(MCT) — FRESNO, Calif. — Fall is officially here, with a shiver.
After months of sweltering temperatures in the valley, I awoke at 7,600 feet elevation to a strange and unfamiliar feeling:
Sure, it was nice and toasty inside my down sleeping bag. But the water bottle left overnight in my tent’s vestibule was partially frozen. Time to layer up and start the day.
Fall has always been my favorite season in the Sierra Nevada. The crowds are long gone and so, too, are the mosquitoes, although pesky meat bees still hang tough. Deciduous trees show their colors. Trout fishing is at its best. And with the sun tracing a lower arc across the sky, mountains, forests and meadows are bathed in soft, yellow light.
Fly fishing guide Jimmie Morales passes by a few scattered tree stumps and the slow trickle of Mono Creek on his way to the back end of Edison Lake to fish for German brown trout. Looming above are the Vermilion Cliffs.
It really is a great time to be outdoors.
My main reason for being up here was to target German brown trout in Edison Lake, which is currently at its minimum pool (5 percent capacity), thanks to last winter’s weak snowpack and Southern California Edison’s ramped-up hydroelectric production in September. I’m told the lake hasn’t been this low since the dam was built in the 1950s.
Last month, I wrote about the allure of catching a big brown trout from a kayak. But after two days of paddling, 16 inches was the best I could do.
Then I had the good fortune of running into Jimmie Morales, the fly-fishing guide who spends four weeks every fall at Mono Hot Springs running his Wild Trout Camp. On one of his rare free days, Morales invited me to join him on Mono Creek, primary fall spawning grounds for the Edison browns.
Saying “yes” took about a nanosecond.
Mono Creek is the primary inflow of Edison Lake, but this year just getting back there is a challenge as it involves plenty of hiking. But what a hike. Strolling on the dry lake bed, past sparsely spaced tree stumps, it’s not hard to imagine what this valley must’ve looked like before it was sacrificed in the name of “progress.”
With Edison Lake so low, I wondered whether Mono Creek still flowed into it. Of course it did. The creek was just a trickle at first. But as we neared the high-water mark, flows increased and larger pools started to appear. Morales began pointing out fish holding against the current, but all my untrained eyes saw were rocks and moving water.
Brown trout are known for their nervous, wary behavior and for not striking at anything that doesn’t resemble their natural food. You have to sneak up on them. And if the fish doesn’t bite on the first or second cast, forget about it.
“They’re extremely skittish, spooky fish,” Morales said. “Any movement, and they’re gone. Or they freeze up.”
After trolling the lake in a kayak, sight fishing in a creek using a dry fly with a single barbless hook was especially challenging. Just getting the fly to land in front of the fish required some skill. So did setting the hook. Pull up too soon, and you’ll yank the fly right out of the fish’s mouth.
Morales didn’t target every fish we came across, skipping females who were hovering over “redds” (spawning beds) and instead going after larger males. To protect the spawning browns, both Mono Creek and Cold Creek (which also feeds Edison Lake) were closed to fishing Monday—one month before the general statewide stream closure.
In all, Morales and I caught and released 13 brown trout in about five hours of fishing and hiking. (Yes, he caught most of them.) It’s such a thrill to see their distinctive black, red and orange spots glisten in the sunlight — always wet your hands first — and an even bigger thrill to let them go.
Not long ago, poaching was a big problem on Mono Creek as groups of greedy, lazy anglers dragged treble hooks and snagged browns by their gills. This practice isn’t just illegal, it’s pathetic. Fortunately, Morales said he hasn’t seen as much of that in recent years, although we did come across one toilet-paper strewn campsite.
All in all, it was the perfect fall day. Almost made me sad winter is just around the corner.