MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. — It’s hard to get psyched about a shuttle ride to go fishing, especially when it’s mandatory. I’ll hike to fish, drive to fish, bike to fish, oh yeah, all of those, but taking public transport to cast a dry, it just seems odd.
For one thing, do you or don’t you wear your waders while on public transport? Showing up with a rod is odd enough, but trudging past Old Joe collecting tickets in your Simms just seems weird.
But there I was descending on the mandatory Reds Meadow Road shuttle to wet a fly in the middle fork of the San Joaquin, a section of the longest river in Central California. I’d heard it was fast, because of a monster snow that had skiers loving slopes this very morning. That’s right Mammoth is still cooking with only 93 days to go until the next opening day!
As we descended into the Devils Postpile National Monument, I surveyed my companions, including the family from St. Augustine, Fla., dressed out for three days of wilderness mountaineering — dad, mom and four kids all sporting shiny new ice axes attached to their equally first-trip backpacks.
The standing-room-only bus featured all manner of mountain couture, that cowboy hat that’s shrunk and in tatters, a badge of many successful trips; thick-soled boots showing all manner of soles, from new to gnarly; serious eye protection; poles and packs and approach shoes; over-flappy safari hats and their owners all taking in the wonder of 4 million years of mountain uplift. All the words by all of the writers don’t even begin to capture the view.
And there was a fair amount of trepidation as our driver exited the vehicle to coax an overly cautious Range Rover driver around the bus. True, it was several hundred feet down over the Rover side. Parking brake, please.
But for all the thousands of dollars of gear, new and not so, I didn’t spot a single pair of waders, and I applauded my own stick-to-it-ness as I left the bus, hiked a tad, and entered the intense current of the San Joaquin. Oh, make that the cold, intense current.
I’d brought both floating and sinking lines, expecting this quickly moving cornucopia of water. Because the real joy of fly fishing is casting a dry, I gently unfolded 6x to deliver a size 16 hi-viz caddis in usual suspect water, a simmering pocket edge. Pleasantly, a very small rainbow found it irresistible. My freezing feet were done at that point, but my mind was not.
Switch to the sinking line and two nymphs, one much bigger with rubber legs. Casting into water with this level of intensity was a thrill, as was watching the line unfold around a couple of river bends. A strike. Was it? Nothing.
Later, I realized I’d left my water bottle on the bank some 10 feet up, so I put my rod down with the nymphs still in shallow, currentless water. When I came back, there was pleasant surprise No. 2, another small rainbow wondering where he’d gone wrong. So much for the expertise of fly fishing!
My toes told me they were happy for this surprise, but it was time to go. But I told them how it was. Once you get a couple of small fish, you just know that there’s a bigger one out there someplace.
They tried to dissuade me by pretending to go numb. Oh, and the river schemed to get me home early by literally unzipping my left pant leg. I looked down wondering why the river drag had suddenly gotten so much worse and — wow, that’s a new one on me.
But there was really no other solution than to find a welcoming log pile, hop on and get zipped up. I kept thinking about my waders, those comfy, nicely fitted, warm, yummy, waders that I’d left behind, so as not to embarrass myself on the bus.
What do men say to themselves in these tender moments?
I admit to struggling with that zipper atop my precarious perch. I admit to muttering certain epithets to my former self, the fussy one who knows a thing or two about bus-riding fashions.
More or less safely zipped up, I couldn’t resist placing my nymphs under and down from the log pile. And there it was — the bigger trout.
See you on the river, Jim Burns