Ridin' High For Sierra Trout

Ridin' High For Sierra Trout

The Emigrant, Carson-Iceberg and Hoover wilderness areas of the Central Sierra offer superb trout fishing in a pristine alpine setting. There are plenty of horses to get you there -- but now's the time to plan.

Now doesn't this beat backpacking? Of course it does! Horsepacking also offers a fairly economical family vacation. Photo by Dave Smith

By Dave Smith

Craig Isola and I share a common bond that goes back to our respective childhoods - a deep appreciation and love for the High Sierra and, in particular, the Emigrant Wilderness Area. Many of our most memorable days have been spent amidst the rugged peaks, ice caps and shimmering lakes of this hallowed stretch of the central Sierra Nevada Mountains that stretches from the northern boundary of Yosemite National Park to Sonora Pass.

The country that inspired John Muir still evokes a sense of spiritual power and makes its visitors feel small in the grand scale of the natural world. That's what inspired me late last summer, with the sun slowly falling over granite ridges to the West and a flat-as-glass alpine lake down below camp; it was time for poetic daydreams. "If John Muir had a fly rod when he sat on this rock," I mused, "he would've wolfed down his supper and gone fishing."

About then Craig wandered into camp with two 15-inch brook trout and a grin that befit these mountains. He mumbled something about catching 20 fish; I couldn't eat fast enough. Soon we were on our way - Craig, the seasoned flyfisherman and trout purist, and me, the fish-gathering opportunist. The brookies were abundant, and because we had packed in on horses and were, therefore, several miles from the nearest camp, we had the lake to ourselves on a windless afternoon. The stage was set for me to learn something beyond rock skipping and tossing spinners.

Craig laid the first cast in a backwater cove and nailed a nice brookie. I worked around the edges and despite not having mastered the art form by any stretch of the imagination, hooked fish on almost every cast. Craig let me haul in about a dozen lively brookies, and then commandeered an ideal perch to show me how it was really done. Whipping his line back with effortless grace, he laid a dry ant pattern up against some sedges and waited for what seemed like a long time, gently nudging the fly. Finally, a big brook trout exploded on the fly and danced across the water. Craig fought him hard for a few minutes, then finally caught and released the deep red fish into sparkling waters in which wild trout have lived for the last century.

With dusk finally falling, we ambled back across the meadow past the tethered packhorses. This was the first evening of what would be a memorable trip to some of the most majestic mountains on the North American continent. We fished several lakes and streams, caught trout until our arms got sore, and saw only the occasional backpacker.

Sure, the story of a pristine mountain lake shimmering with rising trout is one of the oldest fishing tales in the book. You know the line: rugged and untouched beauty, a lake absolutely full of hard-fighting trout, and not a soul around for miles. It sounds like something out of a Montana tour guide. Actually it's a chunk of real public land within a four-hour drive and a half-day horseback ride from the homes of the 15 million people who live in the Bay Area, Sacramento, and Fresno metropolitan areas.

Sierra Pack Stations

The following pack stations serve the Emigrant, Carson-Iceberg and Hoover wilderness areas.


Kennedy Meadows Resort & Pack Station — Matt Bloom, owner; 57 miles east of Sonora on Highway 108; P.O. Box 4010 on Highway 108; P.O. Box 4010, Sonora, CA 95370; summer telephone (209) 965-3911 or (209) 965-3900; in winter, (209) 965-3900 or (209) 928-1239; http://www.kennedymeadows.com.


Aspen Meadow Pack Station — Josh and Amanda Bloom, owners; 24 miles east of Sonora on Hwy. 108, turn right on Crabtree Road for 6.5 miles; summer address, P.O. Box 1326, Pinecrest, CA 95364; winter address, P.O. Box 3403, Sonora, CA 95370; (209) 965-3402; http://www.aspenmeadowpackstation.com


Leavitt Meadows Pack Station — Bart Cranney, owner; on Hwy. 108 west of Hwy. 395; P.O. Box 124, Bridgeport, CA 93517; (530) 495-2257; http://www.leavittmeadows.com. — Dave Smith


Despite California's constant population surge, the Emigrant, Carson-Iceberg and Hoover wilderness areas of the central Sierra Nevada Mountains remain the untouched and unknown jewels of a state literally awash in natural resources. These areas have no roads, no crowded campgrounds, and no lofty dude ranch visitation prices, but still offer some of the finest high country wild trout fishing in the West.

There are basically two ways to access to the High Sierra wilderness areas for trout fishing - on horseback or on foot. Since only the most dedicated backpackers are willing to carry their supplies for miles through rugged country, horse packing is the most attractive option for most folks.

There are three main pack stations that serve the region - Kennedy Meadows Resort and Pack Station, Aspen Meadow Pack Station, and Leavitt Meadows Pack Station (see sidebar.) These stations offer a variety of services ranging from fully guided "all-inclusive" extended pack trips that include guides, cooks and packers to basic "drop camp" trips in which the packers deliver your gear to and from a pre-arranged spot while you hike in.

Perhaps the most appealing part of a wilderness trout fishing pack trip is that you can fully enjoy the aesthetics and the fishing - and relax. Backpacking is challenging and invigorating, but in tough country like the Sierra, it is something less than relaxing.

During the trip described above we slept on cots with foam pads in a comfortable wall tent, ate wonderful camp meals that tasted better than four

-star restaurant fare, and saved our energy for hiking from one fishing spot to the next. We'd all been on intense backpacking trips up there that involved eating freeze-dried food, sleeping on the hard ground, and lugging our gear up and down some of the most unforgiving mountains in the world. This was different and utterly enjoyable, all made possible by a good packer and a sturdy string of packhorses and mules. And the trip cost us less than it would to pay for three days of lodging and food along most any major trout stream in the West!

Pack trips are remarkably affordable. The cost of a spot pack trip is essentially the same whether you stay for four days or a week, and there is absolutely no way to spend money once the trip begins! "Once you're in there, the kids won't be asking for any spending money," quipped Willie Ritts, former owner of the Kennedy Meadows Pack Station.

Rates vary, but packers charge about $110 per day, and pack animals or saddle mounts cost about $50 a day.

When you consider that an average day in the Emigrant Wilderness Area will likely yield 20+ rainbows and/or brook trout per person, with several of them measuring over 15 inches, it's important to remember that the packers only have so many horses and mules available during the peak fishing period of August and September. That's why spring is a good time of year to start thinking about arranging a very reasonably priced pack trip into the High Sierra this summer to take advantage of this fabulous fishery

What Type Of Trip Would You Like

Pack stations serving Sierra Nevada wilderness areas offer a wide range of packing options, all well-suited forPack stations serving Sierra Nevada wilderness areas offer a wide range of packing options, all well-suited for mid- to late-summer trout fishing.


Drop Camps: This is the simplest and best option for physically fit customers who want the experience of hiking spectacular areas of the High Sierra without the burden of backpacking food and gear into a base camp. The packer drops your gear at a pre-arranged location and comes back to get your gear on a specific date. Price ranges from $150-$300 per person.


Spot Packs: Customer rides a horse along with the packer and a string of packhorses to and from a designated camp, often the best option for long treks to backcountry lakes. Since most packers require an overnight stay on long trips, it is advantageous to stay at least a week. Estimated price ranges from $300-$400 per person.


Extended Trips: The packer and stock stay with the customers, allowing camp to be moved to multiple locations. You provide food and gear. Price ranges $400-$800 per person, depending on duration.


All-Inclusive Trips: The Cadillac of all pack trips, these fully guided excursions typically include a packer, a cook, stock, food, most equipment, and an optional fishing guide. You leave the details, including food and gear, up to the outfitter/packer. Per-person prices often exceed $1,000.


Specialized Trips: Flexibility in planning allows the packer to take anglers to the hottest fishing in the High Sierra. Examples include the 5-Day Huckleberry Lake trip and Emigrant Wilderness Loop (50-70 miles total, 4-10 days) offered by Kennedy Meadows. Pricing can be similar to extended or all-inclusive trips. -- Dave Smith


Three wilderness areas make up most of the high country in the Sonora Pass region north of Yosemite National Park - the 113,000-acre Emigrant Wilderness, the 160,000-acre Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, and the 48,000-acre Hoover Wilderness.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 established a National Wilderness Preservation System within the U.S. Forest Service "to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness."

Emigrant Wilderness
All three of these wilderness areas can offer excellent trout fishing, but the Emigrant is the crown jewel for wild trout.

The Emigrant Wilderness Area is separated from the fabled Yosemite only in federal land management administrative terms and boundary lines. The stunning glaciated landscape is identical to the northern part of the park and contains some of the most aesthetically pleasing lakes and streams in the West.

Discovered by the Clark-Skidmore emigrant party in the fall of 1852, the region became for a short time a well-used route across the Sierra. However, the rugged country took its toll on the Gold Rush settlers, and easier access routes were ultimately chosen. In 1931, the U.S. Forest Service designated the area as the Emigrant Basin Primitive Area. The region remained essentially untouched right up until its designation as a wilderness area in 1975.

The Emigrant Wilderness, which ranges in elevation from 5,000 feet near Cherry Lake to 11,570 feet at Leavitt Peak, is literally dotted with glaciated lakes, including 77 with fishable trout populations. The majority of the Emigrant is between 7,500 and 9,000 feet in elevation and consists of sparsely vegetated ridges interspersed with lakes, streams and lush alpine meadows. The lakes contain mostly rainbows and eastern brook trout, but a few also have good populations of German browns. Several lakes in the adjacent northern portion of Yosemite even contain the majestic golden trout.

Good stream fishing is available throughout the wilderness area. Compared to the hordes of anglers that descend upon lakes and streams elsewhere in the Sierra, the fishing pressure in the Emigrant is so light that it almost seems non-existent.

Carson-Iceberg Wilderness

The Carson-Iceberg Wilderness is primarily a volcanic landform with an abundance of streams but very few lakes. The fishing isn't as consistently good as in the Emigrant, but Spicer Meadow Reservoir just outside the wilderness area does offer some of the best early summer trout fishing in the entire Central Sierra.

Hoover Wilderness
The Hoover Wilderness encompasses the East Slope of the Sierra bordering the Emigrant and contains plenty of lakes and streams with good populations of rainbows, browns and brookies.


grant and Carson-Iceberg are managed as part of the Stanislaus National Forest, which has excellent Web sites for each of the two wilderness areas: the former, http:// www.r5.fs.fed.us/stanislaus/visitor/ emigrant.htm; the latter, http://www. r5.fs.fed.us/stanislaus/visitor/carson. htm. Information on the Hoover Wilderness, which is part of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, can be obtained at http://www.fs.fed.us/htnf/ hoover.htm.

The Emigrant Wilderness is predominantly a wild trout fishery, although some of the small lakes are stocked annually to supplement natural reproduction. The best wild trout action usually comes from the larger glaciated lakes with quality spawning areas and enough inflow to support good prey populations. The action can be fast and furious and the quality of the fish is remarkable.

"You're going to catch a lot of fish in the 15- to 20-inch range," says Matt Bloom, a devoted flyfisherman and owner of the Kennedy Meadows Resort and Pack Station. "We've taken fly-fishing clubs in there and have had them tell us it's some of the best trout fishing in the world."

The ideal time for an Emigrant trout excursion is from late July to mid-September. Trout are susceptible to everything from spinners to dry flies. However, one of the most effective techniques is to take a float tube and use Woolly Buggers on any of the lakes with good numbers of fish.

A good place to start is on 200-acre Huckleberry Lake just north of the Yosemite boundary, one of the completely self-sustaining lakes in the Emigrant. Huckleberry offers excellent fishing for both rainbows and brook trout due to its good productivity and quality spawning areas. The East Fork of Cherry Creek offers superb stream fishing.

A good triangle of rainbow lakes exists a few miles north in Upper Buck Lake, Deer Lake and Cow Meadow Lake. The stream fishing is also exceptional above and below Deer Lake.

Moving up the drainage into the 9,000-foot elevation and sparse alpine ecosystem, there's a nice combination of lakes. Emigrant Lake is a great destination in that it contains lots of big rainbows that come from a completely self-sustaining population. Most of the smaller lakes in the area have good numbers of fish, and productive stream fishing exists nearby. The best bet for a lake in the southeastern portion of the wilderness area is Bigelow, but superb stream fishing can be had all up and down the Cherry Creek drainage, particularly around Horse Meadow.

Good options for short pack trips include Bear Lake out of Aspen Meadow Pack Station on the west side and Kennedy Lake out of Kennedy Meadows on the north side. Bear Lake is secluded in a heavy timber pocket and offers good fishing for rainbows in the lake and the stream below. Kennedy Lake is mostly browns and can be very tough in September, but both the lake and Kennedy Creek below the lake typically offer good midsummer fishing.

Finally, Kennedy Meadows Pack Station will do trips into the northern part of Yosemite to access golden trout, rainbows and brookies. Mary Lake is the best bet for goldens, but excellent fishing is also available at Dorothy and Tilden lakes.

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