Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Cottonwood lakes and Golden trout

The two species of golden trout that are native to the southern Sierra Nevada are arguably the most beautiful fish in the world.  Others are more colorful, but not many.  Others inhabit beautiful places but few as dramatic as the southern Sierras.
The three distinct species of rainbow trout Native to the Southern Sierra are called Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita, Oncorhynchus mykiss Gilberti and Oncorhynchus mykiss Whitei.  Only the very southern most populations of these adventurous trout escaped the massive glaciers that carved their way though the Sierras.  These populations were isolated in a unique and challenging environment where they evolved into the magnificent fish we see today.   The most stunning being Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita commonly known as the Volcano Creek/ Golden Trout Creek or South Fork Kern golden trout.

A nice golden.  

A golden release

It is easy to imagine a fish inhabiting a coral reef that is emblazoned with dramatic colors but the colors of the South Fork Kern golden trout are equally as dramatic and yet they inhabit cold water creeks high in the mountains.  What set into motion the evolution of such amazing and bold color in an environment where camouflage and stealth have been driving forces for millennia?  One theory is based on the presence of brightly colored volcanic rocks and cold, snow-melt water in the spring that may have influenced enzymatic pigment reactions during early fish development.  However the golden trout's color pattern came to be, it is truly a feast for the eyes.  Their backs are olive-gold and their sides are pure gold with purple iridescent par marks that can be retained throughout adulthood.  The spots are large and dominant near the tail and their fins are tipped in crisp white.  The bellies range from the brightest crimson to a fluorescent orange. 
    In their native range, all golden trout are voracious feeders due to a short season and nearly no fishing pressure.  Dry flies are destroyed within seconds of drifting down a likely lane.  Fortunately for the golden trout their native range is protected by forbidding granite guardians that soar to 14,000 feet.  The lowest passes through to golden trout country are between 10,000 and 11,000 feet and once you have cleared that elevation there is still a 4 mile hike down into the valley.   Golden trout  can also be found in a number of lakes from the high Sierras to the Wind River range in Wyoming.  While these populations are not native, the beauty and majesty of the golden trout still lure travelers and hopefully inspire people to value and protect such an amazing fish in its native range.  California no longer exports golden trout eggs or hatchery trout so the remaining populations are all wild and are resources worth protecting.  Please practice responsible catch and release for all golden trout regardless of location or abundance. 
    A few years back I visited the Cottonwood Lakes and was lucky enough to catch and photograph a few beautiful South Fork/Volcano Creek golden trout.  The golden trout in the Cottonwood Lakes were initially used as brood stock for the rehabilitation of golden trout waters and, I assume, the export of golden trout to other lakes in the Sierras.  Today, they are reported to be nearly pure golden trout with marginal contamination of hatchery rainbow trout.  The fish in the Cottonwood Lakes do not count towards the completion of the California Heritage Trout Challenge.  You have to catch each type of golden from their native ranges.  The South fork of the Kern, Golden Trout Creek, or Volcano Creek for Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita and the Little Kern River and its many feeder creeks for Oncorhynchus mykiss Whitei.

Cottonwood lake #3. 

Muir lake, I think.

    Our trip started with a hair raising drive from Lone Pine to the parking area located in the  Cottonwood meadow campground at almost 10,000 feet in the eastern Sierras.  We got on the trail about 9 am and had only a 6 mile hike into the Cottonwood Lakes.  Six miles with packs under normal conditions is no big deal but the rapid elevation gain really took a toll.  We ran into a group on their way out, and they said they had a great trip but it rained for about an hour every day at 2 pm.  I thought that was a rather specific claim and maybe they meant around two or between one and threeish but no, at exactly 2:00 it started to rain.  In fact, it did rain at almost exactly two everyday we were there.  After the elevation sickness and massive head aches eased, we had a great time.  It is truly a beautiful place and the fish are magnificent.  There was a consistent hatch every evening at about 6:00 as long as there was no wind.  The lake turned to glass and it seamed that raindrops on the lake surface seamlessly transitioned to trout rising everywhere.   I got a few shots of fish breaking the surface with my telephoto.  The water is crystal clear.

There are five lakes in the Cottonwood chain and we caught fish in only one (Lake #3).  It was the closest to the outlet stream and we were there in late July so maybe they were just coming back in from the stream after spawning.  The fish were not huge but golden trout rarely are and actually, the big ones I have seen pictures of just seem unnatural, like body builders that just took things too far.  The classic native and wild golden should be about 10 inches long with a sleek and slender body and colors so bright you can't do them justice in a picture. 

    As far as gear goes, it depends whether you are going to a lake or a stream in the native range.  For the lakes, the rising fish can be a ways out.  I would take a 9' 5 wt to reach fish rising and bring a 3 wt for nymphing during the day.  Bring some wooly buggers to slowly strip in.  If you get adventurous, try a two nymph rig with a cone head bugger as the lead fly and tie on a zebra midge trailer about 12 inches back.  Cast it out as far as you can and let it settle.  Make one long strip and let it settle again.  For the streams, take as light a rod as you dare.  I have a fiberglass 6'6" 3 wt that I built for small stream fishing.  I would also take a faster action 3 wt in case the wind picks up. All dry flies will work, so take your pick.  I like stimulators, ants, and parachute Adams (12-18).  You could use a dropper but why? Check out the video in this post.
Feeder stream between lakes

Cottonwood Lakes #4 and #5

    I encourage all trout fisherman to explore the Golden Trout Wilderness and when you have seen how beautiful these fish are and how amazing the landscape they live in is please donate to California Trout or another charity that is helping to ensure we will always have native golden trout. 
Day hike to the top of New Army pass

New Army pass
The golden trout wilderness has the best signs!  Who hiked that in?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Fall Colors and Pink Salmon

A pink salmon on her redd.  She will guard it until she dies. 
Seeing migrating salmon feels primal: a direct connection with the struggle of life.  Salmon start their lives much like their trout cousins, as a fertilized egg in a well oxygenated loose gathering of river pebbles called a redd.  Long ago a few trout-like ancestors, most likely a type of char, decided a life at sea was for them and diverged into what we know as salmon today.  There are two lineages of what we know as salmon.  The salmon and trout of the genus Salmo (brown trout, Atlantic salmon, etc.) and the salmon and trout of the genus Oncorhynchus (Red band trout, pacific salmon species, etc.).  I grew up in San Diego and had never seen a salmon in the wild.  There was a time when steelhead (anadromous rainbow trout) were abundant and successfully spawned in the rivers of San Diego County.  If you can believe it, even the Tijuana River had a run of steelhead.  I came to Minnesota 6 years ago and have witnessed the run of pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) at least three times.  Luckily, their run also corresponds with some of the best fall color on the north shore of Lake Superior.  Pink salmon are native to the Pacific Ocean and are found from the Sacramento River in California all the way to Alaska.  They are also found near Siberia and as far south as Korea.  In the 1950s, pink salmon were introduced to the Great Lakes.  No other transplantation efforts were found to be successful for pink salmon apart from that of the Great Lakes.

Today they are thriving in the clean cold waters of Lake Superior and can be found in limited numbers in Lake Michigan.  In their historical range, pink salmon are endangered in California, Oregon and Washington but are stable in Canada and Alaska.  Pink salmon were intensely harvested for salt/smoke curing and canning and populations in the Pacific have suffered.  Strangely, pink salmon have a strict two year life cycle.  Fish hatch in the winter after fall spawning and immediately head for open water.  They spend exactly two years at sea or in the lake and return to the same stream they in which they were born to spawn and die.  A female will build a redd (Scandinavian word for nest) by thrashing her tail powerfully towards a section of loose gravel.  Seeing females pound their tail towards the bottom of the stream is a sight to see.  Their heads almost poke out of the water as their tails carve out the nest for the next generation of salmon.
Redd building

Females typically yield multiple clutches that may be fertilized by multiple males.  Once spawning is complete a female will guard her redd until death.  Death will come for all the salmon that enter the stream.  As soon as they begin the journey from the lake, their stomachs will begin to dissolve to make room for eggs in females and a massive physical transformation will occur in the males as well.  Males develop a enormous humped back which has lead to the nick name: 'humpies'.  Along with a hump males develop a hooked jaw and a rather mean looking appearance.  So, every two years the population of pink salmon turns over by at least half.  As far as I know, there are spawning runs every year and the strict two year phase would prevent these populations form interbreeding. 
    Our main purpose a few weeks past was to see the fall colors and get out of town for a bit.  The fact that salmon are in the rivers happens to be a bonus.

We got into Grand Marais a bit late on Friday night and it was already dark out.  This would not have been problem if we were staying in a hotel but most were booked and the rest were out of our budget for a spontaneous trip. We stayed at the Grand Marais Municipal campground right on the shore of Lake Superior.  I was happy there was a warm shower right across from our camp but my wife was not a fan of the parking lot style sites.  I did my best to enclose our fireplace from the parking lot by surrounding it with the car and tent on two sides and the lake and trees on the other sides.  The wind was blowing so hard and it was dipping down into the upper thirties so we decided to head into the tent for the night.  I left the lantern on outside the tent and after a while I moved it off the table because I thought the wind was going to blow it down.  The tent was bowing in almost to the ground with the big gusts.  About midnight the wind stopped and the rest of the weekend was sunny and nice: very rare weather for fall in Minnesota.  We headed up near Grand Portage to see the changing leaves and were rewarded with some fantastic vistas.

A secret north shore view.  A case of Sierra Nevada can be very persuasive though...

Later in the afternoon I met up with some friends and we tried our luck with the humpies.  They had been fishing a while and hadn't had much luck.  The fish don't really eat once they get into the stream, but I ended up getting one to bite on a flashy egg pattern and got it in.  A nice looking female.

We fished Cascade with about 20 other fisherman.  The shear number of fish in the stream is amazing.  There were hundreds of fish in every possible spawning location.  It's good to see they are doing so well.  Maybe I'll be back in two years to see the generation born this year. 

The maples were in top form
Caribou Lake
A nice male.  Thanks for the great pic Trevor!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Big brown on a Morrish Mouse

    I was camping at Beaver Creek Valley State Park over the weekend.  I love this park for many reasons including the great fishing. The creek is crystal clear and very cold. The creek in the park literally comes out of the side of a bluff. The aptly named "big spring" makes up about 90% of the water flow and if you are standing in the water anywhere near that spring your feet will likely be numb.  I don't carry a stream thermometer but the water is at least as cold as the Sierra Nevada snow melt streams of my youth.  I started out fishing only one spot the day we got there and got one on a parachute adams but that was it.
From a trip a few years back
Nice fish from a year ago
Caught 5 minutes after the above fish in the same spot
This is the spot I fished the mouse in.  I stood on the bank at the top of the pool on the left.
I caught this nice sized fish a few years back in my favorite spot.
Same as above fish.
The fight with my 3wt with the above fish.  What a battle!

    The next day I checked out some fishing on Beaver Creek outside of the park.  I found a stretch of easement and walked up stream.  I walked right up to a spot that was a lot better than I thought. About 50 fish scattered so I had to come back to that spot.  I fished up stream and got one bit but no fish before heading back to the good spot where I got a nice 14 incher off a bead head prince.  The rocks in the stream were covered with case building caddis.  I pinched a few out of the case and they were bright green.  I didn't really have anything to mimic that so I went with the prince thinking the peacock body was better than nothing.  I made a mental note to tie some caddis larva with green bodies.  I went on to another spot that was wider, warmer, and off color.  I was hopping for a big brown.  I fished a few spots with no luck but while retrieving my nymph something big chased it towards me.  I stopped and let it settle and he turned back to deeper water.  I'm pretty sure that was a big 20" plus brown.  He chased a gray scud and I thought he might want a bugger or some sort of streamer action.  No luck.  I tied on a pink squirrel and while retrieving it after a drift I heard a huge splash. I set the hook and came up empty.  This fish was tormenting me.  I finally tied on a Morish mouse and pulled it across the top of his spot a few times with no luck. 

    What really sucked about that is somewhere in that nettle infested river bank I lost my camera out of my shirt pocket.  I went back to look twice and couldn't find it. 
    Later that day after dinner I went back to one of my favorite spots that is right near the parking area for the park.  I caught one on a dry and with the last rays of light I tied on a nymph.  No luck.  I had been thinking about my Morrish mouse pattern but it was too dark to tie anything on. I decided I needed to at least try my mouse pattern once before the season ended so I walked back to the car and tied it on with the help of the trunk light. 
A little guy with par marks still.  Likely a yearling. 
Yeah, that's the water. Crystal clear. 
Beautiful beaver creek.

    I walked back down to the river and stood at the head of the pool and tried to cast my 3 inch long mouse pattern more than 10 feet.  My first cast was the best, I got it out about 20 feet and started to slowly strip it back in.  I felt a sharp tug, tug and I set the hook, with nothing on the other end.  Was that a fish?  Yeah, that had to have been a fish.  I tossed it out again the fly made a whoosh whoosh sound as it flew over my head.  A 6 wt would have been nice with such a bushy fly.  This time I plopped it down about 10 feet from the bank and just bobbed it in the current with the line pinched in my rod hand.  All of a sudden, in total darkness I heard a huge splash!  I waited just a half second, which is all I could manage with all that excitement and set the hook. Bam! Fish on!   He took off to the other side of the pool taking about 15 feet of line out. Luckily, my leader had been chewed back about 3 feet so I had about 4x instead of 6x where I tied the fly on.  I doubt fish are leader shy in total darkness.  I got the big guy in pretty quick and had a tough time with the net since I could only really hear the fish and could barely see what I was netting.  A head lamp would have been nice.   The fish looked female and was a thin 17 inches maybe.  It was pretty dark and the few pictures I took were pretty bad since I couldn't see through the view finder.  I thought since big browns ate mice in Alaska why not in Minnesota? Now I know for sure.  I had two casts and had two bites.  I only tried that one spot but I will surely try it again in more places, hopefully better prepared than the first time. 
Got him!
Mouse for dinner?
Wow, it was dark.