Tuesday, June 16, 2009

On Fishing Hot Creek Ranch, Wherein the Author Learns the Meaning of " a Technical Fishery"; a Cure for Stinging Nettles; and Other Important Stuff

This past weekend I fished Hot Creek Ranch just outside of Mammoth, California for my third time. "The Ranch" as it is called, has been referred to as a "technical fishery". I've never really understood what that means. Oh, I've heard definitions of that term; everyone you speak with seems to have a different one. This past weekend, I developed my own. Now I know what fly fishers mean when they use that phrase.

Hot Creek is a spring creek that rises near the town of Mammoth Lakes, California, and flows roughly east, to the Owens River. Because it is spring fed, the water temperature remains about the same throughout the year. Lots of green stuff in the water means lots of bugs; it's a "nutrient rich stream" with an amazing population of Brown and Rainbow trout; big, healthy fish with lots of attitude. During its meanderings to the Owens, the creek travels through high mountain meadows, as well as steep canyons, at one point passing a hot spring from which it derives its name. The "ranch" as it is known, occupies about two and one half miles of the water located in a large meadow. It is private property, and its owners demand that visitors fish only dry flies with barbless hooks and release all fish caught. It is also expensive, and the only way that I can afford to go is through my fly fishing club, which books all the cabins on the ranch once each year.

My previous trips to the ranch have produced very different results. On my first trip, the winter runoff was still in progress, even on Father's Day weekend. The dry fly fishing was miserable, the water high and off color. The wind was so strong that the flag on the ranch was standing straight up most of the day. More importantly, I hadn't been initiated into the subtleties of technical fishing. And there weren't many people in the group willing to take time to show me. "Just grab a guide, at $250, and have at it"; at least, that's the way it felt to me. Needless to say, I did not do well that first time out, and found myself having the same thought that entered my mind when I was flying downwind on my first solo airplane flight: "Uh...let's see now. Why did I want to do this?"

As with all of my backpacking trips into the high Sierra over the years, however, it always happens that my memory lets go of the bad stuff, and I'm left with a maze of happy thoughts, and eager anticipation to do it all again. "This time it'll be different; this time, It'll be much better." I tell myself. And so it was with the ranch.

My second trip happened several years ago. The dry fly fishing was much better, with the creek running clear and within its banks. I'd also learned a bit about fishing for these wily, wild trout. On this second, more auspicious occasion, I'd learned to fish 6X leader tippet, with twelve or thirteen feet of leader. I'd learned to fish small flies no larger than size 18, but more often size 20. Some new fly fisherman don't really understand what a size 18 or 20 fly is all about; they've never seen one, and cannot imagine that you could catch a large fish with one. My explanation is that a size 18 hook is one that requires a minimum of three attempts to thread the leader through the eyelet of the fly by someone of my age and visual acuity; a size 20 requires four or five. But sometimes big fish love 'em.

And the fishing this second time was very good. There were Caddis all over the river, almost all of the time, and the trout were keying on them. Big, feisty fish with attitude; they were strong, and in no mood to be caught. Often, they would get airborne three times or more before coming to the net. Many times their acrobatics were successful, with the result that I lost fish on which I had not counted coup. Once, a fish who understood the dynamics of fishing this water better than I did, simply stopped on the bottom of the stream to my front, and just stared at me. Just then, a large patch of greenery I call "lettuce" came floating along into my leader, and promptly broke my 6X tippet. As I said, the fish understood the dynamics better than I did.

On another occasion on that second trip, I was fishing on the inside of a sharp little oxbow on the stream, after having observed a number of fish rising in the bend of the stream where the water eddies. One rise in particular was large; had to be the king of the bend. I sat there, trying to keep a low profile, and began my dead drift well upstream so that the fly would not drag when it hit that eddie. I didn't think for a moment that I was good enough to get that large fish to rise to my fly, and so when the fish hit the fly with ferocity, it startled me so much that I leaned back, instead of raising my rod. Of course, the tippet immediately broke, and I was disappointed that I never got to see my "two second monster". I never got a good look at him, but he was big, I know that.

But all that was a couple of years ago. So, when I discovered the day before this year's trip began that there remained one spot to be filled, I immediately decided to go. I would be saving four members of the club a significant portion of their deposit, so I really had to do it, right? And the fact that I was missing a friend's birthday party paled in comparison to the significance of monster trout coming to my fly, right? This time, I thought, "I have it wired. I understand these fish and this stream; I can do this." That's what I thought; no, I really did!

All the way up the highway that parallels the eastern Sierra, I'd been watching the weather. And from past trips, I'd learned the names of the towns, and the order in which they are encountered traveling south to north. Palmdale, Lancaster, Mojave, California City, InyoKern, Piersonville, Olancha, Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine, Bishop, Tom's Cabin. Some of these aren't towns, really, just wide places in the road. But I suffer from a kind of white-line fever that demands attention to such insignificant trivia. What was significant, though, was that the weather was getting worse as I moved from one town to the next. The day had not dawned warmly, and it was growing cooler. Off in the distance to the northwest, I could see clouds that looked like rain, you know, that grey vertical streaking that appears in some parts of the sky, but not others. Sure enough, by the time I drove past Tom's Cabin, rain drops were starting to fall. "No matter", I thought. "I've got good foul weather clothes; I'll just fish in the rain." Further north, as I approached the ranch, I could see flashes of lightning, and hear claps of thunder. "Now, what am I gonna do with a graphite rod? Maybe this is the end of fishing for today", I mused, sliding into a mild funk. However, upon my arrival at the ranch, the manager assured me that the lightning was a good way off, and that I didn't need to worry.

I was so excited that I began to fish almost immediately, with my knowledge that I understood the fish and the stream. I forgot my boots; I forgot my gloves. When the rain began to come down, I realized that my feet were wet, that my hands were cold and that the bottoms of my pants were completely soaked. Oh, yeah. I had not gotten one strike. No takes. Finally one little Brown. I fished from 4:15 p.m. until dark, about three hours. One small fish. "This is not looking good" I thought to myself.

Next day dawned cold. I remembered my gloves. And I'd taken the time the night before to figure out my strategy. "This morning" I thought, "I'll hook up thirteen feet of leader with 6 X tippet. That will dispose of leader shyness as an issue. I'll hook up a dry dropper, something reported to be very hot; so I'll have two size 20 dry flies, separated by about two feet of 6X tippet material. All of this on a 4 weight rod, so I can make a delicate presentation. Geez, I'm so clever that these fish should get out of the water and shake my hand! "Excellent presentation, Mr. Webb; remarkably good dead drift; can't recall having seen any better." Well...they didn't do that.

There was, however, some good news. The only guy in Mammoth who sold cigars went out of the cigar business. Great, great! Now I can quit that terrible habit. How fun! Freezing cold, no fish, no cigars. No problem...I've still got my thirteen feet of 6 X tippet!


The wind in that large alpine meadow comes up about 11:00 a.m., and continues until after 6:00 p.m. There are intermittent breaks when it is calm, but they are brief. And when that wind does come back, you never get a warning, so if you are in the middle of a forward cast, everything just comes right back in your lap, or into the bushes in front of you. With thirteen feet of leader and two feet of dropper, and two very light flies, this results in a tangle of leader, flies and tippet. Sometimes, I get the tangle almost undone; then the wind comes up again, and makes the knot worse than it was at the beginning of this little episode. I have to cut the whole thing off, and start again. New nail knot, new blood knot, new clinch knots for the flies, new knot for the dropper. If this happened only once per day, it might be ok. Four times a day or so, however, produces a bad reaction in me. I'd kinda forgotten about the wind on the ranch. Like I was sayin' earlier, funny how that can happen.

At these times the "F-bomb" becomes a frequent part of my speech, coupled with various other curses and epithets. I try not to use these so much when others are around; it might spoil their fishing, and might lead them to believe I'm not having fun. So I wait to see if there's anyone in shouting distance; if not, I let go with a string of epithets that would give a sailor pause. "So this is a technical stream", I say to myself. "So this is technical fishing!"... continued muttering coupled with some pretty colorful language.

The fish don't seem to notice. They are content to have their revenge in the form of my frustration. Well, "frustration" is not really the right word. There really isn't a single right word. It's more like I'm reduced to a blubbering, pitiful, blathering idiot. I do not present a picture of a rational, well adjusted adult when I'm in this state of mind, this mode of dealing with the finer nuances of a "technical fishery". Yet I do all of this in pursuit of something I claim to love! This scenario continues on for two more days! Yes, I did catch some fish, some nice ones. But the effort required, the work, the intense frustration of seeing your best headwind cast blow straight back in your face, is just too wierd; I can't get a handle on it, can't understand it. But I will be back.

Oh, did I mention the stinging nettles? The stream is lined with them. In the conditions I've just described, it's possible to catch lots more bushes than fish. And of course, when you catch a bush, you must get your fly back, if possible. Or, in the less likely event you are landing a fish, you need to reach through the bushes in order to land/release the fish. Guess what? the bushes are probably going to be stinging nettles. The ranch says you can get rid of the sting with Witch Hazel. My daughter, who just graduated from high school with high honors, says I can pee on the spot where I was stung. Well, ok. She says I can place urine on the affected area. Hmmm...Let's see, how's this gonna work? Can I...oh, never mind.

© James Webb, 2009

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