The following appears in the May issue of California Sportsman:
By Nancy Rodriguez
What is it that draws us to the backcountry? With sweat-soaked clothes, endless bug bites, burning muscles and lungs begging for oxygen, the appeal can be confusing to the uninitiated.
Is it the desire to sleep on dirt, tuck into a claustrophobic mummy bag and surround ourselves with a paper-thin home away from home? Maybe it’s the exciting – OK, maybe frightening – sudden lightning storms that roll through the high country on warm summer days. Perhaps it’s the hummingbird-sized mosquitoes that latch onto every inch of exposed skin and try to drain us like an unwilling juice box.
It’s clear that spending time in the backcountry is a paradox. It’s a balance between discomfort and the pleasure of feeling completely at ease and at “home.” For me, the real draw to this adventure is some backcountry fishing! It’s the call of a high mountain lake that glistens in the morning sun, dimples disrupting the surface as trout slurp bugs from below. It’s the challenge of figuring out what lure, depth, and speed of retrieve is most appealing on any particular day. It’s the thought that you are part of something few people have laid eyes on, a connection to nature, and an opportunity to slow down time and just breathe.
IT WAS SUMMERTIME, AND my husband Joe and I were in need of some backcountry therapy, so we ventured into the Eastern Sierras on a hiking and fishing excursion. Our hike would take us to several lakes around 10,000 feet in elevation. It would be a great way to get our legs and lungs ready for the hunting season ahead and hit some lightly visited high mountain lakes at the same time.
As the miles passed under our boots, Mother Nature’s beauty encompassed us and I knew there was nowhere else I would rather be. Huge rocky spires still covered in snow towered above. Spring rains had brought vibrant lush green foliage and Skittle-colored wildflowers to the surrounding hills. Yellow, orange and purple butterflies danced about while they guided us up the mountain. Birds sang, played, and bathed in the trailside snow runoff. A fluffy marmot scurried across a granite boulder in front of us. Nature’s beauty acted as a mild anesthetic, numbing the pain on our bodies – if only for a little while.
As we crested the final ridge we began to feel energized. There before us lay an electric and blue high-mountain lake with sunlit diamonds dancing across the surface. Avalanche chutes were carved in the snowpack as waterfalls poured from them into the lake below. I’m not sure why, but colors always seem more brilliant in the backcountry. The view nearly took my breath away. Before long I saw a ripple break the surface of the water and felt an overwhelming urge to wet a line, but the fish would have to wait for now. With dark clouds building on the ridges above, we scrambled to find a campsite before the skies opened up.
We two tired and happy backpackers weaved in and out of the dense pine forest and climbed across large granite boulders until we found a site. A perfect flat spot amongst the short green grass and wildflowers called to our tent. The spot had a 360-degree unobstructed view of pure beauty and would make a perfect home for the next four days. We quickly set up our camp like we have done a hundred times before. The tent was set, the water purifier hung, bear containers packed with food, and our essentials tucked away in their temporary homes. Looking out across the lake, we embraced the peace and solitude. But it was time to fish.
THE SCRAMBLE DOWN TO the water’s edge was full of excitement and childhood wonder. Our lines were tossed in unison as we tried to decide what the fish would hit. Our spoons and jigs danced through the water until one of us felt the unmistakable tug on the line and a beautiful trout broke the surface. “Fish on!” echoed through the silence as I looked down the shore and watched Joe smile as he reeled in the first fish. Many more were to follow.
As the sky started its nightly sunset ritual, we sat crossed-legged on the alpine grass and enjoyed the show. We dined on a gourmet meal of fresh brook trout amid the backdrop of twinkling stars appearing in the night sky and the moonlight reflecting across the lake. We snuggled together, listening to the distant waterfall and took in this perfect summer night.
After a blissful sleep, the morning birds started to sing and gently stirred us from our mountain slumber. The cool air filled my lungs; I wiped the sleep from my eyes and heated water for my morning coffee. Joe and I perched ourselves on a rock and cradled warm mugs as we watched the mountains wake up. I swear that my coffee had never tasted so good. After breakfast, we laced up our boots, threw on our packs and grabbed our fishing rods.
We hiked several miles from camp and decided to try our luck at a lake just under 11,000 feet in elevation. I tossed an orange-and-silver Krocodile spoon into the mercurial water, counted to 10 and began a pulsing retrieve. Suddenly, my line telegraphed a hit and the rod tip bounced in response.
I gently leaned back and watched the rod arch under tension. I reeled in a vibrant blaze-orange-bellied brook trout that almost glowed in the crystal-clear water. With wet hands and a gentle release it shot back into the depths of its frigid home. Joe and I continued fishing along the snow-covered shore and selected a few brookies we caught for a shore lunch. We climbed to a clifftop perch and fired up the backpack stove. We sat in Mother Nature’s living room and ate a fresh trout lunch and gazed out across the lake below. We smiled and knew this memory would last a lifetime.
WITH FULL BELLIES FUELING us, we descended back to camp, stopping to try our luck at every lake we passed. We hit a total of five on our way back, and each one produced vibrant brookies and an occasional rainbow.
Joe spotted a small creek entering one of the lakes and we couldn’t get there fast enough. The anticipation built as we scrambled across granite boulders and climbed through thick brush to get there. Our lures shot out across the water simultaneously, and as if on cue our rods bent in unison. The double hook-up made us smile from ear to ear. With light line, our drags screamed as the deep-shouldered brookies ran for deep water.
Time drifted by as we fished the inlet and caught more fish than we could count; each one seemed more vibrant than the previous. Mottled green backs gave way to bright red, vibrant orange and deep burgundy sides accented by white-tipped fins and colorful spots.
As the sun started to set, our feet were tired from the day’s mileage, our faces and hands a little red from the high-altitude sun and our bodies fatigued from the thin mountain air, but we wouldn’t trade this feeling for anything.
The backcountry had recharged our batteries, and we were ready to head back to reality. We left it behind for now, but we knew it wouldn’t be long before we’ll return. CS
Editor’s note: Nancy Rodriguez lives in Cool, just east of Auburn outside Sacramento, with her husband Joe. She is an outdoor enthusiast who loves to fish, hunt and backpack. Nancy is on the hunt staff for Prois Hunting & Field Apparel for Women and enjoys inspiring women to get outdoors.