Gold Strike In The Sierra Backcountry

Photos by Nancy Rodriguez and Joe Rodriguez

The following appears in the July issue of California Sportsman:

By Nancy Rodriguez

My breath grew short with anticipation as I watched my chosen fly, a Woolly Bugger, slowly drift in the soft current created by winter’s runoff into the high alpine lake.

The towering snow-capped peaks encircling this basin were just starting to illuminate with the first signs of daybreak. The crisp mountain air chilled me as I gazed across the half-frozen lake struggling to free itself from Jack Frost’s icy grip.

A curious marmot peeked over a granite boulder and gave me the early- morning stare down. He was none too happy to have an intruder in his midst.

Soaking up the beauty of morning in the backcountry, I spotted tiny flashes of gold suspended in the frigid water below. Giving my line a light tap bounced my fly just enough to pique the interest of a sleek gold-colored apparition that darted through the sparkling ice-crystal-covered water. A small swirl appeared on the surface just inches from my fly and my heart skipped a beat. One more twitch of my line and my rod tip arched like a divining rod pointing toward gold riches a few feet below.

Fish on!” broke the mountain silence.

But this was not my typical “Fish on” call. This has been a bucket list fish for me for years and the incredible deep meaning behind this fish is not something I will soon forget.

MY DAD RECENTLY TURNED 90 and for most of my life I have known him to be a man who rarely shows his excitement, which is funny because I am the complete opposite. I get excited at the simplest of things.

On most visits with him, I scroll through my latest fishing photos and show him some dandy catches – brown trout, rainbows, brookies, salmon, etc. His response was always, “Nice fish, Sweetie, but when are you going to catch a golden trout?”

On one of our recent visits, he mentioned it again and I thought, “It’s time to catch a golden trout!” It became a quest.

My husband Joe and I took a long summer weekend and backpacked deep into California’s Eastern Sierra. The quest began at over 11,000 feet, a foreboding place these elusive fish call home. We had done our research and knew this was an area that should hold fish, and so began the trek.

After a few hours of labored breathing through increasingly thin mountain air, we found the perfect lakeside camp spot in a stunning granite basin. Like a choreographed dance, Joe and I set up our backcountry camp – tent, air mattresses, sleeping bags, clothes and essentials all tucked away in their own little spots.

Our bear canister was packed to the brim with food and stashed away. I added a little female touch of mini Fourth of July lights to the tree above our tent and our home away from home was set. After purifying water and grabbing a quick snack, we took off to scout some of our targeted alpine lakes, as the trout opener was

On one of our recent visits, he mentioned it again and I thought, “It’s time to catch a golden trout!” It became a quest.

My husband Joe and I took a long summer weekend and backpacked deep into California’s Eastern Sierra. The quest began at over 11,000 feet, a foreboding place these elusive fish call home. We had done our research and knew this was an area that should hold fish, and so began the trek. After a few hours of labored breathing through increasingly thin mountain air, we found the perfect lakeside camp spot in a stunning granite basin. Like a choreographed dance, Joe and I set up our backcountry camp – tent, air mattresses, sleeping bags, clothes and essentials all tucked away in their own little spots.


Our bear canister was packed to the brim with food and stashed away. I added a little female touch of mini Fourth of July lights to the tree above our tent and our home away from home was set. After purifying water and grabbing a quick snack, we took off to scout some of our targeted alpine lakes, as the trout opener was one sunrise away.

MARCHING THROUGH FIELDS OF snow, we were in awe of the grandness that surrounded us. Rocky spires towered above; wildflowers were starting to bloom through patches of snow; a brilliant blue blanket stretched overhead as far as the eye could see.

We moved from lake to lake and were thankful that only half of them still had caps of ice. We would have open water to fish!

As we crept around each shore, we spotted gold shimmers suspended under the surface that would quickly vanish the second they caught our movement. My heart raced with excitement and anticipation, and I prayed that the next day I would be able to scratch “catch a golden trout” from my bucket list.

That night we slept a bit restlessly as our hearts pounded extra hard searching for oxygen in the thin high elevation air, but that didn’t slow us down when the alarm went off. As I gulped down my coffee in the morning darkness, I couldn’t lace up my boots fast enough. Joe laughed at me and said, “Slow down, crazy girl; they’re not going anywhere.” I couldn’t help but giggle.

We grabbed our prerigged rods, shouldered our much lighter daypacks, pulled beanies over our ears and started trekking to our predetermined spot. The crusted snow broke with every footfall and our steamy breath spiraled upward as we watched the alpine world wake up.

With pounding hearts, we reached the last ridge on our morning trek and there before us was a magnificent lake suspended in a granite bowl. The shore was frozen and ice crystals covered every bush and blade of grass. As the tips of the granite peaks changed colors from pink to peach to gold, I took it all in – the grandness, the silence, the awe-inspiring beauty. It’s amazing how small and insignificant you can feel staring at the vastness of nature’s gifts.

THE NEXT MOMENT WAS one I will never forget. Joe looked at me and said, “This is it. Catch your golden trout.” He kept his line dry because he wanted me to cherish that first fish moment.

I dropped my pack, released my hook from the eyelet and drew my arm back for the first cast of the day. With a soft landing, the small fly danced on the soft current of the inlet and I wondered if this would be enough to entice these shy fish.

My body was tense with anticipation as the fly danced along. A small swirl broke the surface as I twitched it ever so slightly and … smash! The mountain silence was broken as “Fish on!” echoed across the lake!

My 4-pound test ripped deeper into the icy depths as I kept steady tension on the line so my barbless hook wouldn’t free itself. My heart was exploding with excitement as the fish and I danced in the morning light. Leading and following, I cautiously brought the fish to shore.

I bent down and gently slid my wet hand under its belly and brought it into a world it had probably never seen. A tear rolled down my cheek as I whispered, “This is for you, Dad.”

The beauty of this fish was like no other. It shimmered in a suit of gold and contrasting spots, with a blaze- red lateral line sparkling on silky skin. The glow from the fish and disbelief in my eyes must have certainly resembled an intrepid miner when the first gold nugget revealed itself in a worn and weary pan.

Indeed, after a lifetime of wondering, I held gold in my hands. After a quick moment of admiration and a few words of gratitude, I gently released the golden back into its underwater world. I knew that memory would never leave me.

WE SPENT THE NEXT couple of days hopping from lake to lake, catching countless fish, soaking up starry skies and enjoying all the gifts the backcountry has to offer.

After years of waiting, I was finally able to show Dad the photo of “our” first golden.

“You finally caught a golden trout!” he exclaimed with a smile and wide glowing eyes. “That’s fantastic, Sweetie! You just made my day.”

And that moment made mine. CS

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