June 23 - June 24 2007- 20 Lakes Basin
11:30am - 6:30am Saturday, 12:00am - 3:00pm Sunday
Thereís nothing quite like an evening spent in the mountains. The sky, dotted with ď1000 points of lightĒ appears pitch black but is less so in comparison to the back lit mountains. There is no sun but the half moon shines brightly in the mountains. This night as I round the corner onto the grade which will take me into Mammoth Lakes, a large, bright, half moon hovers above a thick blanket of clouds, clouds which are just above and behind the mammoth crest- simply jaw dropping.
Sunrise is earlier in Mammoth than at home and I often find it difficult to sleep in late, even on days which I want to. This was not one of those days and Iím quickly on my way to the Saddlebag Lake Resort. Itís a short drive and Iím quickly making my way down the unnamed gravel road which parallels upper Lee Vining Creek. Itís not terribly early and already there are cars parked along the road. This is unusual as this section of road usually doesnít have many cars parked along it but Iíd later learn that the hatchery truck had been there the day before. Lee Vining Creek has some wild Brown and Brook Trout but it gets regular plants of Rainbow Trout. I believe there are some wild Rainbows but they are rarely seen.
The crowd at Saddlebag Lake is average. The parking lot is full but there arenít many folks milling about. I sit down at the resort for my standard breakfast of eggs and toast. The owner recognizes me from years past and we make small talk. John Barbier is there as well and we speak briefly about his books and the fishing conditions. He makes the comment that his silver/grey book was ďa little too goodĒ and I agree. Iím grateful for the books but it seems some of the lakes in the basin have become a little too popular for their own good. Odell and Hidden lakes have become a shadow of their former selves. Not everyone that fishes the 20 Lakes Basin is a catch and release fly fisher and a trophy Golden Trout lake with an easy 20 minute hike is sure to see its share of trophies harvested. He warns me off of Odell specifically, ďdonít spend to much time thereĒ he says.
I promise to give them a fishing report the next morning and am off. I donít take the boat taxi, preferring instead to hike around the lake. Saddlebag Lake this year is a pitiful sight. Itís extremely low, not because, as I learned earlier, of the driest winter on record but because the Forest Service and the water and power company out of LA. (Southern Edison?) let the water drain from the lake in early winter in anticipation of significant run off which didnít materialize. They have to maintain minimum flows into Lee Vining Creek so the lake will continue to drop even after run off has ceased.
Itís been 2 or 3 years since Iíve been in the 20 Lakes Basin but Iím very comfortable here. On one side, steel-grey granite basins and jagged peaks, on the other, a mťlange of greens, browns and reds as if the east portion were iron ore. I donít know the origins of the basin but it is certainly a juxtaposition of geologic forces.
Iím surprised at how spry I feel. Iíve brought my video camera with me and along with the extra weight, Iím logging extra miles as I do my Les Stroud Survivorman imitation by planting the camera, walking away from it to get video of myself walking and then returning to pick it up. Itís silly but I was given the ďcamcorderĒ for my birthday and figure I should use it more. I may not always be fortunate enough to experience the high country as I do; when that happens, Iíll have video and good memories.
Iím on the other side of the lake and quickly on the main trail headed toward Hidden Lake. There is no proper trail to Hidden Lake, itís one of several lakes in the basin which are ďoff trailĒ. No problem, Iíve been there before. Iím at Hidden in no time. I take a quick glance. There are no fish working the surface, there never are when Iím here so I turn 90 degrees east and head for Z Lake.
Iíve never been to Z before but know vaguely were to find it and have always heard that it had the best fishing. It seems when the other lakes arenít producing fish, Z does. Itís about noon. Time for lunch. Vitaís made me some sandwiches so I sit and watch the lake as I chow down. The wind is picking up and there arenít any fish rising. I know from the Barbier book that the cove Iím in is supposed to be a good spot so I try to get some video of a fish rising to my dry fly. Itís a miserable failure. I cast out, wait, wait, wait some more and after I turn and turn the video off, I get a strike. This happens time, after time, after time. Content that I wonít capture any fish video in this spot, I move to the lee portion of the lake. By this time the wind is howling.
Itís not usual for a high country lake to have a shelf or drop off below which the fish will cruise in search of food. Many times such drop offs can be 15 feet or further from shore. Fortunately at Z and at a lot of lakes in the 20 Lakes Basin this shelf is merely a few feet from shore. A long cast into the wind is not necessary.
On the lee shore I set me self up so that my casts are diagonal to the shelf. If I make a poor cast, my fly is blown back along the edge. If I cheat the wind, my cast lands several feet beyond the shelf. Either way, Iím in the strike zone and a little movement is all thatís needed to attract the fish. I catch a bunch of fish at Z and in some cases itís by sight casting so Iím pretty happy. The average fish appears to be 6 inches and over that the fish are stunted. Iíve had my fill of catching stunted brook trout this year and shortly after catching a stunted 8 or 9 inch fish I pack it in. Itís an aesthetic thing but snaky brook trout are just plan ugly and I donít care to catch ugly fish. Does that make me a snob?
I hike back the way I came and fish Hidden Lake. Iíve never caught a fish at Hidden Lake and today Iím in no danger of breaking my streak. The wind and mosquitoes are awful. The combination practically chases me off the lake. At Z it was windy enough to keep the mosquitoes away but at Hidden there are short periods of dead calm and the mosquitoes attack en masse. I fish about an hour which is long enough to fish ĺ of the lake and then head over toward Wasco Lake. From above Wasco I choose my route to the Conness Lakes. I decide to climb the ridge at Wasco and then hike up to North Peak and over the saddle it shares with the basin which holds the first Conness Lake.
Iím still feeling pretty spry as I make my way across the basin and up to the top of the saddle. Thereís 3 feet or more of snow on the other side. No problem, Iím right above where I want to be, all I have to do is find a snow free way down. I do and find myself at the base of Conness Creek.
Usually I really enjoy fishing Conness Creek but today is different. Iíve never fished in wind such as I have to contend with at Conness Creek. Wind assisted LDRs as the wind pulls my line away from me and essentially lessens the tension on my barbless fly. Missed strikes as the wind launches my fly off the water and into the air and flying fish are the order of the day. On the strike, the wind lifts my line off the water as I raise my rod tip and the small fish take flight and hover above the water until the gust subsides. The wind knots are terrible. These are true wind knots, caused by my line blowing in the wind and not by casting. I turn my back to the wind to shield my line but this simply makes things worse. A back draft develops on the ďprotectedĒ side of my torso, which has my line and flies swirling around in front of me as I try to apply fly floatant. Itís a difficult fly fishing situation but I make the best of it.
I fish until the sun falls behind North Peak. The temperature drops immediately, itís time to go. Still feeling pretty spry, I race the peakís shadow all the way back to Saddlebag Lake. I run out of water almost immediately and make the decision not to pump more. That is a mistake and Iíll feel it tomorrow. Itís takes me just over an hour to get back to the car. Iím not feeling quite as spry as I throw my gear into the trunk. I beat the shadow to the lake but not to the parking lot. Itís dusk. The parking lot is empty and very few folks are still fishing. Lee Vining Creek is empty except for the bridge where it flows under the road near HWY 120.
Iíll never understand why folks fish off that bridge. It canít be that good. Thereís always someone there and usually not just one someone. Tonight I see about 7 people milling about. I just donít understand what the fascination is with this bridge. Iím powerful hungry; I need to get to the Stove.
I have a fitful sleep and wake up feeling very much less than spry. I take my time this morning and arrive at the Resort much later than usual. ďJust toast today, thanks.Ē The guys from yesterday arenít around so I don't pass on my fishing report. I havenít quite figured out what to do today and hop on the trail waiting for inspiration. I havenít been on the east side of the basin in quite a while so I decide to head for Odell.
The trail to Odell Lake parallels a stream which flows out of Hummingbird Lake, a snaky brook trout lake to be sure. Itís a nice little stream flowing through a small meadow but today my motto is ďjust say no to snaky brook trout". Thatís until I see a pool with about a half dozen good sized brookies from the trail. I back track down the trail so that I can sneak up on the fish. The mosquitoes descend on me immediately and they are relentless. I break out the bug juice and put some on but the bugs continue to pester me. I havenít applied any repellant around my lips so thatís where they strike. I can withstand the torment just long enough to get off several good casts and miss a couple of strikes. Thatís it. Iím outta here.
Iím over the next hill and sitting at Odell Lake in no time. Thereís a good breeze here so no Devil Bugs. I work my way down a partially snow filled shoot to the water's edge and pound the water for an hour before leaving. Odell would be a good place for a float tube and sinking line. Maybe Iíll bring one, one day. There arenít very many fish left but, from what I understand, the oneís that are left are huge.
On the way back to Saddlebag, I meet with a fisherman I spoke with Saturday. Heís off to Odell. I pass on John Barbierís advice to me to which he replies, ďnot to brag or anything, but Iíll catch fish. Iíve got bait.Ē
Back on the trail I reflect about the weekend. Itís been quite some time since Iíve spent two full days by myself in the high country- itís magical. I donít want to end the weekend on a skunk so I decide to give Greenstone Creek a try before heading back to the car. I have to cross it anyway.
Almost immediately Iím getting strikes from small brookies on my dry fly. The wind blows intermittently and the mosquitoes are omnipresent. I need better bug juice. It doesnít matter though, Iím too into fishing to notice. Iím see larger fish in the stream than have been taking the dry fly so I back away from the stream and put on a bead head soft hackle Hares Ear and size 18 regular Hares Ear. My side of the stream is too brushy; I cross over and swing wide as I make my way downstream. Now I can fish back up without having scared any fish.
The first run I approach looks like a good one. Water plunges in from some pocket water above, it hits a small rock on the left and flows beside some low brush on the right, finally flowing down a small brushy chute to the next run. The rock looks like the prime lie. The lip of the tail could be but it doesnít look like it has a very good pressure cushion for the larger fish to hang out in. Boy, how wrong am I?
My first casts are to mid run and drift to the tail. My second cast hooks what looks to like an 8 inch fish from close to the bank but it quickly escapes. On my next cast I induce a rise and the fly is again taken without hesitation. Iíve got a better fish this time but donít realize it until itís landed- a 12 or 13 inches Rainbow, pretty cool. Iím having a blast and only notice the Devil Bugs when I stop fishing to move to a new spot.
I realize that I can see the rainbows holding is this stream and quickly enter ďif I can see it, I can catch it" mode. I catch several more fish before heading back to the parking lot. My repellant is beginning to wear off and the mosquitoes are becomimg quite insistent in giving me a hard time. If I donít stop on the way, I should make it home by 9pm.