Western road trip 4: Idaho, Wyoming

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Kayak-view of Squaretop Mountain from lower Green River Lake in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

Holy crap. It’s been more than six months since my summer road trip and I’m finally getting around to my post on the last leg — from Ketchum, Ida. to the Wind Rivers and Jackson, Wyo. Right now this area is under a ton of snow, but we experienced everything from record-breaking heat to thunderstorms, double rainbows and bluebird skies, along with superb kayaking, great food and not-so-great fishing.

TetonsFor those not keeping track, I took a month-long West Coast/interior mountains road trip in late June and early July and chronicled the California and Oregon coasts in Road trip part 1 and part 2, and Portland and the Columbia River Gorge area in part 3.

 

I would’ve posted something sooner, but a certain equine has been monopolizing my time lately. No complaints tho. Flash, Gelding Azteca of SoCal (not exactly Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron, but close) has been a barrel of fun

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That’s him at right…in California, not Idaho or Wyoming…but somehow I think he’d feel right at home on a Sawtooth Mountains ranch.

Speaking of the Sawtooths, these central Idaho mountains reminded us so much of our beloved home range of the Sierra Nevada that we trekked about 45 minutes there every day during our week-long stay in Ketchum.

View of Sawtooth Valley between Ketchum and Stanley.
View of Sawtooth Valley between Ketchum and Stanley.

Yeah, we got real familiar with Highway 75, which stretches about 60 miles between Ketchum and Stanley — a smidge of a town that has got to be in the most spectacular setting in the country (be sure to check out Stanley Baking Company’s amazing oatmeal pancakes). With mountains on both sides and the Salmon River winding along its length, the scenic byway is stunning pretty much the whole time and simply jaw-dropping as you go over Galena Summit, at 8,701 feet. And there’s plenty of recreation along the way, including numerous trailheads and several world-class drive-to lakes. That’s Pettit Lake shown below, with what we think is/was Bruce Willis’ house along the shoreline.

Steve kayak:Pettit L

Well-kept ranches abound in the Wood River Valley, and with Sun Valley Resort just up the road, Ketchum is kind of a rustic Aspen, but with more cowboy hats than fur coats. It makes the perfect base for outdoor adventures, with the Big Wood River, Warm Springs Creek and Trail Creek all within a fly cast. The Sawtooth Valley is the headwaters of the renowned Salmon River.

Palomino on ranch near Stanley.
Palomino on ranch near Stanley.

One day, we rented bikes at Sturtevant’s in Ketchum and rode them along the Wood River Trail to Sun Valley, stopping to fish along the way before checking out the iconic Sun Valley Lodge. The trail is a first-class example of how the county recreation district has its act together. The 32 miles of year-round paved trail has numerous river access points and connects Sun Valley and Ketchum to Hailey and Bellevue further south. And then there’s the 19-mile Harriman Trail further north near Galena Lodge. I don’t know of many areas that have their outdoor recreation shit together to this extent. It’s impressive.

Ketchum
Downtown Ketchum.

At any rate, after several weeks of stifling heat in Oregon — and even in Ketchum for a few days — a couple storms rolled through and left us with (mostly) bluebird skies and puffy clouds. And — this being early summer not long after the spring snow runoff — there were swarms of mosquitoes. On our first hike in the Sawtooths, an easy 4-mile-roundtrip to Fourth of July Lake, I made the major tactical error of not bringing a long-sleeved shirt (too hot!) and leaving my bug juice in the car. I paid the price with itchy skeeter-bitten arms that were swollen like Popeye’s for the rest of the trip.

Sawtooth Lake flowers

Sawtooths daisiesBut the upside to all that moisture was green, green meadows and tons of wildflowers, a welcome sight to us drought-weary Southern Californians.

And speaking of Fourth of July, is there any better place to spend it than a small town in the West? We’d spent the last few Independence Days enjoying the holiday in Bend, Ore., a tough act to top. I’d have to say, Hailey (Ketchum’s more down-to-earth down-valley neighbor) ranks right up there. After the Old West parade down its main street during the day, we returned that night for the rodeo — Idaho’s version of Friday Night Lights.

Hailey rodeo crowd

Hailey rodeo

Over the next few days, we kayaked, hiked and fished throughout the Stanley Basin and Sawtooths (tho scenic, we done got skunked on that front).

Steve fish:Stanley

The week’s highlight hike was the 8.5-mile roundtrip to Sawtooth Lake, which sits at an elevation of 8,430 feet just southwest of Stanley. Right from the start at the Iron Creek Trailhead, we ran into alternating rain and thunder and had to calm our frightened pit bull, Blue, who hid under a rock along the trail:

Blue/Sawtooth Lake

But luckily we persevered, and despite the weather (which cleared after we got to the lake) and 1,700 feet of elevation gain, it was well worth it. Postcard-perfect Sawtooth Lake is one of the most popular and most photographed in the Sawtooths, and for good reason:

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Sawtooth Lake

When planning this trip, we were unsure how accessible the lakes in the Sawtooths would be, but it was well worth lugging the kayaks all the way from SoCal. During our week there we also paddled at beautiful Alturas Lake and at Redfish Lake, with its funky old-time resort. (Hint: bring your own lunch).

The kayaks take a rest on the shore of Alturas Lake.
The kayaks take a rest on the shore of Alturas Lake.

After a week, it was time to head to Wyoming, and we had to tear ourselves away from Ketchum. If we didn’t have reservations in Pinedale, we’d probably still be there. Our spirits lifted on the drive to Wyoming, though. Miles and miles of hayfields eventually led to the geological wonderland of Craters of the Moon National Monument, a wild landscape of desert scrub, lava fields and cinder cones.

View of the Great Rift, a 52-mile-long series of fissures that last erupted 2,000 years ago.
View of the Great Rift, a 52-mile-long series of fissures that last erupted 2,000 years ago.

Along the way, we passed through funky towns like Arco, Idaho, the “first town to be lit by atomic power” (the mysterious-looking Idaho National Laboratory is nearby). And the photo gods blessed us with alternating bands of storms and amazing clouds:

Dark sky:Idaho rd

After countless photo stops, we finally made it to Wyoming. Following a quick stop in Jackson (the Disneyland of the Rockies, IMO), our base for a few days would be Pinedale, a no-frills western town just about the polar opposite of Ketchum. We totally lucked out as it was the weekend of the Green River Rendezvous, a celebration of all things Mountain Man (no sign of Leo, The Revenant or any man-eating grizzly, tho this guy showed up at a state fish & game wildlife display):

Grizz display:Pinedale

And of course, there was a parade:

Pinedale parade

We’d been wanting to visit the nearby Wind River Range for a long time and figured Pinedale would be a good base. We got a basic taste of the Winds, but the best way to experience these wild mountains is probably by backpack or horse pack trip, so we’re filing that away for the future. We got a history of the area after a visit to the Museum of the Mountain Man (of course), and did a day trip to Green River Lakes for more kayaking and fishing. The lakes are the headwaters of the Green River, the main tributary to the Colorado River.

Green River
Green River, en route to Green River Lakes near Pinedale, Wyo.

Trout were rising on the river as a storm rolled in, but nobody rose to our bait.

Green River fishing

We were treated, however, to an amazing double rainbow:

Wyoming rainbow

We skedaddled from that fishing spot after: A. the rain started; B. we heard gunshots; and C. a driver passing by told us he’d just spotted grizzly cubs not far from our turnout.

After a few days in Pinedale, we ended the trip grandly, at Grand Teton National Park. We lucked out yet again, meeting up with Canuckian friends on their own road trip from Ottawa to Vancouver. We spent far too little time in this amazing park of spectacular scenery and even more kayakable lakes.

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A peaceful paddle on photogenic Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park.

We camped a night at Jackson Lake’s Colter Bay, one of the few times we made last-minute camping reservations. And the only time we got rained on while camping during the entire trip. After a fun presentation about grizzly bears at Jackson Lodge, we squeaked in dinner before the rain started, grilling fabulous fresh kabobs from Jackson Whole Grocer.

On our way out of the park the next day, we stopped at photogenic Jenny Lake and the adjacent lodge:

Jenny Lake

And so, after a month on the road, it was time to head back to California. Logan, Utah would be our next stop, then St. George and on to SoCal. I’d love to say we drove off into the sunset shown below, but this was one of many in the Sawtooths, a fitting end of another perfect road trip day:

Sawtooths sunset

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Calling all fisher folk: Upgrade your gear at Orvis!

Actually, from 2012. What appears to be a hybrid golden trout near Johnston Lake.
What appears to be a hybrid golden trout near Johnston Lake near Mammoth Lakes, 2012.

Here’s a great deal for all you SoCal fly fishers out there…donate your old, useable fly fishing equipment (rods, reels, waders, boots) and get a 20% discount on new fishing products at the Pasadena Orvis store’s Upgrade Your Gear Night….tonight! Time to trade up to that new Helios rod!

The event is tonight, Sept. 25, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Another great deal: donate a canned good and receive a 20% discount on full-priced clothing. Folks, that includes those gorgeous Barbour jackets and the new women’s line of Prana clothing. Meow.

Donations will benefit the Southwest Council Federation of Fly Fishers, and a local homeless shelter. The Southwest Council has done a lot of good for fly fishing and conservation — stream cleanups and surveys in the L.A. area and Eastern Sierra, education, and working with disabled veterans and wounded active duty military.

For the gear swap, the equipment has to be useable. No fractured fly rods, like the ones I demolished last year. Upcycle those to hold up your tomatoes.

The Orvis Pasadena store is at 345 South Lake Avenue, at the corner of Lake and Del Mar. Happy swapping!

Sierra backpack to East Lake

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Casting near camp at East Lake

Weary of watching lawns turn brown and flowers wilt, we decided in mid-August that it was time to hit the Sierra. But, worried about how California’s mega drought had affected the high country, we wondered: Would our beloved streams and lakes be too low to fish, or even dried up?

I’m happy to report that there was plenty of green grass, blue water and even some wildflowers in the Hoover Wilderness backcountry, especially above 10,000 feet. No doubt the monsoon-season storms earlier in the month helped.

This was our second backpack to the Hoover, which borders the northeast part of Yosemite National Park and rises from the Great Basin to the crest of the Sierra. With a new dog in tow — our rescue pit mix Blue, who undoubtedly had never camped under the stars — we decided on a short backpack along the Green Creek Trail to East Lake, about 4.5 miles from the trailhead.

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Blue prepares to hit the trail

So on a warm mid-week day, we headed out from the trailhead, located at the end of nine miles of the bumpy dirt that is Green Creek Road, off Interstate 395, about five miles south of Bridgeport. Blue was happy to hit the trail, not at all seeming to mind toting some cooking supplies — and two cans of beer — in her doggie backpack.

The trail climbs gradually and is very rocky in spots, something to keep in mind when hiking with canines. We brought dog booties but Blue was a trouper and didn’t need them. We ascended to Green Lake at just over two miles, right after a turnoff to West Lake — a less-frequently visited destination 1.5 steep miles away that we’ll save for another trip.

We kept going another 2.5 miles to East Lake, and the trail was alternately sunny and shaded by pine, hemlock and aspen. With so much aspen, especially at the start of the trail, I think this would be a great day hike in the fall. The trail crosses Green Creek several times, which was easy going with the water so low.

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Blue contemplating her shadow at East Lake campsite

Without much intel on where to camp at East Lake — and no obvious spots to pitch a tent when we arrived — finding a site was a bit of a challenge. Luckily we ran into backpackers who were coming out and tipped us off to a peninsula on the northeast end of the lake. The site we eventually chose had great views of the lake and Epidote (10,951 feet) and Park Peaks.

Getting to and from the site from the trail took a bit of rockhopping and was a navigation challenge, but lake access and views made it worth it. At 9,462 feet, campfires aren’t allowed at East Lake (no fires over 9,000 feet), so we had to stick to the camping stove — but we saw plenty of abandoned illegal fire rings. We ended up moving to a more choice — tho windy — spot after the first night, spending two more nights with open-sky views and even better water access. At night we were treated to the tail end of the Perseid meteor shower, with the Milky Way spreading across the entire sky.

We took a day hike to small but scenic Nutter Lake, a short distance from East, where I caught (but was unable photograph, darn) and released a 14-inch rainbow on a size 16 ant fly fished just below the surface…first fish on my brand-new Orvis Battenkill III reel. The next day we trekked three miles to Summit Lake, a beauty at 10,184 feet, on the boundary of Yosemite.

Hoover Lakes
The trail to Summit Lake passes the Hoover Lakes

Wildflowers lined the trail, but I got the sense that we were about a month too late for the full bloom — which happened early this year because of the drought. Still, we saw spotty clumps that included Indian paintbrush, larkspur, purple aster, lupine and owl’s clover, among others. The extremely scenic hike to Summit passes Nutter, Gilman and Hoover Lakes — where it was windy and small brook trout were abundant.

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Hoover Lake brookie

Summit Lake was also windy — but beautiful — and the fishing was fruitless. We scanned the hillsides for bighorn sheep, which are apparently fairly common here, but didn’t see any.

Summit Lake
Not a fish in sight at windy Summit Lake

We stopped at the sign marking the entrance to Yosemite National Park at the west end of Summit Lake, but didn’t go any further since dogs aren’t allowed. Which was fine with Blue, who enjoyed a nice sit and a roll:

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On the hike back to camp, we were treated to great-light afternoon views, including nice reflections on Gilman Lake:

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We headed out on day four, all in all a great trip, with no complaints: lighter packs, no bear encounters, one mosquito bite between the two of us (I can’t speak for Blue) and one worn-out but happy pooch.

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For conditions and how to obtain a wilderness permit, contact the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest at (760) 932-7070.

 

Blue’s first Sierra adventure

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Blue along the Middle Fork San Joaquin River, near Upper Soda Springs Campground.

Guest post from Blue, the pit mix rescue we first heard from in May…

Hi again, everyone. Just wanted to report on an awesome trip I took to this place with really big rocks and lots of water. My folks call it the Sierra Nevada. I call it a bit overwhelming but really cool. The hiking I really dug; the water kind of scared me, frankly.

First we hiked along a big river and stopped a bunch of times so my humans could do this really boring thing called fly-fishing. It’s where you stick a big pole in the water and just stand there. There were lots of great smells so I was on high alert, but boy, watching them do that fishing thing was really dull. The water was cold and fast, so I didn’t get too close but did take a couple drinks and wow did it taste good.

Another day we took a really long walk (note from editor: 3 miles each way along the River Trail out of Agnew Meadows) to a place called Shadow Lake. I was really excited about this hike. It had all the canine requirements: tons of trees to sniff, water to keep an eye on and nice cool temperatures so I didn’t pant too much. Here I am telling everyone which way to go:

Blue-Shadow sign

We walked and walked and walked some more until we got to this part that went back and forth straight uphill. I think they’re called switchbacks. Sometimes there were even stairs built out of rock:

Blue-Shadow steps
You mean I have to climb up those?

When we finally got toward the top I could see a creek and waterfall (scary) that was coming out of Shadow Lake:

Then we got to the lake, which was sooooo pretty. All sparkly and stuff. I got so excited but had no interest in hopping in the water. Very cold. And of course, scary. My humans did some more of that fishing thing:

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Then it was time to head back down. I really don’t understand the whole switchback thing. How come you can’t just run straight across the rocks?

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Here I am on the trail. Yeah, I have that “Don’t mess with me” look, but I’m actually very friendly:

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Anyway, I was really tired that night and didn’t even worry too much about any of the other dog smells and barking back at the condo. That usually gets me really upset but I was so frickin’ tired, I was like, whatever.

The next day it was time to go home, but on the way back we stopped at another cool place called Bishop Creek. My peeps had to yet again do the stick in the water thing (this time fish were actually caught, which I found mildly entertaining). My bro’ Sammy and I just hung out and took a snooze:

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Time to, yawn, plan our next trip.

Is Olympus EM-5 the perfect outdoors camera?

View of the Alabama Hills and White Mountains taken with new Olympus E-M5.
View of the Alabama Hills and White Mountains taken with new Olympus E-M5.

My hunt for a new camera for outdoor pursuits ended recently when I (and my bank account) broke down and bought an Olympus EM-5 mirrorless camera. I’ve had it a few weeks now, and the switch from a point-and-shoot camera to one with interchangeable lenses has been eye-opening, to say the least.

Camera outsideI wanted to step up in image quality without sacrificing too much in weight and size, so decided mirrorless cameras were the way to go. Their sensors are smaller than those in DSLRs, and in a downsized body, but much bigger than those in compact cameras. And size matters when it comes to sensors and image quality. For all you camera tech geek wannabes, here’s a good explanation on micro four-thirds technology.

After a few weeks of research on sites like Digital Photography Review, I was frankly driving myself nuts. I narrowed it down to the Olympus OM-D cameras, and what eventually sealed the deal for me (along with a no-tax special at Samy’s Camera) was the EM-5’s splash- , dust- and freeze-proof weather sealing. My previous cameras have always managed to attract whatever environment they’re in — sand, water, dirt, dog hair — so I figured the extra bucks were worth it. We shall see.

So far, I’m very happy with the EM-5, but I haven’t ventured much beyond the automatic setting. I’ve played a bit with exposure compensation and the art filters, but I have a lot of studying to do on all the camera’s functions.

Mountains above Bishop Creek, using Olympus EM-5's diorama art filter setting.
Mountains above Bishop Creek, using Olympus EM-5’s diorama art filter setting.

My one rap on Olympus is the totally lame owner’s manual that came with the EM-5. The functioning of this camera isn’t exactly intuitive, a complaint I’d read about. Luckily an online FAQ from Olympus is providing some answers.

Camera bagThe Olympus came with a 12-50 mm telephoto, so I knew my old habit of shoving my camera in a pocket would be a thing of the past. Luckily REI was having a 20% off sale, so I picked up a fabulous new camera sling from Lowepro that worked out great on a recent trip to the Eastern Sierra.

 

 

 

 

Bag pocketThe sling has a zipped camera chamber that provides easy accessibility. And there are plenty of pockets for extra lenses, keys, wallet, water, etc. I was even able to fit the water bladder from my Camelback in the top of the pack.

Below are some more shots with the new Olympus from a recent trip we took to the Eastern Sierra right after Memorial Day:

Gardisky Lake, near Yosemite National Park, in early June.
Gardisky Lake, near Yosemite National Park, in early June.
Old cabin on Pine Creek Road, using the EM-5's sepia art filter.
Old cabin on Pine Creek Road, using the EM-5’s sepia art filter. A bit under-exposed.
Blue waiting patiently while her companions fly-fish at Bishop Creek.
Blue waiting patiently while her companions fly-fish at Bishop Creek.
Heading back south on Interstate 395.
Heading back south on Interstate 395.

Winter drought equals early Sierra summer

Red's sign

Ahhh, summer in spring. That’s the Eastern Sierra right now, thanks to an exceptionally low snowpack — 18% of normal as of the final seasonal measurement on May 1. At Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park, the April 1 figure was 33% of normal. Right now, everything below 10,000 feet is pretty much snow-free.

Tioga Road opened on May 2 — the earliest opening since 1987. We drove it right after Memorial Day and snow was sparse in the park at about 9,000 feet, but still clung to the upper-elevation slopes. Tioga Lake was a gorgeous mosaic of breaking-up ice:

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We stopped at Tuolumne Meadows to fish and snap some photos. The Tuolumne River was flowing mightily, flooding over its banks in some spots. We took the obligatory pix of deer in the meadow and Lembert Dome:

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It’s such a gorgeous time of year at Yosemite. We usually visit Tuolumne in the fall, when the river’s low and vegetation is changing color. It was nice to see plenty of water in the river and green grass instead of brown.

Back in Mammoth Lakes, it was typical spring shoulder season weather: warmish (60s-70s), sunny days and cool nights in the 40s. In other words, perfect hiking and fishing weather. We had easy access to the Lakes Basin and the Red’s Meadow area, but as a story in the Mammoth Times reported, some areas weren’t open yet due to a bureaucratic snafu between the Inyo National Forest and its concessionaire who runs some facilities. Apparently the Forest Service hasn’t adjusted its opening schedule to account for climate change.

We tried getting to Horseshoe Lake and were surprised to see a locked gate restricting access. With our new rescue dog Blue in tow (more on her first Sierra trip in a future post), we didn’t feel like sharing the road to Horseshoe on foot with so many off-leash dogs, so we opted for Plan B: a hike from Upper Soda Springs campground (closed) to fish along the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River:

San Joaquin

The fishing could’ve been better — we need to brush up on our early-season/high-water technique — but we had the trail to ourselves and the weather was fabulous. We returned to the Red’s Meadow area a couple days later to hike to Shadow Lake from Agnew Meadows, again seeing hardly anyone on the trail. I think Blue will be doing a guest post on this hike in a future installment:

Blue on Shadow Lake trail

It can be tough to get a handle on what’s open and what’s not at this time of year, but calling the Inyo National Forest for updates is a good idea because their online report isn’t always up-to-date. Their visitor center is right on Main Street in Mammoth Lakes and can be reached at 760-924-5500.

For a look at Tioga Road’s (and Glacier Point Road’s) opening dates and April 1 snowpack since 1980, check out this page on Yosemite’s site, which isn’t always easy to find. The park’s current conditions are online and their information number is 209-372-0200.

And the fly-fishing gods responded….

Orvis rod

…or maybe it was Santa. At any rate, I got the fly rod I asked for, to replace the ones I busted last summer. And she’s a beaut: an 8-foot, 6-inch, 4-piece Orvis Clearwater 5-weight. Let that be a warning to all you tiny trout in Sierra streams! And best of all, if I destroy this one, Orvis will repair or replace it. Must. Send. In. Warranty.

Of course, a broken fly rod can always be repurposed. Say, as a tomato stake:

Fly rod tomato

Wow, that’s one sad-looking tomater. Anyway, the third Saturday in April can’t come soon enough. Tho I think I’ll skip the insanity that is the Eastern Sierra trout opener and wait til a more reasonable time…maybe a weekday in June.

In the meantime, here are some Sierra fishing pics from last year to tide us over:

Owens River in August.
Owens River in August.
Actually, from 2012. What appears to be a hybrid golden trout near Johnston Lake.
Actually, from 2012. What appears to be a hybrid golden trout caught near Johnston Lake. Maybe MInaret Creek.
This was fun. Trout-watching on McGee creek in October.
This was fun. Trout-watching on McGee creek in October.

See you out on the water. And hands off my Clearwater.

Dear Santa: Mama needs a new fly rod!

Fractured fly rod
Fractured fly rod

Actually, two. I wish I could say it was large fish that broke BOTH of my fly rods this past summer. But nope: it was pilot error all the way.

The first mishap occurred in July at Hosmer Lake in central Oregon. This scenic gem along the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway not far from Bend offers views of Mt. Bachelor and Broken Top, and is catch-and-release fly fishing/barbless hooks only — no motors allowed. Monster Atlantic salmon and brook trout cruise the shallows of a marsh at the lake’s north end. It’s there where I got distracted ogling the piscine giants while drift-flyfishing in my kayak. Hello, snag in a bulrush; goodbye fly rod. I actually didn’t lose the rod, but the resulting fracture made any more fishing impossible. That was my 8-foot, four-piece Cortland graphite 4-5-weight rod.

Hosmer Lake
Pretty Hosmer Lake has a shallow marsh where monster trout reside.

A few months later, we’d stopped to fish at Rock Creek at the end of an Eastern Sierra fall color trip. The tiny trout were biting, and at one point I’d put my fly rod — another Cortland, this one an 8-foot-6-inch, 5-6-weight 2-piece I use as a backup — in the grass to scout the shoreline. You know what happens next. As soon as I heard the crack, I cringed. I’d stepped on the rod, obscured in the grass.

At that point, I gave up. End of the season. Caught a bunch of fish on both fly rods, so I couldn’t complain.

Brook trout caught in McGee Creek on a No. 14 Pheasant Tail nymph.
Brook trout caught in McGee Creek in the Eastern Sierra.
Trout in net 2
Trout from Paulina Creek in central Oregon.

I’m just writing this in case Santa reads outdoors blogs. I’ve managed to be more nice than naughty this year…I didn’t even bad-mouth my lame-ass ex-employer. At least not excessively.

As a side note, the Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife recently said it’s considering changing its Atlantic salmon stocking program at Hosmer. The agency thinks the stocked cutthroats and Cranebows (hatchery rainbow trout produced from wild Crane Prairie Reservoir redband trout) “might provide a better fishing opportunity for many anglers.”

Maybe by the time they decide, I’ll be back with a nice, new fly rod.