At home in Pennsylvania, I never need to go to great lengths to find a decent-quality trout stream. After all, the Keystone State contains more miles of wild trout water than any other in the lower 48. If you’re imagining a network of wide rivers traversing the state, then allow me to check your expectations–a good portion of these wild trout fisheries are skinny blue ribbons lined by laurels trickling down rugged and remote terrain, holding native brook trout of modest size in plunge pools of varying depths.
It was already late in the Summer when I heard from my media contacts at Deuter and Orvis, they were organizing a three-night backpacking trip into the Desolation Wilderness, a protected area of the Eldorado Forest just south of Lake Tahoe, to try out upcoming products from both brands: a lightweight backpack from Deuter and 3-weight and 5-weight of the Helios F fly rods from Orvis. Admittedly, my last backpacking trip was back in my twenties at near-sea-level elevations, so I naturally accepted their invitation and started planning which cherished bits of fly fishing gear to pack.
[Learn all about the new Orvis Helios in our hands-on review.]
My usual trip to a Pennsylvania brookie stream looks something like this: poring over maps published by state agencies, dropping pins on Google Maps for places I’m pretty sure I can park my car, and cross-referencing my findings with some tight-lipped confidants. Most of the flows in these creeks originate from limestone deep within the earth and guarantee some level of water, but you never really know the condition and richness of fish until you show up and explore for yourself. With a trip to the Golden State over the horizon, I was curious how different the experience would be in the state known for its beautiful terrain and burgeoning populations.
Arriving in Tahoe, I had spent almost no time researching the where and how–a daunting route was shared with me in advance, but I was actually hoping to experience some surprise about what was in store. On the morning of our first trail day, our crew of five mountain-bound anglers made a ritual visit to the local fly shop for some beta on the alpine lakes we were hiking up to and filled out fly boxes with patterns that we were told would most likely get us on fish.
Day one: up!
With our packs stuffed generously with provisions and gear, we embarked on a strenuous day one that would put nearly half of the trip’s total vertical rise into our legs. A near bluebird day brought an intense sun beating down on our bodies; patches of coniferous trees along the route brought us reprieve and rich pine-soaked air to fill our lungs. Excitement for the lakes that saddle these mountains fueled every lunging step-up roots and rocks.
Hours of groaning and snacking later, we made a triumphant arrival at our first camp beside a wide-open lake and a convenient rocky outcropping to cast from. Having just an hour until sunset, we quickly rigged up rods and began casting nymphs (sinking subsurface flies) into the clam still water without any perceivable fish activity. Cast after cast went unanswered, and the dropping sun brought chilling temps with it; it was time to reel it in and stuff my face before some much-needed sleep.
After some rest and breakfast in our bellies, we were back on the trail with a supposed fishless lake making an appearance early on our route. While stopping to enjoy the view and take a break, we observed a handful of fish rising to eat on the surface without any pattern of location or time interval. In moving bodies of water like rivers and creeks, an educated angler can pick zones where fish will likely hold to feed. These positions save fish precious energy while still providing a good view of the food being carried to them by the current like a conveyor belt.
Fishing for trout in stillwater, on the other hand, is both simple and nuanced, and certainly a style I’m nearly clueless about as a whole. Cast after cast went unanswered once again, so onward we went.
With a backcast full of boulders, the second lake of the day was as fruitless as the first. No shortage of rises here, but the terrain made it nearly impossible to get a decent presentation of our flies to these hungry fish. A slight drop in elevation during the approach to lake number three brought on some more favorable terrain, with dips in the lake’s edge providing a jetty-like position to observe rises and make long casts into deeper waters without fear of snagging tree branches.
These fish were coming to the water’s surface at much more regular intervals and within a very tight area, a zone where shallow water quickly becomes darker, deeper depths allowing a trout to stay out of the sight of predators yet still keep an eye out for big juicy grasshoppers landing on the water. A few measured casts later and an eruption appeared where my deer hair and rooster feather hopper fly had been floating for close to ten seconds while barely drifting two feet. Finally, I was on the board!
Next to yet another lake with difficult casting terrain, I slept with the satisfaction that comes with a hard-fought one-fish day refueled by a questionable dinner that included some chunky, rehydrated desserts and some very decent whiskey from Breckenridge Distilling.
The next morning, our group weighed the final day’s two possible agendas before reaching the trail’s end: backtracking to the one lake where we knew we could cast for more brookies or an optional mountain summit. Did I really fly across the country and hike up a mountain to catch one fish? A couple others shared a similar sentiment, while the remaining party pushed upward.
The next morning, we made our way back to yesterday’s fruitful lake, walking its shores for more vantage points that would allow us to cast 30-plus feet out to the transitional zones where the brook trout were regularly rising. The name of the game was long casts and longer drifts–sometimes up to a minute long and requiring us to feed out extra slack line so that our hoppers could slowly drift naturally with subtle surface currents.
After a handful of fish were hooked, the code was broken. Time flew right by as we brought in one brookie after another, some as dark as the depths they call home, while other brightly colored-up males fed on our flies in their fall-spawn liveries. The sun was still high but beginning to drop, so we descended back to the truck that would take us to one final feast of cold beer and hot, fresh food.
Coming back home to low and clear water brought on by a very dry fall season, I had few days with optimum conditions to get back out there and re-familiarize myself with the awe-inspiring markings on these pan-sized beauties. It could be a while before I hop in a plane to chase after brook trout again, but when I do, I won’t mind putting in the kind of work it took in Tahoe.
After all, if it was easy fishing I was after, I’d go out and throw worms at stockies.