The second part of our fishing week consisted of using my new Tenkara Fly Fishing setup in a backpacking situation, by hiking up the Kearsarge Pass Trail out of Onion Valley and camping at Flower Lake, where we would establish our Base Camp. After successfully catching trout in two locations already, I felt confident that I would be able to catch several more, thereby keeping Vicki’s taste buds happy. It should be noted that fishing requires a much more relaxed approach to backpacking, and we planned to leave ourselves plenty of time to enjoy the High Sierra while doing it. Practice makes perfect!
After spending three nights acclimating to elevation, we moved our car from the main campground to the backpacker parking lot, and managed to snag the very first spot in line! This was lucky, of course, but we liked it. I’ve noticed that it isn’t all that important which spot you have on the morning you start, fresh and eager and energetic, but when you’re on the way back out, tired and dirty and footsore, having a spot near the trailhead can be wonderful.
We were mostly packed already, so we did a few last things, like store our extra food in the nearby bear box (right in front of the car!) and double check that we hadn’t forgotten anything major. We weren’t hiking very far, only to Flower Lake, so if anything was wrong, we could hike out and fix it in a matter of hours.
We noticed that the weather had changed significantly since yesterday, which had been cold and breezy. Today it was calm and warm, more like a typical High Sierra Summer Day. Some wispy cirrus clouds were moving along overhead, but they mostly served as a pretty backdrop to the mountains. As we headed uphill, the first part of the trail stayed mainly in the sun. It was a bit warm, but there were enough trees to provide convenient spots for resting.
By the time we reached Little Pothole Lake, Vicki was ready for her morning nap. She must have been overheating a bit. She lay down in a sandy spot and got bitten by two ants! That woke her up in a very grumpy mood. So she moved into the shade under a big pine. “At least they weren’t red ants” I said, like a fool. She was not amused. I decided to shut up after that, and busied myself taking photos. I also read my book for a while. Very peaceful.
We had some snack when she woke up, then continued on up to the top of the headwall above the lake. University Peak came into view. It was the dominant peak along this trail. After a number of switchbacks, we arrived at what we call the “Talus Trench,” a path suitable for horses (and humans) which traversed across a granite talus field. We could see the town of Independence down below, and I remembered to send out photos of us having fun yesterday to friends and family. After this, the phones would have to stay on airplane mode to conserve battery power.
We soon arrived at Gilbert Lake, one of the gems of the Sierra. It was a lovely lake, and had a huge boulder at the head of it, which is wide and flat and perfect for taking selfies. From up on the boulder, we could see trout swimming in the waters of the lake. I offered to try and catch one, but Vicki really wanted to set up our base camp first, and that would be at the next lake, so on we hiked.
It was only a quarter mile or so to Flower Lake. We had learned in past years that the better (i.e. more private) camping spots were on the south side, away from the main trail. So we crossed the outflow creek on a log bridge and headed around the lake. We put down our packs and Vicki took a break with a view over the water. Meanwhile, I scouted along the shore for a good campsite. We would be here for two nights, so I wanted our Base Camp to be perfect. And it turned out to be almost perfect. The rules stipulated that you must camp at least 100 feet from shore, which meant that many (older) sites were no longer proper. The site I found was about thirty feet above the lake, so we would have to climb up and down in order to go fishing. But at least it had good afternoon shade, so we were happy. I went back to get Vicki and we set up camp soon afterward.
Once everything was set up in camp, I headed down to the outlet creek for water. I probably should have used the inlet stream (as it was undoubtedly cleaner than ex-lake water) but I didn’t know about it. After that, it was time to go fishing! I could see the trout, rising for insects, all over the lake’s surface, the rings of waves showing clearly on the still water. Once in a while a fish would break the surface completely. I was getting excited, and Vicki was getting hungry! So I got out my rod and line, and headed down to the water. There was a big boulder near shore, and I was able to jump to the top and walk out on it. This left me about as close to the deeper water as I could get. The fish were nearby, swimming slowly along, and most of them ignored my fly. But not all of them. Within the next half hour I had bagged two Brook Trout, and Vicki declared that this was plenty. It took a lot of work to clean and cook those fish. We retreated back to our campsite and I hung out, reading my book, while Vicki prepared her tasty treats. This fishing lifestyle was pretty darned lazy, I concluded. And I wasn’t complaining.
I woke up bright and early the next morning. I had a feeling that I would catch them more easily at that hour, the typical times of feeding activity being dawn and dusk. And I wasn’t far wrong, although they ignored my fly more than I expected. Maybe it was still too early in the season. For, after all, this lake had only thawed out three weeks ago! Maybe the bugs had yet to hatch. And we hadn’t seen any mosquitos yet (except a few down below in Onion Valley) so maybe our timing was just about perfect. Soon enough, I caught two more brookies. Vicki had just woken up and arrived on shore, so her timing was perfect, too. She cooked them for breakfast. They must have been good, because I was never offered a single bite. But I’m not complaining; this is merely an observation.
We reluctantly concluded that we couldn’t realistically spend the entire day fishing and cooking and eating like gluttons. We needed an Official Activity. Like a hike. Vicki’s plantar fasciitis precluded heading up the main trail to Kearsarge Pass, but maybe a shorter hike would be in order. The Matlock Lake Trail was near at hand. It started at the eastern end of Flower Lake and headed south over a low ridge. We’d been there before, back in 2016, and we knew that the trout had been removed from those lakes, and replaced with the endangered Sierra Yellow Legged Frogs. So there was no point in bringing any fishing gear with us. We could simply enjoy a beautiful area and get in a bit of exercise.
The trail was very well made, and hardly anyone uses it, so we had plenty of privacy. The Peace of the Wilderness. We checked out the frogs and huge tadpoles in Matlock Lake. It was no wonder that the non-native trout had eaten up all of those tasty fat tadpoles! (Historically, there had been no trout up in these high altitude Sierra lakes – they were introduced during the previous century.) The trout nearly drove the frogs to extinction. Now we humans are getting things back into balance. Some areas should be reserved for the frogs. But I also have to say that trout are much tastier than frogs! So I hope they don’t go overboard. Can’t we all just get along?
On the way back to camp, we decided to hike off-trail a bit, out onto the high slabs at the eastern end of the ridge. We saw the town of Independence down in Owens Valley, so we took our phones off airplane mode and sent out a few more photos, to get everyone we knew jealous. We also hung out and enjoyed the view over Gilbert Lake. We could see everything from up there, including Mount Gould and Kearsarge Pass to the west.
We went back to camp and ate some lunch. It was warm and sunny and mellow. I remembered that we had packed a special bladder full of white wine for Vicki to drink while eating trout. Too bad we forgot to try it last night! We had no trout to eat at the moment, but it was never too late to have some wine on a lazy afternoon. We hung out and read our books while Vicki sampled the wine. Soon she got rather lively and silly. Yes, life was good at Flower Lake that day.
Eventually, the wine induced an urge to nap, and she lay down in the tent. Meanwhile, I decided to do a bit more fishing. Maybe I could catch a couple more for dinner. But it wasn’t meant to be. I walked all along the southern shore, and never got a bite. Another fisherman with a spinning reel and a lure was bringing a bunch of them, but not me. Oh well. That’s why they call it “Fishing” and not “Catching.” It turned out that Vicki was glad that I didn’t get any more. She didn’t have to clean them! So we ended up eating one of our freeze-dried meals instead. There were no complaints from me. Afterwards, before bed, we took a constitutional along the lakeshore, and watched the sun sink behind the edge of the mountains.
The third day at Flower Lake dawned clear and sunny. I went down to my favorite boulder and commenced fly fishing. It was quite peaceful. Once again, the fish didn’t seem interested in my fly. But I kept trying. Why not? It was easy enough work, if you wanted to call it that. As long as I wore my polarized sunglasses, I was able to see into the water. This allowed me to adjust my casting strategy accordingly, and let me watch the trout turn away from my fly when they got too close. They were ignoring me.
The old saying that there are other fish in the sea certainly applied that day. Suddenly, I had a hit! I gave a tug and set the hook, then pulled it all the way out of the water. Vicki took my picture as I headed down off the big boulder. He was the biggest fish I’d caught thus far, and I didn’t want it to spit out the hook. It turned out that it couldn’t, as it was well and truly set. Vicki got out the filet knife and got to work right away. She had already eaten breakfast, but a trout for brunch sounded just fine. She told me to put my fishing gear away, as this one was plenty.
While Vicki was cooking and eating, I went down to the lake a took a few last photos. I also made sure that we hadn’t left any gear along shore. Then I went back to the tent and started putting away everything, including the tent. It had been a good basecamp, but the time had come for us to leave Flower Lake, and hike back down the valley to the trailhead.
Downhill hiking was much faster and easier than climbing, as we expected. Vicki still had to pause on the big stone steps to protect her knees, but I was there to hold one hand, and her hiking stick was in the other. We passed by Gilbert Lake, and three people were sitting on the big boulder in folding chairs! It looked like comfort, but did they really carry them all that way? Of course they did. We continued on, and didn’t stop for a photo-op like we usually do. The Talus Trench was next, and Vicki took her time, nursing her foot over the rough rocky surface. After that, it was time to descend the switchbacks to Little Pothole Lake. We looked at the waterfall on the south, and realized that this was the water from Matlock Lake, which ultimately derived from the Spring snowmelt on the northern slopes of University Peak.
The final section of trail had the longest switchbacks, as it made its way steadily down into Onion Valley itself. We could see our car parked at the trailhead, and we were eager to get there. Sadly, there were still all these pesky switchbacks to deal with, and so we stoically plodded on. It was warm in the sun that afternoon, and we were very glad to be hiking downhill.
We arrived at the car and opened it up right away. It was roasting hot inside! Then we started dealing with our backpacks. We retrieved our car food from the bear box and relaxed while eating some salty snacks. It was still midafternoon, and we had to figure out our immediate plan, as we needed to get a few things from town before setting out on the next part of our fishing trip. We made a list and entered it into my phone so we wouldn’t forget anything.
We hung out at the trailhead and talked to other hikers. This was prime Pacific Crest Trail Season, and lots of hikers came out to get a food resupply via Kearsarge Pass. We met a number of them. Right when we were ready to head out, one nice young lady approached us and asked if she could get a ride down to Independence. Her supply box was in the Post Office there, and it closed in an hour. We said yes, of course. It’s the correct hiker-thing to do. On the long, winding road down into town, we spoke of the trail. She was currently going for the Triple Crown of thru-hiking! That’s an impressive accomplishment. She had already hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, and now she was bagging the Pacific Crest Trail. She had seen the CDT sticker on my car, but I had to admit that I only hiked a tiny piece of it. I just like stickers. We arrived in town in time for her to get her package, and then she said that she was heading north, to Bishop, while we were heading south, to Lone Pine. When I asked, she said that she also wrote a blog, so I gave her my card. She emailed me later that day. Her blog is called “Des Hikes Thru” and she updates it every day while hiking, but can only post the finished pages when she gets signal, usually in town. It’s a fun read, and gives a good feel for the thru-hiker lifestyle. Plus, she seemed like a really good person. Like all of us backpackers, of course. Anyway, we got the things we needed at the market in town, and then headed back up the long grade to Onion Valley. Amazingly, when we arrived, our perfect parking spot at the trailhead was still available! Whoo hoo!
If you check the map, you’ll see that there are three trails originating in Onion Valley. During this week-long trip, we intended to explore them all. We had already fished in Robinson Lake, which we visited while staying at the main campground; it was up the slope to the south. We just finished arriving from the west, from Flower Lake. All that remained was the Golden Trout Lake Trail, which headed uphill toward the north. Our next plan was to stealth camp right here in the car that night, and wake up in the wee hours, in order to get a jump on tomorrow’s extra-steep hike. But that hike is described in Part Three.
For a topographic map of the hike see my CalTopo Page
For LOTS more photos of the trek see my Flickr Page
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