My quest for golden trout, the rarest jewel in the Sierras
DARIN LYNCH with a beautiful California Golden Trout
Part I – The quest begins
Rainbow trout flourished in the waters of the Sierra Nevada mountains prior to the last ice age 20.000 years ago, but when the glaciers came, most of the rainbows died off or retreated to other areas.
Somehow, in certain remote spots in the mountains, a group of these hardly little trout held on and evolved. As the ice came and went, glaciers and other forces, including volcanoes, changed the landscape, formed lakes, blocked rivers and created others. These highly adapted and forever changed rainbows, locked into high, cold, isolated lakes and streams became golden trout, the California state fish.
Today these incredibly beautiful gold and red fish survive in few high mountain lakes and streams, and can be seen by persons willing to seek them out, but not without some walking or horseback riding.
As a fly fisherman and confirmed catch-and-released advocate, it has my dream to visit the high sierra back country and fish for golden trout. For years Al Maggini, the man who taught me how to fly fish, and I have talked about packing into the mountains to cast flies to these especially beautiful fish. Finally this summer we decided to put our long-talked-about plan into action.
My first task was to find out the best place to seek out these fish and the best guide to get us there. The search started with Duane Milleman at The Fly Shop in Redding. Duane operates a number of top quality private water fisheries for the fly shop and is also in charge of the shop’s extensive guide services. He told me that The Fly Shop did not offer guide services for golden trout, and suggested I call Ralph Cutter, a fly fishing instructor, guide and author of Sierra Trout Guide, a comprehensive book on trout fishing in the Sierras.
I found Ralph’s Web site, www.flyline.com, which as it turned out, contained much of the information I needed. An article he had written on golden trout for Fly Fishing magazine included a list of the top packers who take people into the golden trout company. At the top of list was Frontier Pack Train, a company headquartered in June Lake that takes anglers up into the Ansel Adams Wilderness on horseback. During the winter months Dave Dohnel, the company’s owner and operator, lives in Bishop, and it was there that I reached him last May.
Dave, a college-educated commercial printer from Los Angeles, gave up that career 20 years ago after a week-long horseback packing trip into the high Sierras. He bought an interest in the company that took him on his original trip, and later founded Frontier at June lake with his brother.
They now operate from May to September and, in addition to outfitting and leading anglers into the high country, they also host wild horse drives, family safari adventures, and a host of other trail rides and pack trips, including some in Yosemite National Park which is just east of the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
Dave answered my questions and suggested that we pick some dates for his standard five-day wilderness fly fishing trip. He added that we try to go before the end of July because the golden trout fishing is better then than in August and September.
The trip, his standard offering for fly fishers, starts at this pack station located a few miles west of the town of June Lake. Dave gave me a quick description of the various lakes and streams we would fish, a summary of the cost, depending on the number in our party, and agreed to send me a brochure. I, in turn, reserved the week of July 13, as our tentative date for the trip.
My next call was to Al, who had 88 years of age is in better shape than me at 60. Al immediately agreed to the idea and needed only to clear a few things before confirming the dates. It didn’t take him long. A few days later Al gave me the go-ahead, and we had the makings of a trip. The ideal number is between five and seven people. My sons Ryan and Darin needed only to be asked once and they were in. Our quintet was filled when my friend Mike Brown, owner of the International Newspaper Network, quickly accepted my invitation to join us.
I called Dave back and confirmed our dates and sent him a deposit.
The package we chose is a full-service, soup-to-nuts deal that includes the horses, pack mules, a guide/wrangler, a cook, all the food and meals prepared for us, tents, etc. All we had to bring was our fishing tackle, sleeping bags, clothes and personal items.
The cost for the complete package for five days was approximately $1150 per person ($230 per day).
When I asked him if there was anything else specifically I needed to do, Dave replied,” You need to come, have a great time fishing and let us do the work.”
We intended to do just that.
Part II– Where angels fly
Having made all of the arrangements for the trip with Dave Dohnel of Frontier Pack Train, all we had to do was bide our time and make sure we had the gear necessary for our adventure.
Dave’s flyer on the “full-service” five-day wilderness fly fishing trip, gave us a list of the stuff we needed to bring: Sleeping bag/foam pad or air mattress, broad brimmed hat with string to keep it from blowing off, sunglasses, toilet kit, fishing rod and tackle, rain jacket or slicker, camera, bug repellent, etc. and liquor. The latter turned out to be very important.
Packing in a five-day supply of Sonoma Valley’s finest wines would have used up a lot of our allowed weight, so we chose to take a more concentrated form of alcohol. Al chose Jack Daniels, while I packed a bottle of 12-year-old Glen Livett, and Mike brought along Canadian Club. The booze was packed separately, which Dave assured us would be loaded carefully onto the back of the mule with the surest and softest step.
Frontier’s pack station is located on the June Lake Loop virtually on the banks of Silver Lake, one of several lakes on the loop, which is off Hwy. 395 between Lee Vining and Bishop.
The trip itinerary called for us to meet at the pack station at 7 a.m. on Monday (Day One) where we would be fed a full breakfast while the staff put our stuff onto the mules, saddled our horses and generally got us ready to head up the mountain.
Because of the early start, we all decided to drive to June Lake the day before and stay at a local motel. Through the internet I found the June Lake Motel and Cabins, which had reasonable rates (about $65 per night).
In going though my old camping stuff, I discovered that my air mattress was long gone. A visit to REI in Santa Rosa opened my eyes to the progress made with modern materials. I purchased something called a “ Therma-A-Rest self-inflating air mattress,” which sounded like a great idea considering I’d be at 10,000 feet, where I’d have a tough time filling my own lungs with air, let alone a mattress.
At REI, an outdoors specialty shop, you’ll also find the latest in water-purification bottles that filter out all the bad critters and germs that could give you the “High Sierra Two-step” or worse. In fact, I went into REI intending only to replace an old air mattress and came out with a shopping cart full of other gadgets that I doubt I’ll ever use again. But it sure is neat stuff.
On “Day One, Minus One,” Ryan, Darin and I departed Sonoma for June Lake. Getting there is a five to six hour drive no matter what route you take. We chose to cross the Sierras from west to east by way of Hwy. 50 to Hwy. 88, over Monitor Pass and down to Hwy. 395. We passed through Antelope Valley and by Mono Lake, arriving in the town of June Lake at about 3 p.m. The altitude is 7,000 feet but the temperature was still 98. Al and Mike had arrived earlier in the day and were trying to stay cool and rest. It wasn’t easy because the rooms were not air-conditioned.
We ate dinner at the nearby Double Eagle resort, which looked to be a very luxurious place (rooms over $200 per night). All of us hoped that the unusually high temperatures and humidity would not be following us into the higher elevations in the morning.
After a restless night on top of our sheets, we were all up by six and eager to get to the pack station, located 10 minutes from our motel.
We were directed to park our vehicles behind the corral. As I drove slowly past the horses, who were in the processed of being saddled for our trip, I could swear I saw one of them look at another and roll back its lips for a good laugh.
As we transferred our stuff from the back of the car to the station loading dock, I looked for some clue as to the direction we were taking. I knew, from looking at a map, that our destination lay west of the pack station. But all I could see looking west was a massive wall of granite rising more than a thousand feet, virtually straight up.
We were treated to a hearty and delicious breakfast in the station cookhouse prepared by Catherine Newman and Lynn Wechsler, two women who obviously know how to fortify hungry “cowboys” about to head out on the trail.
After breakfast, Frontier Pack Train owner Dave Dohnel took us out to our steeds, already saddled and looking resigned to another week of city slickers on their backs.
Dave, assisted by a bright, and friendly crew of college-aged men and women, helped us into the saddle. I learned that many of them attend Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and work at the station as their summer job.
They gave us a few instructions on how to make the horse stop, go, and turn, and then we were off. My posterior and thighs, having not seen a saddle in decades, were already giving indications that this was going to be an eight Advil day.
“Which way are we headed?” I asked our wrangle/guide Levi Kophamer.
He looked toward the cliff that rose straight above us and simply said, “Up there.”
With a flick of his reins, his horse started toward a small trail cut into the side of the mountain, and all of the rest of our animals followed. Clearly, they knew the routine, even if we didn’t.
As the rider stationed next to the last in our party, I was close enough to hear Cal Poly coed Tracy, explain to Mike, who was last in line, that the trail on which we were embarking was called “Angel’s Flight.” She wasn’t sure how it got its name, but as we continued to climb and the trail got narrower and steeper, I figured it out. If your horse should happen to miss a step on one of those switchbacks, you’d be flying (hopefully with angels) all the way down.
Part III– Thank God for Jack Daniels
Having been fed a big breakfast by the Frontier Pack Train staff at its June Lake pack station, our group of five, led by wrangler/guide Levi Kophamer, headed out on the morning of Day One of our five-day adventure. In the first hour we alternately worried about and then marveled at the steep and narrow trail up which our trusty mounts plodded. The first stage, about a thousand feet straight up, was cut into solid granite and dubbed “Angel’s Flight,” for obvious reasons.
I quickly lost count of the number of switchbacks it took as we zigzagged our way up the face of the cliff. The view was breathtaking when we looked out across to Silver Lake at the canyon floor and hair-raising when we made the mistake of looking straight down. The gait of my horse, “Don,” was more like that of a four-legged drunk than a surefooted mountain climber. All I could do was hold the reins with one hand and the saddle horn with the other, trusting that he didn’t want to fly with the angels any more than I did.
Don followed “Bob,” the horse on which my son Ryan was mounted. Bob, was either afflicted with perpetual flatulence, or had created a turbo-assisted climbing technique. I worried that Don was becoming dizzy from Bob’s gaseous emissions.
Mike Brown, who owns horses and regularly treks into the Montana wilderness took up the rear. I noticed he kept his horse several yards behind Bob and Don.
At top of Angel’s Flight the trail became less steep. We traversed around beautiful Agnew Lake, created decades ago when a dam was built along a granite parapet at the base of what geologists call a “hanging valley.”
Glaciers scoured this region in the last ice age, carving small valleys and bowls, notched in solid granite, like steps in a huge cosmic stairway stretching ever upward. The scenery was awe-inspiring. There were plenty of spots where last winter’s ice and snow had not melted away. In a very short time we had ridden from 7,000 feet to over 8,000, and we were still climbing.
The trail wound up the steep granite bowl that bordered Agnew Lake. Soon we were far above it and approaching Gem Lake, also created by glaciers, then supplemented by human engineering in the last century.
It was on the shore of this lake, alongside Crest Creek, which fed it, that we took our first break. After two hours in the saddle, my butt and Don’s back were both happy for some relief.
We tied our horses in a shady pine grove and stiffly strode to the edge of the stream. Kneeling at the water’s edge I fully immersed my head. The effect of this icy-cold “baptism” was rejuvenating. I noticed some of my companions doing the same, uttering “oohs” and “aahs,” as the water cooled their fevered brows. It was one of those “I-wish-I-had-a-camera” moments. We looked like a flock of strange water birds dipping for crayfish. Actually, I did have a camera, but it was in my bag, which was hanging on the saddle horn. By the time I got it, everyone was busily assembling fishing rods to get first crack at Crest Creek’s trout.
We spread out – up and down the stream. I walked up the hill and dropped in at a spot where the steep hillside created a stair-step series of little pools, each fed by a small waterfall.
The stream, although swift, was so narrow I could step across it in one or two long strides. A simple sling-shot-style flick of the line put my fly in the whitewater. A second later it disappeared in a flash of silver and gold. A bright and healthy seven-inch native rainbow danced across the top of the water as I set the hook and pulled back on the rod. I quickly released him and made another cast, which resulted in a strike by a smaller fish.
I moved upstream from pool to pool. At each I found willing trout ranging from 11 to six inches. Most were rainbows, but I also caught and released two eastern brook trout.
After a half hour of fun, I walked back to our rest spot, and there encountered the first “bad news” of our trip.
My lifelong friend and fly-fishing mentor, Al Maggini, had slipped coming out of the stream and badly cut his right hand on a sharp rock. Our guide was tending to his wound, but it was a very deep and ugly cut. There was lots of blood and Al was in considerable pain. Nevertheless, first aid was administered and he chose to continue on, rather than return to the pack station and seek a doctor’s care.
The accident put a damper on the last half of our day’s ride, memorable to me only in that it was hot, dusty and mostly uphill.
Our trek ended at the Clark Lakes, a trio of relatively small ponds, nestled in tree-lined bowls at about 9000 feet. Camp was located near the largest lake, several hundred feet from the shoreline in a grove of pines.
After dismounting and stiffly making our way to a nearby spring-fed brook for a drink, we grabbed our gear, and chose a tent, already set up around a common area and cook tent. I was very happy to see that our cache of “snake bite medicine” had made it safely.
It wasn’t long before we were all seated in camp chairs around the fire pit, too weary to even think about fishing. Al raised his cup with his heavily bandaged hand, bravely toasting our arrival. I saluted him, adding, “Thank God for Jack Daniels.”
Part IV - Brookies shaped like fashion models
Once encamped at Clark Lake after our first-day, four-hour horseback ride, it took us a few hours to recover enough to think about fishing. We had arrived at mid-afternoon and the temperature, in spite of the 9,800 foot elevation was surprisingly warm. Several of us retired to the shade of our tents and took a nap, while our wrangler Levi Kophamer and cook Chris Cavaletto, put away all the camp stuff that had been packed in by the mules.
Dinner would be served at 5:30, leaving us plenty of post-dinner time to fish before it got dark. Our hosts worked hard the entire time to make our experience as enjoyable as possible.
Chris was taking some time off from Cal Poly to work for Frontier Pack Train, our outfitters on the trip, and said he hopped to eventually work as a chef for a nice restaurant. As a cook for Frontier he was gaining valuable experience preparing full dinners plus desserts for groups from as small as four to horse drive crews of 60 people.
Levi, our guide and wrangler, had his own set of chores to do, including watering and feeding the mules and horses and making sure all of the tack was properly stored and protected.
During our stay at the lake he even re-shoed a horse.
Raised in Bakersfield where his father owns a large onion farm, Levi said he preferred riding horses and being a wrangler over driving trucks loaded with onions, but the pay wasn’t as good. He expected to be back at work in the family business once the summer ended.
Both men were easy-going, friendly and attentive, always making sure that we, their guests, were comfortable and enjoying ourselves. They also showed a great deal of concern for Al, whose badly cut hand needed regular cleaning and re-bandaging. Al didn’t complain, but we could tell that he was hurting.
Nevertheless, fortified with a tasty tri-tip steak dinner washed down with a generous serving of Jack Daniels, Al was the first one out on the shore of Clark Lake, casting to trout, which had begun to rise in large numbers as the sun lowered in the west and the bugs rose from the grassy shallows. Did I mention that Al is 88 years old?
My sons Ryan and Darin were doing their best to imitate Al’s skill with a fly rod, but in spite of not quite mastering that level, they managed to do a respectable job of getting their flies out to where the fish were rising. In a matter of a few minutes we were spread out around the shores of the lake.
Using small caddis fly imitations we caught the interest of some of the rising fish, most of which turned out to be eastern brook trout that were notable for their big heads and skinny bodies. Clark Lake is teeming with colorful fish that, like fashion models, look beautiful and exotic from a distance, but up close you can see they are badly undernourished.
The wind picked up as the sun set. Casting became a challenge. Nevertheless, we caught many fish from seven to 10 inches.
Sometime later, as a glowing red horizon and gradually darkening sky reflected off the lake’s wind-blown surface, I realized that I was alone. My companions, tired from fighting the wind and swatting away mosquitoes, had gone back to camp.
As usual when fishing, I had lost all sense of the passage of time. Suspended in my own private universe and dimension, I had not even noticed their departure. Conceding that I could barely see my fly floating in the wind-blown, purple and red-tinged ripples, I decided that I too would retire for the evening.
My fellow adventurers were seated comfortably around the campfire. I broke out the Glenlivet and joined them. All things considered, it was a pretty darn good day.
I worried about Al, but he seemed to be in good spirits as we talked and joked about our aches and pains, and Ryan’s flatulent horse.
One by one, we dragged ourselves to our tents, but not before having to make a pilgrimage to the “throne,”, which was 100 yards up the hill from our camp. For wilderness camping, the “facilities” weren’t bad, but getting there darned near killed me. I suggested to Levi that he needed to pack in some oxygen bottles next time.
The liquor and a couple of Advil helped ease all other pains, and once I managed to squirm into my North Face mummy-shaped bag atop my Therm-A-Rest self-inflating air mattress, I quickly fell asleep.
The booze and the Advil wore off four hours later. The tent was stuffy, but there were too many mosquitoes outside to consider sleeping under the stars. Gravity was also having its way with me. My nylon sleeping bag kept sliding downhill and off my nylon-covered air mattress. Now completely awake, I realized that had to go to the bathroom. I doubted that I could make it 100 yards up the hill again without oxygen.
As I lay there in discomfort trying to will myself back to sleep, I remembered why I gave up camping years ago. It’s for kids. How could I have forgotten that? What was I thinking? Where’s that dam scotch?
Part V – A thousand islands and John Muir
A restless night’s sleep in a stuffy tent fighting gravity made me welcome the dawn and the smell of hot, strong “cowboy coffee” brewing in Chris Cavaletto’s cook tent just a few steps from own.
The morning air was cool and fresh, but not cold. The mosquitoes were still asleep and I sat near the campfire in one of the comfortable folding camp chairs brought up the steep ride by our pack mules.
One by one the members of our troop of hardy wilderness fly fishers grabbed a cup of coffee and joined me round the fire pit.
None of us had a particularly good night sleep, although Levi, our wrangler/guide and Chris seemed chipper enough.
We were scheduled to spend a second night at this camp, and had our choice of just walking around the area and fishing the three lakes, or taking a day ride up to Thousand Island Lake and the headwaters of the San Joaquin River. Since that day trip would take us across the John Muir trail and the crest of Sierra Nevada, my sons Ryan and Darin wanted to take the ride. I decided to tag along as did Mike. Al said that in addition to his cut hand from the previous day’s fall, he also felt like he’d injured his hamstring. In any case, he decided to stay off the horses for the day and just fish in the Clark Lakes nearby.
After a breakfast of bacon, eggs and biscuits, Levi saddled the horses while we made up bag lunches and got our fishing gear together for the trip. It wasn’t long before I was back in the saddle again.
Our trek took us westward in a slow, steady, up-and-down route toward the point at which the eastern slope of the Sierras meets the west, and the Pacific Crest and John Muir Trails.
Our camp at Clark Lake was about over 9,800 feet and our day’s destination, Thousand Island Lake, was at about the same, but we crossed a couple of high ridges to get there.
As we neared the Pacific Crest Trail, we passed several different groups of backpackers.
The final descent into Thousand Island Lake offered us a beautiful view to the southwest that included the canyon through which the north fork of the San Joaquin River flowed. Its waters, originating in Thousand Island Lake, eventually flow into San Francisco Bay.
Our trail toward the lake began to parallel the San Joaquin and by the time we neared the lake shore, we could actually see fish rising in the deep pools created by the stream as it tumbled out of the lake on its long journey to the ocean.
Thousand Island Lake, dotted by many (but I doubt a thousand) granite islands, was set in a rocky bowl bounded by several high, snow-pocked peaks, including Mt. Ritter (elevation 12,242.) Unfortunately for us, the wind was gusting through the pass and whirling around the bowl with such strength that white caps appeared on the lake, making casting a fly virtually impossible.
While Darin and Mike tried fishing the lake, Ryan and I headed toward the point where the San Joaquin left the lake and headed down the canyon. We ended up having better success than either Mike or Darin, who had virtually none.
Ryan and I caught and released several nice little rainbow trout and some brookies, but none of any size. My largest fish was a little over eight inches long. We were told that the rainbows might actually be golden-rainbow hybrids , but they looked like rainbows to me.
The setting was absolutely gorgeous. The stream emptying out of the lake in little stair-step pools with Mt. Ritter rising in the background was as pretty to look at, as it was fun to fish.
After fishing downstream for several hundred yards, we found that the going gets tougher as the canyon got steeper. Our itinerary called for only about a two-hour stop for fishing and lunch, so we decided not to tackle the tough decent and return on this trip.
We returned to where the horses were tied, munched on our sandwiches while we talked and enjoyed the fabulous high Sierra setting. Ryan and Darin, both of whom took a lot of geology classes in college, tried to educate me in regards to how the lake was created, the nature of the rock, geologic history, glaciers, etc. While I found the information interesting, my mind kept wandering to the lake, hoping the wind would die down enough for me to entice a fish or two to my fly.
It didn’t, so after lunch we saddled up and rode back down the trail to our Clark Lake Camp for a swim, dinner and more fishing for slender, but feisty, brook trout.
After that we sat around and exchanged stories of previous fishing trips. My sons seemed to be really enjoying our adventure and were already talking about doing again next year. While the thought didn’t excite me nearly as much as it did them, I was happy they were having a good time.
More tired than I realized, I turned in early and feel asleep listening to the soft murmur of voices over the nearby campfire.
Part VI - The climb to the gold
Either I was too exhausted to notice, or my body had adapted to the camping environment, but I awoke for my third day on the trail in far better shape than the previous day. Maybe it was just the knowledge that this was the day that we were going to finally move toward our original goal - to fly fish for golden trout - or just the wonder of a good night's sleep.
My companions sat around the morning campfire, sipping Chris Cavaletto's thick-as-mud cowboy coffee, and listened as our wrangler/guide Levi Kophamer told us where we were headed.
Our route would take us back down the trail to a spot near where Crest Creek runs into Gem Lake. From there, instead of continuing down toward the pack station, we would take a sharp left turn to the north and head up a steep canyon that would eventually lead us over Gem Pass to the Alger Lakes.
After another hardy breakfast, we finished packing up our gear and placed it on big tarps for loading on the mules. We were all so anxious to get moving that we were ready to go long before Levi and Chris had all of the animals loaded and our horses saddled.
The mood was generally positive, but Al, whose hand had been badly cut two days before, was unusually quiet and I could tell that he was still in a lot of pain. He never complained, but his look of grim determination told the story.
My trusty steed Don sighed as I swung into the saddle. For him it was just another day of hard work with a clueless dude on his back. For me and the boys, it was the day when we actually might catch golden trout.
The horses knew the routine better than we did. Levi headed out with three fully packed mules in tow. The animals seemed to have their own hierarchy. For reasons not clear to me, Don always seemed to follow Bob, the horse with perpetual flatulence, ridden by son Ryan. Maybe Bob's gas kept the flies away.
Down the trail we went, and while my butt didn't hurt as much as in
previous days, the dust rising in clouds and drifting slowly on the morning air, forced us all to wear bandanas over our noses and mouths.
We passed a group of hikers heading up. For a moment they might have thought we were a band of outlaws about to hold them up. Once they started breathing our dust, they knew better.
In a little less than two hours we reached our scheduled lunch spot, a quiet meadow and grotto that borders Rush Creek, which also runs into Gem Lake. After tying up the horses, we did our usual head-dipping routine in the icy cold waters of the creek, and then sat around munching on our sandwiches.
I broke out my fly rod and tried casting to a few small fish that I saw in the riffles nearby. The little brookies quickly took the fly. Just as I was about to head upstream, another group of riders from Frontier Pack Train pulled into our area.
One of the men in the group was a sports medicine specialist, and Levi asked him to look at Al's hand, which had turned red and somewhat swollen. After a brief examination, he suggested that Al consider returning to June Lake and having it looked at by a physician. The possibility of infection was serious. Reluctantly, Al chose to heed the advice.
It was sad turn of events, because he was the inspiration for the trip in the first place, and we were on the verge of really entering golden trout country; something he had always dreamed of doing.
I could tell how badly he felt. This sturdy, steady, longtime old friend was not one to give up without a fight, but he is no fool either, and knew better than to ignore sound medical advice. Save the hand and live to fish another day.
"We'll get 'em next year, Al," I shouted as he and his horse followed one of the extra wranglers from the other group down the trail toward June Lake.
If the youngest in our party, Ryan and Darin, represented our energy, our most senior member, Al, represented our heart and inspiration. It was very hard to watch him leave, and we knew, the rest of the trip, no matter how great, would not be the same without him. Right then and there, even though I had no desire to ever get on a horse again, I had to come back one more time with Al, just to complete our mission.
Our party, diminished by one, remounted and began the long ride around the lake and then up the steep canyon created by Crest Creek. Were it not for the sadness we felt at Al's departure, the ride would have been somewhat enjoyable. The trail followed the creek upward, switching back and forth through the trees and often crossing clear little tributaries where our horses stopped to drink.
Up and up we went at a slow and steady pace, eventually reaching a high pass that led us to a point where a narrow trail crossed a canyon face that offered a breathtaking view to the east. We could see all the way to Highway 395 many miles below. We were now well above 10,000 feet and nearing 11,000.
Still we continued up and down, over rocky wind-blown ridges and past small glacierfed ponds with patches of unmelted snow and ice. The few trees present were stunted, worn and twisted by the harsh elements.
The trailed dipped into a slight bowl, the center of which was a shallow, brilliantly blue pond, and, as we passed through a narrow draw, we saw our destination, the Alger Lakes.
Rimmed on three sides by steep, snow-pocked rocky peaks, and connected by a small ribbon of a creek, they looked simultaneously desolate and beautiful.
The side from which we made our approach was a green high mountain meadow filled with wildflowers and framed by the mountains. I would not have been surprised to see Julie Andrews twirling there, singing "The hills are alive with the sound of music" We'd made it.
Part VII – Eureka! We found it.
The view from the back of our horses, as we approach Alger Lakes made us all smile. The lakes were nestled in a granite-lined “hanging valley” at 10,640 feet. Jagged granite cliffs and peaks, pock-marked with snow rose another thousand or so feet above the waters two sides, while a large concave shaped high-mountain meadow ran along the eastern edges of the two lakes before dropping into a small valley and meeting the edge of another ridge that rose a thousand feet.
At the end of the northernmost lake we could see a small waterfall where water poured in from an unseen, smaller third lake which sat in a small bowl about 500 feet above it. The two main lakes were connected by a small stream that was about 100 yards long.
Alger Creek ran out of the lower of the two lakes in an easterly direction, through the large meadow green meadow that sparkled with colorful wildflowers.
Our camp was located a few hundred yards from the lower lake, and about 100 feet from the creek. There, Frontier Pack Train had set up several tents for us, a cook tent, and a solar shower enclosure. The corral for the horses was several hundred yards further down the hill and away from lake. In fact they and the mules would be let out in the lower reaches of the meadow and kept from wandering too far by something called a “drift fence,” which was, as near as I could tell, little more than some brightly colored rope tethered to some anchors.
It didn’t matter to me in any case, because for two days we wouldn’t have to ride anywhere. The golden trout were here.
Our gear was taken off the mules and laid out on tarps for us near the cook tent, in front of which stood our chef and hostess for the remainder of our trip, Bronwyn Mathews. An overseas import shipping clerk and native of Victoria, Australia, this bright, and pretty young woman, was spending her second summer as a cook for the pack company. Her co-workers had nicknamed her “Brumby,” and her naturally friendly manner and excellent sense of humor seemed as fresh as the incredibly clear mountain air and nearby waters.
After she greeted us and told us what time dinner would be served, we meandered over to the creek and cooled our heads in the icy water, the coldest yet, then returned to the camp area to stow away our gear and put together our fishing rods.
Ryan was the first to tie on a fly, and quickly went back down to the stream to try his luck there. I grabbed my camera and followed him.
A few flicks of the little caddis imitation into the whitewater of a pool that you could jump across, resulted in a tug on his line and the emergency of sparkling golden and red creature that may have measured all of four and a half inches. It was a beautiful little thing, and Ryan quickly released it back into the creek.
Although the size was not impressive, the vivid gold, copper, red and pink colors were, and we had established that this was indeed golden trout country.
I returned to the camp and finished setting up my fly rod, while Ryan worked his way up the little creek toward the lake. By the time I finished assembling my gear and got moving, he had reached the lake shore, where we could see numerous fish rising to insects.
Unfortunately, the wind, which had plagued us earlier in our journey, seemed to be picking up, and as we attempted to cast to the rising fish, periodic wind gust of close to 30 knots would blow the line back into our faces.
Nevertheless, in a few casts, my dry fly disappeared in a flash of gold, and I had a trout on, but only for about 15 seconds. He spit out the barbless hook before I could bring him in.
We worked are way up toward the point where the stream between the two lakes entered the lower lake. There we found a lot more fish working, but they were easily spooked by our line as it hit the water.
While Ryan and Mike Brown worked portions of the lower lake, I walked up to where the stream left the upper lake. It became clear that these fish were very sensitive to any movement on shore. I spotted what appeared to be some larger trout working in the shadow water near the bank opposite me. It was 50-feet away, far enough so the fish couldn’t see me. Between heavy wind gusts, I managed to drop the fly right in the middle of where I had seen several rises.
My fly sat there for thirty seconds and nothing happened. Then I twitched it ever so slightly and the water under it exploded as the fish grabbed it. Clearly irritated at having been fooled, the trout ripped off a few hard runs up and down the lakeshore, before finally allowing itself to be brought close. It was magnificent in the muted light of late afternoon. About 12 inches long with the standard dark speckled back of a rainbow trout, its skin was truly golden in color. A bright pink lateral line ran along its sides, and its gill plates were a bright, flaming red, as was its stomach and lower fins.
I brought it out of the water briefly and it spit out the hook just as it was over a patch of grass near the shore. I took the camera that was hanging around my neck, snapped a shot of the golden beauty as it lay gasping in the grass and then quickly and gently picked it up and put it back into the lake.
I watched him swim away quickly, no doubt to tell his buddies to be more careful than he was.
The sun was starting to set behind the high cliffs to the west and little rays of light still streaked through onto the meadow behind me. I could see lots of bugs over the water, and the fish clearly saw them too. It was going to be an excellent evening of fishing.
Part VIII – Another day in Paradise
Beams from the setting sun shining between jagged granite spires framing Alger Lake painted streaks of light on the green meadow behind me. I continued to cast my caddis fly imitation toward pods of golden trout chasing bugs on top of the water. Sometimes I fooled them, most of the time I didn’t. But the action on the water kept my attention, even as the light faded and the sky turned red and purple.
My sons Ryan and Darin, and friend Mike were scattered around the lake shore casting away too.
Finally, when it got too dim to see our flies, we decided to call it a day and walk back to camp.
Because the U.S. Forest Service does not allow camp fires above 10,000 feet, we had to put on warm jackets, and sit around a lantern. Not knowing any camp-lantern songs, we contented ourselves with finishing off the last of the Jack Daniels and Glenlivet and swapping fish tales. The soft glow on the western horizon gradually faded, replaced by the Milky Way Galaxy overhead. There is a surprising amount of light in the dark.
We all turned in early and fell asleep with the bubbling and gurgling of Alger Creek as our evening lullaby.
After three full days of going to bed shortly after nightfall and awakening with the dawn, the natural circadian rhythm that is in all human genes had me up and dawning my jeans as the first rays of morning light struck the high peaks above our camp.
A brisk head dip in the icy cold creek drove any remnants of sleepiness from my brain, and I was ready for a full day with nothing to do but fish in this incredibly beautiful country.
Brumby, our ebullient Australian chef, was already up. Her recipe for morning java was as thick as her accent. The air was brisk. We all wore sweaters as we sat in camp chairs, our hands wrapped ‘round the steaming coffee mugs to capture a bit of warmth. Except for our own voices and the sound of the creek, the land was quiet.
We watched the dawn come.
Nobody would have mistaken us for old time cowboys, but an artist painting the scene at that moment might have shown us looking remarkably at home on this high mountain range.
A breakfast of bacon, eggs, hash browns, biscuits, juice and more thick, rich coffee fortified us for a tough morning of matching wits with a c that has a brain smaller than a pea. Why grown men would take pleasure in such an exercise is beyond me, but God help us, we do.
Mike, Ryan and I grabbed our fishing rods and headed for the lake right after breakfast. Darin decided to do some exploring and headed toward the upper lake, intending to walk up above it to an ever higher body of water further up the canyon.
While some anglers find early-morning fishing better, it isn’t necessarily so for those of us who toss bits of feathers and yarn at our finny friends. It was too cool for most real bugs to be out, and the fishing with imitations was slow. Nevertheless, we spread out around the lake and cast out in hopes that something would rise to take what we offered.
As the sun hit the water, bugs began to appear. Soon the glassy lake surface was broken by scores of circular ripples, as though struck by small pebbles. The bugs were so small it was hard to tell what they were. Whatever we were throwing out was being ignored, while right next to our artificial flies, fish were rising to swallow something more natural.
“What in the heck are those trout after?”
Uttering this eternal lament, followed by hours of fumbling through the fly box, tying on one kind after another, is what we fly anglers do when trying to “match the hatch.” Sometimes we get lucky and actually find something that works – or it might just be a really stupid fish.
More often though, casting, retrieving, then casting again, is just exercise, repetitive, but never boring – not when there is always a chance that the biggest trout on the planet will rise up and stop your heart as he breaks the surface in a shower of sparkling water droplets, engulfs your fly and heads for the far shore with your reel screaming for mercy.
Our morning, monster trout or no, passed quickly. Each of us had a few fish, but nothing to brag about. Darin returned from his hike and walked with us back to camp where Brumby had lunch waiting.
After lunch, I decided to try fishing in Alger Creek, which, if followed down the steep canyon running east, would eventually lead back to our starting point at the Frontier Pack Train station.
I walked downstream about a mile and then started fishing my way upstream. Brush was fairly thick on both sides of the brook as it tumbled from pool to pool down the steep mountainside. Narrow, yet deep enough to hold some nice fish, I was confident that there were plenty of trout there. The only question was, were they as finicky as their sisters and brothers in the lake.
The answer was no. I entered the stream downstream from a pool that was no more than six feet in diameter. I placed my fly in the white water and held my rod high as it drifted a few inches on the current before being swallowed in a flash of gold and red.
A fat little seven-inch golden trout came leading out of the bubbles, and then slipped off the barbless hook back into the water, just as I tried to swing him toward shore.
For the next three hours I worked my way upstream, catching and releasing more than three dozen fish and hooking and losing a few dozen more. The largest was barely 10 inches, and most were six to eight inches long. They were brilliantly colored and full of fight. It was a day to remember and hard to imagine repeating.
Later in the day, I returned to the lake and fished until sunset, catching some very nice trout, considerably larger than those in the creek. But if I had a choice and could only fish in one place again, I’d take the creek over the lake any day.
Part IX – Racing the storm home
There comes a time in any trip, no matter how exciting or interesting, when one is ready to go home. On the trail since Monday, the four of us and our hard-working wrangler and guide Levi Kophamer sat in front of the cook tent on Friday, with Brumby’s coffee warming our stomachs and our hands simultaneously. Little tendrils of steam drifted off the tops of our cups and floated around our heads highlighted by the first rays of the morning sun.
Levi offered us the option of fishing and leaving at noon. But all of us agreed that we’d rather get an early start for the pack station. This turned out to be a good decision.
As we went about the task of breaking down our rods and packing up our gear, Ryan and Darin noticed a very large and dark wall of clouds along the southeastern horizon. Ryan said that this was the “monsoon season” for the southwestern desert and that it wasn’t unusual for heavy thunder and lightening storms to come in from that direction and go right up the Sierras as far north as Tahoe.
The storm was still many miles away, but we didn’t like the looks of the wall of darkness that framed it.
The cool morning air and the distant storm gave us a sense of urgency. We were packed up and ready to ride by 9 a.m. We waved goodbye to Brumby, who was staying with the camp to welcome the next group of guests. A camp cook for the summer, she would be heading home to Australia within a few weeks, back to her “real” job of being an export clerk for an overseas shipping company.
Don, my trusty steed, greeted me with a flip of his head and a slight shiver. One would think he would be happy to be headed for the corral, but it seemed he was not looking forward to the ride down the steep mountain any more than I was.
We started up and out of the granite canyon over a pass above our camp and then steadily downhill for another hour and a half, catching glimpses of the growing storm front now looming large across the entire eastern and southern horizons.
The “Trail of a Thousand Switchbacks” would have been a good name for our route. Dust clouds followed our descent and the air was unusually still and muggy.
We stopped briefly for a meal break where Crest Creek entered Gem Lake. From there the trail back to Frontier Pack Station (another two hour ride) turned due east and we continued at a slow but steady pace down the steep mountainsides.
As we neared Angel’s Flight, the start of the final descent, the part I had been dreading since I rode up it, we could see that the storm front was almost upon us. The dark wall had advanced and expanded to the point that the only blue sky was directly over and north of us. Three quarters of the compass was nothing but angry looking clouds in which we could see periodic streaks of lightening.
The thought of being on that exposed wall of granite, a thousand feet above Silver Lake, with lightening striking around us was not a welcome one. But we couldn’t stay up at the top either. So over the edge and down onto the steep and narrow trail went our guide and mules with each of our mounts following in single file.
Readers of earlier chapters in this story will recall that Angel’s Flight is cut into solid granite and just wide enough for one horse, one way. All along it are steep steps down which our horses have to tread, first with their front feet, then with their hind feet. Each horse as its own technique. Don seemed to like to step carefully with his front feet and then sort of hop down with his back feet, often skidding and stumbling at the end of each sudden drop.
We were advised to put our feet in the stirrups and push and lean back. Which I did to the best of my ability, sure at any moment that one of Don’s hops would catapult me over the edge of the cliff, screaming all the way down.
Someone suggested afterwards that people riding down steep inclines should keep their feet barely in the stirrups so they can get off the horse quickly should it stubble and start falling. That’s a great theory, but where would I go? Jumping off would simply separate a connected body of horse and rider, into two separate bodies falling.
In any case, I followed Levi’s instructions, leaned back and tried to keep myself from being thrown over Don’s head as he bunny-hopped and slid down the granite trail.
The fact that I lived to write this tale is proof that I made it, along with my companions and all our gear.
As we stepped out of the stirrups and began retrieving our stuff from the pack animals, the first drops of rain began to fall. Thunder could be heard in the distance.
There was no point in dawdling, so we thanked Levi and Frontier Pack Train owner Dave Dohnel, jumped in our cars, and headed for home.
As I drove out of the June Lake Loop toward Highway 395, I saw streaks of lightening hitting the rocky peaks very near where we had been a few hours before. I thought of Brumby up there alone and hoped she would be safe.
The storm chased us north then west, virtually all the way to the Sacramento Valley. Only then did we leave the clouds behind.
We arrived home in clothes we’d worn for several days. One might say we had the “air of cowboys” about us. A deliciously warm shower and a night’s sleep in my own bed magically diminished the memories of the hard ground and icy cold spit baths. What is left are fond memories of a special adventure, enjoyed with two of my sons and a couple of good friends.
Would I do it again? We’ll see. But if my friend Al Maggini, who inspired this adventure, wants to try it next year, it will be hard to say no.
For those interested in this type of horseback trip into golden trout country. I recommend Dave Dohnel’s Frontier Pack Train. His service is professional and so are the members of his staff. Everyone worked hard to make sure that we had a safe and enjoyable experience. You can reach Dave at home in Bishop from October – May at (760) 873-7971. From June – September he is at the pack station at (760) 648-7701.