Peninsula Fly Fishers

The Higher - The Fewer. A tail of there and back again over Shepherd's Pass

November 19, 2011 7:18 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

The Higher - The Fewer
A tail of there and back again over Shepherd’s Pass

By Gary Trott and Tony Plutzinsky                                                September 17, 2011   

Every trip to the mountains has its own unique character or singular experience that creates a memory that lasts forever. The trip over Shepherd’s pass trail this year in search of golden trout was no exception. Rosy colored memories of the prior year's experience where a large golden trout broke the leader with a swish of a gigantic tail obliterated any memory of the long and grueling hike over the pass.  

Those who possess a long memory and broad life experience may recognize the answer to the riddle question of why the mouse spins in the article title. This trip was no exception as we embarked with one of the most experienced backpacking PFF members. Tony planned to greet the arrival of his 75th birthday by celebrating it in conversation with a large golden trout at the end of his fishing line. Oh, please may I have the same strength of youth when I am that old. The Higher – The Fewer

We started the trip the night before by leaving the bay area in the early afternoon. We planned an overnight stay for just east of Yosemite to sleep at a high elevation. In mid-September we expected clear sailing. Unfortunately, the traffic out of the bay area was excessive. We arrived late on the eastern slopes of Yosemite only to discover everyone else also thought it should be a quiet time in the mountains. Consequently, all the official campsites were all full. Finally we just parked at the side of a road with access to a meadow and crashed into our sleeping bags for the night. Much to our surprise the morning arrived with a thick layer of frost provided by the elusive Jack. At our target destination near Mt. Whitney the temperatures we expected were 35-65F. We were prepared for freezing temperatures but they were not expected so soon. Rising early to get breakfast and a permit at Bishop we were finally at the Shepherd’s Pass trailhead at 10:30am

                 Figure 1. The first ridge rises from the desert floor

The majestic rise of the eastern Sierras from the 6000 ft desert environment to touch the clouds can only be understated as – impressive in the morning sunlight. Slowly, comprehension of the arduous task ahead sunk in as we realize the Front Range hides a taller summit behind it. Shepherd’s pass trail has the reputation of being long, steep, hot, and difficult. The trailhead is the desert at 6200 ft and it finally crests at 12000 ft. In the beginning it starts with a warm up of 55 switch backs to reach a saddle at 9000ft for a breather. Then a teaser descends 500 ft before the accent begins again in earnest. After seven hours with a week’s food plus more, weighting our backs, we prayed for the last switched back turn as our feet plodded on, one slow foot step at a time, toward Anvil camp. After 7 hours of increasingly more enfeeblement we reached Anvil camp at 10000 feet. There were no complaints about the early fall sunsets as we ate supper quickly and fell into the exhausted sleep of the dead for a long night of rest.

The next morning we woke refreshed ready to go. We scampered up Shepherd’s pass. It was surprising how little snow was on the pass given the large amount of snow we all experience in northern California mountains. We paused at the top long enough to see the small golden trout jumping in the morning sun at Tyndall Lake. In the azure blue of a mountain glacier we watched the floating icebergs, and were enthralled by the long mountain views.

                 Figure 2. Sunlight on an ice berg. Tyndall Lake

Shepherd pass at 12000 ft was where we saw our last person for five days. But following the spirit of The Higher; The Fewer we crested the next 12000ft pass on our cross country sojourn before lunch. Driven by the fever of anticipation to engage large golden trout we chartered our course by wind and the sun to the designated campsite.

But a first time cross country path, “short cut”, is always fraught with unexpected obstacles --- like a boulder field. Some wanted to go around high, some wanted to go around down and low, some did not know which way to go. Thus it was another long day before we all made it safely to our designated base camp 9 hours later.

The next morning, I knew our penance to the mountain gods had been rewarded. I stopped at a beautiful small water fall. It is a delightfully peaceful place in the morning sun, and at 11,500 ft a necessary resting spot. Also, it is a good place to gear up. On my first cast I managed to avoid the 8” and 10” golden trout dogging my fly to end up with a nice fat, 12” golden trout. After a short exposure to the electronic celluloid it was quickly returned to the water. That encounter in the early morning sunshine, was a portent to a beautiful day conversing with many large golden trout

                    Figure 3. Golden trout schooling under the falls

We spent the next couple of days exploring all of the lakes in the basin. My GPS says I explored 10 lakes and covered over 10 miles of high altitude country side. I even visited the highest fishable lake in California at 13000ft.  Fishable is somewhat of a misnomer. It was surrounded by a glacier of penitent snow. I noticed the glacier ice shelf extended out over the water. Not wanting to end up on my own private iceberg chapel, I refrained from visiting the waters edge.

No lake was too small and no creek was left unexplored. I did observe that the creeks offered an excellent location to practice catching skills. The hoards of small golden trout were ready to pounce on any moving object regardless of the skill displayed by the fishing person

Figure 4.  Majestic escarpments in the morning sun rise from the calm water. While in the afternoons small golden trout, too numerous to count, were dancing on the waters surface

While I was exploring the high mountain lakes and creeks with a fly rod I felt like I could see forever over the horizon. I remember falling asleep in conversation with a babbling brook (almost like home?) in the warm afternoon sun, dreaming of golden trout on the fly, with far away vistas to the ends of the earth.

But back to the quest, below is an example of a 15 inch wild golden trout that elected to show himself to the camera. Afterwards it was quickly released back into the water. It was only one of many others, most of whom were returned to the water.

                           Figure 5. Golden Trout 15 inches

After multiple days and multiple meals of golden trout in foil, we migrated over to a nearby basin for further exploration. Along the trail we did pass a couple of people. These were the first people we had seen since Shepherd’s pass. Again, when we got to the target basin there were no people. There were many lakes, some reputed to contain small golden trout. But the only answer we got to the various fly presentations was from some nice mountain rainbows. They fought and jumped like fish twice their size.

                           Figure 6. Rainbows for dinner

The weather for mid-September was forecast to be mild and sunny. However on the last evening the red sky suggested a significant change was in the air.

               Figure 7. Far away sunsets and fresh flowers trailside

On the day of departure we were up early and watched the sun light up some large cumulus clouds as we packed. From the vantage point of 11,000 ft it seemed as if we could almost reach up and touch those large puffs of cotton candy. Knowing the low clouds represented a lot of moisture in the air we quickly headed out over the passes. The expectation of a future thunder storm was high.

Indeed we encountered stormy sleet, traveling sideways in the wind, interspersed with peels of thunder rattling down the canyons on the way out. Given the sleet, the wind chill must have been well below freezing. But by then we had crossed the passes and were on the downhill slope to the car. As we descended back into the desert, the howl of the wind was relegated to the high recesses of the mountain crevasses. Lower down, along the trail the fresh rain had caused some of the late fall flowers to bloom one last time before the snowy, white blanket of winter descends for the season.

As always, it was a trip to be remembered. We explored high mountain drainage basins, laced with golden trout without another person in sight.  We saw massive peaks reflected in the still waters of the morning sun, and shared far away evening sunsets with friends. Best of all, we left plenty of large golden trout behind for a future return engagement.



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