Outdoors – Fly Fishing the High Sierra

By Shane Reynolds,
Outdoor Recreation Director,
The Clubs of Cordillera Ranch

I must admit I get a bit giddy anytime I write about the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Having lived in Southern California for 12 years, I was blessed with the ability to visit almost every trailhead in this majestic mountain range south of Yosemite.

The Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, also known as the Range of Light by naturalist John Muir, runs north to south for 400 miles and 70 miles east to west. There are three National Parks within its boundaries, Yosemite in the north and Sequoia and Kings Canyon in the south. The Sierra is also home to Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America, as well as twenty National Wilderness Areas and two National Monuments.

One of the special things about working at Cordillera Ranch is getting to travel with our club members and introducing them to some of the great outdoor recreation opportunities in this wonderful country of ours. When a few members asked  me about doing something special this summer, I spoke to them about visiting the high country of the Sierra Nevada. For most people who live, work and play here in Texas, the alpine setting of a high mountain range is usually only a passing thought. The further I explored their interest of fly fishing and visiting the mountains, I focused in on an area I’ve visited many times with both groups and by myself, the eastern slope of the Sierra just south of Mt. Whitney. Mt Whitney, at 14,505’, is the highest point in the contiguous United States and just to the north, south and west of this majestic peak are hundreds of high alpine lakes full of trout.

For the avid fly fisherman a trip into the high country is not generally what comes to mind. But I can assure anyone who ever questions whether it’s worth the work to get there, I would answer absolutely yes! It’s not an easy task by any means. For us Texans who live at or near sea level, a trip to the high country means preparing one’s self for both a mentally and physically demanding trip.

As our group prepares for this summer adventure, there are several things we will do to ensure all are prepared and have the right expectations on what to look forward to. The logistics for this trip include a flight from San Antonio to Los Angeles International Airport. Once in Los Angeles, we’ll load our gear into a rental van and head north, making three stops along the way. One stop is for groceries, which will include backpacking gourmet meals made from fresh ingredients. As a back country guide for the past twenty three years I have learned that there are fewer things more enjoyable than a great meal at the end of a long day in the mountains. Our second stop will be at a local backcountry store to pick up fuel for my backpacking stoves, which you cannot fly with, and our California fishing license. Our third and final stop will be in the eastern Sierra where we pick up our backcountry permits.

From there we head to our trailhead in the eastern Sierra just outside of Lone Pine, California. The trailhead where we spend our first night, Horseshoe Meadows, is located at 9,698’ above sea level. Our first night is spent here to acclimatize our bodies to the altitude. If you have never been at this altitude you will be short of breath just walking across a parking lot with no backpack on. We’ll pitch camp and settle down around a campfire on night one simply getting used to the thin air. On day two we will lay out and distribute all the group gear and food for the trip. Each person in the group will be carrying anywhere from 25% – 40% of their body weight in a backpack. Although I teach minimum impact and lightweight packing, people who are not used to backpacking always bring too much gear. One of my favorite teaching methods I use is a pre-trip meeting where I lay everything I bring with me out on a tarp and let people see my gear. For some, they take note, but for most, they soon forget as they begin to cram pounds and pounds of unnecessary gear into their pack. Go light is my motto.

Our destination is Cottonwood Lakes basin. Cottonwood Lakes, located at the southern tip of the John Muir Wilderness, are home to California’s state fish, the Golden Trout. Cottonwood Lakes basin has many pristine lakes and creeks located between Mount Langley and Cirque Peak. Other lakes in the area we may choose to fish are Muir Lake, South Fork Lakes, Cirque, Long and High Lakes. From our basecamp in the Cottonwood Lakes basin, we’ll explore the rugged alpine setting in search of trout with fly rods in hand. The primary trout found in these waters are the California Golden trout and native Brook trout. Occasionally we’ll hook a Brown trout and there are a few types of hybrids. One of my favorite fly fishing quotes is from Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, who states “It’s not about catching the fish, it’s about the fish catching you.” This trip is sure to be a lasting memory for all who venture into the Sierra Nevada with us!

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