SIERRA NATIONAL FOREST — I’m standing in a pool of California’s rarest and most valuable commodity. Not a swimming pool, but one contained within a flowing river with actual current that fights against my every footstep and cold enough to cause temporary leg numbness.
Yes, I know. As a semi-responsible member of the media, it’s practically my duty to present a gloomy picture of our state’s four-year drought. I’m supposed to tell you there’s zero snowpack and the Sierra is so parched it makes the swamps of Louisiana look like the Gobi Desert.
Except it’s not. There is water out here. Precious little, to be certain, but enough for the fish. And enough for humans to go fishing.
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Gotta admit I had my doubts when we parked next to the Wishon Reservoir dam and peered into a half-empty lake that in normal snowpack years would be filled to the brim, especially in late spring.
But fly fishing guide Jimmie Morales insists otherwise and leads three of us on a downhill hike below the dam to the North Fork of the Kings River. Besides me, our group includes experienced fly fishers Bob Scheidt of Fresno and Nathan Cook of San Jose. The route isn’t straightforward because we have to avoid sections that are contained within granite gorges and require swimming.
We make our way down granite outcrops and through manzanita brush to where the terrain flattens out, hearing the river before we actually see it. When it finally comes into view, the scene looks surprisingly normal. The river looks like … well, a river.
“It flows every day, and it’s the same right now as it will be in July,” Morales says. “Nothing’s going to change.”
Nothing’s going to change, because the North Fork of the Kings is a tailwater fishery. Meaning the inflow is completely controlled by dam releases. And the folks who operate these dams (in this case PG&E) are required as part of their federal licensing agreements to provide minimum flows for fish all summer long. It’s also mandated by the California Fish and Game Code.
And not just here. The same holds true on the South Fork of the San Joaquin River below Florence Lake, Mono Creek below Lake Edison, Helms Creek below Courtright Reservoir and many other places throughout our region.
Water from the North Fork in the Kings flows into Pine Flat Lake, which eventually ends up in some farmer’s orchard. So it’s not like any goes to “waste.”
The conditions are prime for fishing, and I can hardly contain my excitement. Before wading in, however, Morales issues a warning.
“When you get near the water, be careful,” he says.
Why? So I don’t fall in and drown?
“No, so you don’t spook the fish,” Morales replies. “If you’re going to drown, drown downstream.”
Because wild trout are the most skittish of creatures, stealth is critical. They typically face upstream, against the current, so their mouths are positioned to gobble any insects or nutrients that happen to float by.
So instead of just wading in, we approach from behind in a low crouch so as not to cast a shadow that would make the fish react like there’s an osprey swooping down. About 12 feet below a promising riffle, it’s time to put my meager casting skills to the test.
Using one of Scheidt’s hand-tied flies designed to mimic a carpenter ant, I raise the rod above my head and gently cast forward. The idea is to let the line gently unfurl so the fly lands with the minimum of splash — and hopefully upsteam of your intended target.
Fly fishing in small rivers and creeks is almost completely visual. You have to see where the fly lands, follow as it floats along and anticipate the strike. Timing is everything.
I cast and suddenly there’s a flash of silver. Time to set the hook — and fast. I raise the rod above my head, but too late. The fish skitters away. This happens a couple times before I finally get the timing down.
One aspect of fly fishing I enjoy most is you don’t sit in one place. Make a few casts into a promising looking spot, then move on to the next. You spend a lot of time wading through moving water and clambering over slickened boulders.
In all, I catch 10 fish, a combination of rainbows and browns. (At one point, I nab three on consecutive casts.) None are larger than 8 inches, and all get released unharmed back into the river. The use of barbless hooks makes their removal from the fish’s mouth a whole lot easier.
It takes us most of the day to cover about a mile, and everyone is catching. This river holds plenty of fish, as well as surprising amount of water. Well short of the amount needed to satisfy the requirements of a thirsty state, but enough to keep the fish — and fishing — alive.
Yes, even during this drought.
“Too bad there’s no water out here,” one of us remarks during the hike out.
“Yeah, and no fish,” someone adds.
“Dry as a bone,” I reply, still sloshing in waterlogged boots.