Friday, August 6, 2010

The Epic 2010 Native Road Trip Part 2 - The Southern Sierras

After going 2 for 2 in New Mexico and Arizona, it was off to California with hopes of completing the California Heritage Trout Challenge.

We left the Apache stream at 11:00 AM and when we crossed into California later in the afternoon, the car thermometer read 115 degrees...but they say it's a "dry heat".

We pulled into the KOA at Lake Isabella just after dark. I didn't have a reservation because I wanted our schedule to be flexible. They were out of tent sites so they gave us an RV site, which meant no tent pad. I wasn't going to bend my tent spikes trying to drive them into "concrete" so I decided to sleep in the vehicle. Before I called it a night, there were more important items to take care of - like the first shower in over three days!

The next day we were up before the sun with the goal of collecting the first two species of our CHTC - the Kern River rainbow and the Little Kern Golden. We had to then make it back to Lone Pine to get our backcountry permit prior to the USFS office closing.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the back roads were paved, which made for making good time.

We made it to our first location in right at an hour of driving and within minute we both had our first species in the CHTC, the Kern River rainbow (Onchorhynchus mykiss gilberti).

Not the biggest specimens, but they count:

A short drive on up the road and we were on the stream of our next species, the Little Kern Golden trout. I took the first hole, a culvert hole just below the road and I had me next species, the Little Kern Golden (Onchorhynchus mykiss whitei):

My partner caught two very nice specimens in "pot holes" in the meadow section above the road. After briefly exploring above the meadow, we decided to head back downstream. We both picked up several more fish before calling it a day on the west side.

I think it was only about 9:30 AM when we finished our first two species of the challenge - and 4 for 4 total on the trip.

This is where I actually realized the great size of California. We were just going from above the Johnsondale Bridge to Lone Pine, not that far on the map, but a 3-hour drive.

We made it to the USFS visitor's station in plenty of time, then the big question: did they have any of the 16/day walk-in permits for Cottonwood Pass remaining? They did, and they also informed us we had to have a bear canister - we didn't but, luckily, they also rented them.

Permit in hand; we stopped at a pizza joint in Lone Pine to carbo load in preparation for our hike into Big Whitney Meadows. I also had to mentally prepare myself for the drive into Cottonwood Meadow. What an insane road that turned out to be and no guard rails!

I survived the white-knuckle ride into Cottonwood Meadow campground - just don't look down. Once at the campground, we quickly set up camp and headed for Cottonwood Creek for the first "true" California golden trout of my life.

This little guy did not count toward the CHTC, as Cottonwood Creek is not in the California golden's native range. He didn't count but he sure was pretty!

Being a few yards from the campground, these guys obviously see some pressure, as they were very skittish. I did manage to pick up five or six of these little guys, though.

Nathan caught a couple too and he met his first marmet, who called the Cottonwood Meadow home.

We didn't fish long, we had work ahead of us tomorrow and we were in our tents for the night by 6:30 PM.

We were up and packing our gear by 5:00 AM. A cup of coffee, a granola bar and we were on the trail shortly after 6:00 AM.

This trip has been one of my life bucket list items for quite some time; I couldn't believe I was actually going to check this one off!

The hike to Cottonwood Pass (11,000 feet) was tough, but not as bad the hike into gila trout water. Once you reach the pass, you still have over four miles of downhill and flat hiking remaining.

After 3.5 hours of hiking, we set up camp just inside a grove of trees on the north end of Big Whitney Meadow, with a great view overlooking Golden Trout Creek.
Once camp was set up, it was time to hit the creek in search of species number three of the CHTC. It didn't take long to add the California Golden trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita) as the third species in the challenge - first pool.

I could have taken photos of every fish I caught (nearly every cast), as these fish are the most beautiful trout I have ever seen!
The photos do not do these fish justice, the golden hues were nothing compared to the neon orange bellies!
Another amazing feature of Golden Trout Creek is the number of fish in this stream. Watch this video of four or five drifts, with strikes on every drift.

I also had to take a photo with my Vandalia bamboo. This rod has landed several native salmonids!

After catching goldens on nearly every cast, it was time for lunch and a nap. On the way back to the creek, after our break, we started checking out the small trickles that feed Golden Trout Creek - there are goldens in there too!

This guy came from a trickle not much wider than my hand.

Another example of how many fish were in this valley: check out the video of Nathan catching a golden from one of these trickles on the first drift.

As we fished through the afternoon we noticed heavy smoke filling the valley and a heavy smell of smoke. By mid-afternoon we could not see the peaks at either end of the valley. Had my legs not been "rubber" from the hike in we would have packed up and made this a day trip.

We were signed it at the ranger station, we figured if the fire was close we would have been asked to head out by any of the rangers that had vehicles parked at the trailhead. We talked about moving camp to the base of the vertical, in case we had to make a fast exit, but we stayed put. It was a late evening for us this day; we turned in about 7:30 PM.

The next morning we woke to the sound of coyotes yipping at each other across the meadow. We also woke to crystal clear skies - the smoke had moved out.

As much as I hated to leave this location, it was time to pack up and head out. We were on the trail before 7:00 AM again and the climb to Cottonwood Pass was again tough. I was still recovering from the hike in. I motored along pretty good on the flat sections of the trail but struggled a bit on the uphill, particularly once we reached the 11,000 pass.

I did survive though!

From here it was all downhill back to Cottonwood Meadows.

The hike out was just a bit longer (time) than the hike in, which I was pleased with. After relaxing for a few minutes, it was back down the white-knuckle road to Lone Pine.

I survived this drive again - Nathan videotaped the entire ride down.

We dropped the bear canister off at the USFS office, then headed north on Rt 395 to Bishop. We had another great pizza in Bishop! We toss'em, they're awesome!

At this point we were 5 for 5 and from Bishop it was on north toward the central Sierras and the next couple of legs on our trip, including a day of rest in Yosemite National Park.



Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this - I am about to take the same trip with my 12-year-old son, in the first week of September. Can't wait to get out there.

Wolfy said...


I can't begin to thank you enough for your entire blog and these posts.

Like you I have a passion that revolves around the species and sub-species of trout. For decades I've wanted to do what you're doing, but could never carve out the time. I'd pick up a species here and there but couldn't do the long trips you've done. Now, at 50, with rapidly declining knees and hips, I know that the long range hike-in trips are out of muy grasp.

But, through your great, detailed trip reports and photos, I can actually feel like I'm living my dream. The places you have gone are EXACTLY where I planned to go. The tiny streams are what I love. I know NO ONE else who would fly to Boise, drive to the Steens, sleep in their car, fish for a couple hours on the Donner und Blitzen to click off another sub-species. Except me and you

Keep up the great work

Davin said...

Hi Chris,

Great post, I love the golden trout creek golden pictures. Those are amazing fish. I just crashed an burned on my quest for little Kern goldens. Did you get those right at the confluence of the Kern and Little Kern?? I didn't think they were that far down



Chris S. said...

Wolfy and Davin,

I highly recommend you check out the link for Angler's Life List (on the right column of my blog). That site is nothing but native enthusiasts and plenty of knowledgeable folks if you decide you want to chase some of these guys.


Owl Jones said...

I hate you. :)