Fly fishing the John Muir Trail

Just take three steps, stop and breathe.The hymn I sang to myself climbing Mount Whitney. Having set off into Owens Valley, just 7,000 feet earlier, the backpack, fully loaded with food and flight gear for a week, was getting heavier with each step.

The trail came to a T. I could either turn right and tag the summit, or head left and down in elevation to a lake stocked with the Sierra Nevada’s most prized treasure for the backpacker, the golden trout. With months of planning, I swallowed the pain and took the exit right on the ramp to the top of Whitney.

With my three steps, stop and breathe, this beat took me to my first 14,000 foot peak. My backpack was lifted off my shoulders and my breathing began to hitch. My gaze went to the guitar-shaped lake and the ripples the golden trout were making on the surface, like sound waves for any cast I’d bump into.

Once down and on the lakeshore, the 7’6” weight joined. With a small stream flowing into it, the turbidity and movement of color in the water was literally like panning for gold.

Flashes of gold came out of the lake and up the stream. Colors so vivid their kaleidoscope of patterns could be seen even by the color blind. And with the constant buzz of mosquitoes flying around my face and ears, I knew what pattern to start with.

Sierra mosquitoes are notorious. At no stage of the path are you free from the burden of these vampires. But the nuisance is a blessing in that trout are eager to drink from the surface. With my 6X tippet now threaded, subtle casts at 10,000 feet were producing quality fish. Cast after cast, the lightning bolt of golden light came at my feet.

The next day it boasted a frost-covered tent with the screeching and growling of a marmot. With camp packed after a cup of coffee and instant oatmeal, I hit the trail. The agenda for the day was to reach the base of Forester Pass. At 13,200 feet, it’s a granite wall that no president could ever build. But like any wall, they can either fall or scale. The Forester is the one that needed climbing.

The road takes you to the Bighorn Plateau. The plateau had small bodies of water which were a welcome sight after walking most of the day. A rushing stream looked fishless until a moose-hair jig was tied on and the 10-inch goldie splashed out of the hand. Further up the creek, the deeper and slower moving water had fish pooled in pools jumping at anything thrown their way.

It was early afternoon and a few passing clouds made sure to make their presence known. Advice from a climber told me never to climb and never make a pass between four and six in the afternoon. Even when the forecast calls for nothing, the possibility of thunder and lightning is always present. With a small lake off the trail, the tent went up easily and my weary eyes lay at 11,900 feet. The highest camp I have ever done.

Morning beckoned with blue skies and orange bursting through the remaining peaks like the high beams of a car on a building. With coffee and a heavy breakfast, my body was fueled and ready to face the pass. The road seemed not only impossible but non-existent. To my disbelief, a small cut in the granite made a passage and a trail meandered up to it.

Two hours later, I reached the pass and in that instant I knew I was going for it and embarking on possibly the most delightful fishing trip I’ve ever taken.

Descending in height from the neck, it was a struggle to see the legs with the peaks rising up on either side. Almost as if I had stepped into Pandora, cascading streams tumbled down from melting alpine snow and into half-frozen lakes. From the lakes, streams flowed and continued to distant meadows. In a meadow, the creek formed into what I thought was the best fishing on the trail.

One particular stream had one of the healthiest populations of golden trout on the trail. Almost every cast yielded an eager trout. With only a handful of miles walked and a steady stream of trout eager to bend the rod, a pitched night at camp beckoned.

Further down the creek, I found one of the strangest species of fish in the sierra, a golden rainbow hybrid. Lower in altitude, different species came to hand. In fact, this stream is one of the few streams where an angler can catch a “Sierra Grand Slam”: golden, rainbow, brook and brown trout. But the slow meandering descent of streams and trails can only last so long before the hill starts up again, and Glen Pass made its presence known.

Passes in the sierra are kind of like a game of dominoes. Once you climb over one, you tend to keep knocking down the rest. With Forester Pass being the highest point, the rest of the passes get smaller and smaller, but that doesn’t mean they get any easier.

Along the north side of the Glen, you are greeted by the Rae Lakes and the most stunning scenery along the trail. Granite runs to the horizon and rocky cliffs to sit on top of the lake and spot the fish. Brook trout swim the shoreline. They wait to lie in wait and strike with a 3-month famine verisimilitude.

The slow wind coming down from Rae Lakes gave me the opportunity to fish the flow and a chance for a few on the way to the next pass. A suspension bridge marks the elevation change and I climbed up again.

Pinchot is the next target. The trail followed a stream, tempting the tastes of the most stubborn anglers. But in the four and six o’clock storms, thunder and lightning began and showed an impenetrable wall. So the tent was pitched and pitched for the next day on Pinchot.

On the descent from Pinchot, I was greeted with blue for days. Streams ran down the trail like a stream from a faucet, and the animals ran free as if they had been released from a cage. The pika, the marmot and the deer ran as if they were there for the first time visiting with a human. Sadly of all creatures, the trout remained silent as if in no need of rescuing from their natural aquarium. A lake invited me in with an epic patch of grass to rest and enjoy lunch, however the trout looked well fed.

The reward after the next pass and the next day was a lake with an abundance of golden trout, but also one of the most beautiful descents of the whole tail. Palisade Lake offered trout teeming with life, attacking anything thrown at them.

After landing, Meadow signaled the space and area to throw. It was this big open space with random rocks. A nice break to reset the cycle in my daily quest from one pass to the next. Follow another river path to the next attempt.

The path name approach was the hardest to get through. But upon reaching the goal and seeing the hut, relief washed over me, and the trail was all down hill to the rest of the fished water.

I set up camp near Evolution Lake within the pond of the same name and cast the golden trout. On almost every Adams parachute cast there was a fish eager to strike.

Tucked under the pine canopy, a stream trickled out of the pond. Every fish hooked on the dry fly brought questions about what was hooked. In one place a golden rainbow hybrid came to hand. Just downriver, rainbow and a brook trout. And if the trail had continued further downstream, brown trout would surely have come within reach. But camping under the trees was a relief to finally get a good night’s rest without worrying about thunder and lightning.

The drive up Selden Pass was stressful. It was midday and the clouds were gathering for what looked like an explosion of unimaginable proportions. At the mouth of the stream, in the small part of the cascade, goldfish were flowing. After a few jumps, the trail dropped and the arrival of the Vermillion Valley Ranch made even the most thirsty of backpackers salivate and a great place for a new supply.

The trail does nothing but climb from the VVR, but with every pool and riffle in the creek, a goldie is waiting. Some pools were difficult to reach, while others not only invited a cast, but a dip to cool off from the warm summer heat at altitude.

During the next crossing, there are a number of lakes to choose from. However, like a dividing line, the Silver Passage almost marked the change of species. Rainbow and brook trout dominated the landscape. Trout attack with passion any dry fly I seem to hook.

Lake Virginia was sleeping like a dog at the door waiting to go out for a walk. The wind was howling and the conditions didn’t seem right for a dry fly, so the woolly air was tied. To this day I still have nightmares of the lake, not being able to land a fish.

With Red’s Meadow and Mammoth Lakes on the horizon, Purple Lake provided a calling card to spot fishing for big rainbows. Later I cast out with a deer hair and some fly twitches, a burst of water with the appearance of seeing the big rainbow arrow out of nowhere.

After a re-supply at Mammoth Lakes, Banner Peak was the next stunning peak reflecting on a lake with bays and deep sections for trout. With such a photogenic landscape, I had trouble setting the hook as I was distracted by the granite. But like anywhere else you miss a fish, there will be a chance on the second cast.

Continuing ever north, Donahue Pass is the gateway and border to Yosemite National Park. Below the pass, the infamous Tuolomne Meadows climb with the Lyell River flowing toward the general store and eventually the trailhead.

The John Muir Trail is a knee fitness plan unlike any gym trainer can recreate. The trout are the residents, while we are guests only a few months a year. With high altitude and fitness levels required for access, there are few places like it that require such a rigorous test to even have the chance to jump. And because of that, it will remain one of the most unique and stunning fishing spots on the planet.

Article and photo by Sean Jansen, an avid angler and writer based in Bozeman, Montana. Follow along with his adventures at @jansen_journals.

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