A Painter's Journal

August 2-5: Virginia Lakes, Hot Creek, East Walker River, and Leavett Lake

East Side Sierra Shakedown

Before my wider travels begin in September I have a few test trips sandwiched between lingering city obligations, to set up and test my computer and scanner and ability to update my web site remotely. Here we go.

It was extra hell moving out after I cut a six-inch gash not far from my wrist on a sheet metal shrouding while moving my wood stove. The thirteen stitches was a good reminder to slow down, after a frenetic few months extracting from responsibilities at the workplace, training a successor, and packing and moving to storage what couldn't be given or thrown away. Finally I finished the last load and hit the road at three thirty Saturday afternoon. There was much less traffic than the normal Friday evening departure, so by seven thirty I arrived at Kennedy Meadows resort on the upper Stanislaus River, to meet Daver and Karen W.

I started up the trail with three beers and met them coming down. They had caught a few whappers, and Karen had caught a respectable twelve-inch brown trout on a nymph. We enjoyed a good dinner there, drove to the top of Sonora Pass and slept there at 9500 feet under a moonless sky so clear that we couldn't see constellations for all of the stars and the Milky Way filled the view. Perhaps the abundance of shooting stars we saw is a harbinger for a good showing of the upcoming Perseids meteor shower.

  After coffee and pastries Sunday morning in Bridgeport we drove up to Virginia Lakes. There is still a lot of snow on the high ridge of the east side. The morning sun and dappled clouds colored and highlighted the snow in the cirque, above the mirroring waters dappled with riseforms and brought the inevitable question; do I fish or do I paint. Not yet relaxed, I fished. There were some large rainbows in sight but we only caught the small ones, and soon we decided to try the small rushing stream below.

  There are popular campsites along the stream but we started at the end of them and fished downstream. The runoff was still heavy and there were few pockets to hold trout, but we found one remarkable rainbow trout of about sixteen inches facing downstream in an eddy formed by a stump root. I tempted it with a caddis nymph but it thrashed itself loose as I tried to horse it out from the tangle. Karen and Daver arrived, and within the next minute this trout had taken a San Juan Worm and a Hares Ear too, with David the one to successfully land and release it. Amazed that a trout firmly hooked would bite again twice immediately, we moved on but found no more action. We started south to Hot Creek.

  Hot Creek combines challenging catch and release fishing with hot soaking pools. It is a favorite of dry fly purists, a place where great skill and precise casting will often make the difference between steady action and nothing. Reminiscent of the Firehole River in Yellowstone, boiling cauldrons and hissing steam line the narrow stream just downstream from the cold and rich spring waters where the fishing is concentrated. I started with a streamer and caught a good rainbow just above the upper soaking pool. We tried various dries and nymphs, with a few rises and tugs but no fish, but the streamers drew the more confident and aggressive strikes.

  As usual there were anglers spread about every hundred yards of the mile of public fishable water, so I took a break for a painting and then a good soak. Daver and Karen and the half dozen other anglers in view worked hard for the occasional rise to their flies; all in all it was difficult to tempt these highly educated trout.

We heard that the Owens was high and difficult so that evening we returned to camp at Virginia Lakes. We found a secluded spot with a fire ring and downed wood and broke out a bottle of good whisky, a gift from a coworker on my departure. The next morning I completed the picture of outback luxury with a campstove cappuchino with Frangellico. After years of minimal gear tripping, I have dedicated myself to making my travels as enjoyable as I can on this trip, and my stove top espresso steamer takes but little room in the truck.

Monday our destination was the East Walker downstream from Bridgeport reservoir. We drove the length of it to the Nevada border to scout it then returned to the popular water close below the dam. Again here was heavy flow; I am surprised at the continued runoff on the east side while the west side has been low for a month now.

There was one other angler in the lot, half soaked and limping with a broken spin rod. We agreed to wade carefully and not fish too far apart. In the first riffle a hard pull on my stone fly nymph started my reel singing only to end in a second, but we had no other action for another hour until we concentrated on a large deep pool with a fast eddy. I crossed in the riffle below and found a position to watch and cast to the feeding fish in the eddy. Our Elk Hair Caddis' were a close match to a large tan natural but the fish would most often inspect and reject our flies.

With one fish between the three of us we took a late lunch break. Now in the parking lot were five vehicles including a guide and his sport, and ours had been the only success at all in the afternoon. Two large bottles of homebrew later we halfheartedly revisited fast eddy and I raised another fish, which got off in the end game. I sketched David below the eddy while resting the fish that I had put down. Soon he moved to the side of the stream, body language that he'd prefer to call it a day.

  Daver and Karen had to be back for work on Tuesday so they left. Now that I was alone and free to go where I pleased, I felt like my trip had begun. I drove back towards Sonora Pass to Leavett Lake. The road was previously passable to adventurous drivers of standard cars, but our New Years' storms washed out some of the roadbed and creek crossings and now it seems passable for four wheel drive only. At the lake there were but few camp spots taken, and I picked one with good wind shelter, open to the early light in the east. Beware the winds at Leavett and other high cirque lakes - I have friends who were lucky that their packs and sleeping gear were the only things in their tent when the stakes pulled loose and it tumbleweeded into the lake, forever. Lucky that the baby was in the car.

  I woke to first signs of light and overlapping rings of rising fish. Dressed and rigged in a minute, I couldn't catch any from shore but they seemed like whappers anyway. A cup of coffee and a chapter in William Brewer's Up and Down California filled the remaining. With the sun now fully up I painted, and this time caught a good one.

With a premonition of satisfaction from the successful sketching, I went out fishing in the float tube and caught six in an hour, two skinny brookies and four small but healthy rainbows. They bit on a few different flies but the most came on a yellow sparkle wooly bugger. I would like to have stayed a few days there at Leavett, for interesting side trips to other lakes and the crest of the Sierra, but Bay Area business brought me back. A nephew Sean has hardly ever been out of Kentucky and he has come out to visit our west coast family before he starts college - and he wants to try fly fishing and see some California sites.


Copyright 1997 by Mark Vinsel