Approaching a remote trio of headwater lakes nestled near massive Conness Glacier, my son, Jason, and I paused to catch our breath in the thin air. Despite the previous winter’s heavy snowpack, we managed to scramble cross-country and traverse an exposed ridgeline to reach these lofty lakes and a chance at their glamour prize — the golden trout. Gazing down at the first lake, set like an azure jewel amid white polished granite, a pair of rise forms kept our hearts racing.
During our two-hour session, we stealthily prospected tiny beadhead nymphs through lake and connecting creek structure, releasing over a dozen cookie-cutter, 6- to 8-inchers. Stunningly attired in vivid lemon yellows and flaming orange, each set the crystalline water ablaze as they battled against 7X tippet.
What was truly amazing, however, was that we were a mere 40-minute climb from the trailhead, an almost unheard of short jaunt for pursuing this glittering prize!
This particular late-July morning found us on a boulder-strewn bench tucked between Mt. Conness (12,556 feet) and North Peak (12,256 feet) plying the remote Conness lakes, which make up a segment of concentrated waters known as the Twenty Lakes Basin. Snow and ice melt from these jagged spires, plus other lesser sentinels, creates a series of 20 stillwaters just outside Yosemite National Park’s northern boundary. Tucked between 10,200-11,000 feet amid stark granite and stunted, sub-alpine timber, these high-elevation waters not only provide the basin’s moniker but varying angling options as well. A half-dozen of these nestled in the Hoover Wilderness drain through Saddlebag and Ellery lakes and into Lee Vining Creek while 14 feed Lundy Lake through the Mill Creek drainage.
According to Curtis Milliron, a Department of Fish and Game (DFG) fisheries biologist specializing in backcountry trout, brook trout are the dominant species throughout this lofty drainage with rainbow, Lahontan cutthroat and golden present in selected lakes. In addition to planted rainbows and native brookies, nearby Saddlebag Lake holds a small population of brown trout — further enhancing the possibility of a Sierra Slam!
For the most part, basin trout remain self-sustaining, the progeny of initial stockings from years past. However, goldens and cutthroat numbers are occasionally bolstered by fingerling air plants with the DFG managing both species under a put-and-grow philosophy. “Recent surveys indicate 7-10 inches as the normal size range, with individual specimens approaching 12-14 inches fairly common.”
The gateway to the Twenty Lakes Basin is 339-acre Saddlebag Lake, which presents two avenues of backcountry entry. One is an hour-long hike along the eastern bank of the lake; the other via a 15-minute water taxi ride, which brings visitors to the north shore of the lake where an 8-mile trail loop begins.
Most of the target waters, which are between 4- to 15-acres in size, sit one-half to 3 miles from the trailhead. From here, the easily-negotiated trail with minimal altitude gain connects the majority of the lakes with many others attained by gentle, cross-country routes. Towering, snow-pated peaks and contrasting reddish-brown slopes across the canyon reveal the juxtaposition of geologic forces.
I find the counter-clockwise pathway gets me to more productive waters quicker. However, I don’t attempt to fish all of the lakes in one trip, instead dividing them into manageable day-hike destinations.
Milliron believes that the combination of nutrients and spawning habitat often dictates the type of fishery to be expected.
The residents of Hummingbird, Helen, Shamrock, Little Steelhead and Conness #1 and #2 are blessed with abundant spawning habitat, but produce excessive numbers of stunted 5- to 7-inch specimens. On the other hand, Wasco, Potter, Excelsior, Greenstone and Steelhead have limited spawning to match an adequate food supply and generally contain slightly larger 8- to 10-inchers. Cascade, Towser, Conness # 3 and O’Dell are rockbound with minuscule recruitment and house small numbers ranging up to 12 inches or more on occasion. “Thinner densities usually equate to larger fish,” he explained.
While brook trout co-exist with goldens at Helen, Excelsior, Potter and Cascade lakes, they are the sole inhabitants of Hummingbird, Twin, Shamrock, Z, Wasco and Little Steelhead. Expansive Steelhead and Greenstone lakes contain a mix of brookies, cutthroat and rainbows, whereas Cascade, Towser, Potter, Conness 1-3 and O’Dell pose solid choices for goldens.