Searching for Gold Part 2

 The Early Bird Catches More Trout

I woke well before dawn to the dancing beam of Brad’s headlamp as he left his tent and gathered fishing gear. He told me he wanted to get the sunrise bite, but my body told me I needed more shut-eye so I burrowed back into my sleeping bag and returned to dreamland for another hour. Then I rose, quickly dressed and grabbed my spinning rods and tackle bag then headed down the steep hill from camp to the lake. I cast out my secret dough bait on one rod, and then started fan-casting with a Kastmaster spoon on the other. I had no action for a few minutes, then as the sun crested the eastern edge of the glacial bowl surrounding the lake and the first rays of direct sunlight hit the water near me, I caught a twelve-inch golden on my ½ ounce gold spoon. Then on the next cast I hooked something bigger, a fish that fought hard, pulling drag from my reel loaded with 6 pound test monofilament. It took several minutes to bring this trout close to shore, and during this time I saw the tip of my other rod, which was propped up between shoreline rocks, dancing with the tugs of a fish that had grabbed my doughbait.

I stepped to the water’s edge and netted my big trout, which turned out to be a Lahontan cutthroat nearly 22 inches long, a true backcountry trophy! It had inhaled my spoon so deep that one hook point had nicked a gill, and blood was streaming down its flank. So I tossed the net with a squirming fish in it up the hill away from the shoreline, then I ran to my other rod and reeled in a fat golden around 14 inches long that had swallowed my bait. Now I had two good fish to cook for lunch, and just as I was putting them on my stringer, Brad appeared from behind a large boulder that extended partway into the lake.
“Wow! He exclaimed. “That is huge! Then I saw his amazement decrease a notch when he realized my big fish was a cutthroat trout, not a giant golden. Still a great catch though, and he had me hold it up for photos. I asked him how the fishing had been for him so far that morning, and he told me that by rock-hopping around the back bowl of the lake before the sun was up, he caught and released over twenty goldens, casting a small, white, soft plastic tube jig on the two-pound test. He showed me some photos on his camera’s viewfinder, and one fish was particularly obese, shaped like a football and looking at least close to the sixteen-inch mark Brad was shooting for. He said no though, that fish was fifteen inches, so he was still on the hunt for his trophy. So Brad’s inner voice had counseled him to get up and start fishing in complete darkness, and was rewarded with a fish on nearly every cast for the first hour or so, the fastest action of our whole trip. And the voice that told me to sleep in and miss that action had me at the right place and time, a couple of hours later, to catch our only cutthroat and what turned out to be the biggest fish of the trip!
Backpacking Meals are Nasty!

We took a break and headed up the hill to camp for breakfast. Brad quickly boiled water on his aptly named Jetboil stove, and poured it into a foil pouch of freeze-dried Mountain House scrambled eggs with cheese and peppers. After letting this product absorb the water for several minutes, Brad served us each a steaming pile of, well, something that was marginally edible. We each had a few bites, then decided to bury the rest and I ate a protein bar while Brad decided that peanut M&M’s were an appropriate breakfast. Then we spent the rest of the morning working our way along the shoreline to the left of our camp, on the other side of the lake’s outlet stream, which we were able to cross easily by rock-hopping. For several hundred yards the shore here was flat, and covered with a thick, green grass of some sort that was soft and spongy underfoot, and an absolute delight to sit on or lie back upon while waiting for a bite. Brad broke out his fly gear and caught a couple fish on streamers and nymphs in the neck of the lake leading to the outlet creek, but soon changed to spinning gear and Wiza’s special doughbait with a leader and egg sinker when he saw how many bites I was getting. Strangely enough, I fished inflated nightcrawlers on one rod for several hours, and although a worm is a universal trout bait and they had worked for me on my one previous visit to this lake, this time the fish would not touch my nightcrawler rig. Brad was out-fishing me by at least a two-to-one ratio as usual. He had found that by keeping a tight line and closed bail on his spinning reel, he was able to hook most of the goldens that were biting and quickly dropping the doughbait. I had been leaving my bail open and letting the fish run with the bait. Though this had been quite effective on my last trip here, this time I was missing most of the fish that I let run. So I switched over to Brad’s method and started reeling in more trout. Using my special bait balls on tiny treble hooks, we still were pulling in some fish that swallowed the bait even with tight lines and quick hooksets, so we soon had several more fish that were not good candidates for release saved for lunch in addition to the two I had kept earlier. We pinched the barbs on our treble hooks and eventually switched to small single, barbless hooks in order to keep our kill count low and avoid accumulating a five-fish limit for either of us, so we could keep fishing. Most of our fish were in the eight-to-twelve inch range but several topped fourteen inches, and while casting a black marabou jig, Brad hooked and reeled in a bigger golden, which we measured to find it was slightly over sixteen inches in length! This was the benchmark, the back country trophy catch my friend had hoped to make on this trip! We took photographs then carefully released his prize, marveling how each one of these trout had such unique coloring and spotting patterns. One of my larger fish had a belly we both agreed was ‘tangerine’ in color!

Several times when we had a lull in the action, we would just move down the shoreline a hundred feet or so and find more willing fish. By early afternoon though we went a half-hour without a bite, so we decided to break for lunch. Back at camp, Brad pulled out another Mountain House freeze-dried meal, cheerily proclaiming “I like chicken Alfredo!”

“Well I like scrambled eggs and peppers, but that crap from breakfast is buried right next to your after-breakfast crap, so…” He boiled some water and reconstituted the Alfredo anyway, and we tried a few bites as a side dish to pan-fried trout, and then buried this barely-palatable ‘food’ as well. The fish, however, was sublime. I fried several batches of fillets in avocado oil with a sprinkle of Tajin. For those not familiar, this Mexican spice blend is most commonly sprinkled over fruit, but the mix of chilies,
 sea salt and dehydrated lime juice is also delicious on fish, adding a citrus flavor reminiscent of a squeeze of fresh lime or lemon juice, without the weight of bringing the actual fruit backpacking. The flesh of these trout was almost ruby-red, and though I had poured only a small amount of oil in the pan, halfway through cooking each match we could see more and more oil, of a reddish color, accumulating in the pan! This fish was so rich it was actually giving off its own oil as it cooked!

Brad estimated that we had caught at least sixty trout so far, all goldens except for my one Lahontan cutthroat, so after a few bites, we decided we would not be eating our Mountain House Beef Stroganoff that night, and instead would harvest more of this amazing fish for our dinner.


After lunch we lay in our tents for a siesta for an hour or so, then rose and returned to fishing. Other than a few quickly passing clouds, the day was sunny and warm, with occasional gusty winds and periods of near-flat calm between them. The bite was slower now, with few fish hitting lures under the high sun, but my special dough bait was still working. Though the majority of our fish were ten to fourteen inches or so, Brad got another one just over sixteen inches, and then an honest eighteen-inch golden trout!

Goals Are Relative.

In our region of the Western United States, a ten-pound brown trout or a twenty pound laker is considered a real trophy. In the backcountry though, lunkers are measured in inches. Brad’s goal was to catch a golden trout at least sixteen inches in length, and he met that mark three times! I came up an inch short, but my big cutthroat was an excellent consolation prize, and I had achieved my most important goal for this trip, to provide my friend with a memorable experience, backpacking for trout. The clouds and rain that dogged us on our first day were gone, replaced by intense high-altitude sunshine tempered by a cooling breeze. On this day two other parties arrived to share in our paradise at 10,000 feet; two older gentlemen who were fishing as well, and a young couple who flopped down, exhausted, on the thick grass near the outlet creek in the late afternoon and hardly moved until the next morning. This was the extent of the summer weekend crowd, and although these interlopers ended the daydream I was having of being the only two humans left on earth, they were not loud or disrespectful. The time, effort and planning required to make it here cuts out the beer swilling riff-raff of the type we observed at the drive-in campgrounds on our way to the trailhead.

The two anglers were not catching anything, and though I was not willing to share my secret bait, we did give them tips on lures and retrieves that had worked for us, as well as sharing the strange fact that although I had spent substantial time soaking nightcrawlers as well, this normally universal offering had failed to entice a single nibble. After talking to them Brad observed that these guys were at least ten years older than us, and still doing hardcore hikes. A good sign for our future as old guys. And I observed that the young lady with her boyfriend near the outlet creek had beautiful legs, apparent in her shorts as she set up her sleeping bag and prepared food. A good sign I need a girlfriend, I thought, as I came here to get my head straight but ended up with a neck cramp from trying to watch her and keep an eye on my line going out into the lake at the same time. So while I had failed to achieve the goal of inner reflection that would put me on the right path in life, after much soul searching I was able to conclude that I am definitely a leg man. And apparently quite shallow at times.

We had golden trout for lunch again, with a side of M&M’s, and for dinner with a side of trail mix. We left an unopened pouch of Mountain House beef stroganoff hanging from a tree at our campsite, for any future visitors who were unable to catch their dinner, didn’t bring enough food, or were otherwise desperate. Though some backcountry anglers are religious about catch and release, we felt no guilt about our harvest and consumption of fish, since besides any natural reproduction this lake receives periodic plants of golden trout fingerlings by airplane. And we caught another few fish after dinner, at which point Brad declared that in total we had caught approximately one hundred trout on our trip, releasing most back into the cold, clear water and a few into sizzling hot avocado oil. Brad declared that a golden trout tail fin, salted and fried crispy, was a “seafood potato chip.”
If Your Inner Voice Tells You to Go Backpacking in the High Sierra in Summer…

On our first night here, a cold, high-altitude wind blew through our campsite, but on this evening a gentle breeze wafted over us, warm and redolent of incense cedar, wild flowers and a thousand other fleeting summer scents. The gentle, fragrant air caressed me with what truly felt like love, like kindness. It stirred in me a longing, a desire to capture and hold a moment that I knew would soon pass. Then a sadness that I could not freeze this experience and hold on to it. And finally contentment and bliss as my inner voice reminded me that moments such as these are always fleeting. Much like the beautiful colors of the golden trout, they can only be appreciated for a short time. But if we look for and welcome them, there is an endless supply of such moments, from the womb to the grave. Our job is to let these times wash over and through us, without trying to hold them. The memory is enough.

After dinner we sat on a flat-topped boulder at the edge of our camp and finished the whiskey as we watched the sun set. Just before it dropped below the rim of the glacial bowl we were in, it lit up the scattered clouds, turning them bright orange for a moment, then rose-pink, then violet, deep purple, indigo, and finally all color faded to black. We sat in silence watching the process, a rainbow one color at a time, and then Brad read my mind and summed everything up:

“I’m really glad we came.”

We retired to our tents and the next morning we decided our fishing itch had been thoroughly scratched and we didn’t need to catch any more trout, taking our time breaking down and cleaning up our camp instead. Our packs were now substantially lighter minus the whiskey, steaks and other luxuries, but although Brad found the downhill hike with a lighter load much easier on his heart and lungs, his knees were suffering and he found he had to put as much of his weight as he could on his trekking poles to reduce the sensation of feeling “like there’s gravel crunching under my kneecaps”.

We also found that despite the claim from the staff at REI that the perfect sock and hiking boot combination would prevent blisters, we both developed several hot spots on our feet that erupted into large, pus-weeping bubbles. And Brad’s knee required several months of physical therapy. But now as we once again approach summer backpacking season, all he can talk about is doing another golden trout trip. He wants to make it an annual thing. It’s funny how when a person experiences an amazing adventure that not only includes high points or peak experiences but also pain and suffering, the recollection of hardship quickly fades while the good times only seem to glow brighter in the mind. He says he’s training hard, but of course he said that last time…

By Mark Wiza


Click for Part 1