July 13, 2013- 20 Lakes Basin
10:00am - 4:30am
“Have you ever done any backpacking?” A day hiker at Conness Lake asked me as I approached on my way back to Saddlebag Resort.
“There are lakes in the Sierras that see few fisherman and I bet the fishing is great.”
I had heard him at the same time that my brain was registering “fish!”.
“Excuse me a second.” I replied as I quickly stripped line off my Hardy Featherweight.
Two waves of my magic 855 wand was all it took to send my fly toward an approaching Golden Trout. The 855 is an 8 foot 5 inches 5 weight bamboo quad that my friend Erik and I built together. In truth, Erik really built the rod as he essentially redid all the work that I had done on the rod. Such things happen when professional and amateur rodmakers collaborate. The rod was a test model of a light weight backpacking rod built to handle large Montana backcountry streams such as the South Fork Flathead and its large cutthroat and bull trout. Lately it’s been assigned to Sierra backcountry and Hot Creek duty and it’s performing just fine, despite the smaller fish I’m feeding it.
“Missed again” I explained.
I had just spent the afternoon visiting 4 of the 5 Conness Lakes in search of Golden Trout. Despite my many years fishing the 20 Lakes Basin and Conness Lakes specifically, I’ve rarely strayed far from Lake #1. About a decade ago I climbed the steep bluff from Greenstone to what I refer to as Conness #2 to find it small, extremely deep, clear and apparently empty. On the same trip I travelled to Lake #3 and have made several other trips to Lake #3 but have always preferred Lake #1. Never in all my years had I traveled to Lakes #4 and Lakes #5.
I was a bit disappointed in myself for not making my planned 8 day backpacking trip into the Emigrant Wilderness this year (the subject of another chronicle) and I felt like some exploring was in order. Originally planning to do a power hike into Buck Lake for the weekend, my plans changed when my buddy Roger told me that he, his father and nephew were going to fish the Conness Lakes. “Mind if I tag along? “ I asked. Thus my trip to Conness Lakes, a full 2 months earlier than I normally visit, emerged.
Not wanting to encroach on Roger’s plans with his family. I would loosely tag along. We would meet at the Resort for breakfast and then make our way to the lake- Roger et al. taking the ferry and me walking around Saddlebag Lake. We met up just short of Conness Lake #1. I decided to fish counter clockwise along the lake and then make my way up to Conness #5 to see what there was to see.
I said my good byes and climbed over the big rock at the trail's end. If you've been, you know the one. Immediately, I spotted a decent sized fish, maybe 8 inches, cruising the shoreline. The cruising was consistent and predictable and I made the mistake of thinking that I had time to eat my lunch and leisurely assemble my rod. Unfortunately, the fish decided to mosey into deeper water....but that's fishing.
“I like to do at least one long backpacking trip a year,” I replied to the hiker as I wound my fly line back on my reel. The day hiker dressed like an experienced Sierra visitor and did his fair share of backpacking. I was a bit surprised that I found myself thinking, “folks always think the fishing in the deep backcountry is better than the fishing found within a day’s hike of the trailhead.” I thought that, not in a condescending kind of way but in a -“Mmmm, I just "potentially" had a very good day of fishing; as good as many deep backcountry lakes” kind of way.
And I did. I generally do at the Conness Lakes. Getting fish to strike at Conness isn’t a real mystery to me anymore. Find the fish, don’t not spook them and I can usually get a fairly good number of fish chasing my fly. Unfortunately, this is where “potentially” comes in. More often than not, I have issues hooking and landing fish at Conness Lakes. They’re simply too fast for me and I haven’t figured it out. Sure, I catch fish here but I never have anywhere near the hook to strike ratio I have at other places.
After lunch I fished the bank where that first fish was cruising. Same old song- strikes but no hook ups.
I approached Lake #5 from just below North Peak. The going is steep but quickly puts you over the outlet stream which snakes its way to Lake #1. Like Lake #1, the water had the turquoise hue of glacial silt. From atop a large rock I scanned the outlet and closest shoreline. It was good looking water with several channels and plenty of places to hold good fish. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any. I prefer to sight fish for trout but sometimes, prospecting with a nymph is the order of the day. Out came my soft hackle hares ear, my go to fly for any underwater work.
Is Lake #5 fishless? I’m undecided. I fished somewhere between one third to one half of the lake but with no strikes and limited visibility, I didn’t have the commitment to play mountain goat and investigate further. I wanted to visit Lakes #3 and #4 as well.
From Lake #5 it’s a straight shot down a small chute to Lake #4. I found it extremely shallow and not worth investigating. My loss perhaps but it simply looked like small trout water if it held any trout at all. Not that the trout at Conness Lakes are huge but they’re certainly worth throwing a fly at.
I quickly moved on to Lake #3 and found willing and able fish at a little flat just off the inlet. Cruising fish, fish hiding under rocks, deeper water, it was all there. Perhaps no more than at Lake #1 but since Lake #1 is where I spend the majority of my time, this day Lake #3 would get a little attention. It was a fun afternoon with no landed fish.
I spot another fish as I’m talking to the hiker. “The fishing can be pretty good here” I say, following up with “but they can be tough to hook…….”