Countdown To The Trout Opener: Worth The Hike

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Editor’s note: With this Saturday’s statewide general trout opener attracting anglers to many high Sierra lakes, rivers and creeks, we wanted to share a story each day from our April issue leading into opening day.

Today: Tim Hovey on a memorable hike-in trip deep in the Sierra.

By Tim E. Hovey

took an oxygen break at the switchbacks. Hands on knees, I sucked in huge gulps of air trying to catch my breath. The high elevation wasn’t helping.

Like a good friend, Ed had gone on without me. Before he had disappeared up the trail, he had once again mentioned that the fishing at the mountain lake would be well worth the hiking effort. I had only heard part of his departing speech as the sound of my own laboring heartbeat pounded in my ears.

The trail towards the top leveled off, and hiking over the last rise allowed for my first view of Gardisky Lake. The lake sits at an elevation of 10,650 feet above the Tioga Pass in the Sierra. Like many mountain lakes, Gardisky is a huge blue puddle in the saddle of the highest peak around. Vegetation is nonexistent at its edge, the result of constantly expanding and contracting water levels dependent on the snow melt. Standing there soaking with sweat, I realized Ed was right. The hike in had been a small price to pay.

ED AND I WERE ON one of our annual trips. On this adventure, Ed had packed a spare fly rod and he told me on the drive up that he was going to teach me how to use it. In my lifelong pursuit of fish, I could count on one hand the number of times I had held a fly rod. For some reason it just never appealed to me; I was happy slinging bait or lures in my quest to catch whatever was biting. In the spirit of something new, on this trip, I was happy to be the student.

We camped at a lake at the top of the grade, right off the Tioga Pass road. We tossed a few camping essentials at our site and headed out towards the flats to fish. Ed handed me the fly rod and gave me some very brief instructions. He made a few casts with his rod as an example and pointed out places on the river I should try. He then handed me a small bottle of some magic dust he used to dry off the fly every few casts and then started hiking upstream to give me some room to fish. My lesson was over.

Over the next few hours we hiked the narrow river, searching for trout. I spent just as much time unhooking the fly from the surrounding vegetation as actually fishing. Despite my wobbly beginner’s steps, I had hooked and landed a few trout before I buried the tiny fly in my thumb trying to pull it from the grass at the river’s edge.

Back at camp, Ed pointed in various directions, naming lakes he had fished in the past. When he spoke of Gardisky, his tone changed. He talked about the hike to get there and how few fishermen bothered with the effort. He described the view from the top and how the lake was absolutely loaded with brook trout. He told me about the first time his dad had taken him there, years before, and how it was one of his favorite spots to be. He then described the lake in a way I will never forget. 

“When you finally see the lake, it’s like visiting an old friend,” he said.

AFTER I ARRIVED AT GARDISKY, we split up and started fishing. Ed swatted the air near the shore with his fly rod and caught a brook trout on his first cast. I had packed a small spinning rod for this session and started fan casting the lake with a small spinner. Ed was right; the lake was loaded with hungry trout. 

We spent a few hours casting different sides of the lake. Ed easily outfished me five to one, but that didn’t matter to me. I knew this place was special to him and I felt privileged that he had shown it to me. So far, I’ve only been there once, but I remember everything about it.

With less than an hour of daylight left, we took a few photos, packed up our gear and started for the trailhead. That evening, we sat around the fire and talked about the hike. My legs were already sore but I didn’t care. I knew that I was lucky to be shown the bright blue gem on the mountain. And I will remember that time in the Sierra with my good friend Ed for the rest of my life.

THE FOLLOWING YEAR, MY friend Rito and I headed to Bishop for a quick hunting and fishing trip in the Eastern Sierra. Our plan was to hunt our way towards town, spend the night at a local camping spot and then head up the pass to fish.

After a full day of travel and light hunting, we headed out that first morning to look for trout. While we had several spots in mind, our priority was to find a location neither one of us had ever been. Ed had heard about our trip and decided to share one of his secret spots with us. It was late April and most of the lake fish were staging at the mouths of feeder creeks, looking to spawn. Once they began migrating up the confined creeks, they’d pair off and spawn in the narrow streams. Ed told us that this spot was always loaded with healthy-sized trout.

With no cell coverage and questionable directions, we spent over an hour driving certain roads and making lefts instead of rights. We finally backtracked and found the landmark and the road leading to Ed’s secret spot.

We parked and made the short hike to the high-mountain creek. I found a boulder that gave us a great view of the stream as it fed the lake below.  I spotted dark shapes moving through the shallows in the open areas of the drainage. Large trout were staging near the banks in less than 12 inches of water.

Rito and I sat in the shade of a large pine and rigged up our rods. Ed had been very specific that he had only used dry flies to catch the trout here and couldn’t really help us on lure selection. Rito rigged up with a small trout jig and hiked a bit downstream to start fishing. I tied on a small white jig and hiked upstream to try my luck.

I found a group of four fish occupying a small pool below a tiny waterfall. Kneeling at the bank, I made a small cast above the fish and let the waterfall wash my lure into the pool. Without hesitation, the nearest trout raced out and grabbed the white jig; first cast, first fish wasn’t a bad start.

After a short fight in the narrow creek, I landed the 2½-pound rainbow. Everything about this fish screamed “wild” trout. It was transitioning into spawning colors and had a large, rose-colored patch on the side of his face. All of his fins were absolutely perfect and his coloration was amazing. 

I easily unhooked the trout and placed him back in the creek. Before we had found the spot, Rito and I had agreed to squeeze down our hooks’ barbs and release any fish we caught at Ed’s secret spot. 

I caught one more trout out of the group and moved downstream a bit. Over the sound of the creek I heard Rito call to me. He was kneeling at the bank holding a healthy rainbow trout and smiling. With the morning light and the wild background, it would’ve made a perfect photo. Before I could grab my camera, Rito gently released the trout and moved downstream to fish. Whenever I think about that amazing day and that spot, I think of that image of Rito releasing his fish and a missed photo op.

FOR THE NEXT TWO hours, Rito and I fished the creek and caught trout after trout. For the last 30 minutes, I just hiked downstream and watched the fish. At the last pool, I spotted a beautiful rainbow in a small pool all by itself. The trout would swim up a few feet and then circle back to the same spot. It would occasionally swim to a shallow area with its back completely out of the water. It looked to be slightly larger than the other trout and I was determined to catch it.

After a few casts I finally placed the small jig in the strike zone. The trout inhaled the lure and felt the steel of the hook. After a short fight with nowhere to go, I landed the trout, by far the prettiest fish I had ever caught. I couldn’t stop staring at the spotted patterns mixed with the rainbow colors. I called Rito to come check it out and take a few photos. I then carefully released the fish back near where I had caught it and watched as it continued its staging behavior like nothing had happened.

Rito and I fished at other spots later that day, but I don’t remember them. For me, nothing could surpass that brief time on the secret river, and my memory holds it far above most other freshwater fishing memories. Right next to that one and just as memorable is my trip to Gardisky Lake with my good friend Ed. CS

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