Tawny light painted the eroded cliffs above Silver Pass, at 10,895 feet in the John Muir Wilderness, as I crested the saddle. I carefully probed my way down an icy old snowfield on the north side.
My backpack pursuit of high-altitude trout was being played by ear. And my wind-chilled ears were informing me I ought to pitch camp soon, before night fell, when they would have to endure considerably more cold. So, instead of pushing on to renowned lakes a bit farther west, I erected my humble shelter near a grove of noble bristlecone pines on the north shore of Chief Lake -- one of five lakes bearing Indian-themed names clustered near Silver Pass.
Tent up, pad inflated, sleeping bag unfurled. Fatigued by exertion at high elevation, I planned simply to heat soup on my alcohol stove and turn in. But when I spotted spreading ripple-rings from trout rising to feed on Chief Lake's shimmery surface, all tiredness abruptly vanished.
Urgently, I assembled my light breakdown rod. To complete this fantasy, one might imagine I then tugged out a case of hand-tied flies. One would be wrong. Sure, that might've been appropriate, because I stood near Mt. Izaak Walton -- named for an early godfather of fly-fishing. But I plan to save full immersion in fly angling's rarefied realm for my retirement.
Anglers generally get placed on a social spectrum ranging from reviled bait fishermen to hoity-toity fly flingers, with spinning-tackle users occupying the broad center. Where do I fit? My rod case happens to be a cardboard mailing tube, wrapped in duct tape. That offers a clue. I'm not too proud to stick a night-crawler on a hook, if I'm hungry. Yet I've also been known to practice a roll cast, landing a fly with its hook snipped off, simply to enjoy watching fish rise for the grab. It's all fishing.
At Chief Lake, I clapped a spinning reel on the rod, tied a Blue Fox No. 1 spoon and leader onto a swivel, and cast far into the still mountain air. I could feel the lure getting tested on my first two casts, and knew I had to wait for my lure to sink, make the retrieval steady and slower. Third cast, bam, I reeled in a feisty 11-incher, with bright red fins. Fourth cast, and a 12-inch trout also was coaxed to shore. I had my dinner.
In short order, these cleaned trout were nestled in sputtering olive oil and slivered almonds. A tantalizing aroma wafted from the frying pan.
Trout, yes, but what type? They bore largely markless silver sides, ruby fins, russet foreheads and moss-green backs. They were likely brook trout, slightly adapted to life in this particular lake. At other high lakes in the region, one also might find rainbow trout, transplanted golden trout, or a hybridization of these strains.
California Department of Fish and Game records indicate Chief Lake last officially was stocked, using rainbow trout, way back in 1980. But a 2001 survey here netted brook trout, and nothing else. Then, there's all the unofficial stocking that rampaged throughout the 20th century, using the famed "milk can" transfers. Such efforts toted not only "brookies" and rainbows, but also German browns and even delectable golden trout all around the Sierra, plopping them into lakes that hadn't seen a fish since the last Ice Age.
Just one example, ex gregis, was Norman Clyde, "the pack that walked like a man." Clyde tramped this range from the 1920s to the '60s, bearing oddments like a cast-iron skillet and a cobbler's anvil, plus a revolver or two, as well as a bucket holding fish he thought needed a new home. Once his plants were complete, Clyde sometimes deigned to tell U.S. Forest Service officials what he'd done.
In the 1990s, Fish and Game took stock of what had taken place in these bodies of water. Biologists discovered, wherever fish had been introduced to lakes that hadn't held them previously, native reptiles and amphibians (such as the mountain yellow-legged frog) were pretty well extirpated.
So a new policy was formalized. High lakes that could not naturally sustain a trout population (because of deep-freezing and a lack of nutrients), would not be stocked again. Many lakes that could sustain trout also would not be stocked, but left unmolested to seek their own ecological balance. Of remaining lakes, some would be managed and stocked as trophy trout fisheries, though other, very popular lakes would get stocked to sustain high-volume harvest.
Two measures are held in reserve: restocking the self-sustaining lakes if trout numbers happen to plunge; and clearing out a lake entirely if the need for a patch of true habitat for native species arose.
Predictably, as happens when any status quo gets upended, there was a hue and cry. "The department cares more about frogs than fishermen," "license fees supposed to fund only stocking are now being wasted," etc. etc. But after the cloud of complaints settled, anglers found their fishery had not in fact been ruined. Target lakes judiciously, and you can do just fine -- particularly in spring, when hungry trout emerge from below the ice, as well as in autumn, when bugs are in short supply, but fish feel an imperative to pack on weight to survive winter.
"What's been done with the trout-stocking program hasn't been bad for us, it's been good," said John Cunningham, third-generation owner of the High Sierra Pack Station, based near Lake Edison. He says offering horses to bring folks with rods closer to mountain trout is 75 percent of his business.
"In some cases, there's complaints these fish don't grow fast enough. But you've got to pull big ones out from time-to-time, so the young can get food," Cunningham said.
Autumn is an interregnum, a period between summer's mosquito-haunted, long hot days, and the icebound winter. Fish are biting, and chances for a full creel stay high. Still, keen vigilance is in order now, because backcountry weather can switch to "vicious" in a heartbeat. You want these high-mountain outings to pose survival questions for trout, not you.
My day at Chief Lake felt well worth the effort to hump my pack over Silver Pass on the way in, as well as the 10,997-foot-high moonscape of Goodale Pass on my way out. Chief Lake, a designated "self-sustaining" lake, seems to be doing well indeed.
Alpenglow flooded peaks around me while I forked a bite of firm, flakey flesh off my trout. It was the sort of instant celebrated by American writers from Hemingway to Brautigan. For that moment, it didn't matter what sort of confused events might happen to transpire, way back down in the lowlands. All of life felt simple and golden.
E-mail Paul McHugh at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page D - 8 of the San Francisco Chronicle