home, I stopped worrying about how wet my feet got.
I found a little pool, and made a few attampts to trick some little trout, to no avail. I decided I'd cross over, and fish from the other side, which was much more open. I was near a good place to cross, and jumped onto a large boulder. The next rock was down a steep side of the boulder. I shuffled down in order to get closer to jump, and began to slip down the boulder. I was about to make the leap when my ass touched the steep boulder, and I heard a click before jumping safely to the next rock. I quickly reached behind me to feel for my GPS and realized only the belt clip was still there. My GPS had unclipped against the boulder and fallen into the fast-moving water. I looked all over the area. Supposedly it's a waterproof GPS, but it's also gray and black, and I never saw it again. Initially I was pretty bummed. I use that GPS pretty regularly, and it did have all the data from our hike, and some fishing spots. Scott came through the brush in the same spot I had, and asked what was up. He'd found me on a rock in the middle of the stream, without my rod, peering into the water.
He asked what I wanted to do. I decided that the GPS was gone, nothing was going to change that, and I didn't want it to ruin a great trip. So he lead the way back upstream. The more open side was no less marshy. Scott pointed out good pools to fish. Eventually, we both got into some fish, and had a blast. Sight fishing timid little golden trout is a sublime way to fly fish. It may not be the typical idea of trophy fishing. But like the guy, Mark, who gifted us this spot says "Trout live in beautiful places."
We scrambled back up the embankment to the truck. I took off my soaked shoes and socks, took a "Baja shower" with wet wipes, wiping mud and blood off my legs. Then we piled in the Explorer, and headed off to Lone Pine, and some oxygen-rich air.
Golden Trout Wilderness at EveryTrail
Map created by EveryTrail: GPS Trip Sharing with Google Maps
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