Sequoia Trout Packin'
September 29, 2010
Fishing remote sections of the Golden Trout Wilderness, Sequoia National Park and the Mountain Home State Forest could be your ticket away from the crowds and into trout heaven. (July 2006)
The South Fork of the Kaweah River, just before entering into The Gorge.
Photo by Chris Shaffer.
For several decades, Tim Shew has made a living wandering remote sections of the Golden Trout Wilderness, Sequoia National Park and the Mountain Home State Forest. Shew has traveled across nearly every inch of the southern section of the park and western side of the wilderness area, always with a fly rod and spinning reel in hand.
The golden, brook and rainbow trout seem to know him by name.
But don't get the wrong idea. Shew isn't some millionaire with the time and resources to while away the hours twiddling his thumbs in the backcountry and admiring its beauty. One of the last remaining traditional packers on the West Coast, Shew owns Balch Park Pack Station, a guide service that transports fishermen and hunters into remote sections of wilderness, helping them create lifelong memories by dodging crowds to catch wild trout and laugh over meals prepared in Dutch ovens.
Pack trips fill the void for those not keen on 20-mile hikes, sore knees, aching backs and dry throats. Pack trips have been common in the Sierra for decades, but these vacations are often overlooked by anglers who stay out of the backcountry because they fear they aren't in good enough shape to hike over and through the rugged contours, or able to endure the demanding mileage and elevation increases of the Southern Sierra Nevada.
In this case, a horse does all the work for you. With pack animals carrying your gear and weight for you, partaking in a pack trip allows people of all ages to gain an experience that may not be attainable otherwise. It's an adventure that every angler should experience at least once in a lifetime.
What you will be pursuing at these elevations aren't normal trout, either. In fact, they differ greatly from the trout that backpackers are used to catching in the high country of the Eastern Sierra. Unlike those trout that are heavily targeted by anglers, these fish have seen more bald eagles, deer and black bears than they have fishermen.
Shew specializes in a style of trout fishing that most Californians aren't accustomed to. With the help of a team of horses and mules, Shew guides anglers into remote sections of Sequoia National Park to catch trout that don't know the difference between a human and other predators.
"You go into this remote area (of the Park) and you don't see any other people," Shew said. "There are no paper wrappers along the shore, cigarette butts or paths around the streams and lakes. When you get here, you might think there's never been anybody here before you. Then you go fishing and you catch a fish on every cast. It's an experience most people haven't experienced."
It's an experience that shouldn't be taken for granted.
This southwest corner of Sequoia National Park offers anglers a chance at river, stream and lake fishing, all close by. The main system is the South Fork of the Kaweah River, a water that carries the name "river," yet looks and acts like a stream. Tuohy Creek, a tributary to the Kaweah, provides excellent stream fishing, and Evelyn and Blossom lakes yield fantastic stillwater fishing.
"You can go pay to fish at a trout pond and not get the same experience that you get here," Shew added. "You aren't going to catch a big fish, but you can catch as many as you want."
The South Fork of the Kaweah River is unlike most waters the average California angler has fished. Tucked in a remote section of the park, the stream receives little to no fishing pressure. Part of the reason is that from November to as late as July in some years, snow keeps the river out of reach.
However, by late June trails begin to open, and the entire upper echelon becomes available to anglers. Unlike much of the Sierra, the South Fork is open to fishing all year. Below the 9,000-foot level (which nearly the entire South Fork is) anglers are limited to taking just two fish per day, with no gear restrictions. Barbed and barbless hooks may be used as well as bait, flies and artificial lures.
Due to the short growing season, trout are almost always feeding aggressively during the summer months and into the fall before snow closes the trail again. There is a noticeable competition for food among trout here. You may see several small rainbows or brooks chasing your lure at once.
"The streams are full of fish. If you can cast, you'll probably catch a trout," Shew added. "In fact, I feel confident that I could take someone that's never fished a day in their life and almost guarantee they'll catch fish."
UNMATCHED BEAUTY, UNMATCHED CHALLENGES
The fish, nonetheless, are just part of the experience. The trip takes you into a section of the park that's heavily dominated by pines and granite, and which hasn't been trampled over by humans. There are no paved trails, restrooms, trashcans or visitor centers. This is the true wilderness and it comes with unmatched beauty.
The South Fork Kaweah River is a small stream with varying contour. Meadows, slow-moving water and portions of small cascade-like areas mark the river's upper reaches. This portion of the watershed offers rainbows and brook trout, but most brookies run 6 to 8 inches. Don't plan on seeing many 10-inch trout up here.
Below the confluence of Tuohy Creek and the South Fork, you'll enter The Gorge. This is where the South Fork becomes a high-gradient stream. It's a 15-minute walk to the mouth of The Gorge from Tuohy Creek, but it might very well be the best-spent 15 minutes of your fishing life.
FISHING THE GORGE
Rainbow trout predominate in The Gorge. Small and large waterfalls, cascades, deep holes, pools, pocket water and lots of slick granite mark the area. While waders aren't necessary, a good pair of Teva, Chaco or Keen water sandals, or a pair of felt-soled wading boots will make life much more enjoyable. They are necessary to navigate the streambed, or else you'll end up in soggy hiking boots.
Another factor to consider is clarity. The water is gin-clear, which makes it necessary to avoid standing where the fish can see you. If you stand on the streambed as you would in the Eastern Sierra's planted streams, you'll spook every fish in the river. Use stealth and cover and concealment techniques and you'll catch more fish.
ou don't have to venture far into The Gorge to find success. The farther you hike, the more challenging it gets, but the fishing improves with the increased challenges. You'll be especially challenged if you go more than a half-mile down the contour, but that's where some of the best fishing can be found.
"You are going into holes that may not see fishermen in two or three seasons. Very few, if any, get down in that Gorge," Shew added. "You get any farther down below the bigger waterfalls, and you are going to places that don't see fishermen."
On the other hand, if you choose to embark on a short walk, you'll still be able to catch trout.
"It's one of those streams where you can go in The Gorge and catch some bigger fish, or you can take your 4- or 5-year-old kids and have them catch fish right near the campground," Shew said
The upper portion of the South Fork prior to entering The Gorge is ideal for folks who don't like to trample over dead trees, shrubs, through brush and rock-hop over boulders.
WHAT TO CAST
"It's a great place for people learning to fly-fish. You can get in the meadow and not have a problem casting. If you can get your fly to land in the water, you'll probably catch a fish," Shew said. "You don't have to be a great flyfisherman to catch fish."
Nor do you need specific patterns.
"Pretty much anything works," Shew said. "I'm partial to the natural-looking baits, but really almost any kind of fly will work."
Shew employs black ants, gnats and mosquito patterns. You don't need to be able to cast a fly to catch a quick limit. To be honest, most anglers could care less about fly-fishing up here. In fact, tossing small red and black, silver and gold Panther Martin or Blue Fox spinners will award you hookups on nearly every cast. Keep in mind that most of these fish will run 7 to 9 inches, but in the lower stretches of The Gorge, trout to 12 inches are attainable.
These are wild trout. No stocks have taken place in at least 20 years, if not longer. They come with vibrant colors and taste great in a frying pan.
FISHING EVELYN LAKE
Evelyn Lake is a good hike from base camp, which rests where the South Fork and Tuohy Creek meet. Chances are, if you fish Evelyn, you'll be the first to do so in at least a few weeks. Resting at 8,715 feet, Evelyn is a pretty lake with a five-fish limit. It's a great place to have a shore lunch.
"It will vary a little bit, but this past year I took maybe 15 people there, and I would assume that there might have been another five people the whole year that have been there," Shew said. "I've been at this for 27 years and I've only gone up there one time and not caught a fish. And the only reason that was, was because a low-pressure system came in and the temperatures dropped 20 degrees in the middle of the summer, and the fish went dormant for the day."
Evelyn fits both the angler who has never caught a fish and the guy who thinks he's the world's greatest angler.
"Hundreds of times I've gone up there fishing, and you catch as many as you want. It's unusual that you aren't going to be successful fishing up there," says Shew.
Evelyn is overpopulated with brook trout. Many of the fish are stunted. Don't feel bad about keeping some trout and eating them. It will help the population. Evelyn's brookies average eight to nine inches.
There isn't a bad place to try and catch them. You'll find them cruising the shorelines in search of food throughout the day.
"It's been good fishing ever since I've been up there. It's one of those lakes where you don't always catch 100 fish, but in the first 15 to 20 minutes you'll be able to catch your limit," Shew added. "Then a few of them smarten up to what you are doing."
From the campground, it's going to take a few hours on horseback or on foot to reach the Blossom Lakes. But it's worth the trip. As with many of these high-elevation waters, you can expect to run into nothing but brook trout here. It's likely you won't see any other anglers, either.
Blossom is situated between the South Fork of the Kaweah and Summit Lake, one of the southernmost boundaries of Sequoia National Park. The lakes range from 9,877 feet to 10,511 feet on the uppermost lake.
"The thing about Blossom is that the trail ends at the lower lake, and it's really good fishing. So no one ever has to walk to the other lakes to catch fish," Shew said. "Most people catch enough fish on the lower lake that they don't bother to go to the upper lake. I've had a guy that's been coming for 20 years and he's never bothered to leave the lower lake."
Part of the reason Blossom is so rarely visited is because it's off the beaten path.
"The trail goes three miles off the main trial and then dead-ends at the lake. A lot of hikers shy away from those types of trails because they want to stay a night and then keep going. They don't want to backtrack back to the main trail," explains Shew.
Fishing here should be called catching. Anglers are permitted to keep five trout per day here, though some National Park Service literature states that anglers may keep up to five additional trout per day here. The best bet is to call the NPS and ask: (559) 565-3768.
"It's not hard to catch fish," added Shew. "It's a great place to take kids. You can catch 100 fish, one every cast. If you can get a bait in the water, you are going to catch fish."
Blossom Lakes may only look like a few lakes on the map. But there are actually more than a half-dozen lakes early in the season. When snowmelt occurs, many small lakes form, throwing anglers off in most cases. Only a few of these waters harbor trout. Look for the larger, deeper waters to yield the best action.
"It's like a 15-lake cluster. Some of the lakes are just wide spots in the drainage, but there are about four other lakes above the lower lake that hold fish. I've caught fish to 14 inches up there," says Shew.
Blossom isn't going to yield trophy brooks. Most fish run 8 to 12 inches.
WHAT TO BRING
Evelyn and Blossom can be approached the same. To be frank, there really is no wrong way to fish them with natural baits or lures. Keep in mind, these are wild trout, not planters; they don't key on doughbaits and cheeses as well as hatchery fish do.
It's ideal to bring along an array of spoons and spinners. Load your tackle box with various sizes and colors. At times, the bite can change often. Having a number of colors will enable you to increase catch rates. It's only necessary to bring lures that weigh less than a half-ounce. And those are best only when you need to cast to the middle of the lake, which is rare. I'
d say stick to a quarter-ounce or smaller.
One of the most effective baits is a fly and bubble combo. Oftentimes, these trout key in on hatches, and a fly/bubble setup will match the hatch perfectly. In reality, there doesn't need to be a hatch to catch fish. You'll be able to catch limits this way anytime.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
To reach Balch Park Pack Station and find out more about pack trips in the Golden Trout Wilderness, Sequoia National Park and the Mountain Home State Forest, contact Tim and Diane Shew at (559) 539-2227.
To reach the pack station or trailhead: From Bakersfield, drive north on the 99 Freeway to Highway 190 east. Continue on Highway 190 east past Porterville and Lake Success to Springville. In Springville, turn left on Road J-37 (Balch Park Road), and drive 2.4 miles to Road 220. Turn right and continue about 12 miles to Mountain Home State Forest. Follow signs to the Balch Park Pack Station. The trailhead is just past the pack station.
(Editor's Note: Chris Shaffer is the author of The Definitive Guide to Fishing Central California. His books can be purchased at www.fishingcalifornia.net.)