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Diamonds in a rough drought

hat’s the difference between a whacko wilderness angler and Bigfoot? One is dirty, smelly, and sleeps on the ground, the other is a myth. True, after a few days of backcountry travel, one can easily develop a “Sierra Suntan” which is a state of physical appearance and aroma, derived from multiple applications of sweat, sunscreen, bug dope, and trail dust…becoming layered, sometimes crusty.

We are not dirt bags, that moniker historically reserved and best fitted for the rock climbing crowd, but at times it can be challenging to keep things fresh. We sacrifice cleanliness, food, sleeping conditions, and other creature comforts for the many satisfying rewards that backpacking provides. Possibly the most handsome reward is fishing, especially in this drought.

Five Lakes Creek with Granite Chief Wilderness in the backdrop. Photo by Phil Flip Akers
Five Lakes Creek with Granite Chief Wilderness in the backdrop. The drought is evident in wilderness areas where very few natural springs exist. Without springs to supplement the lack of snowmelt, some streams drop to inhospitable rates.
Some backcountry streams will virtually stop flowing, stranding trout in tepid pools, left to die of stress or suffocation. photo by Phil flip Akers
Some backcountry streams will virtually stop flowing, stranding trout in tepid pools, left to die of stress or suffocation.

We are in the fourth year of a historic drought that is taxing California’s massive water infrastructure – the most extensive in the US – causing drastic water shortages, threatening wildlife, crops, and the livelihood of those who depend on anglers and other water-sport vacationers for economic gain. Today’s drought is global, reaching far beyond California, spanning four continents in fact. Brazil, North Korea, and South Africa are suffering drought challenges far exceeding those California is currently experiencing. We are lucky to have El Niño, which is projected to put an abrupt end to our epic drought. I will hide and watch.

Glacier, photo by Phil flip Akers
Beat the heat and escape to the high-elevation lakes and streams. But even above 12,000 feet, evidence of the drought is present. Glaciers like this have dramatically shrunk in size, reducing the length and amount of runoff for lakes and streams.
Clayton Akers dipping irresistible morsels in Hat Creek upstream from Rocky campground. Photo by Phil Flip Akers
Clayton Akers dipping irresistible morsels in Hat Creek upstream from Rocky campground. Hat Creek is one of four major California spring creeks.

Meanwhile, until El Niño provides us with all of the promised and highly anticipated rain and snowpack, lace up the boots and venture into the high-elevation locales to pursue quality wild trout…or find a spring creek. California is home to four major spring creeks – Hot Creek, Yellow Creek, Hat Creek, and Fall River – providing fairly consistent water temperatures throughout the year. The numbers and quality of fish in each of these spring creeks have had ups and downs throughout time but, generally speaking, these are premier fisheries. Numerous other smaller spring-fed streams can be found in wilderness and forest service areas. Cold water equals wild trout!

Indian Paintbrush, Lupines, Leopard Lilly, and various other wildflowers enhance the aesthetic experience. photo by Phil Flip Akers
Floral wealth and a variety of wildlife are present in high-elevation wilderness areas. Indian Paintbrush, Lupines, Leopard Lilly, and various other wildflowers enhance the aesthetic experience.
Northern California lake with icy slopes leading to the water's edge, photo by Phil Flip Akers
Fishing the backcountry precisely at “ice out” is fabled and supposedly produces rich results. I’m not sold on this fable, my experience (large sample size) has been slow fishing and horrible access. I prefer late summer and fall…chase kokanee in the spring.

Adventuring into the high-elevation wilderness not only finds you in cold water and wild trout, but also allows an escape from the summer heat into unique country with breathtaking scenery. This has been the case for decades and wilderness fishing secrets have been handed down through generations. Many wilderness areas, before being designated as a wilderness, were absolute fishing Mecca’s, such as the Emigrant Wilderness. During the years of 1932-34, conservative-minded local citizens, in cooperation with the USFS, constructed several stream-flow dams (check dams) in what is now the Emigrant Wilderness. In 1998, eight of the decaying dams were re-built. The main purpose of these dams is storage of water to be released in a continuous quantity sufficient to maintain stream flow during that portion of the year when streams would normally be very low or dry. This technique has proved successful, even in this current drought. Aside from providing anglers with many miles of excellent stream fishing, it creates natural spawning areas for trout. Thanks to the stream-flow dams, several lakes in the wilderness are now self-sustaining.

 cohort Kevin Ogg displaying a gorgeous wild rainbow caught in Five Lakes Creek. Notice the translucent fins. Photo by Phil Flip Akers
My cohort, Kevin Ogg, displaying a gorgeous wild rainbow caught in Five Lakes Creek. Notice the translucent fins. Trout of this quality can only survive in cold water.

To carry out proper wilderness trout management, accurate information about individual waters is required. This is obtained through special surveys of the lakes, and each summer from 1999 – 2003, I assisted DFG with these surveys. The principal objective of this work is to learn whether or not a water should be stocked and, if so, what species and how often. The size and depth of the lake, its richness in natural food, and the amount and quality of spawning areas available are very important parameters in determining the number of fingerling trout to plant. Examination of the fish present in the lake – the quality – yields important information to trained observers. Overstocking results in large numbers of emaciated, stunted fish…too small to provide good sport. Understocking results in a few large fish which are hard to catch. In between, lies the “happy spot” wherein correct stocking allotments provide maximum numbers of nice-sized, vibrant fish.

 golden-cutthroat hybrid, held by cohort John Matkoski, photo by Phil Flip Akers
Despite a wealth of data input for high-elevation fingerling trout planting management, mistakes can be made during the planting process. This golden-cutthroat hybrid, held by cohort John Matkoski, is an example of just such a mishap. There are at least three high Sierra lakes historically managed as golden fisheries that were accidentally air-dropped with cutthroat.

To effectively fish the wilderness areas is an exercise of persistence. It can be laboring, and takes days to experience most locales. An angler’s hesitancy to try waters they have “never heard of” has cost them many a nice catch. Unnamed lakes, lesser-known lakes, or lakes tucked far away, reached only by committing study and extreme effort, often provide better fish quality than the historic “hot spots”. I’m most intrigued with the lakes that are never mentioned. Pinpointing these remote lakes on a map, researching them to the nth degree only to find nothing, nada, zilch…finally planning a trip to see firsthand. This empirical tactic as provided me with memorable fish and many return trips to some lakes, and resulted in skunks from other lakes. But the scenery and solitude make each trip worthwhile. Zero is a non-negative integer, fishing for zero fish is non-negative fishing.

Phil Akers fighting a broad-chested golden trout at a 11,000-foot unnamed lake in Kings Canyon National Park, photo by Phil Flip Akers
Author fighting a broad-chested golden trout at a 11,000-foot unnamed lake in Kings Canyon National Park. Some of the best fishing can be found in national parks where fish stocking hasn’t occurred for decades.

When stream fishing during these dog days of summer, with drought-induced low flows, please carry a thermometer and test the water. Simply do not fish streams when the water temperature is 70°F or higher. Higher water temps brought on by low flows causes extreme stress in wild trout and even a short fight will kill them. Fish may put up one hell of a fight, exhibit ambitious behavior when released, but the amount of built-up toxins caused by stress will likely prove fatal. I wouldn’t be surprised (nor offended) if California followed other state’s lead and adopt regulations where fishing is prohibited during afternoon and evening periods when stream temps reach above 70°F for three straight days. If you are truly interested in stream fishing and preserving wild trout, leave the warm water alone and go find some cold water trout to harass.

Last year, CDFW released a bulletin with helpful suggestions on how to fish ethically during this prolonged drought. If you pursue wild trout please take time to read this bulletin.

Heather Lake in the Desolation Wilderness. Photo by Phil Flip Akers
Heather Lake in the Desolation Wilderness. Tossing a 3/8-ounce metal lure into this glass would cause a huge explosion, pierce the lateral line of every trout in the lake, and warp the fabric of extreme solace and silence.

Escape the drought, get up in elevation, go to where the coldwater streams are just as frothy, where the grass in the high mountain meadows is just as tall, the wildflowers are just as lush, the fish are just as rambunctious, and the mosquitoes are just as obnoxious. Plan well, be safe, and find your very own diamonds in this very rough drought.

Phil “Flip” Akers is a diverse angler and outdoor adventurer. For over 20 years he has backpacked, packed llamas and fly-fished the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, venturing into the farthest reaches of our wilderness areas pursuing quality trout and solitude. He enjoys sharing his experiences including tips, techniques, outdoor cooking recipes, and storytelling. He is certified in wilderness first response and rescue including swiftwater rescue, technical rope and technical animal rescue.


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