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Wandering the Warner’s

estled in the extreme northeast corner of California is the Warner Mountains and the only designated wilderness area is the South Warner Wilderness. This is an isolated piece of mountain paradise that is remote, rugged and seemingly untouched. Situated between a large graben to the east called Surprise Valley, and a vast tableland of volcanic mud and lava flows to the west known as the Modoc Plateau, this is an extreme juxtaposition of the verdant and the parched.

While I could write endlessly about the many trails and attractions contained within this wilderness, the nickel tour would be the Summit Trail which follows the mountain crest for the length of the wilderness, and it demarks the exact Pacific Divide.

The South Warner Wilderness, Modoc National Park sign
The South Warner Wilderness is a wonderful mountain getaway.
Lush patches of spring-fed corn lilies dot many glacial-carved basins within the Warner Mountains
Cows walking along the road in Modoc County
Be careful traveling around Modoc County, it is “Where the West Still Lives”.
Pacific Crest Trail 'Summit Trail' sign
The Pacific Crest Trail veers off into the Klamath Mountains instead of following the true Pacific Divide along the Summit Trail and Warner Mountains.

And I would be remiss to write about the South Warner Wilderness without mention of Patterson Lake. At 9715 feet, Patterson is the largest and highest elevation lake here.

The headwaters of Pine Creek.
Pine Creek Basin pools with interlocking fish-feeding rings.
Pine Creek Basin pools with interlocking fish-feeding rings.

A premier backpacking and fly fishing hideaway, Patterson Lake can be reached from a number of trailheads but the most direct route is via Pine Creek Basin, an 11-mile round trip. The first half of the hike to Pine Creek crossing is gentle, with several alluring fishing and lunch spots along this distracting path. You will pass many inviting azure pools enticing you to take break and wet a line.

Views east of Surprise Valley and Middle Alkali Lake.
Views east of Surprise Valley and Middle Alkali Lake.
Views northeast to the town of Cedarville and beyond.
Views northeast to the town of Cedarville and beyond.

The second half of the hike from Pine Creek crossing to Patterson Lake will get your attention. Incessantly laboring up through sage, rabbit brush and mule ears, the trail is exposed, and becomes steeper the further it goes. Then, just as you are questioning your own sanity, you finally reach the Summit Trail junction. But there is still more elevation gain to reach the pass, the climbing isn’t over yet. Near the pass the views become expansive and you begin to reap your harvest, gazing east over 4000 feet below – a front-row phew to views into the Basin and Range Province, the entirety of Surprise Valley, the three salt-encrusted Alkali Lakes, and the barely discernible town of Cedarville. Views west reveal Mt. Shasta over 100 miles away.

Warner Mountain range’s eastern escarpment.
Warner Mountain range’s eastern escarpment.
Cliff side of Patterson Lake, in the South Warner Wilderness,
Patterson Lake, in the South Warner Wilderness, is a premier backpacking destination.

The number one thing I’ve found in life that’s improved with age is the sweet love I have for my family and our critters. Running a close second is fly fishing. And fly fishing Patterson Lake is certainly a kick in the pants – it is productive – and novice fly anglers can easily get in on the action. You do not need to spend a ton of money on highfalutin gear, drive a Range Rover, behave pompously or smoke a pipe – you only need to get there! And a pair of cut-off britches will do just fine. Having said that, the most handsome rewards come from experience with the lake, having studied its unique aquatic makeup, and analyzing whatever rote you have employed over time.

Patterson Lake turned emerald green due to late summer algae blooms
Late summer algae blooms turn Patterson Lake emerald green.

Patterson Lake is perched in a small glacial carved bowl beneath a towering rim crest and thus it has no inlet. There is a seasonal outlet that dries up once snowmelt runoff is over, causing the lake to stratify and bloom with algae come late summer and into fall. Tiny crustaceans feed on algae and plankton, they thrive in this exact type of environment – in particular, I’m talking about scuds.

small creature, scud, in the palm of a hand
It is advantageous to learn and mimic the behavior of scuds.

Scuds are very interesting creatures and trout often zone in on this very high-octane food source. Scud’s sizes and colorations vary over short distances, even from one watershed to another. Live scuds are always straight when swimming in the water column, and most are gray, tan, or olive in color. But when they die, they all curl into a shrimp-like shape and transform into a tropical orange/yellowish hue. So unless attached to rocks, dark colored scuds are never curled, it simply does not exist in nature. But hey, take a look around, this unnatural pattern is commonly offered in many fly shops. Scuds can flat move, darting in all directions. The strangest aspect is their ability to not always go head first, but also sideways and backwards. Work them deep – sinking tips, shooting head, whatever your technique – along the cavernous shelf edges of the lake. And fish tight, quick, erratic, short-jerking strips and rod twitches. Try to imitate their normal behavior.

mountain top views of the Summit Trail
Backpackers constantly soak in astonishing views while following the Summit Trail.

If you plan on visiting Patterson Lake I recommend backpacking and spending the night. Eleven miles in-and-out via Pine Creek is doable as a day trip but it is a butt-kicker. I did it once and my shovel is still dirty from burying the idea of doing it again. Simply put, fishing time is cut way short when day hiking into backcountry fishing lakes. Spending the night allows you to experience the prime fishing periods of daybreak and dusk. There are a few very nice campsites at the lake and the scenery will knock your socks off.

Young man sitting on a fallen log camp cooking
There is no commandment that states thou shalt settle for insipid freeze-dried entrees while backpacking.

Depending on the area and the sensitivity of the fishery, supplementing the diet with fish is a sumptuous delight. Regardless of how elaborate your backcountry culinary skills, from the basic tin foil method to lavish ragouts, there is a way for you to cook and enjoy trout in the backcountry. The popular tin foil method is the easiest but challenging where campfires are restricted. Basically coat the fish with a base and spices, wrap in tin foil, and cook with fire. A general rule is to season with dill when using olive oil bases, and season with rosemary when using soy sauce or teriyaki bases. Common to both of these bases, always throw in crushed garlic, lemon, orange, and whatever you can purloin from Mother Nature on the hike in, such as wild onion or mushroom. Always use fresh ingredients!

When cooking at high elevation, water boils at a lower temperature…oil too appears hotter than it really is.
When cooking at high elevation, water boils at a lower temperature…oil too appears hotter than it really is.
Flip’s Backcountry Fish & Hushpuppies
Flip’s Backcountry Fish & Hushpuppies

When camping in the high country, where the only cooking option is a small backpacking stove and pan, a couple of go-to trout cooking styles are fried and blackened. Cajon-style blackened is easy and quite tasty along with some long-grain wild rice. Heat the pan hot, coat the trout with butter (the little KFC butter packets work well and will not spoil on a backpacking trip) then generously lay on your Creole seasoning. Cook until blackened on both sides. A southern-style fish fry requires packing in a cup of oil – hot oil such as peanut – which adds a bit more weight to your load. Coat the fish with a mixture of fry, breadcrumbs, crushed frosted flakes, and panko then place in hot oil. A great addition to this is hushpuppies. Bring the mix that only requires water, then add chopped green onion and Serrano peppers, and spoon into the oil with the fish. Did I say always use fresh ingredients? Packing in fresh ingredients doesn’t add that much weight to your load in the grand scheme of things – priorities.

The Likely General Store, Modoc County
There is more than meets the eye at the Likely General Store.

Maybe you are now inspired to load up the backpack and head to Patterson Lake, or maybe you’re hungry for some trout…hopefully both. A little nugget: If staying a night at one of the campgrounds adjacent to the wilderness trailheads, the Likely General Store offers local, ranch grown, grass-feed beef. Tri-tips, steaks, hamburger and even all-beef hot dogs! This beef is perfect for cooking up outdoor style in one of the trailhead campgrounds. Wilderness permits are not required for overnight stays within the South Warner Wilderness but you will need a valid campfire permit for use of fires or stoves. Sign the trailhead registry, plan well, be safe, and have fun catching those rambunctious, pole bending mountain trout.

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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