Casting Call California: When you have to go to extremes just to get to the stream, the satisfactions are sweeter, the fish fresher.

November 09, 1997|By Paul Hodgins | Paul Hodgins,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

It had started out as a game, but after 45 minutes of sudden, vicious skirmishes, it had become personal. That last battle had made up my mind: It was either him or me.

The sun was getting low; the pines keened in a rising wind that chilled the late-autumn Sierra air. I was cold, wet and wedged into a tight corner, surrounded by a rocky outcropping, with no escape other than a scramble straight up the log-strewn bank I had slid down. He had me right where he wanted me.

I checked my weapon, made sure the rocks hid my lengthening shadow, noted the labyrinth of overhanging branches, then struck stealthily and -- for once -- with perfect precision. Nothing happened for one, two, three seconds. Then, without warning, he attacked.

To a trout fisherman, nothing approaches the savage poetry of seeing a beauty rise to take the hook. This one was worth the battle: a meaty brookie, 14 inches at least -- a wary veteran, no doubt, of countless barbed temptations.

And he was mine. I had weighted my bait to sink in the fast current without snagging, then cast 20 feet up a branch-roofed stream into a deep, rock-rimmed pool no more than 2 feet square -- a 1-in-a-100 shot. It was the only way to capture this warrior: Put the food inside his house.

I played him as carefully as I could in the constricted space downstream of the pool, one of the least accessible spots in Bishop Creek below South Lake. He had escaped twice after solid hits, and each time I'd had to wait until hunger overcame his instinctive timidity. It was payback time.

He had a lot of tricks, my venerable foe, but I had revenge on my side. He made a few deft zigs right near the bank, trying to zip under a log right beneath my feet, but past disappointments had taught me to anticipate that patented trout maneuver. I kept my creel at water level, sacrificed one leg to the icy current, knelt over and guided him in just as he made his last-ditch dive. Bull's-eye!

My challenge in fishing the Sierra Nevada mountains of California was to re-create the conditions I'm used to in British Columbia and Colorado: rugged stream fishing in picturesque, isolated locations, with good results.

It's a tall order. The Eastern Sierra mountains are one of the most frequently visited sport fisheries in the country, and attract other outdoor enthusiasts besides.

We tried a spot of lake fishing first, as we arrived late in the day and didn't want to get ourselves into obscure, unfamiliar areas with little daylight left. South Lake, though always crowded, is a satisfying place for such a pastime. Only a half-hour drive from downtown Bishop, it's picturesque, easy to fish and well-stocked. On the flat rocks just south of the dam, I quickly reeled in a quarter-ounce Kastmaster lure to catch a lively, 13-inch, stocked rainbow.

Passing over the dam to the other side of the lake brought relative isolation -- for some reason, everyone stays near the parking lot -- but frustration, too. A slow-moving parade of huge lunkers swam by constantly, just a few feet from shore in the crystal-clear water. Notoriously wary, these brown trout lazily ignored all my hastily proffered morsels, live and simulated.

Deceptively civilized

The next morning we hit Bishop Creek. It's deceptively civilized and easy to follow near the lake, but as it drops and pulls away from the road its banks cut deeper and the going gets rough. It's not the wilds of the Great White North, but you'd never know you were within spitting distance of one of California's most popular trout lakes.

My partner and I encountered only a handful of fishermen venturing into the tough spots -- this on a busy late October weekend just before the end of the season. Wherever the creek was more accommodating, though, the fly guys and weekend bobber-sitters appeared in large numbers.

Our catch was respectable: a total of eight sizable brookies and rainbows -- from 10 to 14 inches -- between the two of us in just four hours. And, as on all whitewater fishing expeditions, we had a few war wounds to show for our labors: a bruised knee, a scraped hand and, tragically, a couple of waterlogged cigars.

What I've learned from past mishaps, though, is that all aches and ailments are magically forgotten as soon as those beauties hit a well-buttered frying pan.

My kind of trout fishing isn't for everyone. No lazy flycasting on wide, burbling brooks for me; no indolent float-tubing through placid lake waters. My sport involves more sweat. Think of it as extreme fishing.

It's a philosophy based on two simple rules: 1) I like to catch trout (preferably native, not stocked), then eat them as quickly as possible -- none of this catch-and-release stuff for me, they taste like heaven when they're fresh; 2) I like to hunt for my fish in hard-to-reach, fast-moving water -- I crave the isolation, the challenge, and the taste of a fish from a relatively undisturbed patch of wild stream.

A lot of hiking

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