July 1 - July 3, 2017 Cottonwood Lakes Basin
"This might be a really stupid thing to do." I thought as left my house the evening of June 30th.
Six months earlier my orthopedic surgeon told me that I would never backpack or run again. Here I was planning to do just that. To the outside world I down played my plans, I made it seem like backpacking into the Cottonwood Lakes basin was just a pipe dream; not something that I was actually contemplating.
I told my wife,
mother and anyone else that had an inkling that I was contemplating
something more, that I would assess things at the trailhead and only travel
as far as I felt comfortable. The 7 or 8 hour drive from my house to the
trailhead had itself, the potential
to take a lot out of me. I told them I'd sleep at the trailhead and assess things in the morning.
If I slept well and had no discomfort from the drive, I'd start hiking. If I
felt no discomfort from hiking, I would continue. I'd hike only as far as I
comfortable. Any sign of trouble and I would stop and make camp- day hiking to
the lakes; or, I would return the my car, also making day hiking excursions
to the lakes. That is what I told the outside world. My inside world had a
different plan. I had every intent of
hiking and camping at my favorite Golden Trout lake.
Each leg pouch weighed 4.5lbs and my backpack weighed 15lbs. I was able to bring my total carry weight from ~35lbs to ~25lbs.
The parking lot at the trailhead was surprisingly empty. A dichotomy of sorts as I probably encountered more people on this trip to the lakes than I can recall on past trips. The first few miles on the trail where a bit rougher than I anticipated. I'd made sure to balance the load between both pouches and make plenty of trial hikes at home; but, add on the 15 lbs of pack weight and 10,000 feet elevation and I was struggling and concerned very early on.
Maybe I had
bitten off a bit more than I could chew. Maybe, I was slowly doing more
damage to myself with each step. I stopped to reassess things and looking
around, I realized I was finally back. I was in my element. I put all
negative thoughts out of my head and pushed on. Mentally, I decide to break
the trail up into 3 sections- the section from the trailhead to South Fork
Creek, which I can usually do with ease. The section from South Fork Creek
to the bottom of the last climb to the lake- which also isn't terribly
difficult and the last climb itself. The most difficult part of the trip but
once over, I would have arrived.
It was mid morning
and fish where rising. The shoreline brush was more overgrown than I'd
remembered. I went down to my "lunch rock", a large rock on the bank just
below the "suicide" tree and ate lunch. As I did, I tried to decipher the
pattern of cruising fish. SoCal Bob called it out that night at dinner.
Schools of 3 or 4 fish seem to have definite territories, with perhaps a
little overlap but once you caught or hooked the fish in the immediate area
you had to move. That was really the key initially at the lake. I fished the
usual suspects- a beadhead Hare's Ear, Stillwater Nymph, Hare's Ear and
Black Ant. The Hare's Ear is usually my best fly this time of year and as
expected it caught the most fish.
I fished clockwise
around the lake from the bottom. I've never caught anything here and until
today had never actually seen anything fish here. Most of the water, with
the exception of the north eastern bank is pretty uninspiring (at least in
terms of how I like to fish).
The next morning the SoCal crew left for parts unknown. I would catch up with some of them around lake 3 but before then I would fish lakes 1 & 2. There are two lakes in the area of eleven lakes in area that I've not fished and Lake 2 is one of them. No reason really. It's simply not on the trails that I tend to travel. Not far from Lake 1 and joined to it via a pleasant stream, I've simply not made it a point to fish it.
It's quite a stunning lake. Where Lake 1 is characterized by tall weeds and grass, Lake 2 is more of an a typical high sierra lake- a bit of a tarn with a rocky shoreline and near shore boulders.
I fished around the lake before heading up the inlet stream toward Lake 3. Fishing in the stream was more consistent, as you'd expect it to be so early in the season with so many fish preparing to spawn. The spawn wasn't on yet and sight fishing was consistent with both wet and dry flies. The inlet stream was crowded so upon reaching Lake 3 I turned around and headed down the trail to Lake 1. I tend to avoid Lake 3 like the plague, again, not an inspiring place for me. Lake 1 with it's high grass and abundant insect life is one of the more inspiring fly fishing lakes, both in terms of beauty and fishing potential.
The fishing is never too easy on Lake 1 and always rewarding. The water was high along the bank and cold. Initially I waded along the high grass as I normally do but the cold water and uneven bank made it difficult. So I opted to fish the shore from the drier areas of the bank. These also tend to be the long shallow flats. I found better fishing in the inlet stream. Nice sized fish had moved into the stream and sight fishing was the key to approaching these fish without spooking them.
There are many forks of Cottonwood Creek in this area starting with High Lake in the South and Cottonwood 6 in the north. Streams fill lakes before becoming streams and filling the next lake and this pattern continues until the streams hit the valley- all hold fish. 10 Lakes flow directly into the Cottonwood Creek watershed. (Another two exist outside the chain for a total of 12.) On my last day I stuck to the pattern of fishing the streams. I packed up camp, stashed my gear off the trail and hit the water.
To the uninformed eye the shadows in the water might seem like rocks or fallen timber. That is of course until you notice that they are sometimes red and they move. Searching out the largest of these shadows and casting to them paid dividends. It was one of those days that makes you a better fisherman. The fish were readily taking flies as long as they didn't see you. Stand or kneel out in the open and your success rate dropped from one fish every one or two casts to perhaps one in every 15 casts. Consistency came with simply staying out of sight.