Rock Creek

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My First Trip to the Eastern Sierras and My Next

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  • As I sit here planning a trip to the Eastern Sierra next weekend for the 2017 trout opener, I can’t help but to think of my first trip nearly six decades ago as a 12 year old a guest of my cousin and his family.  Bob and Patty rode in the cab while their two daughters and I bounced around in the bed of the truck which was outfitted with a cab-high shell stuffed with camping gear and fishing tackle and topped with a mattress that we sprawled across and became an awkward tangle of arms and legs with each bump in the road.

    Although our destination was Rock Creek Lake, our route was a sightseeing roundabout through Yosemite before plunging down Tioga Pass to Lee Vining, then south on 395 to Tom‘s Place and finally Rock Creek Lake.  It was there that set up in a Forest Service campground that no longer exists, but at that time was nestled along Rock Creek along the edge of a large pool just below the lake’s outlet.  All of the other sites in the campground were downstream of us.

    By that time in my young life, I was pretty much a seasoned pro when it came to stream fishing for trout and I’d honed my skills on the many San Diego county streams that at that time were planted regularly with hatchery rainbows by the Department of Fish and Game.  My favorite was the San Luis Rey River below Lake Henshaw which had stretches in its lower reaches that I imagined as simply a smaller version of Rock Creek, aside from the fact that in addition to the hatchery rainbows the latter held small brook trout and a few browns.

    Although we fished Rock Creek Lake and several of the hike-in lakes, it was the creek itself and the large pool I could see from my sleeping bag that I dreamed of the most.  Being so close to our campsite we had the big pool to ourselves for an entire week.  Late in the morning and again in the evenings there would be a hatch of small mayflies that brought out the brookies which we went after with a Cast-a-Bubble for the presentation of tiny mosquito patterns which in addition to being the only flies we carried were just fine with the little brook trout.

    The hatchery rainbows in the stream had the same preferences as their San Diego brethren – a Colorado Spinner when you felt like using an artificial lure, but otherwise there was a single standby that everyone stood by – a gooey red orb from a jar of  Pautzke’s Green Label salmon eggs impaled to cover a #12 gold egg hook roughly 18 inches below a single lead BB shot.  If the current was swift a second or at most third split shot would do the trick, which was to have the egg bouncing slowing along the bottom as the current carried it downstream.  I would venture to say that this rig and combo has accounted for more stream planted rainbows in this state than any other, and as a cocky 12 year old, I figured I’d caught most of them myself.  Considerable testing  with Pautzke’s Red Label eggs and another brand called Sugaroe convinced me that no egg worked as well as those that came from the jar with the green label.

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  • The limit at the time was ten trout and I didn’t see much sense in catching all ten of them in the same spot, given a level of mobility and curiosity that kept me moving along the stream for a considerable distance.  Over time, even that became a little boring due in large part to the cookie cutter nature of the hatchery rainbows which made the fishing a little too predictable with fish that were pretty much identical to each other, save for the occasional brookie and the rare rainbow so small that it had to have been stream-bred.

    When I got tired of fishing and needed something else to occupy my dangerously idle mind, I began devising ways to catch the little food-thieving chipmunks (two-stripe ground squirrels) that presented a considerable challenge.  After some experimentation I came up with something as effective for catching the chipmunks as the salmon eggs were for catching trout – Oreo cookies!

    When we weren’t looking, the little thieves were into any food we left unattended and I think they ate more potato chips than I did on the trip.  As much as they liked the chips, it was clear they loved the crumbs from Oreo cookies they found on the picnic table even more, but darted away if we approached them.

    I rigged a trap comprised of an empty waxed cardboard milk carton, 4 pound test monofilament and the delicious cookies as bait.  I opened the top of the carton as wide as it would go and punched a hole in both sides.  I ran the line through one hole and then tied it off on the opposite hole.  When tightened the carton opening would close, not completely, but enough to contain the little miscreants.  With the carton laying on its side on the ground and the top mostly open, I scattered a few pieces of cookie on the ground and a few inside the carton.  I then ran the line over the limb of a pine tree and back into our tent where I hid and waited with my cousins.  It was not long before the little thieves found the “chum” that they spotted the bait and crawled inside the carton.  From my “blind” inside the tent, I pulled on the line with a jerk which closed the opening of the carton and hoisted it along with the chipmunk into the air to swing like a pinata below the limb.  The chipmunks were released, but not before my cousin decided that on our last day in camp we’d catch a few that he would take home for a vacant rabbit hutch in his backyard.

    After proving myself as a trapper I returned my attention to fishing and the beautiful pool we were camped next to.  On our next to last day, I wet-waded across the pool to explore it from the other side and recall that at one point I decided to crawl out on the trunk of one of two deadfall pines that extended into the pool.  As I did so, two large rainbows darted out from under the trunk of the second deadfall.  I knew that if I remained as quiet as possible, they would return, and they did, resting side by side in the current under the protection of the trunk where it was virtually impossible to drift a bait without losing everything in the branches.  They had the perfect lair and the tangle of line and lost gear made it clear they had the perfect lair.

    Unable to get my bait to them, I decided to drop an egg in the water to see how the trout would respond, and they reacted as I expected by leaving their position to eat the egg and return immediately to their safe haven under the log.  From my perspective of trying to land a fish, there was one “safe” spot a little upstream of my position with open water and little current, so I flipped my line into it and watched the rig settle to the bottom.  I then pulled a kid-sized handful of eggs out of the jar, tossed them out and watch as both fish charged ahead like twins fighting to collect the most eggs on Easter and sure enough, one of them was mine.  I set the hook and as the fish ran to the middle of the pool I eased off the branch and moved upstream a bit to the spot where I could safely land it.  After a good fight I flipped it up the bank and conked it on the head to prevent it from flopping back into the water.  With Twin #1 subdued, I returned to my perch on the dead fall and could see that Twin #2 had returned to its spot as well.  After re-baiting, I flipped my line to the dead spot in the pool, “salted” the area with another handful of eggs  and watched as the fish began picking them up as quickly as it could lest some interlopers come along.  As before, I watched as my egg entered its mouth and set the hook, but this time the fish tried to retreat to its hiding spot.  Along the way the line became caught on a branch so that I could see the fish which was almost directly below me struggling against the taut line.  My only chance to avoid losing it required getting the line free of the branch which I was able to do by dipping my rod deep into the water until I got the tip below the spot where the line was snagged on the limb – and it worked as the fish raced upstream!  In due time, it too was on the bank and given a solid rap on the head before it was placed next to the first fish.  They were indeed twins and big ones at that.  I found a small limb with a fork at one end, ran the other end under the gill flap and out the mouth of each of the comatose fish and waded back across the stream near the head of the pool where the frigid water was a little more shallow.

    Back in the campsite I deposited the fish in an ice chest full of much smaller fish and waited for Bob and his family to return from a hike.  When they arrived, I told Bob to take a look in the cooler and when he did he whooped, “Jimmy, did you catch those big fish?“

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  • His family gathered around as he took the oversized twins and a few of the other trout out of the cooler and lined them up on the table for comparison as I recounted the  story of my triumph.  The fish caught earlier all ran from about 10 to 12 inches, perfect pan-size.  At 18 inches in length and a much huskier girth that made them at least four or five times heavier than the others, the twins appeared gigantic by comparison.  The eyes of my cousins were wide and my smile was broad as we surveyed the lineup of trout on the table.

    A day later it was time to leave and at Bob’s request, I quickly trapped a quartet of chipmunks that he unloaded into a makeshift cage that would serve as their quarters until we returned to their Oak Park home where the chipmunks would live for several years in a rabbit hutch and spun a wheel so fast that it became a blur.

    I would not return to the Eastern Sierra until eight years later, but I have returned most years since as I know of no other place on earth that I find so beautiful and inviting .  It was the fond memory of that first trip 58 years ago that filled my mind and brought a smile to my face as I contemplated my next trip in just a few more days.

    Based on the 10-day forecast, opening weekend anglers headed to the Eastern Sierra for the 2017 trout opener can expect sunny skies with weekend highs in the 70’s and lows in the 40’s – but keep in mind that those temperatures are for Bishop which lies in the Owens Valley and is typically warmer than the surrounding mountain lakes and streams at higher elevations.

    The best source for visitor information year-round is the Bishop Chamber of Commerce which can be reached at (760) 873-8405 or info@bishopvisitor.com via email.  They also offer an informative website which can be found at www.bishopvisitor.com.

    Editor’s Note:  Please see Jim’s new post asking for your help as a follow-up to his coverage of the Sierra Opener for SDFish.  As an aside, he is now aware that chumming for trout is illegal and our legal counsel has advised that the statute of limitations for his crime as a juvenile delinquent 58 years ago has passed.

    About Author

    Jim Brown

    Jim Brown ran the San Diego City Lakes Program from 1974-2003, where he oversaw the operation of the fishing programs of the county's biggest and best fisheries. Over his 70 years as a native San Diegan, including 65 of them as an avid fisherman, Brown describes himself as someone who has fished most bodies of water in and around the county that hold fish, and all of those that don't.

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